Unconventional approaches can produce a different result.

Portrait of a person who quit smoking. For Prevention Magazine.

I recently came across a thread in a forum that disturbed me. I think I know why. The originator of the thread was asking the community of photographers at large about using continuous light to make photographs, in the studio. All the "experts" quickly chimed in to "educate" this poor bastard and let him know that flash is the best, only approved, only correct and standard way of taking any photograph that requires any lighting. The implication was that the use of any other type of light was symptomatic of arch stupidity. The main premise of the commenters was that any movement shown as blur in the photograph is bad and also that photographers might require dozens and dozens of hot lights in order to "match" the light "power" one can easily get from a single, plastic, electronic flash.

I was disturbed to find that people are so incurious and so resistant to the application of any technique that is not unanimously embraced by the collective. I was disturbed to think that there is now only one (approved) way to skin an image. And I was disturbed by the hubris of the responders. It reminded me how dangerous it is to have only enough information to have an opinion.

Over the course of my career I've always owned lots of flash equipment and I've used it on thousands and thousands of jobs. But there is a time and place for experimentation, curiosity and expressing a different vision. One of those places is in the arts. And photography sometimes falls into the category of "art" (with a little "a").

The image above was made for Prevention Magazine. They called. They liked the black and white style I'd been doing for a number of years and they wanted me to do that style for an article they were writing about people who'd changed their lives.

I started with this style of lighting after studying some really cool images from the 1940's, taken by a photographer in a small Texas town. All of his images were done with "hot lights" and all of them had wonderful areas of shadow and light, as well as a sharper look to the lighting than what was in vogue in the 1990's.

I packed for the shoot by taking a bunch of Lowell Pro Lights (a 250 watt focusable flood light with barn doors) and several low wattage optical spotlights that use fresnel lenses to collimate the light. Out of a reflexive fear I also packed the usual steamer trunk full of Norman studio electronic flash gear. The Normans stayed in the car.

I used one light from above, diffused by a very thin diffusion material to create a very directional downlight for my subject's face. I use a small, Lowell from above and behind the subject as a kicker and hair light. And I used a small 250 watt flood to illuminate the back wall (lighting in layers...).

The light looked so different to me from the softbox driven, soft transition lighting we all used back then. The fact that it was lower powered than conventional strobe was something that I really liked because it gave me both a very shallow depth of field but also an excuse to keep telling my subject to freeze.  It's a quality of light that also looks sharper, overall, than more diffused light.

The magazine was very pleased with the image and ran it in a full page, uncropped, next to the article. I was pleased because the image didn't look like any of the other images in the magazine. I stayed with this style for quite a while. It's a little harder to set up and you have to keep your subjects in the sweet spots of the light but it's nice to have extra and different tools in the box.

I am currently evolving that style now. It's fun and challenging to use harder, hotter lights. It takes more time and effort. But the difference is worth it when you pull it off.

Contrary to the opinions of the "Photo Borg" we needn't all be assimilated into the Borg. There are plenty of really good lighters who use nothing but continuous lights. They are called directors of photography, or DP's. They work in the movie industry and they create stunning visual products that create billions and billions of dollars of value. There are also plenty of still photographers who also understand that there are advantages to using hot lights, florescent lights, HMI's, and even LEDs to create effects and to give heightened control to lighting. As well as helping visual creators find their own brand, their own style.

It's okay to be different. It's okay to shoot differently. In fact, for people at the higher end of the craft, it's mandatory. Being able to mimic the majority of work out there is nothing of which to be proud.


Dave said...

The options available are so numerous today that it makes my head spin (or it could be demonic possession I'm not entirely sure). LED's and portable, creative options are what we should all be clamoring for. The only reason I haven't sold off all my Photogenic light emiting howitzers is that for some of the shooting I've done in the past year it makes a nice, safe fall back. At this point I'm about ready to pitch them and the entire book of conventional wisdom to do what ever turns my wheels. You only live once (or at least one at a time). Flickr is stuffed to the brim with alternating versions of "same old" and "you scare the hell out of me but seem to have read the same how to be different book as the other person" photography (applies to any gothic shot involving hot girls with vampire teeth).

You are dead on. I love watching movies and TV mainly to gaze at some of their masterful use of lighting. Even NCIS Miami. Just turn the sound off.

Kirk Tuck said...

Dave, I'm surely not saying that everyone should dump all of their flash gear, especially not people who earn their living with lights but it's good to stretch and be flexible. It's good to have options and sometimes it's great if those options can do something different.

steve said...

before the internet we had arm-chair experts a collective of grumpy old men, who would research a subject from the comfort of their arm chair, but never getting off their asses and putting that research into practice. Today the arm chair expert is online dispensing their "expertise" to anyone who will listen.

Kirk Tuck said...

Amen, brother.

Dave Jenkins said...

I learned lighting on the job in the early '70s, when I got my first full time job in this field as a writer/assistant producer/occasional photographer and general dogsbody with a film production company. We mostly made training audio-visuals for the fast food industry, and we used nothing but hot lights -- 18-inch parabolic floods that we called "scoops" with 1000-watt blue or tungsten lamps, and similar 12-inch units that took 500-watt lamps. We also had fresnel spots, but didn't use them much.

Production, rather than elegance, was the order of the day, but it was good training and formed the basis of much of what I've done since.

When I started my own business in 1978, hot lights remained my mainstay for several years, and I still have and occasionally use a full kit of Lowell D lights and Totalites.

Huw Morgan said...

Hi Kirk,

I recently purchased and read Direction and Quality of Light by Neil Van Niekerk (an excellent book by the way). Most of his work in the book involved flash lighting, but he does mention LED lighting. Neil seems to suggest that flash lighting, especially through a soft box, tends to provide sufficient quantities of light to properly light a subject to meet a photographer's needs. He further suggests that LED lights are good for mood lighting where only a part of the subject is lit and the rest is in shadow.

Do you support this argument, or are LED lights now powerful enough to provide adequate lighting for more conventional portraits where the whole subject is in light. I'd like to buy some LED lights and have read your book on the subject, but Neil has planted a seed of doubt.


Mitch said...

So I guess when I shot a portrait of the local farmer who was the songwriter for a Grammy winning tune, I was incorrect for, upon arrival, leaving him right where he was at his farmhouse kitchen table, where he wrote with mandolin in hand, in front of a large window at 90 degrees, allowing the gorgeous overcast to spill in, gobo-ed slightly by taping up my jacket to tame the hot foreground, filled by his wife holding an opened newspaper on the shadow side.

I still love that photo, shot on BW, with a 50.

Back in the '90s I prided myself on knowing when to turn off the miraculous matrix fill flash technology had just given me (or turn it down to 1/64th as a subtle fill).

Since Huw brought up Neil Van N, you should see what some fellow heretics in the wedding business are doing with video lights and Jerry Ghionis is doing with a modified thing that looks like a fluo tube light saber kinda thing.

And I've been monkeying with *gasp* high powered flash lights as a general bounce in a room, allowing me to shoot "available light".

Shall I unlock the door now to make it easier for the inquisition-ers to come take me away?

Unknown said...

Those same Borgs are also the same that tell today's wedding photographers to never shoot less than 1/30th of a second since movement "may ruin" the photo. It's the movement that makes the image at these times! Bright faces popping out of dark spaces doesn't cut it IMO. "Available" lighting is the way to go! In your case with this image it was the Lowel lights that were "Available".

For me, I'm using not only LED panels but LED flashlights along with the flash. The decision on the lighting is based upon the look I choose at the moment that works for the client and the end product.

theaterculture said...

There's a very human tendency to turn anything you don't REALLY understand, but can get to work for you, into rule-bound metaphysics. Light seems to do that with some photographers, giving them a religious faith in "fast lenses and available light" if they get convinced somewhere along the line that adding photons is a fall from paradise, or "strobistism" if somebody convinces them that the only properly orthodox gospel requires calculating guide numbers and watt seconds...

Anonymous said...

Ah, lighting and the Kinderdigi..

I’m only speaking from MY experience! I first learned to light with clip on shop lights and a couple of Smith Victor lamps later on. This is constant light and I could see what the light/shadows were doing when I moved the heads around or put some white plastic in front of the reflector to soften the light. I got some barn doors and learned to use them with the SV lamps.

I then got a flash for my camera. It lit the stuff it was pointed at – but I didn’t know what to expect from it if it wasn’t mounted on the camera.

Then (out of school) I got some experience working as a photo assistant: First with a NG photographer who did a lot of lighting with portable, battery powered flash units (Norman 200B). He had many generators and heads and a lot of Polaroid film. We went through tens of Polaroid shots before ever shooting any film. This is because the flash units didn’t have modeling lights and if you didn’t have a Polaroid to look at, you were completely lost. Those flash units had few modifiers. If you wanted to flag a side, you did it with black wrap or black cardboard and gaffer tape.

My next assistant job was with a studio photographer who had been the studio manager for a famous NY fashion and still life photographer. Everything table top was 8x10 and big flash units – and 8x10 Polaroid. We shot a lot of Polaroid in that studio. There was a photographer in our town that did the best still life work. Most everyone agreed on this – including all the folks handing out work. I had a chance to meet this guy in his studio, as he was a close friend of a pal of mine, He had a great studio space. His lighting was what first caught my eye.. He had both a lot of flash gear and a lot of big Quartz lighting units (Mole and Lowel), including some big soft boxes for quartz with lots of fans on the top. He used the quartz lighting almost all the time, unless he was photographing food that would suffer from the heat (ice cream + greens, flowers, etc) – in that case he would switch to very big flash units – often multi pop with 6-10K WS; this was 8x10 ASA/ISO 100 chrome + modifier & bellows extension loss (I’ll let someone else explain this). He wanted to see what the light was doing, so he used quartz lighting. Flash is tough to see even with an 8x10 Polaroid to help, and Polaroid wasn’t Ektachrome. The day-to-day learning of lighting with continuous light will help in predicting the behavior of any flash lighting you use.

Today we have little TV screens on the back of “almost” all digital cameras (Phase One P25 doesn’t for example). We rely on the little TV monitor to tell us what’s going on with flash lighting. Well, the image is pretty small, and every time you move a light you have to take another picture. Modeling lights help if you have them. If you’re working in the “we can do anything lighting world” with a box of “Off Camera Flash” units, as I’m doing at times, it’s tough for me to bring my best lighting skills to the task – because I can’t accurately predict the behavior of my lights with the little TV window as an indicator. Many times I can’t tell if they’ve all gone off – even with the little beepers to help.

It’s much easer to see/work real time and for portraits, it's easier on the subject (LED = little heat). Flash is often the best choice for a given picture: Stop Action (a pour shot), or delivering a lot of light into a soft box for a single pop (10,000 WS). But for most things that aren’t moving I would rather be able to see what I’m doing.


Kirk Tuck said...

I just walked back into the studio from shooting a series of production stills, portraits and character shots for the world premier of Steven Dietz's latest play, Hip, Beat and Gone. We also did several series of black and white videos. Everything was lit with LED banks. Everything. We used five fixtures. Two 1,000 bulb fixtures, three 500 bulb fixtures. We shot the portraits at f4 and 1/125th of a second. We shot the video at f4.5 at a shutter speed of 1/50th. At no time did we find anything wanting as far as light goes. LEDs are here now. The big ones that you plug in the wall are adequate for anything that doesn't require action stopping. The latest ones look great. You are only limited by how much money you'd like to spend.

Frank Grygier said...

Light is light for goodness sake. I know lets argue about what kind of window makes the best light.

Anonymous said...

Window light - North facing is best for me.

Which kind is best for you?


Bill Bresler said...

The more time you spend spouting advice on forums, the less you actually shoot. I love the fireworks that start when I declare that 20 years later, I can't tell which of my negs were shot with my M-4 + 35mm Summicron and my Canon F1 + el cheapo 35mm f2.8 Canon lens.

steve said...

I live in Australia so north facing is not so good ;-)

Noons said...

I'm constantly surprised at the resistance by some supposedly advanced folks to new ideas and ways of using new gear.
The use of LED lighting is of course one of them. The other one I see often is the use of EVFs. Even among supposed experts (amazing how a "photo web site" is nowadays proof of photographic expertise...). Even though NOT A SINGLE ONE of those sites shows a large quality image of anything! What, one needs a 36MP camera to produce web-size images? Heck last time I looked a 6MP camera would do the job and leave plenty of change. And yes, it'd be PLENTY sharp!
But, I digress.
Why is it that only an old lighting system - flash - is considered acceptable? Because of the strobist site? How about results? I see a lot of them here, and they please me no end. To the point I bought the books and started using led lighting myself.
And quite frankly: I don't give a hoot what others might like or not about that! ;)

Brook said...

I like the light by the window in Starbucks.

Ranjit Grover said...

Human being do things in a certain way not because it is the most rational way or the best way but because we have been doing it that way. That is just the habit and custom. It was continuous light before the flash guns came in. There must have been tremendous resistance flash and slaves came in. It is only natural to have resistance to change. But we forget that most photos taken in this world are with one big continuous light, that is the sun.
Ranjit Grover India

Anonymous said...


Lights and cameras are just tools used in making an image to my thinking. If I was a mechanic and someone showed me a better wrench or one that was better for a specific purpose, I would adopt it. With lighting gear, the flash units of 30-40 years ago were big (studio type) and often dangerous to use. They were also very expensive. The Ascor Sunlight Series lights were common in many studios. They delivered 20,000 W/sec (joules) in a single pop. This kind of light was necessary if you hoped to stop motion with a big camera that ate up light (f22-64 + bellows extension at 100 asa or slower). Many studios had several of these 600 Lb wheeled units.

The common Nikon SB flash units (as an example) are about 200 W/sec. output at full power. You can get or make some modifiers for these units. They’re great for what they are – I use them. But they have no modeling light..

Modern studio flash units have modeling lights that allow a good guess at what the flash will do. But the quality of light can be quite different. The quality of light from one brand of studio flash to another may also be very “different”. This “different” quality in flash units is easily visible in a photograph. Not all flash units give the same look – even with a lot of modifiers. Flash duration and the size and shape of the flash tube play a part in how the light will look. It comes down to taste and sometimes money. I liked the look of Magnaflash units. They came from England and are no longer made. The shape of their flash tubes and reflectors gave a special look that I liked. So, some of us modify our gear for the look we want – we make tools..

Having access to many different tools and knowing their capability and shortcomings is a great advantage to many amateurs and necessary for most pros. There are lots of newer photo people who don't read beyond the offerings of their camera maker. Many think that any look/effect wanted is a job for PS and not photo skill or craft. Post processing takes time and can be very expensive if a pro's talent is required. It's important to know what's possible - knowledge of all tools that might help you make your photo.

People ground grain with animal and waterpower until the steam engine was made popular. And now we have electricity for powering this task.. These are just the tools of grinding grain. It can still be done by hand.

“But we forget that most photos taken in this world are with one big continuous light, that is the sun.”

And yes, you are correct in this. And, the sun has modifiers, clouds, atmosphere to scatter out the blue light at the beginning and end of the day. We have rain and sand storms that change the quality of light. The big soft box you see used, was modeled after the look of north window light. Vermeer and others made that light famous. Doc Edgerton at MIT built the first flash unit (he may have had lightning as a model). Edgerton’s invention allowed the photographer to stop motion, giving us a look at something unique. This (beyond portability) is a big advantage of electronic flash.


SerrArris said...

Good that I did not stumble into such a forum discussion when I set up my "studio" lighting. I chose hot lighting - 1250 Watts, halogen lamps. I do not like flash. So the setup is perfect for me - and for my way of shooting. No disturbing flash, thus much more intimate discussions or created moods. There is no "perfect" lighting that fits every situation - and there is no "perfect" lighting that fits every photographer.

Now, after years of using halogen lamps, I still love them, for what they do to me. Perfect skin tones with b/w film, mostly. Not to forget: The heat they generate make models feel comfortable in winter. No kidding, that IS important. And, of course: Shooting low ASA film, using a big diffusion umbrella leads to long exposure tunes - and I just love taking portraits at 1/30s of a second, as the motion blur creates the extra atmosphere that makes a "living" portrait.

One could discuss endlessly over such questions.

Best regards,