Photographers tend to talk a lot about lighting and gadgets. We should also talk about just looking at the light that's already there.

©2010 Kirk Tuck
Photographers, as a demographic, love to play with the tools and the toys and I am no exception to that generalization.  We hit a new location and the first thing that comes to mind is generally, "Where should I put the lights?"  And, if you have watched many of the DVD's by photographer/instructors or you've taken workshops from lighting pros you can be forgiven for coming to believe that "it's not really professional photography unless there are lights involved."  

Another idea that you'll come away with once you've watched the workshop dynasty give the rosiest case scenario of the business of taking pictures is that no job can ever be done without an assistant.  And I guess if you buy into the first concept:  All lights all the time.... It seems logical that a big support network would make all work more efficient.  But I'm here to tell you that this is all somewhat counterintuitive.

Very few paying jobs are comprised of complicated sets at beaches involving giant scrims, big lights with generators and lots of thin young girls in swimwear.  In fact, if you live outside of South Beach Miami or Venice Beach you will probably starve to death in the search for this kind of work.  But it plays well at workshops because it's wildly the "best case scenario" most aspiring photographers can imagine.  

The reality is that maybe 90% of commercial (non-retail or direct to comsumer; like weddings) photography is done for small and large companies that have products and services to sell.  They also have marketing budgets that are predicated not upon your innate genius but by what value the photographs will ultimately bring to their table.

There are two ways to look at commercial work:  You can be a "whaler" and only go after the big jobs.  Jobs with lots of production and enough potential usage to generate big fees.  Or, you can fly fish.  Cast and land enough fish, week in and week out and you'll do okay.  Whaling sounds great.  A beefy advertising job might net an upper level photography $25,000 or more for a week's worth of shooting while the fly fishers are lucky these days to get $1,800 for a day.  But whaling is predicated on you being able to wait and wait and wait.

I've always taken the fly fishing approach.  Cast and reel in jobs.  And mostly they are one and two day experiences.  Sometimes a job with a bit of travel will take a week.  And many times I'm documenting placing and people in their environments.  Instead of creating a whole lighting design we're coming in like ninjas and leveraging existing light with a few little lights.  That was really the whole premise of my book, Minimalist Lighting.  It was less about how to travel light than it was about how to mix just enough of your light with the light already in a scene to make it work.

And much as I hate to admit it, right now clients are looking for photographers who can come into a facility and create the least disruption and still come away with the goods.  That's a strong incentive to travel light.  But traveling light is no substitute to actually taking time to look at the light and see if you really need to add anything at all. (A statement that makes lighting equipment manufacturers cringe....)

When I went to this printing facility in Ft. Worth I took a case of lights along with me in a Think Tank, Airport Securtity roller case.  I had five or six flashes, a bucket of radio triggers and lots of little diffusers and grid spots.  I had enough filter material to match just about every source.  But when I set up my camera and took a look at most of the things that we wanted to photograph I found that the available light worked really, really well.  

During the course of two days I took the flashes out only when I set up and shot formal portraits of the executive staff against a seamless background.  The rest of the time I kept my eyes open for the right angles and the right existing light.  I knew I'd be working in a 100 or 200 thousand square foot plant and there was no way (and no budget) for lighting up the whole place, or even a large corner of it.

We got the shots we needed with a camera and my most important accessory, my tripod.  I chose not to use an assistant because the budget for the project was tight (aren't they all these days?) but mostly because there wasn't much for an assistant to do.  The "seeing" part is what I'm supposed to do.  And the day I can't carry a wooden tripod and a camera bag by myself is probably the day I should hang it all up and go back to teaching.

I guess this long ramble is really just a reminder that so much of what we do can be done with the simplest gear and can be done unaided.  Rather than ever cutting your fee it's smarter to cut other line items in your budgets.  And if the scene is already perfectly lit you don't need to waste time re-inventing the wheel.  Just get out your gray target card, do a custom white balance and start shooting.  Perhaps the pendulum is swinging away from everything being (over)lit to an appreciation for natural light.  Even when it comes from a florescent fixture in the ceiling.....
©2010 Kirk Tuck

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions: