Anyone who knows me as an educator, author, or photographer already knows my answer to this question, and the answer is YES.
We’ve all heard photographers say that they are "natural light" photographers, and I have to admit that when I hear this, the hairs on the back of my next stand up and a bit of skepticism flows across me like a tidal wave. There are of course photography genres such as nature, wildlife, documentary, etc. where natural light is preferred, and situations where supplemental lighting is not allowed. But, what about those numerous other situations? Why the choice to be a "natural light" photographer?
Also, anyone who either makes their living or wishes to make their living as a photographer is frustrated with the notion that anyone with a camera, albeit a DSLR, or smartphone, is a photographer. Technology advances give credence to this argument, to a point. Heck, my iPhone captures a pretty picture and that even includes DNG files when I use the latest Adobe Lightroom app.
Technology is great, and today’s cameras are absolutely amazing. I’ll bet that most people reading this have a relative who could swing down to their local Walmart in the morning, purchase a camera, and by noon capture a darn good-looking image of their lunch. The image will be properly exposed, in focus, and if they have some design sense, the composition will follow the rule-of-thirds. On an interesting side note, the Nikon D500 manual has over four-hundred pages, and if one chooses to set the camera on P (program, not professional) and use autofocus then you could probably skip ninety-five percent of those pages. I’m not suggesting going that route, just making a point about the advances in technology. So, what can’t the camera do, or not do well? The answer: LIGHT
Lighting sets photographers apart. This discussion is about adding supplemental lighting, but I must give kudos to those landscape, nature, and wildlife photographers who brave the elements to capture the image just as the sun breaks the horizon. These photographers understand the magnitude of light.
I’m fortunate to live in a beautiful area with mountains parks that offer breathtaking views. Perfect location for outdoor portraits, or in my case, a good run or hike with the dogs. In these locations, it’s common to stumble across a portrait session in progress. Whether it’s a single subject or large family group, the scenario is always similar. The subjects are arranged under a canopy of trees, perhaps with a little backlighting, and those breathtaking Colorado mountains fully sunlit as the backdrop; an ideal location. The photographer has a camera in hand and a bag, or two, overflowing with spare bodies and lenses. There isn’t a strobe, Speedlight, or collapsible reflector in sight. It’s probably a good thing the people can’t hear what my wife who also happens to be a professional photographer, is saying as we critique their session. Given that the people’s faces are in shadow or shade, and the background is in full sun; there are just a few exposure options. Option One, expose for the face(s) and the breathtaking view is over-exposed; goodbye mountain range. Option Two, expose for the background and the subject is under-exposed, or Option Three, average the exposures and nothing looks great. A small portable light would provide Option Four and allow both the subject and scenic view to look spectacular. For anyone who read the previous two blogs Be Better or Be Bitter and Not Yet, you can see how these all fit together.
There are two types of photographers who use supplemental lighting, those that light for exposure and those that light for creativity, or as a good friend says, those that light to simulate reality or for effect (thanks Joey). Lighting for reality uses lights so the camera’s sensor can record what our eyes and mind perceive. Again, modern cameras are amazing, but no match for human eyes and brain. The fourteen-stop dynamic range of the Nikon D500 is impressive. However, with constant pupil adjustment, humans see a dynamic range of up to 24 stops. I’d bet in our mountain parks portrait scenario, the photographer visualized the ideal scenario where the faces and the mountain range looked stunning, and why not, they scouted the picturesque location, timed the session for peak late afternoon light. Unfortunately, without the support of extra lighting, the vision doesn’t come to life.
We don’t need to make lighting difficult; it’s simply one of the tools photographers utilize to unleash their vision. To create what the mind’s eye sees.
The mention of lighting for creativity or effect is a tease for an upcoming article, so stay tuned…