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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORLD’S FIRST MOVIE STUDIO WAS A TARPAPER SHACK ON A TURNTABLE. Dubbed by Thomas Edison’s techies as “The Black Maria” (as ambulances were grimly named back at the time), the structure rotated to take advantage of wherever sunlight was available in the California sky, thus allowing the film crew to extend its daily shooting schedule by more than half in the era of extremely slow film stocks. Eventually artificial light of sufficient strength was developed for the movies, and actors no longer had to brave motion sickness just to rescue fair damsels. So it goes.
More than a century hence, some photographers actually have to be reminded to use natural light, specifically window light, as a better alternative to studio lights or flash units. Certainly anyone who has shot portraits for a while has already learned that window light is softer and more diffuse than anything you can plug in, thus making it far more flattering to faces (as well as forgiving of , er, flaws). It’s also good to remember that it can lend a warming effect to an entire room, on those occasions where the room itself is a kind of still life subject.
Your window light source can be harsher if the sun is arching over the roof of your building toward the window (east to west), so a window that receives light at a right angle from the crossing sun is better, since it’s already been buffered a bit. This also allows you to expose so that the details outside the window (trees, scenery, etc.) aren’t blown out, assuming that you want them to be prominent in the picture. For inside the window, set your initial exposure for the brightest objects inside the room. If they aren’t white-hot, there is less severe contrast between light and dark objects, and the shot looks more balanced.
I like a look that suggests that just enough light has crept into the room to gently illuminate everything in it from front to back. You’ll have to arrive at your own preferred look, deciding how much, if any, of the light you want to “drop off” to drape selective parts of the frame in shadow. Your vision, your choice. Point is, natural light is so wonderfully workable for a variety of looks that, once you start to develop your use of it, you might reach for artificial light less and less.
Turns out, that Edison guy was pretty clever.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY OFTEN PRESENTS ITSELF AS A SUDDEN, REACTIVE OPPORTUNITY, a moment in time where certain light and compositional conditions seem ripe for either recording or interpreting. In such cases there may be little chance to ponder the best way to visualize the subject at hand, and so we snap up the visualization that’s presented in the moment. It’s the kind of use-it-or-lose-it bargain we’re all acquainted with. Sometimes it yields something amazing. Other times we do the best with what we’re handed, and it looks like it.
Having the option to shape light as we like takes time and deliberate planning, as anyone who has done any kind of studio set-up will attest. The stronger your conception to start with, the better chance you have of devising a light strategy for making that idea real. That’s why I regard light painting, which I’ve written about here several times, as a great exercise in building your image’s visual identity in stages. You slow down and make the photograph evolve, working upwards from absolute darkness.
To refresh, light painting refers to the selective handheld illumination of subjects for a particular look or effect. The path that your flashlight or LED takes across your subject’s contours during a tripod-mounted time exposure can vary dramatically, based on your moving your light source either right or left, arcing up or down, flickering it, or using it as a constant source. Light painting is different from the conditions of, say, a product shoot, where the idea is to supply enough light to make the image appear “normal” in a daytime orientation. Painting with light is a bit like wielding a magic wand, in that you can produce an endless number of looks as you develop your own concept of what the final image should project in terms of mood. It isn’t shooting in a “realistic” manner, which is why the best light painters can render subjects super-real, un-real, abstract or combinations of all three. Fact is, the most amazing paint-lit photos often completely violate the normal paths of natural light. And that’s fine.
In light painting, I believe that total darkness in the space surrounding your central subject is as important a compositional tool as how your subject itself is arranged. As a strong contrast, it calls immediate and total attention to what you choose to illuminate. I also think that the grain, texture and dimensional quality of the subject can be drastically changed by altering which parts of it are lit, as in the shock of wheat seen here. In daylight, half of the plant’s detail can be lost in a kind of brown neutrality, but, when light painted, its filaments, blossoms and staffs all relate boldly to each other in fresh ways; the language of light and shadow has been re-ordered. Pictorially, it becomes a more complex object. It’s actually freed from the restraints of looking “real” or “normal”.
Developed beyond its initial novelty, light painting isn’t an effect or a gimmick. It’s another technique for shaping light, which is really our aim anytime we take off our lens caps.