Natural Light or Creative Lighting?

Is the preference in professional photography for clients requesting their images to be captured using natural light just a fashion that might have run it’s course or is there something else much more complicated going on here?


There is no doubt that the change from film based photography at the turn of the century to digital photography as it is now has seen an amazing increase in the number of published images using natural light. Although trending as a style preference of clients is this just a case of the technology having improved exposure capacities so much that professional photographers are just taking the easy route and just pressing the button? Rather than creating a lighting set up and style that is all their own.


BRD Associates
A naturally lit interier shot in an office environment.


If so have they anyone but themselves to blame for a diminishing level of skill of photographers and a general lowering of accepted rates and charges in the industry beyond the causes of the recent recession?


Looking at the technical details of the phenomenon when photographers had to use film there were basically three choices, colour transparencies, the preferred route for advertising and reproduction of images. Negative colour film for print production, ideal for the social market and black and white negative that was the preference of the press who could reproduce their printing plates from a black and white print.


To add to the basic choices there was then only 4 basic film speeds available, 50,100,400,1600 iso. The slowest 50 iso giving great depth of colour and at the other end of the scale the 1600 iso gave clumps of grain that made any image look rough. The average photographer would normally be working with the middle two speeds 95% of the time.


Transparency film had a recording range of not much more than three stops of exposure between loosing either highlight or shadow detail. Negative film was a little more forgiving with a range of around 5 stops but it needed work on a print which didn’t have so much exposure latitude to get the full range captured in a negative and this is where we get the terms in Photoshop type digital programs for “dodging” and “burning” in areas of an image just a s a printer would have done by exposing small areas of a print for less or more time.


Photographers learned to use lights to neutralise the exposure differences in a scene out of necessity not just for artistic creativity. But the need very quickly leads to the skill to produce the later.


Dept of Health Scanner Operator
A creatively lit interior shot using colour and low light angles to add drama.


Today’s digital cameras have a range of normally a minimum of 9 stops and some of the latest CMOS chips are reputed to cover up to 13.5 stops. So you can see immediately the capacity for range of capture combined with the speed of today’s chips which often produce acceptable results from ISO settings of 64,000 iso with little grain in comparison to old style 400 iso film.


So there you have the cause, a professional brought up on today’s digital cameras has had little need to learn lighting techniques learned through necessity by older photographers experienced in film photography. If a subject can be covered with little use of auxiliary lighting the advantages are obvious, speed of capture, less disruption to the client or the event being covered being the most obvious. But has it also lost something?


The answer must be yes because one element of the photographer’s skills, talents and taste is no longer being used or indeed learned. So if this trend has resulted from the development of the medium is there a place for the old style skills?


Again the answer must be a resounding yes if you want your pictures to stand out from the crowd. This applies to not only advertising shots where items are completely studio lit but also to corporate portraiture, for example, where every office today has the same diffused top lighting and normally only one directional source of daylight both of which are normally of a different light temperature.


Staff Portrait
A portrait shot in an office location with directional flash to give the effect I wanted rather than what light was there which would have been much flater



And what about architecture? The skills of painting with light that the old film photographers had to do out of necessity are just as relevant today to produce a creative image. Even event work can benefit from added creative lighting where group shots or speakers can benefit from a backlight or hair light to lift them from the background.


So is it a fashion, this preference for natural light photography or a laziness on behalf of the professionals or perhaps a convenience for the clients? Surely a touch of all three? But as it becomes the norm so will the seeker of difference, the artist looking to be outside the box will surely reinvent the art and you can guarantee it will be accepted as new and fresh and fashionable! Anyone want to start a new fashion?


One of the best photographers advertising shots I ever saw which was distributed to many London advertising agencies was a pile of steaming dung on a plain white background. The catch line – It may be a pile of shit, but it’s beautifully lit! And it was!




Brian Russell 2013