Differences between Professional and Casual Portrait Photoshoots

Some photographers prefer sticking to natural light and they do capture good photographs. Different people may have different views on professional portrait photoshoots but most people would associate professional shoot with using of professional lighting. Experienced artists would be able to tell the differences.

I define professional portrait photoshoots as photoshoots with the use of artificial lighting. Lighting is one of the most important elements in photography. Professional lighting allows portrait shoots to be done in all situations, whether it's outdoor, indoor or inside a studio, and even in the darkness. Professional lighting can also help to create different kinds of moods.

I have come across many kinds of interesting situations during my shoots. One such incident is when the model requested me to abandon my professional artificial lighting for the natural light (sunlight). There are other models who have hinted me that they would prefer using natural light as well.

Some models have also questioned why I'm using professional lighting instead of sunlight, which other photographers are using. In this era where every DSLR owner is a photographer and many girls would have done a "photoshoot" with at least a hobbyist, girls are used to "model" without using professional lighting.

There are some reasons why some "models" do not like shooting with lighting and the most obvious reason is that it's much more troublesome.

Pros and Cons of Professional and Casual shoots

Given the same conditions, the two types of shoots are being compared and the winner is given a point for each item below.

Items / Type of shoot Professional Casual
1 Time 1
2 Consistency 1
3 Model's creativity 1
4 Creative effect 1
5 Quality of photos 1
6 Mobility 1
7 Permit 1
8 Angle/direction 1
9 Background details 1
10 Uniqueness 1
Total 6 4


  1. Time Professional shoot
    It takes time to set up the lighting equipment, especially if the photographer is using better light modifiers, such as softbox. It also takes extra time for the photographer to position the lighting and test its power. The more lighting equipment means the longer time is required. These are on top of the time spent to test the camera setting for the ambient light.

    Casual shoot (advantage)
    The photographer simply needs to test the setting of his camera to get the correct exposure for the amount of ambient light. Therefore, it takes much lesser time to begin the shoot and the flow of the shoot can be much faster. However, during post-production, there's usually more editing work to be done, such as bringing up or down the exposure of certain parts of the photograph.

  2. Consistency Professional shoot (advantage)
    Since the quality and quantity of the light produced by professional lighting can be kept constant, the quality of photographs will be more consistent. Using the professional lighting as the main light can reduce the harshness of the sunlight. Of course, professional light has its limitation when shooting under a cloudless sky with strong sunlight.

    Casual shoot
    Since the quality and quantity of sunlight can change within seconds due to the movement of clouds, the quality of light can be changed as well. Shooting both under open shade and directly under the sun will make the photographs in that album look very different due to the quality of light.

  3. Model's creativity Professional shoot
    Since every step the model takes will affect the exposure, either the model has to stay at the same spot or the photographer has to change the position or power of his equipment. Therefore, the model's full creativity may be restricted somehow. There are also some places that are too difficult to position the professional lighting.

    Casual shoot (advantage)
    It's much easier for the model to turn or move around during the shoot. Although the photographer may have to change the setting on his camera drastically, at least he doesn't have to re-position his lighting equipment and test the exposure again.

  4. Creative effect
    Creative photography with professional lighting
    Above: Night creative concept photography. It require professional lighting to light up the model's face nicely and also to display the water effect.

    Professional shoot (advantage)
    Apart from the ambient light. the photographer is able to use his professional lighting to create special effect. At the minimum, the photographer can add a "punch" to the photographs to make it more interesting.

    Casual shoot
    The creativity is limited to the availability of the ambient light. The photographer can use props or find interesting angles, which can also be done by photographers who use professional lighting.

  5. Quality of photos Professional shoot
    Large softboxes can be used to produce very soft light, hence making the model's complexion look better to suit most types of shoot. Shooting with professional would usually give a professional feel to the quality of the photographs.

    Casual shoot
    The quality of light is subjected to the ambient light, such as the sun or the lamps available. There are also situation that the ambient light isn't strong enough, the photographer may have to increase the ISO to compensate for it, which adds noise to the photographs and causes reduction of dynamic range.

  6. Mobility
    Travel photography with natural light
    Above: Travel/hiking photography. It requires climbing and walking a long distance, and hence has to keep to the minimum equipment (probably, just a DSLR).

    Professional shoot
    It takes time to set up and dismantle the lighting equipment. The heavy equipment are usually very bulky to be moved. During the shoot, if the team decides to move to another location or spots around the same venue, the photographer has to either dismantle the equipment and set up again at the next spot, or the photographer will have to carry them along in its constructed state. The photographer's energy will be drained off much faster and perhaps, he may get tired before the start of the shoot.

    Casual shoot (advantage)
    With a very light load (just the camera and lenses), the shoot can be done easily at many places, including hill or even at overseas. While shooting young kids in the outdoor, mobility is extremely important as well, since they usually don't like to stay at the same spot.

  7. Permit Professional shoot
    There are many places that require permit to do a professional shoot at. The biggest problem is that it's usually not very clear-cut that a certain location is a private place.

    Casual shoot (advantage)
    Non-professional shoots are allowed in many places. You don't even have to seek any permission in most of them.

  8. Angle/direction Professional shoot (advantage)
    There are times when a background is nice but the main ambient light comes from the same direction. In such situation, it's known as backlighting, where the model's face will be much dimmer than the background. An example is to capture the model with sunset in the background. Professional lighting can help to light up the model's face.

    Casual shoot
    The model is subjected to face the direction of the main ambient light in most cases, unless the photographer wants to create an emotional or mysterious feel, which the face will be darker. In the case of shooting with sunset, the photograph would likely turn out as a silhouette photograph.

  9. Background details
    Dance photography with professional lighting
    Above: Dance photography to include the details of sky. If professional lighting wasn't used, either the sky would be overexposed or the model would be underexposed.

    Professional shoot (advantage)
    In order to capture the details of background, especially the sky, the exposure has to be reduced and thus the model's face will turn out to be darker. Professional lighting would solve the problem. The photographer also has the option to use a bigger depth of field to keep the background sharper instead of being forced to use bokeh for all the shoots during low light situation - background can be interesting and should be utilized for an outdoor shoot.

    Casual shoot
    In order to keep the model's face properly lighted up, the background is likely to be brighter and thus losing its details. On the other hand, the photographer can expose for the background and keep the model's face underexposed (darker than it should appear). Of course, some photographers may use Photoshop to try to save the photographs, but there's a limit.

  10. Uniqueness Professional shoot (advantage)
    Every photographer is available to use sunlight for shoot since it's free but not every photographer owns professional lighting or is hardworking enough to carry along the heavy and bulky equipment along for outdoor shoots. Therefore, being able to shoot with professional lighting is actually a privilege and much more unique. Professional photographers also have their own styles and thus would use the professional lighting differently to produce different effect.

    Casual shoot
    It's more difficult for the results to stand out from the massive number of photographers and "photographers" around. For example, when someone starts playing with fairylights and somehow the style becomes trendy, the "entire world" begins to follow.

Samples of Professional Photoshoot

Example 1: Lighting up a model with bike at night

location with ambient light 1.
This photograph was taken using a mobile phone. There was one main continuous white light at the top of photograph. The dim orange/warm light on the right was produced by the street lamps of the carpark that were quite a distance away. It was not ideal for this shoot to have two colours for it would be distracting. The scene looks bright enough due to the high ISO setting, which had resulted in noisy image that I would avoid. Even at high ISO, the ambient light would be insufficient to light up both my subjects properly and the direction of light (backlighting) was not what I wanted.
one-light set-up 2.
Since the white light was not going to be included in the scene, I decided to eliminate it totally. In this way, I could also keep the ISO low for cleaner photographs. As the orange light was dimmer than the white light, they were eliminated as well. This photograph would be in total black if not for my main light on my right. The left side of the photograph was dark and the model seemed to be blended in.
one light with hair light set-up 3.
I added in my second light at the left back, which would act as the hair light to separate her hair and right side of her body from the dark background, such that she would stand out. The hair light actually simulated a street lamp shining downwards.

Note: The mood of this shoot was supposed to be edgy and thus I increased the power of the main light.
one light with hair light and grid set-up 4.
Since I wanted the focus to be on the model and the bike, I added in a honeycomb grid to the main light so that the light was more directional and it would not light up the background on the right. After limiting the main light's direction, the back of the bike was in the shade of the model.

Note: As the space was very tight and I wanted to use a narrower angle on my lens, I actually had the bike shifted nearer to the wall to allow more space between me and the two subjects.
two light with hair light and grid set-up 5.
Since the bike was one of the two main subjects, I added in a filled light on the left to slightly light up the back of the bike.

Note: Due to the lack of equipment (I was injured and didn't want to bring too many things along), the filled light was more scattered and thus a wider area was slightly lighted up as well.

All the sample photographs above are converted directly from raw images - unedited.

Example 2: Lighting up models during noon time

location with ambient light 1.
This photograph was taken with only ambient light near noon time, which was inevitable due to the full day shoot and timing was tight. It was almost a clear sky, except for some clouds that were "away from" the sun. At this period of time, the direction of the sunlight was near the top of the models and thus nasty shadows were filling the faces. Or rather, only the noses of the models and the forehead of the female model were lighted up.
location with ambient light but overexposed 2.
If I were to increase the overall exposure to light up the entire faces more, the noses and outfits would be overexposed and we could only see "whiteness" with the details lost. Even the background was much brighter as well and blended the models in, which I was not very satisfied with.

Note: I didn't have time to "waste" during the shoot and thus I didn't take a raw photograph of the overexposed photograph. This photograph was digitally edited to increase the overall exposure.
one light set-up 3.
I added in a soft artifical light to light up both the models properly. The models could also stand out from the background.

Note: After I got the lighting correct, I switched to the angle that I wanted. It included part of the street and sky where I could see some rare clouds. This photograph was digitial enhanced with advanced editing to remove flaws on the skin.



Example 3: Lighting up models to show details of the sky

location with ambient light 1.
Anyone with a camera could have taken this kind of photograph if he knew how to adjust the exposure to light up the models' faces. However, both the sky and water were overexposed and thus not much details were shown. It was a waste of the scenery.

Note: I didn't have time to "waste" during the shoot and thus I didn't take a raw photograph of the overexposed photograph. This photograph was digitally edited to increase the overall exposure.
location with ambient light 2.
Reducing the overall exposure could finally see more details of the sky and reflections on the water. However, the faces would be underexposed. For pre-wedding portrait, the most important subjects were the models and they had to be lighted up.
location with ambient light 3.
I added in a soft artifical light to light up both the models properly and the details on both the sky and water could also be seen.

Note: This photograph was digitial enhanced with advanced editing to remove flaws on the models' skin and add more drama to the sky.



Which is better, Professional or Casual Shoot?

Whenever possible, I would stick to professional shoot because I want to make the model's face visible and beautiful, while also maintaining the quality of photographs as high as possible. I also like to light up the model while reducing the exposure for the background, so as to make the model stand out.

Lighting up faces properly, shaping them and creating a contrast against the background would often require the use of artificial light. In order to get better artificial light, heavy and bulky equipment are required. It takes time and effort to set them up and dismantle them. After setting them up, they become bulkier and thus more tedious to move around. Therefore, if you are seeking for professional lighting, you will need to have at least a photographer assistant and expect lower quantity of photographs and fewer locations. Hence, it's always a big challenge to me.

Working with natural light can be good if the weather is good, such as shoot under overcast sky. It can also solve some of the problems that professional photoshoot would encounter. Besides, there are also situations that the photographer can only depend on natural light, such as:

  1. The venue's management doesn't allow professional shoot
  2. The venue requires lots of travelling/climbing by feet
  3. Overseas shoot, which luggage should be kept as light as possible
  4. Short shooting duration

Therefore, doing a professional or casual shoot depends a lot on the situation and requirements.



You may be interested in:
- Special photoshoots you can hire a professional photographer to do
- Misconceptions and myths in professional photography
- Photography post-production (editing)
- Quality and quantity of photographs - contributing factors
- How to judge a photographer



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