Pros and Cons: Natural light vs. studio

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In my previous post I created a poll to find out which type of setting Beyond Megapixels readers prefer, natural light or using a flash set-up in a studio. If you haven’t taken the poll yet, please do so!

As of the time of this entry there is an overwhelming 82% who say that, like me, they prefer to use natural light in their photography and that’s not a huge surprise to me. Today I’d like to contrast the two, giving you some of the pros and cons for each type of photography.

Pros of using natural light:

  1. It’s free. I think that’s probably the biggest factor for many people. While a studio and a proper set-up with fancy flashes and reflectors and whatnot can create a super professional look, it can be very costly. Natural light is free. You walk outside or open the curtains and there it is. It’s hard to argue with free.
  2. It’s accessible. Along the same lines, natural light is something that pretty much anyone has access to. If you don’t own your own studio or work in one, you’ll have to make arrangements to rent a space as well as buying or renting all the equipment that goes with it. There’s less effort involved with natural light.
  3. It’s spontaneous. If you look out your window and realize that the light is just right for photographing your kids or the tree on the corner or whatever makes you happy, you can grab your camera and go. Working in a studio setting requires a bit more scheduling.
  4. There’s little to no learning curve. As long as you’ve got a basic handle on your camera and how to use it, there’s not much that you need to figure out when it comes to shooting outdoors or inside next to a window with soft natural light filtering through. On the other hand, it can be quite overwhelming to figure out flash settings, positioning of reflectors, how to trigger off-camera flashes, and so on. It can be fun to learn but you have to make the time.
  5. You’re limited only by your imagination. A studio is a studio. You can use backdrops and props, but you’re limited to a point as to what you can do. Shooting in natural light means your location can be pretty much anywhere. You can take photos of someone in a park, by a lake, on train tracks, or on top of a mountain. If you can get there and it’s legal to be there, you can shoot there.
  6. Natural light is beautiful. Obviously this last one is subjective, and I’m biased because I do prefer natural light. However, that’s one of the most common reasons many people do prefer natural light for their photography. I find the warm tones are just much more striking than the light in a studio. I’ve taken countless pictures of my kids outside in incredible light at the “magic hour” and I’ve photographed one of my daughters in a studio. While the studio photos look very professional, I still prefer the natural light shots by a mile.

Pros of using studio lighting:

  1. It’s suitable 24 hours a day. The biggest problem with natural light is that much of the day it will be too harsh for really striking shots. You really need to photograph people and many other subjects in the early morning or the late afternoon when the sun isn’t too high overhead. Meanwhile, you can book a studio shoot at high noon and it won’t make any difference.
  2. It’s available regardless of the weather. If you have plans to go shoot photos of someone in a beautiful open field, your day will go down in flames if you wake up to pouring rain. On the other hand if you’re using flashes in the studio, the weather has no impact on what you’re shooting.
  3. It offers a lot of control. Outdoors you’ll have to figure out the logistics of positioning your subject depending on the angle of the sun, the available shade, and so on. Indoors you can position your subject precisely and you can control exactly how much light shines down on them (or across from them, behind them, etc.). You can control things like bouncing light off a wall or a reflector, and you can filter the lights as well. Studio shoots offer complete control over every little detail.
  4. No time limits. As long as no one has anywhere else to be, there are no real time limits when you’re shooting in a studio. If you’re outside taking photos during the evening magic hour, you only have so much time before you lose the light altogether and it gets dark. This isn’t a factor at all when you’re inside with artificial light.
  5. Privacy. If you’re doing a shoot involving nudity or someone who is very shy, a studio can offer some privacy that will allow your subject to loosen up. Shooting in a public place outdoors means the possibility of bystanders and that can bother some people.

What are some of your pros and cons regarding the differences between shooting in a studio versus outside in natural light?

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  • smokindevil

    Not quite fair! It's not always an either/or situation. I love natural light for all the reasons you list but I love it more when I bring my my speedlight and softbox along! The most important reason to use flash lighting is for creative control. Be it indoors or outdoors. Using a combination of natural light with flash creates extremely compelling and beautiful images.

  • sherryosborne

    That's an excellent point. I haven't tried flash with natural light yet so that's something I should experiment with!

  • http://www.BethMadisonPhotography.com Beth Madison

    I disagree that natural light is always easier. Just as with studio lighting, to create a truly compelling image, not just a snapshot, you have to:

    - notice, really pay attention, to the light and what it's doing

    - compensate for harshness or less than ideal conditions, such as seeking out shade if it's mid-day, or using reflectors to fill

    - taking time to position your subject so as to take the maximum advantage of the lighting conditiions

    - all this, while also paying attention to potentially distracting backgrounds, shadows, etc.

    Outdoor, natural light can be flat or harsh. It can also be warm, soft and lovely.

    Learning how to use, manipulate and position your subjects with natural light isn't that different from doing the same thing in a studio setting. Using shade effectively, noticing the color and tone of naturally reflected light, maybe using reflectors, and recognizing potentially tricky situations like dappled light, is a skill.

    The biggest difference is that, although the sun is your big softbox, you can't move it. ;) You can only move your subject.

    It's not just a matter of saying, “look, there's plenty of light!” and shooting.

  • http://www.i-love-bingo.co.uk/party-bingo-review.html Party Bingo

    I list all the reasons you love natural light, but I love it more when I get with my speedlight and softbox! The most important reason to use flash light for creative control. Be it indoors or out. Using a combination of flash with natural light creates a highly compelling and beautiful images.

  • http://jimmartinphotoblog.blogspot.com Jim

    I agree with you, Beth. I’d go a step further and suggest that after working in the studio where you can adjust the lights as you like, thus forming the light/shadow balance to suit your taste, you will more readily be able to do so in available light situations.

  • http://jimmartinphotoblog.blogspot.com Jim

    I agree with you, Beth. I’d go a step further and suggest that after working in the studio where you can adjust the lights as you like, thus forming the light/shadow balance to suit your taste, you will more readily be able to do so in available light situations.

  • http://jimmartinphotoblog.blogspot.com Jim

    I agree with you, Beth. I’d go a step further and suggest that after working in the studio where you can adjust the lights as you like, thus forming the light/shadow balance to suit your taste, you will more readily be able to do so in available light situations.

  • http://jimmartinphotoblog.blogspot.com Jim

    I agree with you, Beth. I’d go a step further and suggest that after working in the studio where you can adjust the lights as you like, thus forming the light/shadow balance to suit your taste, you will more readily be able to do so in available light situations.