Sometimes I think I have the same expression on my face as this robot. Stress.
Austin, Texas is on the cusp of having the top tier of pandemic alert levels triggered either this week or the next. Cases of Covid-19 are once again accelerating and the public health department changed the daily number of hospitalizations that will prompt "level five" from 75 down to 50. The reason? An overwhelming of our local medical professionals along with an ongoing tightening of available ICU beds. I think my decision to keep clients and members of the public well beyond arm's length for now is a sound one. I'm even questioning my return to the pool; and that's a big thing for me.
But for what might be the first time in my adult life I'm not busy with work. I basically have tossed out the majority of structure that gave shape to my daily life. I feel like a leaky row boat that's broken its tether and is now aimless drifting on whatever currents there might be.
One somber realization is that with free time comes a lot more time to indulge in endless news reports, New York Times updates, Washington Post analyses and a potent mix of mindless photo and video dreck on YouTube.
I'd love to be spending the time off making wonderful portraits of beautiful people but I'm sure you can see the disconnection. Yep, public safety. And my family's safety. Just because you want to do something doesn't mean you should. If I needed to work to put food on the table I might be tempted to roll the dice but just as a salve for my own boredom? I consider it reckless.
But that doesn't mean I'm not thinking about making portraits. I'm revisiting some of my favorite work and playing with lighting in the studio. I can't remember the name of the cinematographer who came and gave a talk to our local ad club chapter about his motion picture work back in the 1980s but I remember being so profoundly impressed by his work lighting people for movies that I spent an hour after his presentation listening to him tell a very, very small group of interested photographers just how he did the lighting that we found most captivating.
If you have seen the movie, "Dangerous Liaisons" starring John Malkovich, Uma Thurman, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer you will have seen, in the bedroom seduction scene with Uma Thurman, the kind lighting that we were all marveling over. In a sentence, it's "hard light within soft light --- with a very large dose of controlled fall off."
We all thought we were masters of soft light back then. We all had the requisite 4x6 foot soft boxes for our electronic flashes and we used them in close and smiled as we saw the light wrap around our subjects. But what the cinematographer showed us was lighting done on a whole new level.
He explained that (in his opinion) the light we were using fell off at far too rapid a rate. We were using our soft boxes extremely close and so, given the constraints of the inverse square law, the light from one side to another of our subject fell off very quickly which reduced any sense of realism or authenticity for the light.
He was right; our lighting looked canned.
He walked us through an image he'd made as a test. In a huge space he'd put up a 20 by 40 foot diffusion curtain that was either quarter stop or half stop diffusion material. He put his model close to one side of the diffusion material and then, on the other side, he moved a huge movie light as far back as it could go. Think fifty or sixty feet, easily.
For his example he was using an 18K watt movie light with a front fresnel to concentrate the light a bit. Conventional logic would suggest that the distance from the light to the diffusion material is not pertinent and that it's only the distance from the surface of the material to the subject that determines the rate of fall off, but he suggested/claimed/demonstrated that quarter or half stop diffusion, and in particular some of the diffusion materials made for cinema, would allow through a mix of direct and diffused light simultaneously and that the thinner/looser the weave of the diffusion fabric the more the ratio is tilted to direct light.
The result is that the direct light has a less steep slope of fall off from one side of the scene to the other; because the light source is so far away. It also looked much more like natural light than a fixture and modifier being used much closer. The added softness to the light comes from the percentage that is diffused by the material.
The cinematographer was also less willing to use any more fill on the shadow side of a subject's face than was minimally necessary. In fact, in some of his work he was happy to let the shadow side of a subject go wherever it was going to go without any interference.
The effect was like being in a room lit by enormous windows which were themselves lit by strong but diffused daylight. It was beautifully lighting. I'm still envious of those professionals from the 1980s and 1990s who could afford huge studio spaces that would allow this sort of experimentation.
This was the opposite of some of the very dramatic and almost harsh lighting that Albert Watson used for some of his black and white people work. Some of my favorite work from Watson in the 1990s was also done in big studios but for different reasons and effects.
He would work with one smaller soft box and use it just above the subject's head, letting the light fall off very quickly because of its very close proximity. With a forehead tone that was just a mouse squeak from blowing the highlights one found the light almost plunging into blackness by the time it got to a subject's chest. The ramp of the fall off, in accordance with the inverse square law, yielded, almost, the very dramatic effect of a spotlight. A spotlight with the character of a small soft box...
But he valued the larger spaces for a different reason. He loved the depth. He would use long lenses for his portraits, usually on a medium format camera, and place the camera far away from the subject. Then he'd place the subject very far away from the background. The effect was subtle but exhilarating because it married compression with an increased sense of depth. But it required maybe 100 feet of linear space to achieve a look in exactly the way Watson wanted.
I can only get a shadow of these effects in my smaller studio but I do have a few tricks up my sleeve. I have a big square of windows on my west studio wall that measure about 10 by 10 feet in all. The top edge of the windows is up at about 12 feet. If I place my main light outside the studio and up high on a stand, shining back down through the windows, and then into the same kind of diaphanous diffusion the cinema guys use I can get a much better overall lighting effect than just using a modifier and light in closer proximity to my subject.
I spent many years doing my own, watered down version of the cinematographer's design. I use a 6x6 foot panel with one sheet of diffusion on it as close to my subject as possible and then put as many LED lights as I can on the opposite side and as far away as I can. My diffusion is a bit too opaque and the distance less that half of what it should be for the lights but it's more consistency interesting to me than pulling out a soft box. Too bad the diffusion panel and LEDs require so many light stands. In a much bigger space I would be able to leave all that equipment set up and just walk in on a day-to-day basis and take spur of the moment portraits.
Life is full of compromises. We're lucky when we get to choose the compromises we want.