As I usually mention when teaching flash lighting, the most important light to observe and work with is not represented by that carton of flashes in the trunk of your car. It’s the ambient light level you encounter on location. Even if you go into a coal mine, and there is no light, that lack of ambient illumination becomes the driver for your flash solution. Likewise, outside, on a sunny day, that nuclear blast of photons up in the sky pushes you to light…or not. So, ironically, when you go on location as a “flash photographer.” no matter how many watt seconds you are packing. the ambient light is the key light to observe and react to.
I was recently in San Diego, and my bud Earnie Grafton set up an impromptu lighting workshop with his former staff mates at the San Diego Union Trib. I enjoy the company of photogs, and working things out together, so when he broached doing this with me, I recall saying yes, and simply asking if he was buying the beers at the end of the day. Earnie being Earnie, a deal was sealed.
We wandered into Chicano Park, and immediately encountered the famous murals there, as well as a very patient, charismatic gentleman who briefly volunteered as our subject.
So, what’s the main light? The sky, to be sure. If I want blue in that sky, I have to underexpose the whole deal, which means bye-bye to my subject, and, very importantly, the signature aspect of the location, the murals. They are in shade, under the highway. Now, as with any photo excursion, there’s about a million different ways to go about getting a photo here. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration–let’s just say there’s a variety.) You could shoot it available light, as we did when we were testing with various members of the Trib staff. Looks fine. In fact, it has a look. Highlight-y, blown out, and a bit airy. All good.
But, if you want the sky, and some drama, and the murals, you have to bring something to the party. For the gentleman at the top, we started, as always, with a main light, an Ezybox 24″ Hot Shoe soft box, which is a staple for me on location. Out of the camera, you get this.
No camera chip can get its head around the value of the sky, and the shadows under the highway. It’s one, or the other. The only way to get the sky, and the paintings, is to effectively resupply the light you have robbed from the murals. We did this with two speed lights, one per side, firing TTL, triggering line of sight from the master. They are each a good 50-60′ away, through bright sun and into shadows. We ran them full blast. The final equation was 1/250 @ f11, ISO 200 on a D4S. The below frame is out of the camera. The same pic is at the top of the blog, one that Cali goosed a bit in PhotoShop, by adding some contrast and opening up some shadows. Then I took it and went old style NPPA on it, burning down the corners a bit. Old habits die hard. Shoulda come down a tad more on my angle to get rid of the highway light, but it ended up there, so I left it alone. Sigh.
The crew at the Trib is a good bunch, not only in terms of personality, but also in terms of excellence as shooters. Earnie, sadly, is no longer there. He was laid off earlier this year. It’s the paper’s loss, not to mention the reader’s. Some of his work below.
Too often now, the excellence of photo technology preempts the understanding that there is knowledge and experience needed to put that formidable technology to good use. The game of making pictures is not an exercise in automation and pixels, but a decidedly human endeavor, rife with calculations and enterprise even the priciest camera cannot enact. Sending reporters with Iphones out into the world as a means of cutting through the expensive underbrush of publishing is not an answer.
A dear friend has recently switched venues as an editor, from a very visual publication to a emphatically non-visual one. He’s inundated now with writers who come back from the field absolutely imbued with the sense that their smart phone snap really “gets” the story and is the perfect visual complement to their peerless words. He sighs patiently, and assigns a photog. (I’ve been blessed with working with many writers who know the most stirring combination in all of storytelling is an effective combination of words and pictures. But then, there are those writers you grapple with occasionally. A TIME writer I was working with on a cover story once announced at the dinner table that “Joe’s pictures are the whores that sell the chalice of my words.” He was being utterly serious.)
The “10,000 hours” rule applies dramatically to photography, despite the allure of instantaneous success presented by the high technology. Earnie, a former military shooter and a fourteen year newspaper veteran, has logged that irreplaceable time as have his mates still at the paper. Just because there are motor driven cameras out there in the world churning out easily procurable, well exposed, sharp images doesn’t mean those images are pertinent, or even any good. Ya gotta have an eye and a heart behind the lens, and if that head and heart are possessed of wisdom and know how, that is to the betterment of everyone–the editors, the readers, and the all important advertisers.
That deep well of human experience a shooter like Earnie (and many other photogs who have been dismissed in the budgetary free fall of publications) carry around in their camera bag is no longer available to the readers of the Trib, and surely it will be noticed over time. This development also means, at least temporarily, that Grafton might end up with too much time on his hands, and that’s truly disconcerting.
It was a good day in Chicano Park, in the company of photographers.