PhotoShop World. Vegas. Its pretty crazy here. Lots going on. I guess I might have been unconsciously preparing myself for it by putting D in the lake in Santa Fe.
I’ve been friends with D for about 6 or 7 years. She is one of the most expressive people I’ve ever had in front of my lens. She creates her own art form from her movement, her face and the angular, radical shapes she can make with her physique. As I think about it, she is her own one person Cirque du Soleil.
Shot with one SB 900, zoomed to 200, through a largely blacked out umbrella.
It was a natural leap from the lake to Vegas, in a way. Long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I shot a story for Nat Geo called “The Power of Light.” I spent some time in the city of neon and glitz.
Nothing like chopper work at dusk to test your hand holding capabilities. Never use a gyro up there, just useless weight on the drag strip. But I do try to stay steady, and not drink too much coffee beforehand. Geographic never ran this, but the I did get the lead to the story here.
There’s almost 40 xenon arcs up at the top of the Luxor Pyramid, all aimed somewhat uselessly (hey, its Vegas) right up at the sky. I’ve worked with xenon arcs in studios (big studios) and they are powerful beasts. Which is why the tech working with the lights is wearing a bomb suit and a face guard. One of those bulbs explodes, you are in for big trouble. Of course, I was up there in shorts and a t-shirt, which did give me a bit of pause. But it was hot. Damn hot. Of course I chose to make it more uncomfortable by dragging a smoke machine up there, to create some vapor trails for these lights. Ran as the opening double truck, though, so I was happy enough. I wish you could know that kind of stuff when you were shooting. Maybe by the time the D8 or something comes along, there’ll be a little indicator that goes off and an audible computer voice tells you, “You have just made the lead photo for your story. You can relax now.”
Wouldn’t help me, though. I’m a worrier. Whenever I get a Geographic story, especially the old style Geo stories that ran for months, it would stick to my head like glue. Nothing was ever good enough. Nothing was ever gonna work. Think about it in the shower. Think about it when I would play with the kids. Wake up in a cold sweat, thinking, okay, they’re gonna find out now, on this one, that is all a sham, and I can’t shoot, and I’ll never get another job from anyone, and my children will starve. Fun, huh? I mean its uncomfortable. Its like walking around for a few months with an A clamp on your nuts.
Wouldn’t ya know it I come to Vegas, teach the pre-con Photo Safari with my dear friend and great shooter Moose Peterson, and I end up with a frame I like of a cowboy by the side of the road. We went to this little ghost town place called Nelson, with a bunch of folks, and tried some lighting solutions.
It prompted me to think about a quick lesson for the Hot Shoe Diaries. Sample below…..
MAKE THE AVAILABLE LIGHT UNAVAILABLE
Why would you do that? Why would you go from the the safe haven of light you can see, touch and feel into the mysterious, uncertain and quite possibly dangerous land of flash? That’s like sailing across eel infested waters and then climbing the Cliffs of Insanity! Inconceivable!
Think of it this way. That available light is available to you, for sure, but then again it is available to everybody. You can make a picture that will look kind of the same as the guy next to you as the guy next to him. Then, for instance, all of you submit those pictures to the same magazine, or agent, or stock house or whatever, and the reaction is, hey, wait a minute, these all look…the same. It’s like Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon showing up on Oscar night wearing the same dress. Quel embarrassment!
In a world of sameness, where there’s a Starbucks, a Gap, a Barnes & Noble, and a Pizza Hut on every other block of every other town you’ve ever been to, there is vibrance and joy in difference. In an era of pictures by the pound, royalty free, rights free, fast food photography, it just might pay to step back and try to make your pictures the equivalent of a mom and pop shop, the old curio store, or the place where the locals really eat.
One path to difference is to use light in creative and unexpected ways. Out here on the road, in the middle of no place Nevada, the sun had gone down. There was still plently of light, but it was cool, subdued, and expressionless. It was, you know, available, but unexciting. I put Chris, our actor cowboy up against a old barnside that had lots of cool stuff stuck on it, and made a picture. A very average picture. (That’s being kind.) It was a record of the scene, and not an interpretation. It was shot at 1/80th at f2.8.
But what lingered in my head was the sun going down over the distant hills on camera left. It had disappeared behind those hills just when it was about to get colorful and interesting. (Available light will do that to you.) So I put up a flash, with a full cut of CTO on it and placed it on a stand about at the angle the sun had been. The CTO turned the clean, neutral white light of the SB900 into the color of sunset. The 900 was especially advantageous here because of its capacity to zoom to 200 millimeters. When you zoom the flash head to 200, you concentrate the light. It gets punchy and direct, kind of like, oh, late afternoon sunset light.
I aimed it at a pretty steep angle to the wall, and triggered it with a CLS i-TTL signal from the SB900 I hot shoed to the camera. Made another frame at 1/80th at 2.8. You can see the scene warm just a touch. The camera is doing its job. It is mixing the flash and the available light in a reasonable way. Remember, it’s a machine. It does what it does. Like a food processor, it chops, slices, dices and blends, all with the aim of uniformity and in worship of what it perceives to be the happy place, the land of the histogram right in middle of things. Safe, in a word.
Safe, as in…blah. A smooth exposure. Publishable. But nothing with edge or difference or color. So, I got rid of it. All of it. I took over the controls (Luke’s switched off his targeting computer!), and put the camera into manual mode, and dialed in 125th of a second at 5.6, underexposing the scene by about 3 stops or so. Predictably, I got this. Ordinarily, you’d say Whoops! and check your settings. But here, in this dark place, is where I wanted to be. Now I have control.
What happens when you open a camera shutter in a black room? Nothing, until you light it. I had turned this roadside scene into a black room via use of shutter speed and f-stop. The camera sees almost nothing now. It is waiting for input. It is waiting for light.
Made another exposure, this one with the speed light firing and hitting the actor and the wall in a hard, intense way, creating lots of highlight and shadow areas. The SB900, zoomed at 200 millimeters, gelled warm, gave the scene life, dimension and color. Shot about 5 frames, turned it over to the class.
You can do a lot with one flash and a stand by the side of the road. You can make the sun come back. More tk.