📸 Skai Chan Photography

Differences Between High-End and Casual Portrait Photography

Definition of High-End & Casual Portrait

High-End photoshoot
Outdoor high-end photography with off-camera professional light taken at the same spot. The reflection/detail on the building is being shown. The entire photoshoot was done within the same area and thus there was sufficient time to set up professional lighting.

Casual photoshoot
Outdoor casual photography with on-camera fill flash/light to fill up the shadow on the models' faces. The background/building looks pleasing. If done without the fill light, the background would remain the same but the models' faces would be much darker, especially around the eyes. This photoshoot required travelling over a great distance in a very short span of time and thus we couldn't set up off-camera lighting with a large softbox.
(This picture was taken on a hazy day though)

High-End Portrait

A high-end portrait photoshoot is a photoshoot that's done with flash, also known as professional lighting. Apart from having the lighting equipment, the photographer must also have both the knowledge and skill to use them.

Casual Portrait

On the other hand, a casual portrait is usually done using just a DSLR or maybe with a light reflector. Some photographers may mount a speedlite (flash) on top of the camera, depending on individual situations.

Types of Light: Natural VS Professional

Natural Light

Sunlight, which is known as natural light, is great. As the name says, it makes photographs look natural. However, the quality of natural light differs every moment as clouds move and the sun's position changes. Most people, including hobbyist photographers (when I was new to photography too), can produce good photographs when the natural light happens to be good; unfortunately, not every day is a Sunday. No photographer should depend on luck. A professional photographer will always try to schedule a good time to do the photoshoot and then find the best spot at each location. Nevertheless, the direction of the sun matters a lot, which creates restrictions.

Professional Light

Professional lighting allows portrait photoshoots to be done in all situations, whether it's outdoor, indoor or inside a studio, and even in the darkness and backlighting (shooting against the sun, sunset). It allows portrait photography to be done at all directions and can also help to create different kinds of moods. It can be used to create dramatic effects, separate the model from the background and makes the model look more 3-dimensional.

Natural Light VS Professional Light

The biggest difference between a photographer who uses only natural light and a photographer who uses professional light is that the latter has the choice to use any of them, depending on individual situations.

Soft VS Hard Light

Lighting is one of the most important elements in photography. Both natural and professional light can be soft or hard. In order to understand the difference between soft and hard light, you can try taking a selfie on both a cloudy day right before sunset (soft light) and on a cloudless day during noontime (hard light).

Soft Light
For portrait photography, the usual concepts require making the model look good (better-looking complexion). In order to do so, professional photographers will use flattering light, also known as soft light.

Hard Light
Unless, otherwise, we are going to create an edgy work that's not focusing on beauty, we may use hard light.

The Wonders of High-End Photography

Example 1: Lighting up a model with a 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 the photographs. 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 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 the 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 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 a fill 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 fill 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 the 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 flash to light up both 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 digitally 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 a 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 flash to light up both the models properly and the details on both the sky and water could also be seen.

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

Detailed Comparison: Pros & Cons of High-End & Casual Photography

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

Items / Type of shoot High-End Casual
1 Consistency 1
2 Model's creativity 1
3 Creative effect 1
4 Time 1
5 Quantity of photos 1
6 Quality of photos 1
7 Mobility 1
8 Permit 1
9 Comfort level 1
10 Angle/ Direction 1
11 Background details 1
12 Uniqueness 1
13 Sharpness 1
Total 7 6

  1. Consistency

    High-End photoshoot (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 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 photoshoot
    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.

  2. Model's creativity
    High-End professional light photography
    Above: Professional light (high-end) photography. The model was creative, however, being restricted a lot to the professional lighting's position. For every new spot we wanted to shift over to, we needed to move and test the lighting again. At times, the lighting would need to be redesigned.
    natural light photography
    Above: Natural light photography. The photoshoot was done using only natural light because of the uncertainty of whether professional photography was allowed. The model was able to roam around more freely during the shoot, given the natural light of that spot was good enough.

    High-End photoshoot
    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 professional lighting.

    Casual photoshoot (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.

  3. Creative effect Creative photography with professional lighting
    Above: Night creative conceptual photography using professional lighting to light up the model's face and display the water effect.
    Conceptual photography using different colour of lighting
    Above: Halloween conceptual photography using different colours of lighting.

    Conceptual photography using different colour of lighting
    Above: Art conceptual photography using very directional light to outline the model.

    High-End photoshoot (advantage)
    The photographer is able to use his professional lighting to create special effects, such as highlighting smoke, and water droplets or even adding colours. At the minimum, the photographer can add a "punch" to the photographs to make them more interesting.

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

  4. Time Studio dance photography using professional lighting
    Above: Studio dance photography using professional lighting. The set-up of the studio and lighting took over an hour. The model had to wait for the testing of each light to get the correct exposure.
    Outdoor dance photography using natural lighting
    Above: Outdoor dance photography using natural lighting. Since no lighting equipment was used, the pace of the shoot was faster. However, we did have to wait for the right time for the good light.

    High-End photoshoot
    It takes time to set up the lighting equipment, especially if the photographer is using better light modifiers, such as a softbox. It also takes extra time for the photographer to position the lighting and test its power. More lighting equipment means a longer time is required. These are on top of the time spent testing the camera setting for the ambient light. Besides, flash power requires time to be recharged from either the battery or power socket. Therefore, the photographer has to have an interval between every click on the shutter button.

    Casual photoshoot (advantage)
    Casual photoshoot depends on natural or ambient light. 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.

  5. Quantity of photos
    High-End photoshoot
    Since it requires more time to set up and snap each photograph, the number of photographs, given the same amount of time, will be reduced by a lot.

    Casual photoshoot (advantage)
    With less time required for set-up while the photographer can snap faster, the number of good photographs will be increased.

  6. Quality of photos
    High-End couple photoshoot with soft light
    Above: High-End couple photoshoot with professional light.
    Casual couple photoshoot with natural light
    Above: Casual couple photoshoot with natural light.
    High-End photoshoot (advantage)
    Large softboxes can be used to produce very soft light, hence making the model's complexion look better to suit most types of photoshoots. Shooting with professional lighting would usually give a professional feel to the quality of the photographs.

    Casual photoshoot
    The quality of light is subjected to ambient light, such as the sun or the lamps available. There are also situations 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 a reduction of dynamic range. Many people do mistake quantity as quality of light: under the bright sun where there's a lot of light, there's likely to be more harsh shadows appearing on the face, which is unflattering.

  7. Mobility
    High-End bridal photography with professional light
    Above: High-End bridal photography with professional light. The heavy and bulky equipment restrained our movements and prevented us from further exploring the location.
    Hiking photography with natural light
    Above: Hiking photography with natural light. It requires climbing and walking a long distance, and hence has to keep to the minimum equipment (probably, just a DSLR).

    High-End photoshoot
    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 it 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 much faster and perhaps, he may get tired before the start of the shoot.

    Casual photoshoot (advantage)
    With a very light load (just the camera and lenses), the shoot can be done easily at many places, including hills or even overseas. While shooting young kids outdoors, mobility is extremely important as well since they usually don't like to stay at the same spot. In such a situation, a casual shoot may be more suitable.

  8. Permit
    High-End outdoor portrait photography using professional lighting
    Above: High-End outdoor portrait photography using professional lighting. The quality and direction of the natural light were bad. Using professional lighting helped to make the model look more flattered and also eye-catchy. However, we were eventually chased off by the security guard at the last location.
    Outdoor runway photography using natural lighting
    Above: Outdoor runway photography using natural lighting. I wasn't sure if the organizer had sought permission from the building's management for me to set up any external lighting (professional lighting). However, we were lucky that the natural light at that spot was great.

    High-End photoshoot
    There are many places that require permits to do a professional photoshoot. The biggest problem is that it's usually not very clear-cut that a certain location is a private place.

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

  9. Comfort level

    High-End photoshoot
    High-end photography includes the use of professional lighting and light modifier(s). It usually draws more attention from passers-by and some can be rather annoying. However, the use of professional lighting does help some models feel better for they feel the shoot is more professional.

    Casual photoshoot (advantage)
    In general, non-models are more comfortable without having professional lighting pointing at them and thus natural light can be more welcoming. With fewer passers-by staring at the model, she would likely feel more comfortable.

  10. Angle/ Direction Sunset photography with professional lighting
    Above: Professional lighting was used to light up the model's face against the sun during sunset - backlighting.
    Sunset photography with natural lighting
    Above: The main light (natural light) was from the sun and thus we can only create a silhouette effect at such an angle using natural light.

    High-End photoshoot (advantage)
    There are times when a background is nice but the main ambient light comes from the same direction. In such a 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 a sunset in the background. Professional lighting can help to light up the model's face.

    Casual photoshoot
    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.

  11. Background details Dance photography with professional lighting
    Above: Beach photography with professional lighting. The details of the sky were retained by dimming down the entire natural light. The model was then lighted up by professional lighting.
    Beach photography with natural lighting
    Above: Beach photography with natural lighting. The details of the sky were lost because it was much brighter. Photoshop work may be able to retrieve some details but with limitations.

    High-End photoshoot (advantage)
    In order to capture the details of the 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 a low light situation - the background can be interesting and should be utilized for an outdoor shoot.

    Casual photoshoot
    In order to keep the model's face properly lit up, the background is likely to be brighter and thus lose its details. On the other hand, the photographer can expose 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.

  12. Uniqueness

    High-End photoshoot (advantage)
    Every photographer is available to use sunlight for shoots since it's free but not every photographer owns professional lighting or is hardworking enough to carry along the heavy and bulky equipment 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 professional lighting differently to produce a different effect.

    Casual photoshoot
    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 fairy lights and somehow the style becomes trendy, the "entire world" begins to follow.

  13. Sharpness

    High-End photoshoot (advantage)
    The availability of professional lighting allows photographers to use lower ISO and lower aperture for a portrait shoot. As flash light's exposure time is usually short, it can help to "freeze motion".

    Casual photoshoot
    In most situations for portrait shoots, photographers would avoid direct sunlight in order to create a soft feel. As such, the quantity of light would be limited and would require high ISO to get the correct exposure. Whereas using high ISO would reduce the details and sharpness. Whereas some photographers may stick to the highest aperture of the lens, which often is less sharp and it's more difficult to get the focus right. Eventually, the movement of the model and/ or photographer may also cause a loss of sharpness.

Which is better, High-End or Casual photoshoot?

Whenever possible, I would stick to high-end shoots 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 professional light. In order to get better professional 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 professional lighting, you will need to have at least a photographer assistant and expect a lower quantity of photographs and fewer locations. Hence, educating people about these is always a big challenge for me.

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

Therefore, doing a high-end or casual shoot depends a lot on the situation and requirements.

Unfortunately, I've come across many kinds of interesting situations during my photoshoots. One such incident is when the model requested me to abandon my professional lighting for natural light (sunlight). There are other models who have hinted to me that they would prefer using natural light as well. In this era where every DSLR owner is a photographer and many girls would have done a "photoshoot" with at least a hobbyist photographer, many girls are used to "modelling" without using professional lighting.

Some models have also questioned why I'm using professional light instead of natural light, which other photographers are using. I simply want to produce the best and most unique photographs possible.

You may be interested in:
- Outdoor portrait photoshoot photographer in Singapore
- Casual portrait photoshoot photographer in Singapore
- Bespoke (customised & personalised) portrait photographer in Singapore
- Special photoshoots you can hire a professional photographer to do
- Misconceptions and myths in professional photography
- Post production - photo editing (enhancing, retouching)
- Quality and quantity of photographs - contributing factors

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