Lighting: Natural & “Artificial”

I tend to separate light into two distinct areas—that supplied by the one true light source, the sun, and the other by the inventiveness and ingenuity of people, namely flash, a controlled explosion, and continuous, usually some form of filament, spark, and vapor, or controlled burn. My tendency is to seek out natural or ambient light whenever I can, mainly because I like the hunt and the quality and the fact that I have to grapple a bit more to get exposure and light placement right. But there are many advantages to working with artificial light that I think can be summarized in one word: “control.” While we have many light modifiers to change and shape natural light, there’s no question that working with artificial light allows for many more options in terms of brightness, direction, and overall shaping of the light for our subjects and scenes. And, due to the latest location-oriented gear, use of this type of light is no longer limited to the confines of a studio, or even indoors.

In the course of my work and visits to many studios and location sets, I have seen incredible masters of light at work who can get more out of one or perhaps two lights than you could ever imagine, as well as those who work with one broad light and then have many, many “snooted” strobes and slaves placed all around the set. I have seen photographers work on massive sets with barn doors that allow cars to be driven into the studio and those who work in an 8x10-foot space and still get some of the most intimate and moody portraits I have ever seen.

In short, light is what you make of it, and given the limits of subject and lighting power, there’s no reason why you can’t get great lighting results with most any setup, from the most elaborate strobes to shoe-mount flashes mounted in modest light modifiers. But mastery of that gear takes time and experimentation and testing, something not a lot of folks have patience for in this day of automated everything photography.

But that’s what sets photographers apart from snapshooters, the desire to hone their craft and create images that go a step beyond the built-in flash, that take patience to set up right, and the willingness to put in the time necessary to see how light, exposure, and direction and strength of the illumination make a difference.

All of this brings us to the focus of this issue, our annual lighting survey, where we ask our resident pros to take on tests of new and unusual lighting gear and provide us tutorials on how they achieve their results. I know that lighting is one of the top requests for articles we get from you, our readers, and our dedication of this issue to that subject is recognition of how important it is to all. In fact, lighting how-to articles will be on the increase in Shutterbug in the coming year; there are quite a few coming in our companion special issue, Shutterbug’s Expert Photo Techniques, which will be on your newsstands in late October.

If you have any specific lighting issues or products you would like us to tackle, let me know and we will be happy to do so. Just drop me a line at: And don’t forget that we have archived all our articles on lighting at: In fact, by typing “lighting” into the Search box on the homepage you’ll get almost 1900 entries!