THERE IS A DELIGHTFUL SEQUENCE toward the end of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo which shows the silent movie pioneer George Melies creating films in his own primitive studio in France. Like Thomas Edison, who built the Black Maria, a tarpaper shack that rotated on a turntable so its roof and front wall could be turned toward the sun for all-day shooting, Melies improvised his own turn-of-the-century solution for how to get adequate light to slow film. Like Edison, he built his studio to stand out in the open sun, but fashioned its walls completely of glass, huge panes mounted inside a simple metal frame cage. The frame held fixtures and scenery in place, and its spartan design gave Melies a pure, huge, natural light box inside which he directed the first minor masterpieces of world cinema. It’s a reminder of how truly elementary some of our light problems are. Just put yourself at the service of the available light and be ready to make magic….in seconds.
The point is, most of us probably have daily access to at least one “sweet” spot, either in our houses, or the yards and grounds that surround them, or somewhere near us, where there is abundant, reliable light, on a daily basis, sufficient to shoot almost anything..without muss, fuss, or flash. For me, it’s the southeast corner of the house, where the blazingly, brilliant Arizona morning light comes slamming in by way of the opened garage door, the front entrance sidelights, or the west window near where I am posting this. And when I say light, I mean BAM! light, with long, solid shadows and, just after dawn, a super-saturation of color that will vanish by midday, when the western sky is one big blinding, squinting, over-exposed whiteout.
In recent months, I have actually created crude mini-studio areas at these various BAM! points, staging objects on everything from snack tables to packing cartons, baffling or channeling the light in some cases with strips of cardboard or towels, but mostly just placing still-life objects right in the path of these killer rays. On occasion, I am rewarded with a great image before breakfast, which is a psychologically great way to put the right early spin on the day.
It also harks back to my childhood and the five dollar Imperial box camera that started it all. With one focal length and one shutter speed, you had to be cagey, to, in fact, get any image in other than ideal light. There was, to say the least, a high fail rate. Next time you stop by the house I can show you the shoebox of shame, wherein lie interred all the keepers that might have been. Rest in Peace.
Part of my mad pursuit of available light has been fed, in recent years, by the adventure I undertook of shooting exclusively with a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens for an entire year. Freed by this wonderful glass to attempt an ever wider scope of do-able shots, I did everything I could to push the envelope in whatever situation I could devise. Eventually I compiled a book of the luckiest results entitled The Normal Eye, and was left with a renewed passion for low-and- no-light opportunities.
Find the BAM! spot around your crib and have your own Melies moment. Turns out, the tools we need are never far off.
Make light of the situation.
(The Normal Eye is available through Blurb Books at www.blurb.com/bookstore