– The Art of Lighting: Natural Vs. Artificial Illumination


education / inspiration
The Art of Lighting: Natural Vs. Artificial Illumination
By Judy Host & Amy Cantrell
May 1, 2006 

Natural Light: Judy Host
Have you ever looked through a magazine and found yourself stopping at one image in particular? Of all the photos in a magazine, what makes one stand out? If you take the time to study it, I guarantee that you will notice one of two things, the lighting and the angle from which the subject was photographed. Aside from the subject matter, most of the impact is the way the image has been lit.

I find myself studying images of all kinds. I truly believe that what makes for an outstanding image is the quality of the lighting. There are many different aspects to a beautiful image, but the lighting will take it to the next level. It brings a sense of drama and life to a photograph, and adds to the quality of the presentation. My goal when creating an image is to give my subject matter “life” in its truest sense. Yes, I want to capture the moment, but without the drama of light, it doesn’t have the same impact.

Lighting comes from many different sources. For my style, I use all natural light. Whether I’m indoors or outside, it doesn’t matter. My studio has two very large windows that extend from floor to ceiling. These windows also get a north light, so I have an even flow of illumination all day long. I’m also very lucky the buildings outside are white, creating my natural reflectors. My settings are the same except on days where it may be cloudy. Then, the only adjustment I make is shooting at a higher ISO.

When I’m teaching class, I find a lot of my students are amazed at the amount of available light in any given space. I love digital photography because you can shoot anywhere and test the lighting immediately to see what it looks like. If you’re used to using studio lights, I can understand your hesitation, but all you need to do is test your setup and make whatever adjustments are necessary. You no longer have to wait until your film comes back from the lab to see what your lighting looks like. 

Judy’s camera bag
Whether I’m traveling around the world, or just shooting in my studio, I carry two camera bodies—both Fuji FinePix Pro S3s and three Nikon lenses, 24-85mm f/4.5, 70-200mm f/2.8, and 17-35mm f/2.8. I also use a Lensbaby 2.0 whenever I can, as well as battery packs and several memory cards. I use a Macintosh Powerbook G4 and Adobe Photoshop CS2 for all of my editing.

Manipulating the Light: Amy
During my career in photography, I’ve mostly used artificial light, so my methods are just the opposite of Judy. I started by photographing concerts where I had no control. I had to wait and anticipate when the artist would be under the lighting conditions I desired, while staying prepared to catch the right expression at the right time. The drama and intensity of the colored stage lighting really enhanced the images.

My next stage was working in a portrait studio where I learned to control the lights to benefit the subject. With studio lighting you can manipulate the light to bring out flattering angles of a face or put shadows where you want areas to be less noticeable. Moving the main light from one side of a person’s face to the other can make a huge difference in how a person looks. By controlling light and shadows, you can broaden subjects or slim them down, using whichever effect makes them look their best.

When you can’t or prefer not to retouch images, due to time constraints or budget, using a soft, flat light source will help reduce the need for retouching. It can help to fill in dark circles under the eyes, reduce contrast, and soften the lines on a person’s face. You won’t get as much drama with this type of light but it can be very flattering. A too-bright flash can look harsh and unnatural in an image, so use the minimum amount necessary to achieve your goals. 

© Amy Cantrell

Editorial and commercial work often require flattering light on the subject while also clearly showing the background, so manipulating the light in some way is often necessary. I’ll either use reflectors to bounce in just a bit of light or use studio strobes for complete control. Digital imaging requires less light these days, so sometimes repositioning the on-camera flash unit and bouncing it off the ceiling, a reflector, or a nearby wall, is all I need to get the quality of light that I’m looking for.

I love controlling, manipulating and adding light. I often use gels on the lights to add interest to certain areas, tweak the
light or completely turn it into something else. I enjoy this so much that I became a little uncomfortable using only natural light. Light changes constantly, so you need to know what’s happening and how to work with it. Even when shooting a wedding outside, I will usually have a flash on my camera to use just a touch of flash- fill to open up the shadows or put a bit of a sparkle in the eyes.

Amy’s camera bag
For a wedding, I can carry almost everything I need in a small waist pack. I have a Nikon D100 camera with an 18–70mm zoom lens around my neck, and another camera body with a Tamron 28-300mm zoom lens is either on my shoulder or inside the bag. I use Nikon SB-80 flash units on the camera, on a bracket, or off-camera on a cord. Nine times out of ten, I use the flash on the camera pointed in various directions. I carry extra lenses, batteries, cards, blotting tissues, lens cleaners, business cards, allergy pills and Advil. For a commercial job, my car is packed to the brim. I can take an entire studio of equipment on location: Power packs, studio strobe units, light stands, clamps, soft boxes, and umbrellas, which require an assistant or two to carry it all.

For more information on lighting, both natural and artificial, Judy and Amy will be teaching an in-depth workshop in Santa Barbara, California, July 16-21, 2006. Please contact Amy Cantrell at for more information. If you’d like to see more of their work, visit their websites at http://www.JudyHost.comand