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Author Talk: Lindsay Adler and Erik Valind on Shooting in Sh*tty Light (Podcast Transcription)

Publisher Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel chats with authors Lindsay Adler and Erick Valind about the recently published "Shooting in Sh*tty Light: The Top Ten Worst Photography Lighting Situations and How to Conquer Them." They share some of their photography horror stories, and offer photographers a few tricks to use when facing poor lighting situations.

This interview is a transcription of the podcast, Lindsay Adler and Erik Valind on Shooting in Sh*tty Light.

From the author of

Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel:  I’m here today with the authors of the brand new book Shooting in Sh*tty Light.  Lindsay Adler, Erik Valind, congratulations on this great book. 

Lindsay Adler:  Thank you.

Erik Valind:  Thank you very much.

Nancy:  So, this is about the top ten worst photography lighting situations, and I have to say I have been waiting for this book forever.  Can you tell us a little bit about how the book came about and how you came up with the idea for building it?

Lindsay:  Well, I’ll dive in here.  I’ve been shooting for about 12 years, and I actually started in high school.  I think like most professional photographers or people who are starting out, you kind of piecemeal your education.  You learn as you have to learn, and when you come into situations where you don’t know how to handle the light, well you’d better hurry up and figure out how to do it.  It’s your job; no matter how bad the lighting situation is, you have to make beautiful images.  So I remember, when I was first starting out, walking into a room to photograph something and this nasty fluorescent light and it’s just miserable.  Or I was hired to shoot a wedding and I’d come to the reception and it was at night, outdoors.  These are really, really, really overwhelming situations for a beginning photographer, and you don’t know what you don’t know until the situation arises, and all of a sudden you have to make good pictures in terrible light. 

So, what I was thinking about when I first kind of came up with this concept is that was the most intimidating thing for me when I first started – conquering challenging lighting situations.  And I basically wanted to write a book that I wished had existed -- the book that I had in my hand when I was first getting started as a photographer -- and so that’s how it came about.  And, as far as the title, I wanted to convey the fact that this was kind of a to-the-point book.  It’s not going to be philosophical.  It’s really, really practical.  It’s a handy guide for guess what – sometimes you walk into a situation and the lighting is less than perfect.  In fact, it’s just plain sh*tty.  What do you do?  And I wanted to say that it was going to be a really practical book.  And I started working on the book, and I met Erik, and I realized just he’s an amazing photographer with amazing technical knowledge.  He has complete mastery over speed light, and I asked him, you know, because I had just started on it, if he wanted to take part in this and he was, I think, thrilled, so he’s an amazing person to team up with. 

Nancy:  So how did you two get so successful at such a young age?  You’re both pretty young.  I’m sure people listening want to know how you’ve got great careers in photography and those listening would love to hear about that.

Erik:  Oh God, Lindsay’s been doing this I guess a deceivingly long time.  But myself, honestly, it’s just a lot of photographers -- there’s this old stereotype we’re all a bunch of introverts, and being a people photographer -- it’s just basically get out there and meeting people, whether you’re photographing them, whether they’re a potential client down the road, or just putting it out there.  So I guess I didn’t take the normal, the old tried and true marketing campaigns where I’d hide behind a mailer and send that out every week for a year and then hope someone gives me a call.  I’m very much about meeting people and taking them for coffee and showing them my book in person and then being enjoyable on the set, because when it comes down to it, whether you’re the subject or the client on the set, you want a photographer that isn’t a prima donna, that’s enjoyable to be around and is also very technically competent, you know is going to deliver you great images.  So it’s all about the experience of the creation of the image and the final image.  While some people just get caught up on, “when I make a good photo I’ll be successful.”  Well that might make you a good photographer, but to be a good working professional photographer, it’s a whole package.  You have to be enjoyable to be around and valid.  So it’s just a lot of hard work and being nice to people.

Lindsay:  I think that was perfectly said, and just my end of it is that I’ve been shooting since I was 13.  I started my business when I was 15, and think I had a very supportive family, so my mom could try to help me put together my business, and so it’s just been kind of chipping away at things for over 12 years.  Just slowly but surely I’ve started a portrait business and then I did some weddings.  I did go to school for photography while I continued to run my business and then, after I had a portrait studio, I eventually transitioned to be a fashion photographer.  I was just echoing what he said and it’s exactly true.  It’s not necessarily about who you know as far as, like, who your friends are or who you’re related to or anything like that.  It’s the people that you find attracted to you and the people that you can show that you’re confident and that you’re reliable and that you’re a fun, easy person to be around, which is the same thing.  On the set, if you make it miserable, the experience is going to be negative and probably the photos won’t be that great.  And so I’ve built a great creative team and I’ve made friends with my clients so that it’s an enjoyable experience to work with me.  And so I agree with him completely on that.

Nancy:  That’s fantastic advice, Lindsay and Erik.  So I want to find out what kind of horror stories are there out there?  Obviously, you’ve dealt with a lot of different lighting situations, which inspired this book, but I’d love to hear about maybe your favorite horror story and how you managed to deal with it. 

Erik:  Do you want to go first on this one?  I think I know I’ve got one that jumps out at you.

Lindsay:  Sure.  I have an excellent example.  I went to a wedding, and I was hired to shoot the wedding.  We show up at the reception hall that it was in and I, you know this is a horror story so, guess what, it’s a reality that a lot of people face.  And so I show up at this reception hall and the ceilings are like 8½ foot.  Okay, so low ceilings – I don’t really have anything to bounce it off, that’s usually one of my go-to solutions, and then all the walls on the side have this weird, like, almost purple velvet on them, so I couldn’t bounce it off the walls.  And then there were randomly placed mirrors on certain walls, so it was just really, really challenging.  And so what happens is that you can’t have one trick in your bag, you can’t have the “oh I’ll bounce the light off the ceiling” trick.  You have to know how to use different light modifiers that are going to soften the light or give you a better spread of light.  And the exact same thing happens, kind of the other nightmare situation that I know people run into all the time and it comes to me that all round shooting weddings, which is probably why I prefer now to shoot fashion, you have complete control, but the wedding ceremony that takes place at noon and then they want the group pictures done and they got married in the middle of a park, in the middle of the field, so there’s no shade, there’s blaring direct sunlight, and you have to photograph a large group of people and make it look good.  I encountered that not just once, but many times, and so I think that was probably the most frustrating thing to me is having to deal with direct sunlight and then having to deal with a space where I couldn’t bounce my flash. 

Erik:  Group photography!  Mine’s kind of a similar story.  It wasn’t a wedding, it was… I was shooting political campaigns for a company down in Tampa and they wanted to go ahead and spell out a politician’s four-letter first name in supporters.  So basically we rented a bucket truck, we were out there on the beach in Florida and I was up in the air and they tried to organize over a hundred different supporters to stand in line to spell out the name.  And needless to say it was difficult to produce because you had to get x amount of supporters, you had to make sure so many people showed up, you had to say for “B” you need like 52 people to stand around here in formation.  So by the time they’d got all the supporters there and we’d got everyone in position, the sun wasn’t exactly high in the sky any more.  It was actually setting in the background.  So by the time everything had gotten organized, we had pretty much run out of light, so this was where it kind of came in handy to have flashes and not just be what people call a natural photographer.  I was comfortable with using strobes at this time.  I was able to go ahead and grab my strobe out of my bag, gel them a little bit warm so that they’d be warmed to match what remaining light there was of the sunset and light this photo up to look like we had actually got it all executed in the middle of the day with nice, beautiful sunlight.  When, in reality, by the time we’d organized everyone and I’d got back up in the bucket truck and was able to take the photo, we were just kind of chasing daylight.  So, like Lindsay said, you can’t be a one-trick pony whether you’re going out there to expect natural light or expecting to shoot, it’s still being able to have a broad knowledge of all your different tools so that you can pull them out and save your butt when you need them.

Nancy:  That’s a great story Erik, and Lindsay, yours too, and I’m sure a lot of listeners have had their own horror stories.  But I think one of the things your book does is show that some very inexpensive pieces of equipment can help you during those periods of less than ideal light.  Could you recommend one or two things from the book that folks should make sure to include in their camera kit to help with those poor lighting situations?

Lindsay:  So I’ll start with a basic and really obvious solution that everybody knows they should have but some people don’t.  I always have at least a three-in-one reflector so that I have the ability to have a silver and also a silver-gold mix.  Now, Erik talks about you don’t want to be a one-trick pony, and I completely, completely agree with that, and what I’ll say as well, though, is if I can use natural light, for me personally, I do.  And so, a lot of times, I am able to use natural light even if it’s fading or it’s not perfect, if I’m able to have a good three-in-one or five-in-one reflector, and I usually aim for something like a 32”, I’ll have maybe silver-gold, silver, and it kind of depends if you want a diffuser in the middle or if you’d like to have it flipped.  You know there are so many different options, but most of the time I’m just using a silver and silver-gold mix.  But what’s great about those… super inexpensive.  And I love shooting on location, and it’s great because I don’t need to carry a ton of equipment.

Erik:  I guess this is where I’m supposed to come in and say alright: a speed light.  So, if you do get in a situation  where natural light, most of the time when you’re using different lights and speed lights, studio strobes, and whatever, you’re just trying to recreate a beautiful natural light that we saw somewhere.  So Lindsay is entirely correct, I mean, natural light is one of the most beautiful things out there and it requires you to bring the least amount of gear to use.  But I always have speed lights with me, no matter what, just in case I get in a bind and need to add some light to a photo, so I would definitely say a speed light.  Outside of that, though, one of my favorite new products is the parabolic umbrella from Westcott.  It’s a big 7-foot shoot room umbrella so it’s just a diffusion material.  What’s cool about it is if you’re shooting in natural light, you can use it overhead like a giant mobile cloud or if you’re like myself and want to use your speed lights, you can use it as a giant modifier for your speed lights.  So it kind of does double duty there. 

Lindsay:  And we use that in the book, and I hadn’t actually used one before Erik introduced me to it, and I love it and I use it all the time.  Sometimes in the direct sunlight you want to just soften it and you want to make it that warm glowing, almost feeling like a softbox, and there are plenty of solutions out there.  There’s scrims and there’s other diffusers but this one is so easy.  You pop it open and you can hold it overhead.  It’s awesome.  So that was a great tool for Erik, and he introduced me to it.  And I thought it was fun because both he and I are professionals and been doing this for a while, have tons of tricks in our bag, but we could even still learn stuff from each other. 

Nancy:  Yeah, Lindsay, that’s a great comment.  I mean we deal with co-authors on books all the time, and it’s really the most successful ones where the co-authors are learning from each other in the process of writing the book.  So I love hearing that.  You took a lot of images specifically for the book.  You went out into the field, so maybe you can share with the audience what your process was for shooting those images that appear in the book. 

Lindsay:  Well, it’s kind of, because our process was exactly opposite of what we usually do, we’ve literally had to go look for the worst light possible and that’s how we begin the book by saying you know the best bet for you to get good photographs is to avoid sh*tty light altogether.  You’re the boss.  When you’re hired to shoot something, somebody wants your expertise as a photographer.  They want your knowledge, and so you’re more than welcome to tell them where are the best locations to shoot, what is the best time of day or best lighting, and so that’s what Erik and I always do.  We always make it easy on ourselves if we can to get the best light.  But we know that that’s not always a reality, and maybe there’s a bar or location Erik has to shoot where is mixed light and he has to control it.  Or maybe it’s me and the client only is available after high noon in a certain location.  So, for us, the process of taking these photos and producing the book was kind of actually opposite what we’d normally do. We’d go out and make sure we were shooting in direct sunlight, or we’d go out and find really nasty fluorescent lights.  And basically what we would do more or less would be to pick a chapter with a nasty light concept there, find the location, and then we would take turns for most of the chapters, either shoot 50-50, or he would shoot one chapter and I would shoot another, and we’d help each other out.  So we were kind of each other’s assistants so it comes back down to learning from each other.  He would shoot and we’d have a list of what we wanted to demonstrate, and then maybe I’d have something to add or a different approach I’d have or vice versa.  And we, you know, hired models and had friends.  We shot mostly in the locations where we thought would be realistic to have to deal with bad light, so, for example, a really, really low lit church that is very common for photographers to have to handle, and so it’s funny because although we definitely enjoyed writing the book because I really believe this is a book I would wish I had when I first started out, at the same token it was a miserable book to shoot because we had to shoot in the worst lighting possible.  So it was kind of a mixed bag of enjoyment and pain at the same time. 

Erik:  After going over the techniques that we wanted to cover and actually find the really bad locations to work in, everything else kind of happened organically.  I mean, in each chapter you’re going to see a layout of bad photos, like what not to do, and then how we fixed them or made them better, and that basically is the thought process and the actual shooting process if you looked through our cameras after a photo shoot.  You’ll see us getting an ambient exposure and a very dark model with shade on her face, and then you’ll see what happens when we add a reflector or fill lights.  So the book was really sourced honestly when it came to the photos because normally you only see a photo at the end.  We just went through and gave you all the naked ugly truth of how we got to that exposure.  So after finding the crappy location we just went through and showed you all of our steps from the back of the camera almost all the way to the good one. 

Lindsay:  I think that is an awesome point.  Because this is a tip for beginning photographers, this is why if you shoot a wedding you don’t want to hand over every single photo that you shot and you don’t want to necessarily show your client the entire raw shoot because, guess what, Erik’s completely right.  There is a process of kind of figuring things out and tweaking it and you’ll always have bad shots, and that’s why I think both of our portfolios are strong because we don’t show anything bad that ever happens.  We only show the best stuff. So that’s another tip for people, you know: don’t show your clients every shot.  There is a process of you trying to figure out and get it just right before you hit that perfect exposure. 

Nancy:  Great piece of advice.  So if you could zero in on one more takeaway that you’d like your readers to come away with, what would that be?

Erik:  Practice.  Practice, practice, practice, practice.  Practice the stuff in the book.  If you have a shoot coming up, go ahead and shoot under similar scenario the day before so you have experience overcoming everything because, being a photographer, we’re problem solvers.  I mean, you walk on and you might think you have everything in the world dialed in and something will happen.  You’ll forget to charge your batteries; you forgot the prime lens you wanted to use.  So something always goes wrong, so definitely practice before the shoot as much as possible. 

Lindsay:  And mine would be kind of a two-pronged thing.  First of all, make sure you’re not a one-trick pony, because for me I always find whatever I expected to happen doesn’t happen – late changes, or situation changes, you have to move locations, and if you only have one solution then you’re kind of stuck, and your job is to be that problem solver, just like he said.  And then the second part, I’ve said this before, but I think, you know, in the beginning I give this tip and I said if you follow this tip you don’t have to read another page in the book: shoot in good light.  Avoid the sh*tty light.  Remember, if you have the control, take the control and make sure that you’re shooting in a beautiful lighting situation.  Because if the light is bad and you don’t control it, then you’ve ruined the photograph.  So you either have to find a beautiful lighting situation and encourage your client to shoot there, or you need to know and have an entire bag of solutions to fix whatever challenging situation you might come up against. 

Nancy:  Fantastic and, of course, the book itself is a bag of solutions.  I’m looking through the table of contents now and each chapter, you know: Chapter 1 – Direct Sunlight; Chapter 2 – No Shade in Sight; Chapter 3 – Fluorescent Light; Mixed Color Temperatures; Shooting at Night.  This is, and will be, the bible for Shooting in Sh*tty Light.  So I want to thank you, Lindsay and Erik, and congratulations again.

Erik:  Thank you.

Lindsay:  Yes, thank you for having us on.

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