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How to Replicate Natural Light With Flash

For many photographic applications natural light is almost always preferable — the only problem is, oftentimes the quality of that natural light is either too harsh or too diffused. This tutorial discusses the conditions for good natural light, and how you can reproduce it using some inexpensive equipment.

In this video from Fig and Light, food photographer, Brandon Figureoa, outlines a simply way of creating evocative, natural-looking "soft sunlight" using just two strobes, a reflector, and a gobo (stenciled cardboard/paper placed in front of a light source, used to shape the light). He doesn't just show us how to do it however, he explains why this looks pleasing to the eye by comparing it to real-life outdoor conditions. The subject matter also influences the style of the light. Here, Figureoa is photographing food that's more commonly eaten for breakfast so the low angle of the light — creating long shadows — is motivated by light more typically experienced in the morning.

Although it's easier to recreate this natural look for such a small subject, this method could also be applied to other genres, including portraiture. Having a suitable environment is the key to creating a believable context though. Making sure that the background doesn't belie the true time of day can make or break a shot.

Have you used this lighting method before?

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4 Comments

Alex Herbert's picture

I've tried using gobos for dappled light etc in the past, but had never thought to couple it with a large softbox. This is a neat idea I'll definitely be giving a try.

Yin Ze's picture

The Best Thing for the Fstoppers Is for Brandon Figueroa to be featured more. Very good tutorial with simple tools that make very effective food photo.

JL Williams's picture

When I used to shoot market research photos for a food company, I'd use a similar technique with a small softbox in front of a large softbox to mimic the effect of light through a window, with distinct shadows but diffused overall light. I picked up the technique from a big St. Louis studio that specialized in food packaging photos.You could vary the intensity of the effect (“clean window” vs. “dirty window”) by varying the relative power of the strobes. The idea of adding some “dapple” via a gobo is great! Another thing you can do to add some natural-looking variation to the light pattern is set some glassware (glasses, pitchers, etc.) in front of the lights but out of the frame.

Captain Jack R's picture

This is a great lesson, Brandon! I really didn't think of light in this way before. I'm going to apply these ideas to my next job. I'm looking forward to your other ideas.