The Challenges and Advantages of Studio and Natural Lighting

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In the past, it was challenging enough for three-dimensional performers to be compressed into an 8-by-10, but now they are further reduced to a thumbnail. Two square inches are often all that actors have to capture the attention of casting directors and would-be employers. Gone are the days when we photographers could bedazzle the viewer with funky borders and crops or quirky body language to help reveal our subjects' most individual personalities. The 8-by-10 format offered extra elbowroom for more information and larger images, but the current world of online submissions offers an instantaneous connection and a certain intimacy that can't possibly compete with hard copy. With excellent digital photography and the backlighting of a good computer screen, actors' images seem to come to life. But only if the viewer is compelled to click on that thumbnail and enlarge the image.

So now, more than ever, vital decisions must be made about color, wardrobe, and composition. Excellent lighting has never been more important, and actors are faced with a major decision before selecting a photographer: natural light versus studio light. It is a crucial choice, and both have advantages and challenges. Studio lighting traditionally involves strobes, umbrellas, and soft boxes. We think of it as typically having a more dramatic quality and subjects who are somewhat posed. But good studio lighting can appear very similar to window light and can be infinitely more flattering than natural light, especially with mature actors or those with less-than-perfect skin. With this kind of controlled lighting, you can easily sculpt a face and accent cheekbones or carve away a fuller, rounder face to provide more shape and dimension. A slightly crooked nose can be pushed and straightened with excess lighting from a specific direction. That sort of fine-tuning is infinitely more possible with controlled light.

Studio light is consistent light. You don't have to race the clock before sunset or deal with clouds. You can schedule a shoot for the most convenient time as opposed to when the sun is at its best. This can be very helpful during the winter months, when the days are shorter, because—let's face it—very few actors love a headshot session that starts at the crack of dawn.

Strobe Vs. Sun

Often, strobe lighting will be more generous and hide the detail around the mouth area, where so many of us hold tension or show age. Another advantage is that many people are extremely light-sensitive and tear up, squint, or furrow their brow to ward off strong sunlight. Obviously, this isn't an issue when shooting in the studio, where windows can be shaded. Another huge bonus is not being limited by Mother Nature's unpredictable changes in weather. June gloom or pesky winds can be frustrating factors when on location, as is finding a comfortable place to change wardrobe or use the restroom. I find that most actors love to work with a mirror, men included. It is no easy task to set up a mirror in some funky alley or on a hilltop.

Usually actors find that photos shot with studio lighting look staged and less relaxed than photos shot on location, but frankly, in the super-tight crops required for most of the online submission services, very little background is even visible. Another aspect to consider is that when you are hired as an actor, whether in film, theater, or television, you will be professionally lit. Even outdoor television and film sets are specifically lit with a mixture of artificial and available light.

The Eyes Have It

The eyes should always be the center focal point of any headshot, and how they are illuminated can make all the difference. If there isn't enough light, then they appear dead and don't radiate from the screen or page. If there is too much "catch" light—the reflection of the light source in the eye—they lose vividness and the color washes out. This is where good natural light always wins me over as a photographer.

I'm a huge fan of natural light. But it isn't for everyone. I adore it for blue and green eyes. It tends to accentuate and boost the color. Even brown eyes can have hints of yellow and amber that sneak through with natural light. It also makes it infinitely easier to achieve that kaleidoscope effect that some eyes have. One can really see the depth of the color, often like shards of glass or the face of a glacier.

For the most part, women require clean, even lighting to smooth and soften the skin tones; men can handle a more rugged, sharp light that reveals character and richness. I prefer natural light for men, as it offers a slightly edgier or grittier quality; I can add some grain to the shot, giving it a filmlike feeling. In general, natural is my go-to lighting for men, unless they have very small eyes that will definitely appear larger when shot with a soft box and strobe system.

The challenge with natural light is that you must have enough light to give an extra bounce that boosts the contrast and softens any lines under or around the eyes. This can be done with reflectors or by bouncing light off a white wall and back onto the subject. There is nothing worse than lousy natural light. If there isn't enough of it, you tend to look tired and dull, and even the best retouching can't save those shots. Digital photography is infinitely more flat than film photography, so that contrast helps brighten the shot, allowing the image to jump off the page and stand out amongst others. When the ambient light is ideal, it can smooth more wrinkles under and around the eyes than artificial light can and it requires far less retouching.

The Revolution is Now

When the digital revolution first took hold and color headshots became the rage, most of us black-and-white shooters suddenly had to reinvent ourselves and deal with the new technology. At first this was a daunting task, but soon it became an exciting change that opened up a new realm of possibilities. Digital was cost-effective and the results were instantaneous—no longer did we have to haul film to the lab and wait for days to see the fruit of our labor. With this change began the new obsession with color. We no longer had to worry about translating wardrobe into tones of black, white, and gray. No shirt was too bright, no backdrop too bold, and I couldn't get enough of those lovely redheaded actresses in front of my lens.

During that time, I was constantly on location searching for interesting, vibrant backgrounds. I combed my neighborhood for battered old doors with paint peeling off in huge chunks or funky, rusted pieces of metal. I knew every graffiti wall on the west side of L.A. I was seduced by color in every form or texture. But I soon realized that I was being distracted by my newfound backdrops. My eye would constantly go to the colorful background or to the offbeat composition of the shot. It dawned on me that the actor was becoming secondary. The allure should come from the actor, not from the location. It was time to get back into the studio. Keep it clean. Keep it simple. Make it about the actor, just like I did in the black-and-white days.

Believe me, I like to use color or texture to enhance a shot, but not overwhelm it. Yes, a highly saturated thumbnail will stand out in a crowd, but is it a gimmick to grab attention? I'm wary of busy locations, because those photos can have a tendency to look like your roommate took them. There is definitely a more sophisticated quality to a less cluttered shot. Studio photographers usually charge more than location shooters because they have more overhead and those shots just look more expensive, more established, and less amateur.

In a perfect world, I would recommend finding a photographer who can offer you an arsenal of lighting choices. As a studio photographer with fantastic window light, I can divide the session between the two light sources and make on-the-spot decisions as to what's best for my clients' individual needs. I'll plug in the strobes when an extra kick or more drama is necessary or just stick to the beautiful natural light in the room.

For the past 20 years, Bader Howar has been one of Los Angeles' premier portrait photographers. Although she specializes in commercial and theatrical headshots of actors, the Bader Howar portfolio also includes those in the worlds of fashion, music, journalism, and the corporate arena. Numerous examples of her work have been published in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States and abroad. Her website is at