By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY HAS NEVER SUCCESSFULLY ADDRESSED ITS BIGGEST, AND MOST LONG-STANDING WEAKNESS, that of providing natural illumination in all shooting situations. Worse, it has generated tons of tweaks and workarounds to compensate for this weakness, instead of solving the central problem. As a result, we have limped our way through nearly two centuries of devices and processes designed to create momentary fake lighting…the lame legacy of flash.
Instead of finding recording media that absorbs and spreads light adequately, from salt paper prints to roll film to pixels, we have invented one torchy crutch after another, each adding expense, bulk and even greater uncertainty to our results. The ignition of aluminum powder may have given way to pop-ups with red-eye protection, but the essential error in our thinking persists. We don’t need better flash: we need cameras good enough for there to be no flash.
Flash is like a bratty kid in a restaurant. He won’t sit up straight, spits his chewed broccoli back into his napkin, splashes water on everyone, talks with his mouth full, and eats his dessert first. And his mother dresses him funny. And yet we can’t rub this punk out, no matter how we try.
Testify: a recent B&H Photo catalogue boasts eight pages of flash equipment, most of it aftermarket gear designed to muffle, bounce,, amplify, soften or re-direct flashes that are too harsh, too faint, too in-line with the “optical axis”, or otherwise inefficient. Many manufacturers of DSLRs practically admit that their on-camera units are too limited for custom lighting, selling you their costly, brand-related off-camera units, cables, transmitters and widgets. Ca-ching. Photographically speaking, this is like telling you that the house on which you just took a 30-year mortgage is really a dump, but the place down the street is divine.
It was decades before film was fast enough to be used in more than a few specific situations, so flash. It’s still too expensive for most people to get lenses that are speedy enough to keep from blasting bleachingly hard light in people’s faces, so flash. And, sadly, many of us still believe that popping that little beast up in a 50,000-seat concert hall will magically help us counter the 300,000 square feet of darkness between us and the stage, so…flash.
Digital image sensors might eventually evolve sufficiently for different parts of them to register light individually, eliminating the need for extra bursts of artificial light, and our own best practices in the use of natural light can all but eliminate the need to pop up the pop-up. But we are farther away than we should be from a flashless world. It’s not that we don’t all know that the way we currently use it is idiotic. But for now, we have to keep promising that bratty kid that if he takes just one more bite of spinach, we’ll get him ice cream. Jeez.
AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, YOU CAN EMPATHIZE WITH THAT FAMOUS MOTH AND HIS FATAL FASCINATION with a candle flame….especially if you’ve ever flirted too close to the edge of a blowout with window light. You want to gobble up as much of that golden illumination as possible without singeing your image with a complete white-hot loss of detail. Too much of a good thing and all that.
However, a window glowing with light is one of the most irresistible of candies for a shooter, and you can fill up a notebook with attempted end-arounds and tricks to harvest it without getting burned. Here’s one cheap and easy way:
In this first attempt to capture the early morning shadows and scattered rays in my office at 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, you’ll see that the window is a little too hot, and that nearly everything ahead of the window is rendered into a silhouette. And that’s a shame, since the picture, to me, should be not only about the window light, but also its role in partially lighting a dark room. I don’t want to make an HDR here, since that will completely over-detail the stuff in the dark and look un-natural. All I really need is a hint of room light, as if a small extra bit of detail has been illuminated by the window, but just that….a small bit.
In the second attempt, I have actually halved the shutter speed to 1/200 to underexpose the window, but have also used my on-camera flash with a bounce card to ricochet a little light off the ceiling. I am almost too far away for the flash to be of any real strength, but that’s exactly what I’m looking for: I want just a trace of it to trail down the bookshelf, giving me some really mild color and allowing a few book titles to be readable. The bounce plus the distance has weakened the flash to the point that it plausibly looks as if the illumination is a result of the window light. And since I’ve underexposed the window, even the wee bit of flash hasn’t blown out the slat detail from the blinds.
Overall, this is a cheap and easy fix, happens in-camera, and doesn’t call attention to itself as a technique. There are two kinds of light: the light that is natural and the light that can be made to appear natural. If you can make the two work smoothly together, you can fly close to the flame while avoiding the burn.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR THE MOST PART, THE USE OF ON-CAMERA FLASH SHOULD BE CONSIDERED A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY. Scott Kelby, the world’s best-selling author of digital photography tutorials, famously remarked that “if you have a grudge against someone, shoot them with your pop-up flash, and it will even the score.” But, to be fair, let’s look at the pros and cons of using on-board illumination:
PROS : Cheap, handy
CONS: Harsh, Weak, Unflattering, Progenitor of Red-eye. Also, Satan kills a puppy every time you use it. Just sayin’.
There are, however, those very occasional situations where supplying a little bit of extra light might give you just the fill you need on a shot that is getting 90% of its light naturally. Even so, you have to employ trickery to harness this cruel blast of ouch-white, and simple bounces are the best way to get at least some of what you want.
In the above situation, I was shooting in a hall fairly flooded with bright mid-morning light, which was extremely hot on the objects it hit squarely but contrasty as an abandoned cave on anything out of its direct path. The fish sculpture in my proposed shot was getting its nose torched pretty good, but in black and white, the remainder of its body fell off sharply, almost to invisibility. I wanted the fish’s entire body in the shot, the better to give a sense of depth to the finished picture, but I obviously couldn’t flash directly into the shelf that overhung it without drenching the rest of the scene in superfluous blow-out. I needed a tiny, attenuated, and cheap fix.
Bending a simple white stationery envelope into a “L”, I popped up my camera’s flash and covered the unit with the corner of the envelope where the two planes intersected. The flash was scooped up by the envelope, then channeled over my shoulder, blowing onto the wall at my back, then bouncing back toward the fish in softened condition near the underside of the shelf, allowing just enough light to allow the figure’s bright nose to taper back gradually into shadow, revealing additional texture, but not over-illuminating the area. It took about five tries to get the thing to look as if the light could have broken that way naturally. Fast, cheap, effective.
The same principle can be done, with some twisting about, to give you a side or ceiling bounce, although, if high reflectivity is not crucial, I frankly recommend using your hand instead of the envelope, since you can twist it around with greater control and achieve a variety of effects.
Of course, the goal with rerouting light is to look as if you did nothing at all, so if you do save a picture with any of these moves, keep it to yourself. Oh, yes, you say modestly, that’s just the look I was going for.
Even as you’re thinking, whew, fooled ’em again.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE READ MORE THAN A FEW ARTICLES OF LATE by professional photographers who confess that they occasionally get stuck in teaching mode, even to the detriment of their own love of shooting. One such author went to far as to recall a recent concert he had attended, camera-less, only to observe, with snotty amusement, the attempts of a young woman to capture action on the far-off stage area. His first reaction was to disdain not only her limited camera but to catalogue all her most heinous errors in composition, exposure, and use of flash, as he mentally predicted how poor her results would be and how she was, essentially, wasting her time.
Then something shifted in his thinking. Instead of being depressed at what hadn’t worked, the woman’s energy revealed that she was actually making the most of the moment; learning, through trial and error, what to do or not do in future. At the end of his essay, he came to realize that “she is a better photographer than me”, since she was taking risks, pushing the limits of her own skills, and developing her craft, one frame at a time, while he had left his own camera at home and was learning nothing. His point hit home with me, since it is a recurring theme of this blog and a key belief among those I respect most in the imaging world.
Shoot. Shoot some more. Dare to fail. Be willing to take more “bad” pictures than the next guy. Get your head out of academic minutia and into the doing of it. Screw up, suck up, but above all, show up.
Ready to play.
Sometimes, just the sheer unwillingness to go home empty-handed provides you with real delight. Last week, I was making the rounds at an area gallery district, the type that does nightly “art walks” as a way of speed-dating potential customers. Many of the best shots I get in these surroundings are near or just after dark, and I always like peeping into the windows of shuttered businesses at night, since some key character of light and mood invariably occurs. For the shot shown above, I fell in love with one gallery that had a kind of sentry posted outside, in the form of an enormous sculpted head. Its aloof expression reminded me of a cross between Easter Island and Blue Man Group, and I really wanted him/her/it to be a part of the shot. However, I had not brought an external flash unit with me, and the sculpture was reading 100% dark in contrast to the interior of the gallery. I was desperate, but not desperate enough to use straight-on pop-up flash, which would have blown the face out completely and destroyed any chance at a moody feel.
Time to improvise.
Having left my bounce card at home as well (I was on foot and truly traveling light), I noticed that the head was underneath a low over-hanging porch roof, something you just must have on the front of an Arizona business in summer. Going totally into what-the-hell mode, I stuck my flat left hand just under the bottom of the pop-up flash and angled it upward about 15 degrees to create a crude bounce off the roof ceiling, allowing the light to soften as it came down upon the top of the head. It took a few tries to avoid creating an uber-white Aurora Borealis effect on the ceiling, and I had to move my feet around to figure out how to get some of the light to cascade down the head’s front and illuminate its features. I also had to bump the ISO up a bit to compensate for the fall-off in the flash at the distance I was standing, but, at the end, I at least got something. Moreover, like the woman at the concert, what I had picked up in technique more than compensated me for the fact that the shot wasn’t strictly an award winner.
I have been playing around with primitive flash bouncing for a while now, and the results run the gamut from god-awful to glad-I-did-that. But it’s all a win no matter how each individual shot plays out, because every image brings me closer to the cumulatively evolved instinct that, someday, will give me great pictures. The baby will eventually be born, but the midwife has to do the front-end work. Nothing I will ever shoot will be captured under perfect conditions, so why drop dead of old age waiting for that to happen? We’re almost to the end of Century Two in this game of writing with light, and all the easy pictures have already been shot, so what’s left will have to be hewed out by hand.
I suggest that we occasionally get our nose out of books (and, duh, blogs too) and start carving.