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In or Out – That is the Question

At its best photography is inspired by light. Whether it’s a rich shade of purple on a canyon for two minutes following sunset, or the warm cast of tungsten lamps on a model’s bare skin, it’s the light that guides our work. It doesn’t matter if I’m shooting indoors or out, my focus on finding great light is the same. 

However if it was simply up to me and not the client, I would instinctively head outdoors in search of a great location for most shoots. I admit to a weak spot for photos with natural light. After all, what better gift to photographers than the sun and its free and abundant rays? It’s the ultimate source of illumination for photographs, whether for portraits or product shoots or fashion. We can manipulate it with reflectors and know well in advance what it will give us throughout the day.

Beyond the light, I also find that there’s a feeling of creative energy by engaging with the world at large. Something exciting takes place when shooting, for example, on location along a busy street or within any public space where the elements and passers-by create a dynamic atmosphere.

outdoor photography at sunset

This feeling of aliveness and the look of sunlight can be challenging to attain in the studio but there’s a different mindset indoors. Here the light and other elements can be precisely controlled and all outside distractions are removed. Sometimes such control can be a lifesaver and only a studio will do to attain the results that I’m after.

Every photographer has a preference for outdoors or indoors photography yet nearly all of us need to work in both environments from time to time. It’s best to have a familiarity with both and the different techniques when working within artificial and natural surroundings. Let’s take a look at why you might choose one or the other for your next shoot.

Indoors

Although my natural tendency is to head outdoors for photography, I regularly inhabit the studio when the situation calls for it. Most of the time there’s not much to be gained by photographing small objects such as products or jewelry in the outdoors. The nuances of light have to be tightly controlled and kept static so that results are predictable and reproducible.

Likewise, for portraits and fashion and lifestyle, the ease and convenience of working indoors often makes sense. With the unlimited amount of creative freedom provided by lighting systems, I can dial in exactly what I want whether it’s fluorescent or tungsten lights, side or backlighting, or the all-important brightness and diffusion and tone. There’s a freedom that comes from setting up and shooting away knowing that a scene is perfectly lit and won’t change until you want it to.

Another major advantage of the studio is the privacy and lack of distractions. Few would consider a boudoir session in full view of the public. Inside though, knowing nobody is looking over your shoulder while you work, you can focus completely on the job at hand. The relationship between photographer and model can take front and center in the studio, where the communication is easy without being distracted by onlookers.

boudoir photo shoot on couch

There is also of course the utter convenience of having my gear close at hand. I can quickly set up any of my photo backdrops using the available background stand when choosing colors and tones, or grab a floor drop to replicate a certain look. Props and everything else I might need are readily available as well so there’s never an issue with forgetting to bring a necessary piece of gear.

Perhaps the best reason to shoot indoors is that no matter the weather, I can always work. The wind, heat, dust, and precipitation have all conspired to thwart my plans for shooting at one time or another but have never been a concern in the studio. This ability is what makes it possible to stay in business – if the only time I could work was when the weather was merciful, I would not be in business for very long.

See more: Floor Drops vs. Photo Backdrops

Outdoors

Here’s an interesting experiment: next time you’re making a portrait, photograph the model both indoors and outdoors to compare the look you create. I find that while I can get stunning photos in the studio, the sunlight imparts a dynamic and energized feel especially when combined with artificial lighting. This experiment might just surprise you with some unexpected results, and perhaps even give you a new approach to use.

Besides the advantages of working with available sunlight, another perk of working outdoors is the unlimited backgrounds. Think about it – these can vary from a deep blue sky, to a sandy beach, to a field of grasses swaying in the breeze.  Such environments invariably impart an organic, relaxed feel into my photographs that can be perfect for portraiture or other shoots involving models. If I want something gritty on the other hand, an old barn or maybe even a junkyard might form the perfect location for a shoot. There’s no end to what’s available.

See more: How to Take Outdoor Portraits

man in suit standing in field

One thing we all keep in mind is money. And it’s almost always free to use outdoor locations. The same cannot be said of an indoor or studio setting, which at times requires rental and other expenses. On the other hand, location shoots can also require transportation and rental of equipment, so it’s not always a cost-saving maneuver.

Regardless of where you might prefer to shoot, organization, attention to detail, and an understanding of your gear will always be needed for a successful session. Persistence and creative experimentation should be your guides along the way.

Elias Butler

Elias Butler is a professional photographer and writer based in Arizona. He's written a book titled "Grand Obsession" and has been published in Sierra, USA Today, and Arizona Highways among many others. See Butler's website here.

  

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