Photography lighting setups – natural or flash?
Pocket Creatives explain when you should be using both!
A good photography lighting setup is arguably the most important factor, and is often the biggest difference between an amateur and a professional shot. Sometimes you just can’t put your finger on why one shot looks pro and another doesn’t – more often than not composition and lighting is the difference. As professionals, we have three options when it comes to our photography lighting setups: flash, continuous artificial lighting or natural light. There are benefits to each, and of course, some drawbacks too – as with much in life, no one option is perfect!
Choosing the right type of lighting to use as part of your overall photography lighting setup for a shoot is very important, and what you need will depend on whether you’re shooting just still photography or video as well, and whether the shoot is for food & drink, products or fashion.
Pocket Creatives tend to use flash lighting in our photography lighting setups for a number of reasons. The main reason we do this is for control and reliability. Many food photographers love to use natural light as part of their photography lighting setup – and arguably is the best choice for individual images. However, what do you do when the sun goes in? When you’re shooting a set of images, the tonality and warmth of the image will change as your ambient light does – and so creates a reliability problem. Living and working in London accentuates this more, of course, perhaps our view on natural light’s place in photography lighting setups would change a little more if we were based in LA or Cape Town?!
Secondly, flash allows you to create a specific look, without having to corral the available light that you have into the right position – or worse, having to wait for the sun to move into place. With flash, we can build a main key light into our photography lighting setup. We can fill in the shadows, add accents, side and rim lighting with a light that’s fully under our control. Multiple lights like these can be used to great effect in a photography lighting setup, particularly in a studio environment where you then have complete control over the angle and type of light (soft or hard) hitting the subject.
The main challenges with using flash in your photography lighting setup are the cost, and some technical drawbacks. Time will also be a factor – as you do eat away at the clock in actually setting up, testing and tweaking your photography lighting setup. While the cost of flash heads tends to come down each year, and with many third parties offering more affordable options for your photography lighting setup, the cost of individual flash heads plus triggers and modifiers adds up pretty fast. If you commonly need to use artificial lighting then it just comes as part of the territory, but it’s definitely a factor. You also don’t have immediate feedback as to how a shot will look – you have to capture a frame, see what the light is doing, adjust and then re-take. This is where the time goes.
Depending on the kind of shoot that you’re doing, you may also be slowed by refresh rates of the equipment, or challenges with radio triggers. Less important for a food or product shoot where the product sits still, but more troublesome if you have a model who’s throwing poses at you like a machine gun and you want to capture that energy.
We’re currently equipped with Nikon Speedlights due to their efficient size and use of power. We can take them anywhere and don’t have to rely on mains power or huge amounts of space.
Constant Artificial Light
With the increase in camera technology, shooting at higher ISOs (sensitivity) means that you can supplement daylight outdoors or light a scene from scratch in a studio or indoor location. While this has some of the drawbacks associated with flash in terms of cost to your photography lighting setup, the benefit of seeing instant results through your viewfinder or LCD screen is incredibly helpful.
Perhaps the biggest drawback with using constant light is that the lighting itself is bulky and will potentially take up much more space in the shooting environment compared with flash heads. You’ll also need plenty of mains power or expensive batteries if you want constant light to be part of your photography lighting setup. This makes constant lighting a better fit for internal than outdoor use, although you’re by no means completely limited.
The major benefit for us about using constant lighting in a photography lighting setup is when we’re combining photography and video at the same time in a single shoot. Video relies heavily on good constant lighting, and that extra light helps to relieve the sensitivity pressure when it comes to capturing stills alongside. We’ll often be asked to jump between taking video and photography on certain kids of shoots, so here, having constant lighting as part of the photography lighting setup makes all the difference.
We use a combination of Aputure branded constant lights with Rotolight and Westcott constant lights.
As we’ve already talked a little about, using natural light in your photography lighting setup is great when you can, and experienced photographers will be able to look at a scene, analyse the available light and produce the best angle and exposure possible. The quality of natural light will vary, and harnessing it for the effect that you’re looking for at a given moment is a bit of a skill – which involves experience and very quick thinking!
Plenty of food photographers who use natural light in their photography lighting setup will rely on big windows with closely positioned tables, and a bounce board or reflector – the benefit of this is an immediately pleasing and natural colour and contrast.
We find that when shooting outdoors with models, we’ll prefer natural light, perhaps supplemented and balanced with flash to create the look that we’re going for. Fashion shoots work really well outdoors in natural light in particular.
As with all areas of professional creative skills, you’ll rely on your team to pick the right route when it comes to a photography lighting setup for your project – and making these decisions are an important part of our process. Making the right choice is part of the fun – it’s why we jumped into this industry in the first place, and why we work hard to stay here!
As always, if you have any further questions on professional lighting setups please feel free to get in touch. For more on our photography you can see our portfolio here.
Steven Mayatt, Creative Director
“Fun, innovative and unflappable. Pocket creatives are great to work with – whether it’s finding the perfect lighting for trifle to capturing GoPro footage on a whisk, they always approach every situation with a steady yet game-changing attitude. I see the whole team as trusted creative partners to make great content together.”
Kitty Aldis, River Group
“I have been working with Steven and the brilliant Pocket Creatives crew for 3 years – in fact since they started out. They have captured in excess of 100 recipes, produced 7 videos including 2 crowdfunding campaigns, their work, professionalism, and commitment to client satisfaction second to none. What’s more is how they have developed, evolved and grown in creativity, experience, and inspiration.
On a personal front the individuals in the team have to most wonderful personalities – an absolute joy to work with!”
Tanya Robertson-Lambert, Tanya’s Just Real
“I worked with Steven and his Pocket Creatives team to create a recipe video, and I couldn’t recommend their services enough! From the ideation stage, through to filming and editing the finished product, at every stage, the whole team were first-class, going above and beyond to create a compelling, high-quality recipe video that generated heaps of engagement. I would definitely work them again.”
Ben Cullen, OLIO