I can't believe I'm making good on my resolution not to work in December. Everything banished from the calendar. It's an unsettling exercise.

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. 


Anonymous said...

I worked in just over a dozen studios in Minneapolis in the early 80's as a freelance assistant. Nearly everyone hung a good size softbox low over a table for product shots.

However one photographer always used 4x8 ft scrims of different diffusion material above his product shooting table. He could vary scrim materials, put the light closer or further from the scrim, diffuse or spot the light at the source, and move the light around over the scrim to change the hardness, softness, direction, and character of the light. He could hang more lights as needed for larger, more even coverage. I never worked in his studio, as I think he preferred to work alone. But I always considered him one of the more skilled and perceptive lighting practitioners, and wished I could have worked with him to learn his personal techniques.


MikeR said...

One of the more unsettling parts of retirement is not knowing what day it is. Having hung it up almost a year ago, I'm still looking for some sort of "anchor" that tells me it's Monday.

Gato said...

Just before reading your post I sent out messages postponing the portrait sessions on my calendar. All were in Amarillo, which has recently been number 5 in the nation for covid cases per capita. I'll miss doing the photography, but it just does not seem worth it right now. Not sure when I'll get back to it, maybe not until I've had the vaccine.

In the meantime I have a big box of potential still life subjects to play with, not to mention going back through old files. There is a about a 5x10 foot window in my shooting area. Maybe I'll play with some of your lighting ideas and be ready to try them on people next year.

Kenneth Voigt said...

MikeR: look at your pillbox to see what day it is.

Michael Matthews said...

Maybe add one or more of those gigantic skylights...I think they’re called roof windows...to provide even more natural light at different times of day. Silver-backed blackout curtains could block the light when not needed and defeat the solar oven effect. I can always think of projects for other people to undertake - call on me when needed.

Frank Grygier said...

The joy of a rudderless life in the currents of time is to be embraced or not.

MikeR said...

Kenneth: the pillbox(es) help. Also, setting aside Saturday night as movie night, and Friday evening for eating (take) out.

Richard said...

@Mike R: being retired, you can take the approach: "every day is Saturday".

Ronman said...

I'm a rookie retiree, but a few things I've realized early on. The every day is Saturday approach is certainly a good philosophy, due to it being true. And not knowing what day it is always brings a smile to my face. Curiously, I seem to be as busy as before, but with much less stress and a more positive "work" environment.

Chuck Albertson said...

A couple of years ago, they were filming Cate Blanchett in a scene for "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" in front of the Seattle Public Library on a rare sunny day. I had a front-row seat from my office in the building next door. No lights, just a scrim the size of an aircraft carrier with a crew of four to move it around.

Eric Rose said...

I subscribe to several professional cinema photography blogs. Hollywood types not run and gun youtube heroes. What I enjoy is their discussions on lighting and shot setups. Their use of colour is also fascinating. Many of the old guard are sharing their techniques and it seems the new pros are going back to the well on a more regular basis.

I can't wait to see what you come up with for your portrait sessions in the new year!

I have been retired for going on fours years now. I have a very loose routine, but it is a routine. I found out that I don't do well with tons of free time with no short and long term goals. The endless summer was a wonderful thing in my teens but not so much now.

This is a great period to test drive retirement so half way through next year when you finally get tired of all the BS you will hit the retirement ground running.


karmagroovy said...

As this is obviously turning into a retirement thread, I'll add my buffalo head nickel by saying that I've found volunteering to be a great way to buffer the "what do I do now that I'm not working" question. It's work without having to worry about office politics or pleasing your boss. Instead of a paycheck you get the satisfaction of knowing that your work is going to a good cause.

Kirk, I'm sure you've already thought about volunteering your time and expertise to the theatre when you finally decide to retire.

JC said...

The most difficult photography I've ever done was on an archaeological dig in the Middle East, where I was the photographer for 12 years or so. The dig was in the summer, and every day was very hot. There was always sifting going on, for small artifacts, so the air was usually full of dust. We had no electric power, so I made a scrim out of an inexpensive bed sheet to filter sunlight from the always clear skies. The problem was that everything was low contrast -- everything was sort of dirt colored, set in a dirt background. Since we were digging holes in the ground, and shooting inside of them, one side was often harshly lit by sun, the other side in deep shadow -- hence the scrim, which evened things out. The scrim, however, seemed to attract dust, so it grew denser during the course of a week, and the light through it grew yellower. Then a trip to the laundry to reset our Tri-X white balance. Nobody called it a scrim; it was universally referred to as a shmata (Yiddish for "rag.") Ah, the good old days.


Rick said...

Good stuff, Kirk, elemental and complex at the same time.

Having had sports yanked away due to the combination of COVID and a kid graduating from HS I'm adrift, pondering where to direct my photography. Portraiture is appealing but lights and modifiers are not part of my kit and a whole new avenue to explore. They'll have to be portable and I'm not even ready to choose which fork in the road to take between stills only or stills+video.