Studio lights let photographers create whatever lighting they want, whenever they want it. With a short learning curve, even creating natural light becomes easy. And there are enough choices and tools for you to get creative with how you accomplish this.
Here are 14 ways to make your studio lights look natural:
- Use an off-camera light source.
- Place the light 45° from the subject.
- Choose a single light direction.
- Elevate the light at a natural sun angle.
- Use a large light source.
- Use a large light diffuser.
- Add a baffle or thicker material to the softbox.
- Place the light source farther from the diffuser.
- Place the light source close to the subject.
- Determine the quality of light.
- Use a reflector or bounce light.
- Choose a light source color temperature.
- Use light gels.
- Make use of the window.
In this article, we’ll go over how you can use each of these approaches to achieve natural lighting in your photography studio. With or without a window in your studio, you can still make it happen.
Making Your Studio Lights Look Like Natural Lights
At first, it might seem like studio lights can only look artificial and never natural. After all, they’re artificial lights. But the value of having a reasonably outfitted photography studio is that you can create whatever lighting you want whenever you want it. So why not natural light?
Much of studio equipment like lights, diffusers, and reflectors can create natural light. Think of them as the same for your studio as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are for your camera. You can adjust these settings as needed for the effect that you want. And if you add in filters, those apply to studio lighting through light gels and temperature settings.
The key concept to keep in mind when creating natural light in a studio is to think about a subject by a window and what that subject’s relationship is with the window and the sun. The sun is like a studio light source, and the window is like a diffuser.
The sun is always distant and, for practical purposes, high and direct. The window softens light and shadows. That’s why so many indoor portraits, be they modern photos or classical Rembrandt paintings, are set next to a window. Windows work well with most subjects.
At the same time, the window limits the direction that light can come in, which creates dramatic effects that photographers love. And as far as indoor photos go, the go-to natural lighting situation is one next to a window.
However, you can’t always have a window in your studio, or you may not have the ideal window setup. Fortunately, there are many ways you can achieve this natural lighting.
1. Use an Off-Camera Light Source
You’ll never achieve natural light with your on-camera light sources. Even if you upgrade from the camera body’s native flash to a ring light or other mounted light source, the direction of the light still comes from the camera. Rarely as a photographer will you shoot with the sun directly behind you at the same angle as the camera.
The most natural-looking and flattering portraits have light sources coming from a different direction than the camera. It adds a dimension that head-on light cannot give. It’s what we expect from the sun, such as when the sun filters through the window. Natural lighting in a studio is the recreation of the sun in a window.
Flashguns and continuous lights fulfill this role well. However, beware of specialty lights like ring lights. Your viewers don’t need to understand what something like a ring light is. They know something doesn’t look right or natural in a picture lit by one.
2. Place the Light 45° From the Subject
Much like how you need to foremost use an off-camera light source, there are angles that light should have relative to the subject.
For instance, 45° to the left or right of the subject adds dimension. It’s also a preferred angle you’d choose outside so that you’re not casting a shadow inside your frame, and your subject would still have a light on the side facing the camera.
3. Choose a Single Light Direction
A photography studio has many lights. But natural light has only one source. Even as that source bounces off other surfaces or filters through multiple windows, the light ultimately comes from one source.
People viewing your photo may not consciously know why it looks unnatural, but we naturally understand the single source of the sun. Imitate the sun, and your studio lights will look natural. Too many lights and the mind becomes confused and searches for why the photo looks off.
If you do use more than one light source, make sure they fall on the subject from the same direction. That way, the shadows make sense.
4. Elevate the Light at a Natural Sun Angle
Even though a window has one given height, the sun doesn’t come through the window at that one height.
The sun doesn’t consistently shine through a window at the angle you’d set your studio lights. In the morning, the sun’s low. And in the afternoon, the sun’s high. If you want to imitate a specific time of day, be conscientious of the height of your lights.
Otherwise, set them as high as possible. For much of the day, we interact under a high sun. So we have that angle as our expectation of natural lighting.
5. Use a Large Light Source
Artificial lights are small, but the sun’s immense. If you want a natural look for your studio, you’ll need a large light source.
But you also want one that’s proportional to the subject you want to capture. Food photography needs a smaller light than a vehicle. Either way, you don’t want to shortcut the size of your light.
Watch this YouTube video on how to make artificial light look natural:
The reason for this is that larger lights create softer shadows. In the case of the sun, it casts softer shadows than a flashlight.
6. Use a Large Light Diffuser
Much like how you need a large light source to imitate the sun, you need a large diffuser to mimic a window. How large is a window that serves well for indoor portraits? Large, just like what you want in your diffuser.
Photographers choose five-foot (1.52-m) softboxes for this reason. If you’re new to studio photography and not fully outfitted, even an umbrella will serve as a makeshift softbox. You want something big and white.
You also want something thin enough for light to get through yet thick enough to force the light to spread across its surface instead of creating a hot spot. Hot spots are when the light stays concentrated in one area of a diffuser.
If your studio has a window with strong sunlight, you can use sheer curtains. Either way, you’ll be creating soft shadows inside, much like the sun outside.
7. Add a Baffle or Thicker Material to the Softbox
A baffle is an additional layer of diffuser that can fit inside a softbox. While a regular diffusion layer will drastically soften the artificial lighting, sometimes you want a little more. Add a baffle, and it evens out the shadows more. It can also make the subject’s texture more apparent.
Using different thicknesses of diffuser materials will also have this effect.
8. Place the Light Source Farther From the Diffuser
Another factor you can tinker with to achieve more natural lighting with your studio lights is to adjust how far your light is from the diffuser. Up close, you get short and harsh shadows with a hot spot on the diffuser. Far away, you get long and soft shadows. So this is a simple factor to adjust for the exact effect you want.
9. Place the Light Source Close to the Subject
Besides adjusting how far your light source is from the diffuser, you can set how far away the light is from the subject. You don’t take window portraits at the inner wall of a room. The subject stands right next to the window.
So in a studio, you imitate this by placing your light close to the subject. Often, the distance is as close as you can position it with the diffuser just out of the frame while maintaining the ideal length from the light to fully diffuse. With this in mind, your light source will likely stand 3 or 4 feet (0.91 or 1.22 m) from the subject.
Also, the farther the light is from the subject, the longer and softer the shadows. And the closer the light is, the shorter and harsher the shadows. But be careful about reducing the light too much with distance.
Think about it like the in-camera relationship between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Your studio settings have a dynamic with the other studio settings to achieve different degrees of light and focus.
10. Determine the Quality of Light
While you want to imitate window light in your studio to create a natural look and window light has one source, windows aren’t just one quality of light. The light from the window shines in and bounces on various surfaces.
When you recreate natural light, you’ll want to be mindful of how you manipulate your one light source beyond diffusers. These manipulations can involve bouncing lights. But they also absorb it if it looks like there’s too much bouncing in the studio.
11. Use a Reflector or Bounce Light
One method to manipulate a light source is to use a reflector. These tools fill shadows that window light would otherwise help with. For instance, placing a reflector on a table below a model out of the frame will soften shadows under her face caused by the otherwise ideal and natural high light source.
Bouncing light on ultra bounces and muslin sheets is also handy. Both have an even diffusion and are perfect for creating natural overcast lighting. They’re also large enough to act as other walls or the ceiling that the window light would naturally bounce on.
Showcards are another option.
If the lighting situation gets out of control, something like an 8×8 solid or a black curtain can act as a way to absorb bounce light. It’s also called negative fill.
12. Choose a Light Source Color Temperature
The sun’s color isn’t the same as a fluorescent light. It also varies throughout the day from the gold of mid-morning and evening to the blue of dawn and dusk and the harsher but still yellow of high noon.
Choosing the right color temperature setting for studio lights can recreate the sun’s warmth, such as at 5600 K for midday or 7000 K in the morning or evening.
Depending on what you want to photograph, there are ways to augment the perception of the light color. For instance, on an overcast day, yellow indoor lights look more yellow, and that contrast makes blue-grays outside look extra blue. So if you can shoot with more environmental props, you can take a more theatrical approach while using natural light techniques.
For more information, check out some of these other articles:
13. Use Light Gels
Besides having specialty lights that you can choose a color temperature for, there are other ways to imitate the sun at different times of the day or even achieve a basic warm, natural look.
One of those is light gels. The colors available as gels to fit over your lights can create any weather or time of day. For instance, a cool blue gel can create soft, overcast lighting.
14. Make Use of the Window
Whether you have a window in your studio or you’re recreating one with the light source on the outside, dressing up the window can give natural light.
Sheer curtains can imitate an overcast day and add texture. Direct light with bare windows can help with the harsher light of sunrise. Alternatively, having a window without curtains or blinds
might have a distracting background, whether it’s just more of your studio or the actual outdoors.
- Digital Photography School: How To Mimic Window Light in a Studio Environment
- YouTube: How to Make Artificial Light Look Natural
- No Film School: Learn How to Recreate the Natural Look of Daylight in a Studio
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