Lighting trumps cameras. Try it for yourself.

I was shooting demos for Samsung back in October of 2013. I was in a crowded trade show booth at the Photo Expo in NYC. We were using the Samsung Galaxy NX camera system in one of its many firmware iterations. The camera is already gone from the retail channels but I still have the images I made with it.

I shared the small shooting area with photographer, Nick Kelsh, and we had at our disposal about 100 square feet of shooting space, very inexpensive studio flashes and a very cheap, small softbox and a scoop reflector for the second light. Not the kind of gear I was used to shooting with and certainly not the kind of shooting space I usually take for granted. Add to that the fact that we were surrounded by a flowing sea of photographers, including some who loved to just shout out, "Hey. What the hell are you doing???"

At that particular moment in its development the 20 megapixel, APS-C camera had some firmware issues that made for some operational shortcomings. Sometimes the camera would freeze up and need to be ministered to by a technician. But the flip side is that some of the new technology in the camera allowed Nick and I to shoot and send the images directly to a large, 4K television set, positioned directly above our shooting area. This allowed audiences to see the final results of our lens selections, posing choices and the quality of the camera and lenses.

I shot almost everything with a 60mm macro lens and it was a very nice (but slow focusing---as most macros are) lens. The FF equivalent of 90mm worked well for me. The camera's EVF was lower resolution that current models and not nearly as well color balanced as the screens in other cameras I was using at the time (Sony a77, a99) but it was usable.

But when Nick and I put our heads together and used the soft box at the right distance (about the same distance from the front surface to the model as the measured diagonal of the soft box) and feathered the light correctly (aimed so the center of the light was in front of Naomi) we started getting the kinds of results we wanted. In almost every instance nothing we shot was anything that couldn't be duplicated and, in some instances bettered, by lots of other cameras on the market I was still quite happy with the images because of the light and the collaboration and rapport we had with our models. 

I'll re-state this more simply: If we got our lighting right and the models got their expressions right we could have gotten equally good shots out of just about any camera on the market.

But the weird thing I notice all the time is that all the people who say they are shooting for "ultimate image quality" shy away from using lights --- or from using their lights in an intelligent way. I guess the reality is that lights aren't as sexy as cameras and it's harder to wear them to photo walks and meet ups. They also don't go out of style as quickly as cameras and have fewer sexy specs to converse about.

Of course, many people are only interested in shooting in available light and this post certainly isn't aimed at them. But I am consistently amazed at the power we give to cameras and the indifference we give to lights, technique and the skillful blend of the two. A bit of a disconnection?

Would my image above have been materially better if I'd shot it with a Nikon D810 or something along those lines. Not to my way of thinking as I believe there is a point at which things can be too sharp or too etched. I think I have decided that some things about cameras really don't matter at all.

I mention this because I have a friend who has been on the search for the holy grail of video cameras. No matter which one he tries he finds that the noise in the shadow areas bothers him. He describes himself as an available light shooter. On a recent assignment I challenged him to take along good lights, modifiers, etc. and really practice good lighting. Of course this also enabled him to use ISOs like 400 and 800 instead of 1600 and 3200. Interesting observation? The files were largely free of the shadow area noise that de detests...


stephen connor said...

Hi, Kirk,

I'm betting that it's not their lack of sexiness, or constant "newness" that puts people off lights. Nope. It's pure, unadulterated fear. Working with lights, if the light's bad, it's no one's fault but the photographer's. Bad available light? Hey, it ain't my fault.


Dave Green said...

So true

John Cecilian said...

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it is hard to wear them around your neck. If you aren't a studio photographer and like to walk around and take photos of people that may or may not be of the portraiture variety...well, complicated setups won't work. And the opportunity to practice and experience that important part of photography is limited.

Ted Phillips said...

Lighting in still photography for the majority has always been more about recording a moment then crafting or seeing light. Learning to see light & then implementing it in a portrait takes practice & time. I believe, as you stated in one of your blogs, that most people in the future will be using their phones for snap shot & travel & camera sales on the whole will continue to decline. But people who are interested in making photographs will continue to be interested in how to light. It really is not too much different from the era of the Kodak Instamatic except the technology of today has made it easier for people to take correctly exposed & focused photographs, even in the dark.

neopavlik said...

You posted a blog post about this years ago (really connecting to the subject) and the times that I felt I fully embraced it I have had amazing results (one in 2010 and one recently -- both have quite a few pics on my Flickr).