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So, Here’s Some Advice: Cheat. Look for Something that’s Already Lit

Out there in the steaming, sulfurous emptiness of Iceland, we were allowed into a thermal plant, which was a really cool place to shoot. I was teaching a lighting workshop, and we did our usual thing of talking about it, scouting the location, dividing into teams, and assigning models. Again, per usual, I told the group I would try to stage some sort of hopefully helpful demo during our stay. Everyone toddled off, lights and models in tow. One of the reasons I enjoy teaching, obviously, is to see the results folks get when encountering a new location, camera in hand. And I do some head tilts, at least occasionally, when I come upon a shooter who’s feverishly preparing a shot that appears to me to be so outlandish and nonsensical that I give him or her precisely zero chance of success. Those tend to be inside thoughts. I usually let the proceedings proceed, and I tell them I’ll check back in later.

And that’s the wonder of it. They’ll come back with something truly unique and beautiful, despite the teacher’s interior misgivings. They’ll come back with something unanticipated. They’ll come back with something I never could have seen, because I just don’t see in that particular way. And it’s wonderful, not to mention instructive, for all concerned, including me.

But then there are those moments when my perplexed head tilt and quizzical look of bovine astonishment at someone’s setup is warranted. I’ll walk up on a group that, for some reason, has chosen the darkest, most labor-intensive spot within the location that can be found. They will have looked at a beautifully ornate mansion and resolved to photograph their subject in front of a dark, highly reflective piece of polished wood wall that could literally be anywhere, and doesn’t have a scintilla of identity or story to it. They will wander into a romantically lush boudoir and use the closet ‘cause they want to make shadow patterns out of the hangers. Or something like that.

All to the good! Photography is a wide-open enterprise, and the creative soul has to wander where it wants. Sometimes, you just gotta take a stand and say, “I’m shooting this,” no matter the size of the windmill you’re tilting at. But you just have to accept the fact that, in many instances, that windmill’s gonna shred you and your picture dreams. It’s a learning moment, in a heartbreaking sort of way.

  • “So what drives my selection of a spot is often the quality and ‘cover the waterfront’ nature of the light that’s already there, before I even pull a flash out of the bag. Call it smart. Call it lazy. It’s okay. Just do yourself a favor and look for light that you don’t have to work at supplying.”

So, as one who has often been the bug splattered by the onrushing windshield of location photography, I at least try to choose my battles wisely. I look for a sense of place so that the photograph has roots and tells a bit of a story. Why drive to/rent/scout/light/struggle with a location only to come out with a photo that has a background that could be literally anywhere? It’s not always necessary, but showing environment in an informative way can be vital.

And frankly, one other thing I look for is some thing or some place that is already lit for me. I’m often working with small flash, which means I’m not in a position to light a city block anyway, and I’m relegated to lighting, or formalizing, my foreground, and letting the ambient light do the rest of the heavy lifting. So what drives my selection of a spot is often the quality and “cover the waterfront” nature of the light that’s already there, before I even pull a flash out of the bag. Call it smart. Call it lazy. It’s okay. Just do yourself a favor and look for light that you don’t have to work at supplying.

Wandering the thermal plant, I got intrigued with the silvery quality of the pipes near a set of windows. They made interesting shapes, and fairly gleamed in the daylight. Bathed in natural light, there was little or no input from any nasty overhead fluorescent or mercury vapor illumination of the type you often see in industrial environments. By keeping close to the windows, I made sure I had good, clean daylight throughout the frame. All I had to do was coax a ballerina up onto the slippery chrome, and we were almost home.


If the pipes are so well lit, why do I have to light her at all? Introducing a light for her gives me what? A lever of control over the gleam of the silvery scene. In other words, if I put her in there with no supplemental light, then she’s just part of the overall exposure. The light on her is the same as it is everywhere else. What I’m looking to do is spark her, just minimally—to clean up and direct the light hitting her face, and by doing that, to richen up (saturate) the pipes and the overall environment. A few sentences ago I used the word “formalize.” Indeed. With just a splash of foreground flash, I can make her pop, make her look more the way I want her to look, and thus—by exerting that tiny bit of foreground control—I can bring the background to heel.


Just a bit of foreground flash gives you control of the foreground, to be sure. But, very significantly, that measure of control extends all the way through the photo, to the very background.

Plus, she’s not C-3PO. She’s got skin tone, not a gleaming metal exterior. She needs the extra light. You can see in the production pic that the louvers have the windows at half mast. The sweep of natural light is actually below where her face is, and up around her head and shoulders she is starting to fall out of the sweet spot of the existing light pattern. With my flash, up high where she is, I just replaced that light loss.

That flash came in the form of the 30″ Ezybox Hotshoe softbox. It’s a big softbox for a small flash. It has a creamier, richer tonality than its smaller, sharper cousin, the 24-incher. Choice of the larger source here was driven by the lustrous quality of the window light. I was actively trying to match the quality of my flash with the quality of the existing light, and make it flattering for my subject and smooth enough so that its feel and look wouldn’t be jarring in the context of the scene. Invisible flash, in other words. Flash that disappears under the blanket of the light that’s already there. Flash that fits in.

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