One of the most common reasons you hear from photographers who avoid off-camera flash lighting is that it looks artificial. Yes, studio lighting can look artificial, but sometimes that’s part of the charm. Nobody claims portraits made with a ringlight look natural, but that doesn’t stop the thousands of photographers (myself included) that use them all of the time. But that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to mimic window light in the studio.
In fact, that’s kind of the point most of the time.
With studio lighting, you can create whatever lighting you want at any time. Providing that you have the right tools (and they are pretty basic), creating natural looking portraits in a studio environment with off-camera flash is exactly as difficult as creating portraits using window light.
Why is window light so wonderful?
In a nutshell, windows give you a constant (during daylight hours) and large light source to work with. The light itself is soft, diffused (assuming that direct sunlight is not entering through the window), and lends itself well to virtually all subjects including portraits.
It also tends to be very directional (depends on how you position yourself and the subject in relation to the window), making it easy to work with to shape your subject.
On top of that, we see things lit in window light all day, every day. It is a very natural state of things and it’s how we recognize the world around us. This familiarity makes window light an obvious choice.
Add to that that the master painters created a great many of their portraits in a studio lit by window light. The most obvious point of reference here would be Rembrandt since this style of lighting is one of the most common techniques that photographers use today.
The reasons for unnatural looking light
There are a couple of reasons why studio lighting can look canned and unnatural. These are:
- Too many lights – When using natural light, you’re usually shooting with only one light source. Perhaps there’s a reflector involved or there might be multiple windows, but for the most part, it’s one light. Going into a studio environment where a single setup can involve a key light, a fill light, a hair light, two rim lights and two background lights can feel both complicated and wrong (unnatural). Fair enough.
- The modifiers are too small – In most cases, windows are quite big. This means that the light source you are using to light your subject is large. Big light sources give soft, flattering light. Add some mesh curtains to that window and the light gets even softer and more diffused. What does that tell you about the size of modifier you need to use on your studio portraits to get soft light?
- The lights are too far away – In terms of the softness of the light, it’s the size of the light source in relation to the subject that determines how soft or hard it appears. If you have an 8′ octabox twenty feet from your subject, it will appear quite small comparatively; therefore, the light will be a bit hard. If you have a small pop-up softbox on there, it will be even harder. Bring your lights in as close as you dare to get for the softest light possible. If you have a small modifier, I recommend having it so close you can barely shoot past it without getting the light source in the frame.
- You’re using an odd light source – Specialist lights, like the ringlight used in the image above, create light that you wouldn’t normally find in natural scenarios. Even if a viewer doesn’t understand the why behind it, people are quite intuitive when things seem weird. If you’re going for a natural look, avoid lights like these.
How to recreate and mimic window light in the studio
Here, you’ll see just how easy it is to mimic natural light in a studio environment. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:
- An off-camera light source. Strobes, flashguns and continuous lights will all work equally well.
- A large light modifier. These examples use a 5′ Octabox (or recessed softbox as PixaPro like to call it), but anything will do. If you don’t have any large modifiers yet and are unsure about what to get, consider starting with a large translucent umbrella. They’re big, dirt cheap, fold away easily and produce a nice, soft light.
- White or silver reflector. This one’s optional, but you should have one anyway. If you’re using a really big modifier, the wraparound of the light may mean you don’t even need it, but they are useful for filling in dark shadows on the unlit side of your subject.
To get started, place your light about three or four feet from your subject. Turn the light so that it’s forty-five degrees (in relation to your subject.) Raise the light up as high as you can (making sure the subject still has catchlights in their eyes). High ceilings are a bonus.
The reason for this is that with window light, the light is often coming from above. The window is shaping the light into the room, but it is still coming down into the room. If you’re using modelling lights or continuous lights, watch the catchlights in your subject’s eyes. Once they are falling towards the top of their eyes, you’re good to go.
Likewise, also watch where the shadows are falling. If the contrast seems too high, introduce a reflector. This does take practice, so don’t worry if you can’t tell just yet. It may help if you squint your eyes tightly. This makes it easier to see the contrast. In these examples, the silver reflector was placed flat and in front of the subject at around waist level.
Now, all that you have to do is to take a light meter reading (or take a test shot), adjust your settings (either in-camera or on the flash) and start taking photos.
To start with, try having your subject turned toward either the light or the camera. Beyond that, there’s not really much else to it.
Practice makes it simple
If you are completely new to off-camera lighting, this may seem like a lot to get. I promise it’s not. Once you’ve set this up a few times, it becomes so easy that there’s not much more effort involved than placing someone in front of a window.
The advantages here are that you aren’t at the mercy of the weather or the time of day and once you get started with a set-up, the light won’t change unless you tell it to.
Just remember to keep the light both high and close and there isn’t much room to go wrong.
Putting it to use
If you’ve had any hesitance to use studio lights for any of the reasons listed in this article, hopefully, you can see that with the right techniques, you needn’t worry at all. Honestly, it’s not as difficult or complicated as it seems. If you’re still unsure, rent a studio for an hour and put it to practice. You may be surprised at what you find out and learn.