Natural Light: Setting the Record Straight

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by Chelsea Williams

For years, I have noticed some professional photographers making negative comments about natural light photographers. Recently, I was reminded of this when a meme started circulating around the photography forums saying, “Just say you don’t know how to use flash!” Many people saw it as hysterical, but as a natural light photographer, I took it with a grain of salt. Sadly, I soon saw well respected instructors also sharing the same meme. I could only think OOPS; someone needs to set the story straight for natural light photographers.

To start off, where did the idea originate that natural light is a lesser form of light? Isn’t light, light? I think the main reason natural light is seen as lesser light as opposed to strobes or off-camera flash is that everyone started with natural light. Hence, some people only view it as a beginner’s tool. However, any tool only works at the level of the person using it. When everyone starts out in photography, they start learning the basics of the camera and basics of good light. I personally don’t know anyone who learned photography and studio lighting simultaneously. Everyone goes outside, learns aperture and depth of field. As you get better, you might add in a reflector or a scrim. Then you go to schools and workshops to learn about “advanced lighting.” Now that you can work with three to four lights at a time, why would you ever go back to the beginner’s source of lighting?

Lots of photographers use strobe lights and off camera flash amazingly well while others use them very badly. It all comes down to the fact that your light is a tool. You need to know the concepts. Once you know the concepts, the tool that you use is just a detail of your style. Believe it or not, most photographers have very different styles and that is the way it should be.

So how did I land on a natural light style? Like most beginners, I learned my camera and the basics first. Next, I jumped into workshops early on in my portrait career and listened to instructors teach studio lighting… which I wanted to know and thankful that I learned. In 2009, I opened a retail studio that used studio lighting. However, to my surprise, it did not turn out as expected and it was not my best decision. Using a main light, a hair light, and a kicker was what I was told to do. However, what I should have done instead was to continue my education a little more and discover my own style of photography. Trying to be “the everything” photographer, I ended up loving nothing about what I was doing.

To stay alive in the industry, I ran a Groupon in 2011. However, what I hoped would be a marketing miracle left me overworked and producing very low quality, something that I was not proud of. Something needed to change but what? That year, I took Gregory Daniels’ class at Texas school. Gregory Daniels has always been natural light and not ashamed of it. Does he understand studio lighting? Of course, he is a master! His class taught me to see light in a new way. It was like a burden was lifted when Gregory Daniels taught me that I didn’t have to do things the way other people did it. Shortly after taking his class, my family was preparing to move out of state and I shut down my studio. However, all the wonderful Groupons had to be finished. So, I started shooting them outside in natural light and discovered in a really short period of time that I loved natural light and was taking better quality images.

Fast forward in 2017 at Imaging USA in San Antonio, I was taking a CPP Prep course and test. Being an expert in my field was something that I valued and wanted to pursue. At that same Imaging, I happened to catch a program by Megan DiPiero. Here again was a photographer making an excellent living working with natural light. No one would dare call her a lesser photographer because she produces quality results while shooting in a natural light studio. Megan’s program connected with me on such a huge level that I soon invested into private workshops with her and really found my values on the same level as hers. I soon rebranded my business and started shooting beauty portraits in a natural light studio, finding myself happier than ever before. Plus, I was putting out quality work. Shortly after, I also received my CPP with an all-natural light portfolio.

Today, no one can tell me that I don’t understand lighting because I know what works best for me, choosing to work with natural light because I truly love it! It is my style and my clients love it. So, what do I want instructors and photographers to take from this? If you are an instructor giving a negative attitude to any photographer about a style just because it does not work for you, you are doing that photographer a great injustice. Just because it does not work for you, does not mean it won’t work for them.

If the person reading this is a beginner who has heard or read your comments, they are probably going to be too embarrassed to attend your lectures and further their education. For anyone else using studio lighting, we love you guys, your work rocks! We know we are different. Celebrate the differences in the community. Finally, no matter if you are a beginner or if you landed on natural light because it is your style, don’t be ashamed. Learn your light, know it, love it, and own it!

Chelsea has quickly become the “go to” photographer for Headshots and Beauty Portraits in The Woodlands area. She has a bachelor’s degree in photography from Sam Houston State University and is an active member of the Professional Photographers of America and Texas Professional Photographers Association and taught a Texas 10 Workshop in March.