Not all natural light is creating equal… and how one natural light lover turned to into a studio light die-hard!
So, I’ve been meaning to write about my journey with lighting for a while. I just have never sat down and collected all of my thoughts until now. My adventure with lighting has taken a surprising turn over my photography career. I have gone from learning how to light newborns all on my own (around 12 years ago now) in the beginning days to sharing my passion for lighting to groups of over 600+ people today! If you had asked me if I was satisfied with my grasp of lighting around four years ago I would have, with out a doubt, said YES! Oh what time has taught me! What is crazy to me is I have learned so much in the past three or four years- especially when it comes to natural light. I hope by sharing my experience that I can make someone- even if ONE- understand that lighting can be a struggle for all levels and there are answers/solutions to make your life easier!!!
If you were to ask me what I felt was the most important part of newborn photography is I would undoubtedly answer- the light. Lighting can either make or break an image. I have taught this concept to all my students over the years. What I failed to consider a few years ago is that lighting angle IS NOT EVERYTHING! It wasn’t until I found myself in a not-so-ideal natural lighting set-up, session after session, that I came to this realization! Yes- lighting angle is one of the most important parts, but there are other very important components to consider.
I feel like it was around 2006 when lighting began to make sense to me. Back then, the industry was not like it is today. Most photographers disliked photographing newborns immensely. There were only a few of us who took great interest in photographing tiny subjects. There wasn’t the level of inspiration we have today. There were no props. There were no vendors!! Can you imagine?? It was simpler times!! But those simpler times helped cultivate an environment for figuring out the technicalities. Anne Geddes was our biggest inspiration back then. She was full of beautiful creative ideas, but in my opinion, her lighting was not correct. So there was nothing for us to look up to- we had to figure it out on our own.
Newborns are vastly different from all other subjects- here are a few reasons why: They are, for the most part, always laying down. They lack defining features that older babies, kids and adults have. And, very importantly, their eyes are usually closed, so we miss that element of connection. So... we use light and shadow to define their face!! Simple enough, right? Nope!!! We must consider the angle of the light in relationship to the baby first… that is a given! But we must also think about what our light source is!!
Natural light is a temperamental, never ever the same, beast! Even if you usually have the perfect light you may not always get the same light every day or even throughout the day depending on the weather! Natural light comes in all different kinds of flavors… We have direct light on a sunny day- that’s when the light pours in harshly into you windows, there is indirect light on a sunny day… you get this when your windows are facing opposite to the sun, then we have partly sunny days (which never fail to drive me crazy!), and finally we have cloudy/rainy day light. Other things to consider when looking at your light source are other elements that could negatively effect your light such as trees or overhangs. Trees will make your light darker and will sometimes cause a green tint. Overhangs will create deep and harsh shadows.
Each type of natural light should be treated differently. With hard light you would want to diffuse it using a material like nylon rip-stop. Indirect light will tend to be cooler in tone, so I’ve found using cream sheers, while darkening a bit, it does help to bring some warmth back into the newborn’s skin tone. Blue is not a good look for newborn babies! Partly sunny days are the most difficult to manage. Your conditions are constantly changing, making consistency in your session near impossible.
When I lived in California for 7 years and photographed along side my business partner Carrie Sandoval, we had a beautifully lit natural light studio. We had the light that glowed. I feel like this light is the holy grail and is actually pretty rare. I can spot this light from a mile away when I’m looking at other photographer’s work. It is ideal! We had hard light pouring into our studio, but diffused it with the rip-stop material. What resulted was a soft, delicate light that had a beautiful warm tone- perfect for newborns! I was blissfully unaware of the struggle that many other photographers faced, day to day, with using less than ideal natural light. Yes, we did shoot on-location from time to time, and we did encounter our fair share of bad lighting conditions, but it was not something I had to face every session I had. I didn’t realize how much bad natural light could kill one’s creative spirit until I moved…
I moved to Western North Carolina three years ago. I found a house with the perfect set up for an in-home studio. My only real problem that I saw in the beginning was the size of the window in the space. It was a room over the garage and the window was quite small. We did a small amount of remodeling to the room- the post on that can be found here: http://www.littlebloomblog.com/blog/2015/1/8/studio-remodel-asheville-newborn-baby-photographer
At first I was completely in love with my little studio! It was adorable! But I quickly realized how much I disliked the type of natural light I was getting through my windows. My studio is almost completely north facing. I do get a small amount of hard light for a short period in the morning- maybe just a few hours and only noticeably so in the winter when the sun is lower in the sky. So what I have is a soft, but very, very blue light. I cranked my kelvin temp to 10K and still had blue undertones in my newborn’s skin. I wasn't a fan of this look. Thinking of what I could do to help the situation I tried using cream sheers over my window to bring in some warmth color tone wise. It did help with my color a bit, but it also unfortunately darkened the images and made the light just a little too flat for my taste. The pictures lacked the clarity and depth that I had knew and loved with a really good quality natural light. I was seriously struggling! My creativity flat lined, because I felt it was impossible to create the beautiful light enriched images that I WANTED to create using the light that I had before me.
So what finally made me ditch my natural light for studio light? Well... I travel from time to time to photograph photographer's newborns and I had photographed a few over a short period of time where I had to use a studio light. I had played with the studio light prior. I had purchased an alien bee around 2005 and it sat unused in my basement. I remembered the limitations my AB had and I didn't like the magenta color cast it created, so I wasn't eager to dust it off and give it a go again. One of the photographers I photographed for had the Einstein and it was pretty much love at first click! I loved the neutrality of the color tone! And the clarity was just beautiful! Let's just say that my eyes opened up to some new possibilities! I am very much a creature of habit and I'm pretty resistant to change, so for me to take that leap was kind of a big deal!
At first I tried the Einstein light with a giant rectangular soft box. I went with the rectangle shape to best emulate the look of natural light. Rectangle=window! It worked well enough, but I felt there was a harshness to the light that made it look more studio like and less natural light looking. I hindsight a large square soft-box would have worked better as the light source would have not been so compact. Studio light is a strong light. When I think of strong light I think really bright lights and really dark darks. It's kind of the opposite of what you'd want with lighting a newborn. Ideal lighting for newborn photography does involve light and shadows. Those of you who've taken my workshop or sat through my lighting keynote know that I always say we must use light and shadow to define the newborn's face! However, we want those shadows to be soft. Shortly after my switch to studio light I purchased a PLM light modifier. The PLM system is an umbrella made out of the nylon rip-stop material I referenced above. I used a black umbrella cover to black the backside out. I then have a white rip-stop front diffusion panel. What happens, when I click the shutter, is the studio light throws light onto the back of the umbrella. The light then bounces back through the front diffusion panel onto the baby. The circular shape of the umbrella helps throw a little more light into the shadowy areas compared to what you would get with a rectangular shaped studio light soft-box. When utilizing studio light you will want to rotate the light a little more towards the baby then you might with a natural light source. This technique is called feathering and it throws a little extra light into those shadowy areas!
What do I love about studio light?? Almost everything... I love the clarity it gives in the images. The depth of the light is glorious! The neutral color tone makes editing SOOO much easier and creates a consistency not only within a session, but also across the board for the look of your work! I also love the dark atmosphere it creates in my shooting space. I keep all my lights off except for the modeling light on my studio light. It makes what I refer to as my creative cocoon! It's just me, the baby, and light- creating art together! Everything else is subdued into the shadowed areas of my studio. What will you have to get used to when switching to studio light?? Learning the system- which if you are using an Einstein is very easy. Get a wireless trigger, so that you aren't directly connected to your light with a cord as this can be cumbersome! I have the 64" PLM umbrella system and I much prefer it to the 86" option. I feel like the larger system is way too big for my studio and I just feel like the light is a little TOO flat for my personal taste! Get the black cover for your umbrella if you want to avoid a flatter feel as well. Without the cover the light will bounce off your walls and then onto your baby, which create a flatter light. It all comes down to the look that YOU personally prefer! Do what makes YOUR heart sing! If your heart is happy it will reflect directly through to the images you are creating!
So, if you are ever looking at another photographer’s work and their images have a breathtaking natural glow, and it makes you feel a bit inadequate, know that they are either blessed with the best TYPE of natural light found on this place we call home or they might just be using a studio light! <3
Comment with any questions you might have! I hope this post might inspire others to look into other options as far as lighting is concerned!