Remember when we all thought available light was so cool?

I still do. Styles ebb and flow but I think the prevailing style of lighting that was coincident with your initial development as a photographer makes a mark on some inner aesthetic part of your brain. The style of your nascent brush with art locks you on a certain pathway.

For many of us old enough to remember the general interest magazines like Life Magazine and Look Magazine; and certainly National Geographic Magazine, the look that "locked" us was the gorgeous and incredibly well executed "available light" imagery. Little wonder that most of us still lust for cameras like Leica rangefinders with their fast sharp prime optics. To work back in that milieu required physical talent as opposed to technical talent. One had to be able to recognize and respond to good light and bad light with flawless technique. If you worked with the ISO 200 speed film of the day you learned to stand still and calm the tremors of human existence in a way that image stabilization and ultra high ISO sensitivities in digital cameras don't really demand. (Not to worry, this is not a rant about digital versus film.....)

I think the look hooked us for several reasons: 1. The shots weren't set up. No one needed to show up with an army of assistants and cases full of lights and stands in order to do their work. That meant the photographer blended in and was not part of the production. Kind of reversing the Heisenberg theory of affective subliminal interaction. No "Heisenberg Compensator" was necessary. Subject reactions, unfettered by the persistent visual patter of flashes, was more real, less self conscious. 2. The need for "speed" in order to hand hold cameras led to the design, production and wide spread use of really fast lenses. Some of which are still competitive with the best on offer from Canon and Nikon. Leica had the f1 Noctilux. Canon had a 50mm f (point) .9 lens. Even my old Olympus Pen FT sported a 60mm 1.5 lens. Now we get excited about a constant aperture f2.8 zoom? Really? The upshot of the fast lenses is a wonderfully thin zone of focus that makes the in focus subject the nexus of all attention and intention. 3. The images weren't subjected to endless iterations of post production. Nothing existed to save a mediocre shot or a shot that just lacked intrinsic interest.

I loved opening up a fresh copy of Life Magazine. Not all the images were wonderful, compelling or even midly interesting but the ones that were had the power to rivet young eyes for ages.

The world has changed. People entering photography now feel the overarching desire or need to imprint a personal style on every image they shoot so many settle on a style that is often a hodge podge of imitative steals and compulsively imprint that style on every frame they shoot. The tools have become more of a message than the message itself.

In the last month I've pushed myself to up my game. To handhold better, to see better and to improve the craft. You'll think I'm nuts (and maybe many of your already do) but I've given up a 25 year coffee habit in the quest to handhold better and to have the patience to see stuff worth handholding a camera for. I'm meditating in hopes of getting clearer and clearer about what I want to photograph and why. And I'm getting down right reductivist about the gear I want to shoot with.

I figure that with a D700 and a 50mm 1.1.2 and a fast 85mm I should be able to do good, compelling people work at a higher level than I would if everything were lit. And I do find that I'm having to watch the light with a patience I never did before.

Even though part of my livelihood depends on selling books about using lights I'll be the first to admit that some subjects don't need to be lit. They repulse the attempt. Nothing beats perfect light and nature makes a lot of it.

The above shot was done for a hospital group and is nothing much. But it catches my eye because of its candid nature and the perfect balance of light and contrast. It reminds me that sometimes getting even more MINIMAL garners maximum results.

As I was thinking about our society's collective compulsion to embellish reality and photographers' compulsion to use light as style I came across a verse in the good ole Tao Ching (Stephen Mitchell Translation) that reads:

Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about other people's approval and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.


Gordon said...

or in a Seinfield vein, 'Serenity Now!'

I've always loved the look of natural light, finding it, searching it out. Probably why my bag is mostly fast primes and the expensive fixed aperture zooms I bought in the folly of my youth are typically gathering dust.

But really it's probably about having the skill to be able to light well and having the wisdom to know when not to bother.

Bold Photography said...

Interesting to see what goes around comes around...

Anonymous said...

I totally disagree. The available light style is a dinosaur style used by old farts who can't be bothered to learn new techniques. Just because this guy couldn't light his way out of a paper bag doesn't mean we have to like raw natural light. Nothing could be less creative.

Write something I can make money with!

kirk tuck said...

Sorry you feel that way but I'm into this whole serenity thing (as Gordon pointed out) so I can't really step out of character and hit you with an incredibly pithy response. Too bad because so many come to mind....

Matthew Kennedy said...

Great article. For me nothing beats walking around with my SRT 201 and 50 f1.7.

Sharanjit said...

As a newcomer to photography I particularly enjoy reading your blog, especially when you start to strip things to the essence as you have done in this latest post. I'm sure I shall go down similar twists and wrong turns, and will ignore all your sagely and seasoned advice. But it's comforting to know there is at least a glimpse of serenity at the end. Please keep writing, as I'll keep reading.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful and inspiring post.

Thank you.

Michelle Jones said...

Like Gordon, I've got a lot of fixed ap zooms sitting about not doing much, I now work with a 50mm f1.8 and a 35 f2 and I love it. The constant struggle for focus on the eyes and the beautiful bokeh is what drives me. I still use flash when it's needed but I'm trying to emulate natural light with it more and more. I won't use it if the natural light is better.

Fernando Cundin said...

I have a notion....

Pondering the working method for exposure of a now almost defunct film Kodak Kodachrome 64, I notice that there is a strong correlation that occurred with popular use of Nikon cameras and their centerweighted meters and the working exposure technique of the Kodak film. There is also another point to bring out in the regard of how lighting affected the aesthetic and the look overall of this approach and the meanings or relations that we are thinking and working with today using digital gear.

Firstly, note that the Kodachrome 64 was not highlight friendly. You HAD to expose the scene for the highlights and then let the shadows fall however they happen to be, this was a rigid working technique not unlike something that digital demands. The greater latitude in ISO sensitivity still offers no more dynamic range capability than before the D3, but the working method and capability of the machine is different. I am speaking about available light imaging and not allowing for the popular strobist style lighting that is all the rage today. So the available light exposure maintained control of the highlights and dropped other areas of the image into deeper shadow than how the scene appeared to the eye. This created a dramatic scene on film and in print that supported the nature of the imaging and publishing project. The magazines that supported all of this were Look, Time, Nat. Geographic, Life, etc. This print media effort supported and created a genre of "look" and style that is still with us today, if only in our mind's expectations. The newer styles of imaging shun so many of these norms and tenants simply because of how the machines are working today. So the machine and the medium, print - camera tool and film, defined an aesthetic that is still affecting our judgment today as to what is a good image.


Fernando Cundin said...

As a further note and general FYI I supply think link as an addendum to the last comment. I was hoping to see Kodachrome 64 reach the 75 birthday mark, but alas the changes are a many.

Kodak news: http://www.kodak.com/eknec/PageQuerier.jhtml?pq-path=15359&pq-locale=en_US


TC said...

Exactly right. I don't get any satisfaction from setting up lights and models for photography; it feels like cheating. I might as well do a Thomas Hawk and go to a museum and shoot the well-lit displays of cavemen manniquins before I'm thown out;)

Recognizing and capturing real light, real emotion in the real world: now THAT's photography, IMHO.

Duncan said...

Thanks for this Kirk. The first 'Anonymous' comment is extraordinary. There is something special about available light - a natural honesty - if it's of a certain quality, and having command of your craft so that you can use it to advantage is nothing but good. Mastery of artificial lighting is also admirable; each method should be used when most appropriate, but doing what you can, with what you've got, and producing a notable result, is to be applauded.