Photo Recipes: Mimic Natural Light Tutorial

This issue, we’ll look at a formal shot of a groom taken on location with just one light. The key here is to make the light from your flash blend seamlessly with the existing ambient light in the room.

Figure One

Scott Kelby mimic natural light tutorial

For this shoot, I knew I’d be shooting in all different kinds of lighting scenarios with the bride and groom. In some cases, it would be strictly natural light; for others, I’d have to pretty much light all with strobes. For the shoot we’re working on here, we mixed existing room light (called ambient light) with the light from a flash, which is something I know a lot of folks struggle with.

Figure Two

Scott Kelby mimic natural light tutorial

You might be wondering with all this natural light pouring in, why shoot with a strobe at all? While standing there looking at this beautiful room, I thought I should just shoot this all natural, but as soon as I brought the camera to my eye, I realized the shutter speed was going to be too slow. I’d have to shoot it on a tripod just to keep the shot from being blurry. There wasn’t nearly as much light as there seemed to be. The other problem is that although the windows behind our groom look white, they were actually yellow, and the light from those windows looked pretty awful on flesh tones.

With the groom in the position I wanted to use for this shot, standing by the piano, the natural light was fairly low and pretty flat. I took one test shot and knew I’d have to light it to get any depth and dimension.

The shot below shows what the scene looked like with just the existing room light (before I turned on the flash). Whatever light there was lit one side of his hair, which I thought was a good thing because I wanted to use the natural light as my cheap backlight. So I took a shot without the flash just to see what the ambient light looked like. The result was a little underexposed. So I could work to make the ambient light brighter, right? I could change the f-stop or raise the ISO. Actually, when I’m shooting flash like this on location, I use a recipe.

First, I turn off the flash and take a shot using just the existing light. Then I switch to Manual mode on my camera, set the shutter speed to 1/125, and use the light meter in my DSLR’s viewfinder to adjust the f-stop until I have a proper exposure (the meter reads 0, so it’s not under- or overexposed; it’s the proper exposure). Easy enough.

Now I darken the exposure by at least one stop so I’m intentionally underexposing. For example, if my camera says that my exposure is correct at f/8, I raise it to f/11 to darken it by a full stop and take another test shot. The reason I’m doing this is that I want it to be my flash that lights my groom, not the ambient light. I want the ambient light to light the room around him and behind him, but I want to light him myself.

When I can see that the room light isn’t lighting him too much, that’s when I turn on the flash with a very low power setting and begin the process of finding the right amount of flash to look realistic and blend with the room light and hair light coming through the window.

Figure Three

Scott Kelby mimic natural light tutorial

This behind-the-scenes shot shows the setup for this shoot. I’m using one studio strobe running off a battery pack. It’s from Elinchrom and it’s called a Ranger Quadra. You can actually run two strobe heads off it, but not at the same amount of brightness—the second strobe will always be at a lower power. It’s great for a fill light, but I normally just use one flash head with this rig.

The flash head is attached to the end of a monopod, which is held by an assistant. This setup is perfect for the running-and-gunning type of shooting you have to do at a wedding because you don’t have to mess with setting up and taking down light stands and trying to squeeze them between pews and tight places. The battery pack is incredibly lightweight, so it just slings right over my assistant’s shoulder. I’m amazed at how little it weighs.

Although I’m doing this with an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra, you can do this same thing with hot-shoe flash and a small 24″ pop-up soft­box with no problem, especially indoors, because the goal here isn’t to use a lot of flash. With this indoor shoot, we’re trying to mix in the flash with the existing ambient light and we don’t want to overpower it. That’s why I generally start down around 1/4 power and take a test shot. Remember, I want this light to look like window light, as if there were a nice big window to my left; of course, there wasn’t. There was a stairway and the bride’s dressing room.

So now your job (well, that day my job) is to take a test shot; look at the LCD on the back of your camera, and see how the light looks. Does it look real? Is it obvious you used a flash? Is it overpowering the window light lighting the backside of his hair, or does it blend? Does it look too “flashy”? (That’s what I call it because the biggest mistake I see is that the flash looks too bright and too obvious.) Go for subtle.

Figure Four

Scott Kelby mimic natural light tutorial

It literally only takes a minute or two to dial everything in thanks to that LCD screen on the back of the camera because you can immediately see if the flash is too bright or if the ambient light is too bright or too dark. If you think the ambient light is too dark (you want the room light to be a little brighter), then all you need to do is lower the shutter speed. Lowering the shutter speed from 1/125 down to 1/60 lets more natural existing light into your shot. You can go down to 1/30 or even slower, as long as your subject isn’t moving. The flash will pretty much freeze any minor movement, so you may be able to go even lower, if necessary. In this case, I was able to keep it at 1/125 for this particular location near the piano, and my f-stop wound up at f/8, which keeps most everything in focus from front to back.

I shot this with an 85mm f/1.4 lens, but because I shot it at f/8 I pretty much wasted any advantage that an 85mm f/1.4 would bring. (If you’re not shooting with a fast lens like this at its maximum aperture, you’re not getting any benefit from what you bought the lens for in the first place.) So, why shoot with an 85mm f/1.4 lens? Because I thought there would be enough natural light in this room to make the type of photo I wanted. As it turned out, I was wrong; I needed light. Luckily, we brought location lighting. Changing lenses wouldn’t have helped me because whichever lens I put on next, I’d still have to be at f/8, which is what we determined earlier was the proper f-stop for this look.

At the end of the day, this is a simple one-light shoot. If you really keep your eye on the power of your flash unit, with the goal to not look too flashy, and try to mimic what the shot would look like if there were a nice north-facing window there, you’ll be able to totally nail it.

What is next in your reading list? Try another tutorial by Scott for a dramatic light setup or check out this tutorial on how we designed a recent cover using Geometric Effects.