Ahh, the Natural Light Wedding Photography article. Such a long time coming, and probably quite different than I intended when I thought about this article nearly ten years ago. Different? Yes, quite. You see, ten years ago, I might have defended Natural Light Wedding Photography as the best way and my preferred method. Today, I'm a little older, I like to think a bit wiser, and I've learned enough to know how much I still don't know, let alone how much I didn't know back then.
Yes, I still learn about photography. Every. Damn. Day. I read articles, watch YouTube videos and look at other photographer's works. It's a neverending search for perfection. Every time I take my photography to the next perceived level, I raise my standards and begin reaching for the next level. I doubt I will ever run out of these "levels", and honestly, I hope I don't. That's one of the things that makes photography and wedding photography so interesting and amazing, is that no matter what you think you know, there's always more out there. Once you achieve that greatness, it opens up channels to a whole new world you never knew existed.
This, I think is the "magic" of photography. Many years ago, people "oohed" and "ahhed" at photographers and their photographs, as if a professional photographer had some kind of magic spell that let them use that fancy camera and other equipment at a level far above most mere mortals. Today, everyone over the age of... let's say 7 has the major tool of our trade in their pocket. Everyone has a camera. Still, not everyone is a photographer.
Everyone can sing too, in a technical sense. But can everyone sing well? A lot of people can cook, but can everyone make a meal that is truly amazing?
The Tool in Your Pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
We all know "it's not the camera, it's the photographer", well, while that is still true, and I'm pretty sure I -could- shoot a wedding with my iPhone and it would be... acceptable (no, I'm not going to try!), it's hard to deny the technology in smartphones today. I see the photos on Facebook after a wedding, and I'll be honest, in good light, with plenty of light, and a halfway decent eye behind that iPhone, I've seen many "pro quality" natural light images from weddings.
Does that bother me? Heck no. Shooting hundreds of images and getting 5-10 good ones is fine for the average guest, but... who would pay me to do that? You hire a Professional so you KNOW you will get the full story in images of the entire day. The average iPhone simply can't keep up in anything other than perfect conditions. That's the flaw in the system.... wait... why is that a flaw? That's Natural Light Wedding Photography, right?
It's not so much a flaw as it's... a limitation of the camera. No, I'm not even talking about the tiny sensor or teeny tiny lens that probably has more pocket lint and fingerprints than a child's pair of sunglasses. I'm talking about how the light gets into the camera itself.
Trust me, there's a point here.
Okay, most people who take photographs with a cell phone just literally point and shoot. They look at the screen and either say, "It's good enough.", or "That looks like crap.". They might try again, probably without a different result, or they might just accept that the black blobs they see are the people they intended to photograph. Or, they might turn on that tiny LED flash and completely ruin the shot. I'm kidding, a little. At least it's "bright" and they're not black blobs. However, that's hardly good photography. Flash like that is neither soft, nor flattering, let alone consistent or powerful enough for more than 5 feet. Imagine a darkened reception and people dancing, we've all see those photos.
So what do they do? They buy a DSLR, one of those big cameras that pros use. Let's assume they even know how to operate it, and don't just set it to AUTO. By the way, if you do just set your camera to AUTO, you may as well use your cell phone, it's more convenient, and in daylight there won't really be any difference at all in the final image, since it's much the same tech. Now, in fading light, the quality of the image from the camera will be better, but probably not the exposure. It'll just be less grainy.
So that's why that experienced pro you saw at the wedding got better images than you. It's not because of his gear so much, it was about KNOWING how to use that gear. Now, let's talk about Natural Light Wedding Photography vs All light Wedding Photography.
Theory for Natural Light Wedding Photography
As you search the World Wide Web (does anyone call it that anymore?) for a Wedding Photographer, you're likely to come across people saying, "I'm a Natural Light Wedding Photographer.". They make it sound as if they are a purist of some kind, transcended from mere Professionals and something more artistic, somehow less held back by equipment, such as flashes, lights, and all that comes with. They generally use terminology to make it seem more freeing, and your photographs will be more "real" and natural.
Now, let me get one thing straight. I love natural light, and I'm not knocking it at all. When used correctly and when it works, there's nothing like it. In fact, most lighting situations that I create are meant to emulate natural light or extend natural light. Most, but not all. So I love it, but it's just a tool, and not every tool is right for every job.
Take this image, it's natural light, and it's beautiful if I do say so myself. The stars aligned, we had beautiful soft light...
Let me create a situation for you. Let's say you're having a wedding, and you want it on the beach, sometime say an hour or less before sunset. We used to call that "golden hour", now it's just the best light of the day. You hired a Natural Light Wedding Photographer and they go about doing their thing. All is good in the world and they will get some great images, no doubt. I'm curious though, if your guests chairs all face into the sun, that means your officiant has his back to the sun, and you and your fiance are sideways to it. Hmm, that's three different directions of light. Also, at this time of day, there's normally some gorgeous clouds, and you probably want to see them too, right?
See, those three different lighting directions causes a major difference in exposures. Sure, the photographer can shoot with the sun to their back, and get everyone lit pretty well from that perspective, but where's that sunset and sky you wanted? Hmm, that's a problem.
Well, they could shoot from the back, and make sure the sky looks great, but... then everyone is in shadow and looking pretty dark.
Or, they could expose for the people and .... hmm, well damn, then the sky turns white, and there's no color or clouds.
I suppose they could use Photoshop and put in fake skies.... but, seriously? That's absurd. Don't ask them to do this, no matter how bad things got, fake skies almost always look fake, and you can't "just Photoshop" anything, it takes a lot of time and skill, and not everyone has the time nor the skills to do this well, in fact, most don't.
So... what do they do?
Likely they go for a happy medium and work that image in a RAW processor, which we all use and do some of this to some extent. I like to make creative edits to my photos rather than have to correct them. You pay us to create great images, to me that starts in the camera. If I can't get it right there, or it really is a simple fix to do later, I might take that route, but I'd rather have great looking images in my camera than hundreds of shots I have to fix later.
Oh, something of note here... the more "work on it later" is done on an image, generally speaking, the lower the quality will be. Meaning, if it's too dark, and they have to lift that exposure to look good, you will have more noise or grain, especially in darker areas. If it's shot too bright, well... that white dress might just be a white blob with no detail. There's really no coming back from that.
So, it's starting to sound like that "good lighting" at that time of day is creating a problem. Keep in mind, this is the BEST CASE SCENARIO for an outdoor wedding on the beach. Sure, if it was outdoors in full shade and/or it was a really really cloudy day, things can work pretty well.
Introducing "All Light" Wedding Photography
Beginning to see my point? Even in the BEST of conditions, only using Natural Light Wedding Photography creates a problem. A challenge to be overcome.
What if that wedding was at 2 PM instead? What if it was a bright sunny day, and the couple was having a beach reception? What if it rained and everything was done in some building that hasn't been updated since 1962?
Keep in mind, this is all just ceremony stuff. There are so many more scenes at a wedding, to name a few:
- Bride and Bridesmaids Ready Rooms
- Groom and Groomsmen Ready Rooms
- First Look Location
- Bridal Portrait Location
- Grooms Portrait Location
- Ceremony Site
- Family Portraits Location
- Bridal Party Portraits Location - could even be more than one here!
- Couple's Portraits Location - USUALLY more than one!
- Reception room
- Reception room after dark
- Grand sendoff location
That's 12 different locations throughout a typical wedding. Twelve less than optimal locations in most cases. Just two days ago as I write this, we shot a wedding where the Bride's ready room was built in the 1800's but was remodeled in early 70's style and probably not touched since. Think dark wood paneling, stacks of chairs and not much else. Here's a photo from her "getting ready" session. This, in natural light photography mode, would have shown just how ugly this room really was. That's our job, to hide that, and make you look amazing, no matter what the situation.
I'm going to wrap this up soon, I promise. The important takeaway is this:
If your photographer claims to be a "Natural Light Wedding Photographer", take a good look at their samples. If you see lots of white, blown out skies, that's what you're going to get too. In all honesty, that's the easiest way to shoot, it's not a "style", it's lack of photographic technique and knowledge really. Anyone can expose for the people and let the background just go where it may. That is just what a cell phone does.
Wouldn't you rather have a photographer that can get amazing photos, ANYTIME, ANYWHERE, and in ANY CONDITIONS? Isn't that what you're paying for? I mean, sure, take their advice and recommendations, but... if that sky is white in a shot of you outside, well... if that were me, I'd be pretty disappointed.
Here's one more "All Light" Photography sample for you. This was outdoors, at 3 PM, in the sun. That's not the sun lighting them though. Wouldn't you rather have a photographer that can do that than one that says, "Oh, sorry, we have to do that at a different time of day or move over to this other location."? The choice is yours. Next time they say, "I'm a Natural Light Wedding Photographer", ask them what they do when the natural light doesn't cooperate.