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What Does “I’m Trying To Imitate Natural Light” Mean?

By Max Bridge on May 20th 2016

When amateur photographers say “I’m trying to imitate natural light” what is it they really mean? For me, the term doesn’t make much sense, however, what I believe they are suggesting is that they want soft, diffused, even light; The type of lighting which creates an airy feel. They may also mean that they want the golden hour look; sunlight bursting through trees, directional light, shadows across the landscape, golden-colored light. This in mind, the statement “I want to imitate natural light”, can be problematic because natural light differs depending on time of day, weather, and location.

An Explanation Of Natural Light Photography

Light is light. That’s a concept I’m really going to hammer home here. It doesn’t matter whether it’s created by the sun or a strobe – light is light.  Light is not soft, it’s not harsh, it does not wrap around a subject, and so on. It does not produce any particular look by itself.

Soft light (a light which produces soft shadows) is created by using a large light source in relation to your subject. The Sun is a large light source, but because it is so far away it does not produce soft light, that’s ‘distance to subject’ coming into play here. To create soft light, in any situation, and at any time of day, you need to be thinking about either manipulating existing natural light, or adding some of your own (or doing both).

For example, by using a scrim to spread the sun (cheapest option being a 5-in-1 reflector) your scrim becomes the light source. Hold that close to your subject and boom, soft light. On the other hand, grab a strobe and a softbox, place that close to your subject and the same effect can be achieved.

imitate-natural-light

Important Things To Know About Light

If you want to imitate a particular look, you need to understand the effect the following things have: size of light source, distance to subject, position in relation to subject and shape. When written down it sounds simple, and it is, but it takes practice to fully understand and implement the concepts.

[REWIND: FIXING HARSH LIGHTING IN LIGHTROOM WHERE LIGHT MODIFIERS AREN’T AN OPTION]

This excerpt from Lighting 201 encapsulates much of this. Pye takes us through a lighting set up which creates beautiful light that perfectly complements the ambient light within his scene. Pye is not specifically trying to replicate a “natural light” look, but the resulting image looks natural. Watch the video and I’ll then delve into why it works.

Creating Natural Light Using Strobes

Hopefully, you’re coming to realize that the term natural light doesn’t necessarily mean very much. All it tells us is that the light in the scene was not created by a man-made source. It does not tell us that the resulting photo will necessarily display any particular lighting quality.

The light we see in the morning looks different to the late morning, which looks different to the afternoon and so on. Additionally, at 8 AM the light next to a building looks different to the light in a field, inside a room, in a garden, in a car, anywhere. Light is affected by its surroundings, by its position, by its size not necessarily its original source. I hope this concept is beginning to sink in now.

So, how has Pye managed to manipulate his light to look as though it fits in with his scene?

  1. The color of his strobes match the ambient light present.
  2. The position of his strobes match the direction of the ambient light.
  3. The brightness of his strobes fit the scene. Meaning they are not too bright which would indicate additional lights being used.

As we saw from the video, the bare flashes (without any scrim) looked very similar to the natural light in that scene. However, given that the sun is so far away (hence a very small source), the shadows created were harsh and unflattering. By incorporating the scrim, Pye manipulated the light, thereby increasing its size in relation to his subject. The effect of that, as we know, is to produce soft light. It had nothing to do with the light source itself being ‘natural’ sunlight.

Using Strobes To Imitate Golden Hour Sunlight

As I mentioned at the beginning, when people say “I’m trying to imitate natural light,” I think they’re referring to either a soft, airy look, or to the golden hour look.

We’ve now covered the basics on creating soft light but what about something a little more complex, like Golden hour? See how the SLRL and Lin & Jirsa Team produced this amazing BTS video where they do just that.

Not only does this video demonstrate that we can imitate any quality of natural light but, fingers crossed, it’ll help to open your eyes. The qualities of golden hour light are; it’s direction, color and size. Pye, being the wise photographer that he is, knows this only too well. As such, if he wants to imitate golden hour light, he knows where his light must be placed, what power it needs to be, and what color it needs to be.

I can’t speak for Pye, but I imagine, rather than thinking about the lighting as a whole, he breaks it down into its qualities. From there, you can start to think about how to imitate it. The same can be said if you want to replicate any form of lighting. Analyze it, write down its qualities, then think about what you’d need to do to create something similar.

Some Simple Examples

The photo above was taken outside at midday. Why are there no harsh shadows? I took my subject into a slightly shaded area (the only one available) and had my assistant hold a scrim to further block out and soften the dappled light coming through the trees. Why did the light become soft? Hopefully, you can answer that yourself. Just in case, it was because the shade took away the suns intensity and the scrim (held close to my subject) increased the size of the light source.

create-natural-light

This next image was taken from the Lin and Jirsa blog. I did not take this photo but would be confident to say that a light source was placed behind the subjects to create the rim light. If it was indeed from the sun peeking through, a similar look could be achieved by placing a strobe in the right spot. Obviously that light source would not be natural, but it fits. The lighting seems natural. Why? Let’s see if you can answer that one yourself. Tell me in the comments.

Imitating Natural Light Summary And Further Education

Lighting is a gigantic subject with lots of nuances to learn. At its core, lighting comes down to the same concepts I’ve mentioned throughout this article; size of light, distance to subject, positioning, color and shape. Once you understand how all of those effect light, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a master of lighting. To help you on your journey, I suggest diving into Lighting 101 and 201; both contain invaluable information to take you from lighting novice to pro. You can find them in the SLR Lounge Store, click here.

[REWIND: PHOTOGRAPHY COURSES: 5 ESSENTIAL COURSES FOR EVERY BEGINNER]

What I hope this article has also done is help you realize that the term “natural light” does not refer to a quality of light. In fact, I encourage you to stop using it. If you want to imitate any kind of light, analyze it (are the shadows soft or harsh, where is the light positioned, etc.), and then try to imitate those qualities. Remember the following:

1) Natural light is just another light source not made by man

2) It does not, in itself, produce a certain look

3) All light must be altered / manipulated to produce a particular quality

Creating the look you want is about knowledge and manipulation of light as a result of implementation of said knowledge. Once you understand that and gain a deeper understanding of lighting, you can imitate any form of natural light or get very creative and do something totally different.

About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
Instagram: Follow Author

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Lee Hawkins

    Whenever I see professionals describe themselves as a “natural light photographer”, it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up! Most people who say that about themselves have only learned that they don’t like to use “flash” because it “ruins” shots…so I tell people shopping for photographers that “natural light photographer” is usually code for “I-don’t-know-how-to-use-light photographer”, and any photographer worth hiring will know how to use light!

    Your article much more diplomatically debunks the myth of being a “natural light photographer”, and will hopefully inspire some people to really play with light more so they can create far more compelling images that aren’t so flat and lacking in contrast. The best images use light to really lift a subject out of the background without making it look like that’s what they did. I definitely encourage anyone who hasn’t experimented with strobes or reflectors to do so—it really changes the game when you get your light off of your camera and even just a few feet to the side!

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    • J D

      There are a lot of those types where I am located. I have had people tell me I am not a real photographer because I use flash. I have had other photographers tell potential clients not to use me because I use flash and if I need to use flash to make photos look good, then what else don’t I know how to do properly. I always say that just because you don’t know how to use flash, that doesn’t mean you need to put down people that do, or are learning to do so.

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  2. isaac purcell

    great article thanks

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  3. Bing Putney

    I think you’re using the term “scrim” incorrectly, or at least in a confusing way. In my experience, “scrim” refers to a screen-like netting stretched across a frame, and acts to reduce the intensity of the light without changing the size (or hardness) of the light source. What the author is referring to, and what Pye is using in the first video, is what I call either diffusion (diff) or a “silk.” This is a translucent piece of fabric on a frame that will reduce a light’s intensity, increase its effective size, and thereby soften the light.

    I know that lingo can vary, depending on a photographer’s background, but if you’re looking for soft light I think you’ll generally be able to avoid a miscommunication if you ask for diffusion instead of a scrim.

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    • Max Bridge

      Hey Bing,

      Thanks for commenting.

      Don’t get me started on photographic terminology! Oh, snap. You did. Ha ha.

      I’ve seen terminology differ from the film industry to photography, from country to country and from studio to studio. In the UK film industry the terms scrim and silk were fairly interchangeable but then again that might differ depending on the D.O.P.

      I could go on and on but that’s useless. In terms of what you actually said, any material, netting or otherwise, that you put in front of the light will probably spread out that lights intensity in some way. Just look a the number of diffusion gels that Lee stock and you’ll see what I mean. Even the lightest material will cause the light to spread a little, thereby increasing its size and softness. What you’re describing sounds more like an ND gel. Again though, it’s kinda useless talking about this stuff because someone will probably chime in after saying “I call it blah blah”.

      I agree though, terminology can all become a little confusing. As far as I can say, for myself, it is correct. I refer to a scrim as any translucent material placed between your light source and subject.

      That answer became very unintentionally long…sorry

      Have a good weekend

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  4. Christian Boecker

    To answer your test question from above, the lighting seems natural because it’s direction, color temperature and size matches very well the position and lighting conditions, the sun would cause at this point. :-)

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    • Max Bridge

      Excellent answer Christian. I imagine I cannot take full credit for you knowing that info but I’m going to anyway. :)

      If we want to imitate lighting or make something appear to “fit” in a scene, we just need to think of those three things in relation to the ambient light.

      Thanks

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