When I take the time to read so many of the photographic magazines out there, they seem filled with a multitude of ‘trainers’ offering instruction on how to use off camera flash or basic studio lighting technique, some even venture into subject specific stuff that enthrals for a fleeting moment in a career and then is resigned to the knowledge bank that is seldom afterwards accessed. In short much of the information and techniques we learn are not regularly used but seem to be driven by manufacturers releasing the latest bits of kit to play with. I often question if we have simply become victims of consumerism in the changing photographic industry or at worst, acolytes of the ‘truhs’ to be found on the Internet?
It is not that long ago that the mark of the professional photographer was his trademark camera and to many that was the trusty Hasselblad in its several manifestations. The common denominator was the simplistic controls. In short an aperture and a shutter speed ring within the leaf shutter in the lens. If you wanted metering then it was down to your trusty Lightmeter or the addition of an appropriate prism. Other than a ‘mirror up’ and a shutter release on the camera, that was your lot!
Now we are ‘blessed’ with so many modes, buttons, whistles and bells that we often wish it was back to the good old days. The phrase ‘keep it simple’ was an excellent maxim that is nowadays often ignored. I for one actually switch off when I hear conversations dominated by what these fantastic DSLR’s can do and how the various modes have been employed to get the right shots. What ever happened to using one’s eyes, seeing the light, the scene, the people and simply being the best photographer that it is possible to be. It is nice to see that a number of manufacturers are going ‘Retro’ to emulate the feel and functionality of cameras of old!
By now I guess you are all wondering ‘what exactly is he getting at?’ and the easy answer is when are we going to go back to the basics, the underpinned knowledge our art and craft is based upon? I am certainly not the only one amongst the trainers out there who promote such essential and base knowledge but I am probably, surprise, surprise, one of the most vociferous on the subject.
Light, the fundamental tool of our craft is all too often seen, taken for granted but seldom properly understood. After al,l the new DSLR in your hand can now do it all for you. Why not use ‘P’ for ‘Professional’ and then just cast your attention to your subjects and forget the full implications of light? Isn’t that a reasonable assumption to make? Lets not forget the joys of ‘A’ or ‘S’ or indeed any of the other derivations that take control of the cameras functions and alleviate responsibility.
Now the party political broadcast and veiled plea for a return to understanding the core values is over I want to look at the use of natural light as the most beautiful of primary sources of illumination. All other light sources are designed to emulate it one way or another and at varying colour temperatures but the quest to emulate directional natural light is the same.
Knowing that there is plenty of natural light on a subject is not quite the same as understanding it or following its direction to see the beneficial and aesthetic effects on the subject themselves. And when there are multiple sources, for example windows and doorways it can be awfully confusing particularly for the uninstructed newbie. So how can we teach people to see, feel and use light to best advantage? Unquestionably that is best answered in a practical environment but as this is now a brave new internet world that apparently holds the keys to the mysteries of the world I will begin by saying look for patterns. Patterns and particular shapes on the faces of your subjects, the classical inverted triangle on the near cheek that forms a part of the ‘short’ lighting pattern. Look for shadows and the angles at which they are cast. How many areas of your frame does the natural light illuminate and to what degree? Can you ‘flag’ the light to reduce its intensity and maximise the fall off over a given area? Lots of questions I know but only by asking these questions will you be forced to examine each and every situation you find yourself in and deduce the answers in pursuit of the perfectly illuminated shot.
I endeavour, in the first instance, to make a deliberate decision to only use the natural light available and at the most a reflector. I constantly look for a vibrant almost three dimensional feel to my images as it has become more of a ‘trademark’ over my career and with the advent of my all time favourite “Nik Software” my style choice has been refined to a point where I feel it is distinctive. Go out and find great locations and great buildings. In London there is one such ‘Studio’ known as ‘The Roost’. It is a labyrinth of feature rooms all with their very own distinctive character. Although many users of this facility bring in their own light sources it is my belief that natural and ambient is best. After all, interior designers and architects design rooms to be lit to create a particular feel and ambiance, so why on earth iron that out by the application of dominant and supplementary light sources? Makes no sense to me at all. As a tip for you, look at the way any room has been lit to match the character, furnishings and the desired ‘feel’. If it has been designed that way then use what you have. Turn your subjects and pose them if you will to ‘take the light direction’ for the sake of the most flattering aspects of your subjects and in harmony with the situation you find them in. Lets just call this a start and I hope one day to follow it up in practical sessions with so many of you who are determined to “See the Light”