5.26.2010

Available Light gets Short Shrift these days but it can really rock.


You probably are tired of hearing the shopworn old saying, "Give someone a hammer and suddenly everything looks like a nail...."  I'm tired of hearing that too.  I'm also tired of hearing the phrase, "Horses for courses".   I've never owned a horse and few of the people I deal with every day have owned horses either.  I think it must mean that you would use a quarter horse for rodeo work and a thoroughbred for some kinds of races; perhaps a Clydesdale to pull your beer wagon around.....

But, back to the hammer one.  In the last few years we've been teaching anyone with a few extra bucks how to use flash.  In fact, to read the Strobist.com discussion group or even one of my first two books you could be excused for thinking that a battery powered flash, connected via wires or radio triggers, is as important as the lens in taking acceptable photographs.

Surprise!  Available light still works.  Even with digital!  While I think it's great to be able to pull a tool out of the box (a flash?) and know how to use it when the light gets dicey and you need some help, it's not the Holy Grail of photography. Problem is that many people tend to learn a technique and apply it in every instance.

This is a reminder to look for beautiful light and use it as your FIRST line of creative tactics.  The universe has billions more years of experience (unless you are a literal Bible believer) in creating and sharing really nice and interesting light.  Part of being a photographer is learning to see the promise of fine lighting and leverage it into your images.

The shot above was very simple.  I was sitting having  mocha almond cake at Les Amis cafe on the corner of 24th street and the street one block west of Guadelupe, in Austin, Texas.  I was sitting outside covered by a patio roof.  I was a few feet in from the sun.  I had my ancient Canon TX 35mm camera, loaded with the (nearly) required Tri-X black and white film.  That day I was playing with a Vivitar 135mm f2.8 lens.  I turned around to follow the wandering eye of my guest and spotted this charming young woman.  I smiled, brought up the camera, matched the needle for exposure and clicked off a frame.  She smiled and we both went back to the important business of enjoying our afternoon snacks.  This image, though well over thirty years old, constantly reminds me to look at available light first.  And to use it if it works.

Today is actually International Available Light Portrait Day.  Celebrate by taking some low stress, high return portraits----just for fun.  Happy IALPD!

11 comments:

John Krumm said...

Very true, Kirk. Constantly looking for good available light is one of those photographer quirks that develops over time. That and almost driving off the road if the light is distractingly good. Sometimes you have to turn that part of the brain off, or down.

kirk tuck said...

I'm loving the available light. Too bad it wouldn't make a very good "how to" book. What would you tell people? "Look at the light!" Chapter two: Look at the light again!"

Poagao said...

This is how I've always felt, to the degree that the only time I even consider using a flash is to fill backlit scenes. But to me, when I'm just out and see a particularly attractive scene that calls out to be photographed, my first thought is not "What would this look like with a flash?" but "This is lovely, I must take a picture." It's the beauty that attracted me to it in the first place; perhaps I lack the imagination to consider all the varieties of lighting that could be applied to it, but I'm just not as interested in creating a lighting scenario as I am in discovering one that "just happened". In the latter case, it just seems more true to my concept of photography, as "street" shots seem more true to me than studio shots. Reality is greater than our imaginations. I wrote more on this on my site at http://poagao.org/2010/escaping-imagination/ if you're interested.

Dave E. said...

God, how much Tri-X B&W have I shot with just available light... how sick did I become in the dark room over the years... but now I need to buy $3k worth of lighting and learn to chimp the histogram to be a photographer? When did this happen?

Anonymous said...

literal Bible believer checking in, lol
i use available light, love it, also i use whatever light is available, it's a tool and in the bag, it's available, i bring at least one flash wherever i go just in case.
the photo bag should be viewed as a tool bag, buy and learn to use the tools. a screw driver doesn't do a great job with nails..........

rob

kirk tuck said...

2006.

kirk tuck said...

LBL, I agree that a flash is a nice tool. I guess my point is that people have also been turning it into a nice crutch....

Don said...

I am not sure it is getting a short shrift in the real world, Kirk. Recently in New York nearly every editorial shooter I met was using natural light as their main source. Some had a few small strobes for those times that it makes sense.

I think that there is a wide (and growing wider) chasm between those that are out there doing it, and making the images and the attention some have received based on different niches. From 25 speedlite shoots to toy cameras, there are always some groups who create narrow cliques of self-promotion.

It is much harder to make images that stand on their own - without a qualifier - than to make images based ON the qualifier. When people who prefer to shoot one specific type of gear, they miss out on the other possibilities of shooting, whether by mistake or purpose.

A shot that speaks to the viewer should not necessarily need a qualifier to make it 'cool', but that is where we find ourselves - at least in the online world. Qualifiers abound online. From brand of camera to what computer is used... sigh...

I just don't think that Demarchelier, Albertson, Winters, Elgort, Heisler or thousands of other terrific photographers limit themselves to only this or only that. To do so, seems to be somewhat limiting in one's scope.

My work, as yours, runs from lots of lights to simple window light... even simpler sometimes. That means we think of subject first, then the gear. I teach that as "Subject Centric Lighting" - being aware that the subject and the shot will call for the gear that is correct for the vision.

As usual, a good post and thought provoking.

Robert said...

The cool thing about available light is that it is available. But on the other hand if you don't have the right wrench rent a bigger hammer.

Bold Photography said...

The anti-workshop workshop this weekend is a great place to drive this post home...

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled upon this article. I've been moving away from shooting in my studio and into more natural light settings, and I am loving the simplicity of it. There's some magnificent light out there if you just look for it. Plus, I can pack light :)

Wonderful article.

-Elizabeth Councill