We tend to get pigeon-holed in this industry. Do a nice campaign with people in it and you're sunk. You'll only get calls for projects with people. We tend to do it to ourselves though. We find a part of photography that's fun for us and we go back to the well again and again. But the reality is that if you are the beneficiary (victim?) of both a well rounded, liberal arts education and a good technical grounding in photography, you should be able to bring both the taste and skills (such as they are) to just about any assignment.
One of my first assignments, years ago, was for a lifestyle magazine dedicated to American antiquities. I spent months and months on the road photographing the interiors and exteriors of historic homes. I shot plantation houses, ranch houses and meticulous reproductions of famous historic architectural styles. I got to know my view camera and my interior lighting from every angle and at one point could use it almost as fast as a point and shoot.
So, recently I did a comprehensive job for a law firm, shooting partners and associates and their far flung offices. The art director I worked was one of the rare ones who really gets that styles can cross over genres and specialities. With this in mind she also asked me to shoot the offices.
I was entranced by this lobby. Those are huge metal doors in the background. They move with computer controlled electric motors. They are "James Bond" cool.
Here's a close-up of the doors.....
It's not too hard when the client and their architectural designers have done their jobs well. The challenging stuff is trying to make a silk purse out of tilt wall construction and cheap furniture. But that's story for another time.....
Just horsing around in the studio one day, shooting portraits for fun. No client. No deadline. No schedule. I default to my favorite lighting. It's one, big soft light in a Balcar 60 inch Zebra umbrella with a diffusion panel over the front face of the umbrella to smooth out and soften that silver/white alternating pattern. I used it with a tungsten light (am I crazy or are other people also in love with the way continuous light softens skin and what not....?) The background is a natty old grey dyed muslin, twenty feet behind Rene that's being lit with a small, unfocused fresnel fixture. Three "must have" items for photographic happiness: any camera. any nice, large light source. a beautiful woman.
The lighting is so simple. Someone asked me if I would do a workshop but I'm not sure what we'd talk about after the fifteen minutes it would take to set up the lights and meter them. I guess we could spend the rest of the day having lunch and cocktails. The plumbing part of photography is pretty straightforward. Thank goodness. That gives us time to work on the hard stuff. Like finding the right subjects. Posing and expression. Film development or file massage. Printing. Whatever. You know, the stuff you really can't teach....
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!