I have alway loved window light. It’s one of the first questions I ask when talking with a prospective subject about the environment they will be photographed in. “Is it on the first floor?” They occasionally think this is odd, or, perhaps, that I am quintessentially lazy and don’t want to walk my gear up flights of stairs. Not the case! I just want to know if the windows are within reach and I can light from outside. If the quality of existing light is too minimal, or the wrong direction, that is a problem I can fix, just be re-creating, re-directing, or otherwise making window light happen. The above shot, of Little Freddie King, “King of the Blues,” a legendary guitarist who performs in New Orleans, is done with a single flash. A large battery flash outside, sits on a tall stand, and the window that is not in the picture, off to camera left, is sealed with a Lastolite Skylite Rapid Panel. Little Freddie looks in the direction of that light, and its power allows me to light the kitchen naturally, and also bring the window that is in the picture into some measure of exposure control.
The shot below, of Little Joe Lassiter, at his drum set in Preservation Hall, is also done principally with “artificial” window light, created with silks on the windows and Speedlights firing through those silks. The trigger flash for those Speedlights is connected to the camera via a series of SC-29 cords, which is old school technology given the dawn of radio TTL Speedlights such as the SB-5000 unit. But they were effective in providing Joe with a wonderful, smooth, natural looking light, which was perfect for his amazing face.
Below is a bit of a wild ass sketch of the proceedings above.
And then there’s the windows on the upper floors. Sometimes, you have to just go with the flow and shoot what’s there, or not there. Unless it’s 3am and you are on deadline, shooting a cover story for LIFE magazine that is closing that day.
I was assigned to the aftermath of chief creator and Muppeteer Jim Henson’s tragic death, and the devastating emotional effect that had on the Muppets and all the folks who worked there. I needed a shot of Bert and Ernie, looking wistfully at Jim’s empty desk, by the window. Which of course was dark, as I was about to do the shot in the middle of the night. The solution was to go one flight up from Jim’s old office, to the roof of the Muppet Mansion on the East Side, and boom a light (in a rain storm) out over the window, six stories up. This was big flash, an old Time-LIFE Speedotron unit, lashed securely up there in the wind and rain, and being driven by a radio trigger. Pow. Instant daylight.
Film was shipped straightaway crosstown to the Time-LIFE lab, processed and dropped into the story. Done. Window light is a beautiful thing, even when you have to make it yourself, six stories up.