Indoor Lighting versus Outdoor (natural) Lighting for Actors Headshots

 There’s long been a debate over whether to have “natural light” headshots versus “studio lit” headshots. People ask me where I stand and why do I think each is popular. What are some of the pro’s and con’s of each? The first argument from many headshot photographers is that many say you have to be outside to get great shots. Each of the headshots in this posting was shot inside my studio. But some of the shots were “natural” while in my studio. This posting isn’t the best as to compare. I’m really just showing you through all of these images that you can shoot great inside. Period.

 Many will say that natural light gives more natural warmth and glow and simply makes it easier to get the most “natural shots.” And isn’t the job of the headshots to show the CD’s and producers the most natural you? Sure it is.

 First, let me say that the idea that you can’t get natural shots in studio light just simply isn’t true. The “natural” has to come from you, whether you’re indoors or not. If you, or myself, as an actor can’t “bring it” indoors then we’re probably not going to be able to “bring it” in the actual audition. Isn’t our job in an audition to show them how the real us can sell their product if it a commercial, or to be the real Detective Jones if it’s theatrical? Do we get to ask them if we can have the audition in a nice meadow by our house so we can be more real? Or, if they could only audition me for the detective while I’m standing in a gritty alley!

 I love outdoor, natural light. I really do. Many times I use “natural” light while in my studio. Being indoors doesn’t mean that you can’t use sunlight. But I love indoor studio light as well. If we can talk our way through a shoot and bring the best of ourselves through the camera lens then it doesn’t matter if we are outdoor (natural) or studio. Some photographers refer to natural light as “available lights.” I’m sure that you’ve heard this term. Well… studio lights are also “available” to us as well, so why not use them?

 Whether we as photographers are using inside or outdoor lighting we should still be looking for light and what it does in relation to the subject in the form of shadows. We’re still looking for lighting patterns on the face: loop, Rembrandt, butterfly, split, etc., even outside. We’re still deciding what we want our depth of field to be. Is it important to us to have the third button down on your blouse to be as much in focus as the eyes? I don’t think so, but many do. What about the background? Should that be in focus? I don’t think so. Or, do we simply want to guide the viewers’ eyes exactly where we want them, directing them to your eyes? Now we’re talking. So if the background is not what we’re selling, if what we are really selling is you, then why do we care what it is as long as it is not distracting from what we are selling- which is you?

 Let’s step away from light for a second and think about the pro’s and con’s of environment. What are some other things we love about being outside or inside? Well, outside can have all of these cool backgrounds. We can easily fit into being the detective on the crime scene if it looks like we’re actually at a crime scene. We can feel more of a drugged out killer if we are at maybe that same crime scene location. Maybe we feel like a cool parent if we are standing in front of a swing set, or a businessman walking into a high rise building. All of these could be valid and could plant those thoughts in the CD’s head through suggestion. Couldn’t we just plant those ideas through how we present ourselves through the strength of our position and the story being told by our eyes? Maybe add to that the way we comb out hair or the unkempt fashion in which we shave, etc? A buttoned shirt with a tie versus a loosened tie?

 It’s great to be outside but what are some drawbacks? The idea of studio lighting is based on one thing: consistent quality control. If the light is metered correctly and the white balance is set, then each picture should look similar to the next. We don’t have to worry that the sun went behind a cloud… or came out from behind one. All we have to worry about is what we are feeling as actors, as ourselves. And then there’s that pesky darkness that happens every single day after sunset, limiting us to shoot in certain hours. What if you can only shoot after dark because your day job won’t let you get away? You need a photographer who make nighttime, studio shots work for you just as well as outdoor, natural shots.


And how about the wind? Doesn’t that have an effect on everyone? For people with baby-fine hair it can cause havoc and can cause you to have to spend extra time and money on photo-shopping. And if your head is thinking about whether or not your hair is flying around then you’re probably not delivering what you want to the camera. And also there may be dust in the wind. What if it gets in your eyes, or what if you’re eyes dry out quickly in the wind whether there is dust or not? These are all reasons to consider inside studio lighting.

 And we haven’t even talked about temperature control. We’re about to go through 3-4 months of unpredictable weather. It could rain and be cold, or just be cold. Although it is great to have some shots where you are layered in clothes, you don’t want them all to be that way. In fact, you would only want a small amount of those. Does that mean that you should freeze while shooting your shots outside when you’re not layered? Think about that. Personally, I feel I look best when I’m not shivering.  

 Probably the biggest thing that gets me about photographers who say that only outdoor, natural shots are great is this: probably 90% of all professional shooting for which you will be paid will be augmented by studio lighting. At the very least the light is modified with giant bounce boards and scrims, etc. Even if you’re shooting on the beach there will probably still be banks of lights to give them consistency from shot to shot. Rare is the exception when there is no light modification. All sound stage work is with artificial light, so what’s the difference in headshots then? Isn’t the trick really just to have great headshots, rather than whether we have them outdoors or indoors?

 Many photographers don’t like indoor lighting simply because they don’t know how to use it, don’t want to invest in it or don’t have the space for it. Of course, many just like the look of having backgrounds. There are tons of L.A. photographers who have never tried to take a picture in studio, and yet they may tell you that the only good headshots are outdoors. I don’t blame them. If you have the whole outdoors as your studio then you have no overhead and you don’t have to buy the lighting, and then you don’t have to learn how to use studio lights. Plus, if you only shoot outdoors and say tha those are the only good headshots, and you get people to believe that, then you have limited any of your photographic competition who may shoot inside. But to say that you can’t get great indoor headshots is just not correct. If you, the actor, “bring it” and the photographer can get it through the lens, and he/she understands how to use light to their benefit, then you have a great headshot. Period.  And that goes for men and women.

 A huge casting director told me a long time ago that “your headshot is your first audition.” Only after that, if they bring you in, do you get a call-back, which will really be your first time in the office for that role. But when you get into their office you’re standing in a tiny office across the desk from them, maybe several of them, and you’ve got to deliver. You can’t rely on having the gritty alley or the peaceful meadow, you simply deliver because that is what we love to do. Once we get the job and we’re on set wearing a cowboy outfit and standing in a dusty street, then that parts easy.

 Lastly, for those who don’t think you can shoot in studio with great result, those who think you absolutely need a background to draw your character out. The movie Tron was shot completely in front of a green screen. Everything was added digitally later, but the actors had to bring it to the lens.

 I’m not trying to convince you to shoot inside. I’m simply pointing out to you that you have the option, and it can be a great one. Find a photographer whose work you trust, make sure they know how to shoot with studio light, and get ‘er done! You don’t have to wait until it warms back up, or cools back down, or until it stops raining, or the wind calms down. You can get great headshots and start getting auditions right now! Just don’t fall so in love with the idea of outdoor shots that you rule out the possibility of studio lighting. I think the reason most people don’t like studio lighting is because they’ve seen so many really horribly lit pictures. That’s not the fault of the genre, that’s the fault of the photographer. You don’t want to bring an amateur, department store looking picture to your agent. they won’t take you seriously and casting people won’t either. But the proper use of indoor lighting, with a photographer who knows how to communicate with you, can get you great headshots.  It starts with you and the photographer to sell a headhsot. Then the photographer has to understand light in whatever situation he/she is in. Then get you to “talk to the lens”, and you’ve got a great headshot!

 Wherever you shoot and with whomever you shoot, I wish you the best and a great career!

 Check out a headshot sampling at my site Jerry Giles Headshot Photography. Also, in upcoming posts I will give some examples of indoor lighting successes. And, of course, I’ll be showing many that I’ve shot outdoors as well. Here are a few that I’ve shot indoors. Yes, indoors doesn’t always mean with strobes. Sometimes it is all natural, and sometimes it is a mix of the two.

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