Hot lights. Fun lights.

Hot Lights.  Fun Lights.
by Kirk Tuck

Written and then lost before posting nearly two years ago.  Finally resurrected for your consideration.....

A few days ago Michael Johnston, the writer/owner of a website called www.theonlinephotographer.com,  proposed a “new” learning exercise to master photography.  He suggested that the best way to learn is to buy a Leica rangefinder camera (film version) with one lens.  He suggested a 28mm, 35mm or a 50mm lens.  My choice would always be the 50mm but then I see everything in that focal length.  He further suggested using only a 400 ISO speed black and white negative film like Kodak’s Tri-X or Fuji’s Neopan 400.  His theory is that the finder is unexciting so the photographer must previsualize what he wants to shoot.  The film is a standardization so that one doesn’t spend time spinning wheels with too many choices.  The limited focal length choice teaches exactly what one will get in the frame every time.

Michael estimates that one should do the exercise with only the one camera, lens and film type for one year and that a photographer will learn an incredible amount about photography.  Since that’s basically the way I learned (out of student budget necessity) I’m inclined to agree that it’s a wonderful way to learn the craft.  And I would go further and say that if you are unsure about your skills in using a flash or doing lighting in general you might consider my lighting exercise.

I’m suggesting that you bag the flash altogether and get your hands on a basic hot light.  Believe me, you won’t be breaking the bank.  I’ve used Lowell DP lights and a bunch of other 650 watt to 1,000 watt hot lights from a number of makers and find that as long as you satisfy a few parameters just about anything will work.

Get a light like the Lowell DP, the Lowell Omni, a Smith Victor or any other fixture that has a way of focusing the beam of light it throws out and also has the ability to easily use a four way barn door attachment.  Make sure it uses quartz halogen lights and NOT photofloods (which have a very short life and quick color temperature decay).  If you really feel broke just head down to the discount hardware store and get a cheap set of work lights.  They won’t focus and you’ll have to make your barndoors out of Black Wrap (heavy duty black aluminum foil) but you’ll likely be able to press them into service for what I have in mind.  If you have money to burn you might want to look at getting a Mole Richardson 650 watt fresnel spot or an Altman or Arriflex 650 watt fresnel spot.  The glass lens on the front helps to focus the beam of light without adding any sharp edges.

Once you’ve got the light start over from scratch and learn to light again with the continous hot light.  The overwhelming reason is that you will see what you are going to get.  The light is the light.  If you’ve worked with flash, even with units that have great modeling lights, you know there is always a big difference between what you see before you click the shutter and what you actually see after the blast of flash freezes time.  The balance between ambient light and flash is always a mystery no matter how many times you’ve set up flashes and lit things.  You’d be lost without an LCD screen or a Polaroid.  Admit it.

But the beauty of the hot lights is that you really do get what you see.  If it’s beautifully lit it’s beautifully lit.  If you’ve got a mix of ambient light and hot light you can instantly see the relationship.
I think it’s best to start over and go through the steps to see how light really bounces around and reflects off stuff.  How little changes in angles and placement can make a big difference and how the continuous light allows you to instantly see all these relationships without even having to fire up your camera.
First things first.  Put a person in a chair and bounce your hot light off a high white ceiling.  Then really look at how the light cascades down that person’s face.  Next, take that light and bounce is off a white side wall and see how the shadows change.  Use a king size white bed sheet as a giant diffuser and see exactly how that light affects your subject.  And keep going until you’ve experimented with this one hot light in every possible permutation.

What you’ll find is that every tool limits it’s user.  It’s hard to drive a nail with a screwdriver and it’s hard to screw in a Phillips head screw with a hammer.  The little flashes you might be used to using seem to call for a harder, more concentrated approach to lighting.  The lust for portability drives most of us to use very lightweight and easily transported equipment.  This drives us to use smaller umbrellas, use smaller stands and less accessories.  The limited power of battery operated flashes pushes us to make decisions about placement and much more.

Studio flashes bring another set of potential restrictions:  We use them near power outlets.  We still don’t get “What you see is what you get lighting”  and even at low power we don’t always get to use the exact apertures we might want to use.  And here’s something else to think about....with flash you set up the lights and camera then you make an exposure and then check the exposure on your screen.  If you don’t like what you see you have to change something and then go throught the whole process again.  Certainly, pros who’ve done this stuff for decades will be able to do it faster than newbies but the disconnect between what you are seeing and what you want to see remains.  Lighting with flash is this amazingly iterative process that proceeds by fits and starts.

Hot lights make the whole process more elegant.  You can watch the light on your subject AS you move the hot lights and you’ll see every change of shadow and reflection.  If you decide to bring in a reflector to fill in a face on the opposite side of your subject you’ll be able to actually SEE those light ratios change.  And while it’s a learning process to interpret what the camera will finally render you’ll be more integrated into the flow of the process with hot lights.

Understand that I’m not advocating dumping your flashes and going back to the 1950’s with big movie lights dotting your studio.  I’m advocating using a hot light as an exercise or workshop because, if you are like me, and you’ve been doing this for a number of years you’ve learned to make accommodations and short cuts with flash and you’ve stopped really looking at the light.  You know how to get an effect because you’ve done it over and over again.  But the hot lights let you see it fresh each time because it’s not filtered through the process of “shoot, look, change, shoot.….”   And we haven’t even touched on how easy it is to incorporate a sense of motion into your images with the long exposures that hot lights encourage.

If you are new to lighting this little exercise can be an amazingly revealing shortcut that’s as cogent to learning as the LCD screen on the back of your camera.  And you can add additional lights by pulling the high intensity lamp off your desk or adding a regular lamp into a background.

If most of your lighting is outdoors in the high sun this is not an exercise for you.
The attached photo(s) were done with two hot lights.  One is positioned to the left of the shooting camera.  It’s a 1,000 watt Profoto ProTungsten light aimed thru a 78 by 78 inch white scrim.  The second light is a little 300 watt spot light aimed on a background about 25 feet behind the subject.  There are several things we haven’t touched on that I love about doing these portraits with continuous light.  First,  with ISO 800 in a D700 I can have my cake and eat it too.  I get smooth, grain free files with shutter speeds in the range of 1/125th of a second to 1/180th of a second at f4 or f5.6.  This means that when a great expression comes along I can lean on the shutter button and grab some great frames at 6 or 7 frames per second.  Second, working with hot lights means I can go anywhere I want on the aperture scale with impunity.  All I need to do is change my shutter speed so that the overall exposure stays the same. This makes shooting wide open at f2 or even f1.4 a snap.  Getting to the same spot with studio flash is a whole can of worms (and in many cases woefully ugly mixed lighting.…)

The photographs are of actors at Zachary Scott Theater.  Over the course of four days in May we photographed nearly sixty people for a season brochure.  The images included theater patrons, board members, community supporters and even staff.  My lighting design changed with each category of sitters.  Some were done on white backgrounds.  Some on canvas.  My intention in using hot lights for this project was to make the images softer and to have very shallow depth of field within the frame.  The continuous source works so well with sitters as there are no blinks from anticipating the flash.
I have another project in mind where I’d like to use all florescent fixtures ( or LEDs)  but that’s something I’ll talk about in a future column.

If you have the opportunity be sure to give the hot light exercise a shot.  Everyone learns something new with the lights on.….

Window Light in the Early Evening. Some thoughts about scanners.

Scanned from a Kodachrome. Shot on a Canon film Camera with one of the 
First Tamron SP normal focal length zooms.  Something like a 35-80mm.
Scanned on a cheapo flatbed scanner.

I'm going through old slides and making scans for myself. I've owned Nikon dedicated film scanners (both medium format and 35mm) and I've had plenty of film drum scanned but for some reason I prefer to do my own stuff on a cheap, non-prestigious, Epson flat bed scanner.  We're talking here about a scanner that currently sells for around $180.

The machine is smaller than other scanners I've owned and sits on the right hand side of my desk in a constant state of readiness.  The machine's full name is Epson Perfection V500 Photo.  It won't scan 4x5 inch film but will do most conventional medium format formats and it will scan 35mm transparencies and negatives.  Film  holders are supplied for 120mm film and 35mm film in most of its permutations.

The slide above was taken in mixed light.  It's a Kodachrome 64 slide. How difficult and time consuming is it to make an image like the one above?  Let's see.  I put the slide holder on the glass surface of the scanner.  There's guide indention on the scanner body that matches up with the holder. Very straightforward.  The slide holder has four squares in which to drop your slide, still in slide mount. Close the top, open the Epson scan software, click in the film type (trans or neg; color or black and white) decide on the bit depth you need (24 or 48) determine the size you'd like the the image to end up at (dimensions and DPI) then hit preview.  You can zoom in on the image in the preview window.  Once you see the image large you can more accurately crop and adjust.

I go into the curves menu and set the white point and black points on the represented histogram.  If the color needs to be tweaked I go into the color adjustment menu and play around with the R, G, & B sliders till I get what I want.  There are also menus for saturation, contrast and exposure.  In the curves menu I can also set how I want the toe and shoulder of the film to look = soft, rounded curves or straight overly accurate curves.

When I have everything hunky dory in the different corrections menus I go back to the main menu and set the amount of unsharp masking I want and whether I want the canned "color restoration" to kick in.  Then I hit "scan."

I can't use the Digital Ice dust removal with traditional black and white film or with Kodachrome slides. Something to do with the physical topology of the film so I leave these controls unchecked.  It does mean that I'll inevitably be doing some retouching to the files to remove dust spots before I use the images.  So, a straight scan of a film from a slide done at 6000 by 4000 pixels (final size) takes about three minutes.

I hear all kinds of nonsense from people about what's needed  for good scans.  There is a camp that believes flat bed scanners are incapable of doing usable work.  There's another camp that's seen good scans from flat bed scanners but believes that you need to pull slides out of their cardboard mounts and coat them with oil before you can get a good scan and then there's the group that believes the scanners may be usable but only when paired with really good and really expensive software.  Almost as though you have to pass an initiation to join in the cult of scanning.

I don't fall into any of those camps.  I routinely scan all kinds of stuff on the Epson and I'm always able to use the output to deliver jobs or to make prints from it for shows and portfolios.  If you are unable to get a good scan on an Epson V500 or V700 I believe you might be over-thinking the process.  The most important thing is to explore the software thoroughly and trust your perceptions.

The native resolution of the scanner is 4800 dpi.  That means a full scan of a medium formatsquare negative or trans scan is 12,000 by 12,000.  And you can make that scan as a 48 bit file if you are willing to save it as a Tiff.  But I'll tell you right now that this will be one monstrously big file....

If my math is correct you should be able to generate a medium format scan that measures 40 by 40 inches at 300 dpi.  That's pretty darn good.  35mm scans clock in at about 7200 pixels and can make a print, at native resolution of the scanner, equal to 16 by 24 inches at 300 dpi.

My needs aren't that radical and my expectations are that the machine will deliver files for good display of 35mm stuff on the web or on an iPad while the files from medium format film will be good for prints up to 20 by 20 inches. Given that I've been sharing images with you for years which come from this scanner, without any complaints on my part or on your behalf I'd say I'm get pretty good performance from a $180 device that comes with its own software drivers.

I have used Silverfast and VueScan and I like the bundled Epson software best. The other two may be wonderful for people who are really, really interested in scanning and it might get you an extra one or two percentage increase in quality but I'm happy with the straightforward simplicity of Epson's solution.  I am running it on OS 10.7.4 on a MacBook Pro.  Takes a couple of minutes to launch and then it's fast and crash free.

The scanner will allow you to load four mounted slides for scanning and let you preview the four, crop them, color correct and size each on individually and then allow you to batch scan all four without mediation.

If you have a big inventory of  MF slides, can't afford to just dump them on the desk of a scanning supplier and write a check, and are mostly interested in printing and sharing the images you should look at a machine like this one.  If you need ultimate image quality for a big ad client you'll be better off having service drum scan your image.  At least then you've covered part of your ass when people start looking for who to blame in the production phase.

In all seriousness though,  I used to hear that clients would never use digital images from digital cameras for XXXX reasons.  Then I heard the same thing about cheap scanners.  But I've got to tell you it's just not true.

Here's the drill:  launch app > install correct film holder > choose film type > choose preview > Choose zoom > crop > color correct >  choose size (geometrical) and bit dept (24 or 48)  > engage restore color  (matter of taste) > push scan.  A window will pop up asking you where and how to save the file.  Once scanned take the image into PhotoShop and retouch out the dust and scratches in the method of your preference.  Scan one time as big as you ever think you'll need and resize and save copies for other uses.  Kinda fun to be able to engage your film files for the greater good of the universe and your artistic sharing.

When your early work becomes vintage...

San Antonio. El Camino.

"Had we but world enough and tyme..." (To His Coy Mistress, Andrew Marvell). We're all subject to the passage of time.  No matter what profession you've chosen there will come a time when you look back and see where you came from. If you are into computers and you are of a certain age you'll talk about the lure of that Kaypro computer whose 9 inch green screen boasted a whopping 80 characters per line.  Ah, 1982...  

If you are a photographer you'll look back, sometimes in wonder and sometimes wincing, as you look at the slides you made with different films.  Fuji survived the slide film cold war and Kodak didn't but the images I shot on the early versions of Fuji are faded and mottled while the images I shot on Kodachrome are still exactly as they were when the little yellow boxes came back from the lab.

What I never remember until I scan them is just how low saturation Kodachrome 64 film was.  Certain colors popped (red) and certain colors didn't (blues and greens).  When Fuji Velvia came out I think it was widely embraced by photographers just because they were finally able to see real, honest to God, over the top color saturation. Our films helped create our visions of what was right, colorwise.

In the late 1970's and the early 1980's I felt drawn to San Antonio's downtown.  I'd pack a small camera bag with a camera body, a couple lenses and ten or twelve rolls of film.  I always packed the same film, not a mix. One day might be Tri-X black and white and another day might be Kodachrome 64 but always only one film type per day. It was easier for me to get my head around one linear way of thinking that to shift gears all the time.  And it was expensive, when using 35mm, to decide halfway through a roll of film that you really needed to switch to a different type. 

I don't know what I was looking for as I walked around the streets with my camera. I was in the advertising business at the time so it was more like a hobby than something I could rationalize as a business.  I guess I was trying to preserve the city from change.  I might have been documenting something different than that.  I may have just been emulating the documentary photographers I admired from books and magazines. Now, when I walk the streets of every city I'm looking for little glimmers of human scale and human touch to juxtapose against the constant change and the secure walls of progress.

I like walking with a camera.  I suppose I am Calvinistic enough to require some sense of work or duty be attached to the pleasure of walking so I bring the jewelry of my professional along when I amble, the idea being that I'll see something spectacular that will make its way into my portfolio.  But mostly the images go to storage.  In the film days they went into archival plastic sheets and then into a filing cabinet.  Now they go into Lightroom and onto DVD's.  A copy remains on a hard disk or two but until I started sharing the work on this blog they contributed very little to justify the time and expense of their creation.

But now something interesting is at work.  My earliest photographs show my cities and my life as it no longer exists.  Now they are documents of my own history.  As I looked through a selection of several thousand images of San Antonio I am shocked at the buildings which are now gone, the blue capped skyline that was once open transparent now cluttered with buildings and the same sky dingy with the dust and traces of our car culture.  My work has become a history of a city in endless transition.  And all cities are in endless transition. Favorite restaurants gone.  The barbershop that was there last year now a Starbucks...

When I look at the red El Camino I see vintage.  Just like the "vintage" button in Snapseed or the digitally random decay of Instagram, only this is the real thing.  The film that the intentional de-evolution of digital files is based upon.

I used to think the same nostalgic vintage-ism couldn't happen to film since it would decay, it would only perish or exist, fully realized.  But I've also spent time looking at files from each generation of digital cameras and I've seen the progression from primitive to polished. From unsharp files filled with noise to the latest plastic wonder files.

But my real interest has nothing to do with the technical progression of the craft and everything to do with memory and the encapsulation of time as a trigger for future memories. For looking back to see the patterns of life.  A proof that things were as we say they were. A time when we thought we knew everything and would live forever.  

There's an arc of time for every artist.  A time of power and experimentation and a time when you become culturally invisible.  So much of that acceptance and then lack of acceptance is contextual and style driven. You exist within your current milieu.  When you are young you are hooked into current culture.  Everything you do is a reflection of the mass culture you are surrounded by.  Whatever you create references that mass culture so you are at once inside and of the culture.  That gives your work whatever relevance it has as it's foundation.  You add the interesting twist.  Or you don't.  A generation loves Instagram because, well, the generation loves Instagram.  Another generation loved the black and white output of Holga cameras, in part because that's what everyone in the generation was experimenting with and, well, you know, it's really all about peer pressure.  Like smoking cigarettes.

The rising ethos swirling around my early years as a photographer were all about street photography and so I swam in that pool.  No better or worse than most of my fellow photographers. 

But as you live through cycles (be they economic or artistic) you understand that each fashionable style is a short lived romp through the pet rocks and tattoos of mass culture and very little, outside of a few exceptional examples, withstands either the test of time or our own attention spans.  Eventually it all gets sent to the virtual landfill of dozens of neglected hard drives or optical disks and then, by sheer weight of its every increasing bulk, the whole collection becomes too hard to deal with. Too ponderous to browse and it is increasingly ignored in deference to whatever the new trend is.

How else to explain the mass hysteric migration from camera to camera or from web hero to web hero? From big sensors to small and back again.

I've tried to put my finger on what it is that makes digital different from all previous processes.  Across all platforms including writing, photography, music and video.  I think I finally understand.  There is nothing intrinsically different about capturing the images, thinking of the stories or creating the melodies.  But the efficiency of the process makes each field destructively productive.  We are hell bent of the process of creation but without any commitment to the back end of the process.  We're in a constant race to create more and more to the exclusion of savoring each additional step of the process. There is less planning and concepting but more button pushing and cataloging.  Gone, seemingly, are the days when we'd labor for hours to get the perfect print---in digital or analog.  Much easier to slap a 2000 pixel rendition onto the web, share it with several thousand people you'll never meet and move on to the next act of manic production.

It's an evolving experiential process.  I'll readily admit to being behind the curve but I think there's tremendous value in curating your own images, editing them down the way a chef simmers down a sauce to concentrate its taste and power.  I think it's a difficult and rewarding task to go beyond default button pushing and to interpret an image onto paper in a unique way and finally, it's tough and socially significant to pull together a show of images and manifest that show for a public and real audience.  It might be something you bring to fruition only once every ten years but the power of purpose of having a show in a gallery or other space can imbue the artist with a level of insight and inspiration that's gone AWOL as we participate in the process of exaggerated productivity for the sake of-----productivity.

For me this blog, from time to time, fills the void between shows and lethargy.  I put images here to share them as well as to illustrate articles.  But in effect I am robbing the power of a concentrated showing of actual images (paper) in exchange for the very short term buzz of knowing that at least people are seeing the images.  And in a sense it's a very destructive cycle.  The web can be art gallery crack.

So.  Today I realized that some of my images have become vintage.  The rest of them will do so over time. So will yours.  Even if you are only 24 or 30 years old the process has already begun and the only ways to escape the process are to constantly change with every trend that rears its peacock feather festooned head, stop shooting altogether or accept that you've found a style and subject matter that work for you and you alone and to keep doing exactly what that is until you drop over dead.  It's an interesting way of being honest to your own vision.

In the end it's about making your artist self happy.  Or at least honest. If you are in this because you like the cameras it's okay to just ignore this post.