If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I’m a natural light photographer,” there would be enough money in my bank account to take off three months out of each year to travel for the fun of it. To the uninitiated, the proclamation that one only shoots in natural light may sound like a badge of honor, but to most working professional photographers, this concept is confounding at best and downright ridiculous at worst. Be that as it may, there is a growing legion of photographers who have embraced this “natural light only” mantra due either to their inexperience with utilizing lighting equipment, or out of some misguided notion that the “natural light look” is somehow superior. What if I were to tell you that all light, natural or otherwise, behaves identically regardless of the source, provided that you are photographing someone on planet Earth? If you understand principles of lighting and how it behaves, you can make artificial light sources look like natural light, and turn day into night, or vice versa. Being able to shoot 24 hours a day means that I can adapt to the needs of my clients as well as challenges posed by mother nature, which translates to more billable hours and more income. Sounds a lot better than only being able to photograph client work while the sun is out, doesn’t it?
Before we go on, the proper and full definition of a professional photographer is one who makes taxable income primarily from their photography and photographic services. If you make a bit of money that is still taxable, then you’re a semi-professional. Those are the legal definitions. Often this requires creative services depending on the industry; creativity comes from lighting. Spend most of your time in post-production? You’re probably more of an editor than a photographer.
Don’t get me wrong, I love shooting in natural light, and an overcast sky is a photographer’s best friend. Think of it as the largest and best soft box that all the money in the world can’t buy. I’ve created some phenomenal images throughout the years that were shot using only natural light, so I understand the value of mastering natural lighting. However, I also realize that I don’t have control over the elements like Storm from the X-Men does, so I’d like to be prepared for anything mother nature will throw at me while I’m photographing outdoors on location. Sure, I can keep an eye on weather forecasts and schedule my shoots accordingly, but weather forecasts are as fickle as mother nature is temperamental, so you can never be sure that you will get the kind of weather you want for a shoot. As a working professional photographer, your ability to deliver projects on or before agreed upon dates is paramount in maintaining repeat clients. Your clients are not going to care that you weren’t able to get the shot because the natural lighting conditions were not ideal. The only thing that will register in their minds when you tell them you weren’t able to get the shot is that you failed to get the job done as agreed upon, which means they will be looking for a new photographer going forward.
Knowing how to light means that you can photograph practically anywhere, anytime (within reason of course), which makes you a significantly more versatile photographer. The better your understanding of how light interacts with your subject as well as the environment, the easier it will be for you to create dynamic images that deliver stunning visual impact. This doesn’t mean you need to abandon natural lighting altogether. It’s not like you can turn off the Sun. I still love shooting in natural light. There will be times when I want hard shadows, but that’s less common than the softer look most clients prefer. So if I happen to be photographing someone in natural light and find the shadows a little too harsh, I like to bring in some artificial lighting to fill in the shadows, giving the final image a softer, more pleasing look. Once you’ve mastered lighting, you will be able to utilize artificial lighting in a way that allows you to mimic the look of natural light. Once you become very familiar with lighting, you will even be able to turn day into night, or vice versa, and simulate sunrises and sunsets. Maybe we can be as powerful as Storm after all.