At least twice a week someone who has just learned that I'm a photographer responds to that information by telling me that their uncle/coworker/neighbor/dog walker/classmate/etc. is a photographer too. So how is a working, professional portrait artist with a legitimate business supposed to compete with all of the new shooters who are, quite often, working for free just because they “really like to take pictures”? There are several options, but one of them is to stop “taking” pictures and to start “making” portraits.
The word photography, as most know, is based on the Greek words “photos” (meaning light) and “graphe” (meaning drawing) – drawing with light. Despite that, many senior photographers ignore lighting when it comes to creating their images and as a result, they produce a style that can easily be reproduced by anyone with a “fancy camera”. With the proliferation of natural light photographers, it's more important then ever to have a stye that will set your work apart.
I'm a full time senior portrait photographer and over the past 2 years I've transitioned from being a “natural light” shooter to a photographer who drags around lights on every senior photo shoot. It doesn't matter if we're hiking into the forest or wading into the lake – if I'm making the portrait, I'm lighting it too. We might be shooting in “God's Studio”, but we're using my light to create the image.
On one hand, my business has almost doubled from the time I changed from natural light to controlling the light.
I've spent way too much money on lighting equipment over the past few years. Small flashes, studio strobes, Pocket Wizards, Radio Poppers, light stands, boom arms, sand bags, power packs, etc. Sometimes I carry my gear, others I use a modified golf cart. I use translucent umbrellas, soft boxes, octoboxes and beauty dishes all outside while shooting on location. Not only does this gear take the portraits to a level that is unattainable by the guy who just bought a D5000 and opened up his business, but it gives my clients more of a “model” experience and makes them more excited about the shoot.
Is lighting a big deal to my senior portrait clients? On one hand, my business has almost doubled from the time I changed from natural light to controlling the light. On the other, not a single client has ever looked at their photos and said, “Wow, that's some beautiful lighting!” To the average client, I suspect good light is appreciated on a subconscious level. It makes them enjoy and appreciate the photos more, even if they aren't sure why.
If you're a professional photographer you really should understand the basics of studio lighting and taking the knowledge and using it outdoors isn't as intimidating as it first appears. Basically, you just have to compensate for the sun/ambient light (a light meter comes in handy with this) and, you have to deal with wind, rain and whatever else Mother Nature decides to toss your way.
The Strobist website is a fantastic resource and you'll find exhaustive amounts of information there about lighting. I haven't even begun to read a fraction of what is discussed there because I usually prefer to learn by doing rather than studying, but it should still be the first stop for any photographer looking to take their lights into the great outdoors.
There's no magic bullet when it comes to lighting outside. Sometimes I use Nikon Speedlights and Radio Poppers. Sometimes I use White Lightning strobes and Pocket Wizards. Both have their pros and cons. Speedlights are lightweight and easily portable but might be lacking in power depending on what you want to do with them. Strobes have tons of power but can be bulky and you need to use portable power packs to run the lights.
Maybe even more important than the lights themselves is what you use to sculpt the light. I prefer Beauty Dishes as they typically give you the most “bang for your buck” in terms of power. I always use them with the diffusion sock on though to soft the light produced. I, personally, love soft light and find it flattering for most senior portrait clients. It's important that you don't get too caught up in “lighting” the portrait to remember all of the other technical areas which need to excel – the pose, the composition, the subject's expression, etc. You can create the most stunningly lit photo possible but your client isn't going to buy it if the pose makes them look chubby or if their smile is a little goofy. Portrait photography is about making your client look amazing and the lighting is just one part of that.
The best light you can use is simple – it's the one that gets the job done. Play with your lights, experiment, see what works best for you and your style of photography. Once you've mastered using one light outdoors, move on to 2 lights – or 3 or 4 – or go crazy like Joe McNally and use so many that you lose count. But when you're working with your seniors, remember that your goal is to make them look great. Use your lights to give them unique portraits that all of the weekend warriors wouldn't even try to create. Your lights can be another tool to take your work to the next level and to help your portrait business stand out amongst a rising sea of “shooters”.
Do you agree with Tony that lighting can be the biggest differentiator? Tell us how you distinguish your work from others? And if you enjoyed this post, please “Share The Knowledge” by clicking on one or more of the social media buttons you see below! Thank you.