It's 1:30am on Thanksgiving Day. I'm wide awake, Johnny Cash is fitfully playing from some show on the Biography HD channel, and there's a frozen turkey sitting in a blue plastic tub in the kitchen. And yet, instead of dozing off or preparing for a wonderment of victuals delicately prepared and teased, I sit here thinking about my lighting style.
I am frustrated by it.
Let's back up a bit. I've been re-reading the Hotshoe Diaries again (and watching some recent McNally videos on the Nikon site) and realizing what difficulty I continue to have with my lighting style. I think I've been so abused of this notion that light must be grand and soft, that I find it a terribly grim notion to try something else.
Lately, I've been limited to using umbrellas. I know, there's nothing quite wrong with them, really. You can shoot through them. You can bounce into them. But controlling that light is a pain. It just goes everywhere. And generally, some of it is reflecting back some place I don't want it to go. I suppose I could get smart and flag out some of the light more, but in the heat of the moment I forget that I can do that. Or that I can collapse the umbrella. Or feather it. Or just take it off.
And herein lies the rub. I get wrapped up in what I'm doing that I can't defiantly remove myself from the scene and observe what's going on within it. Or even know what the scene should really be about. For the longest time, I've taken the mindset of letting things occur and reacting to it. No real foresight or planning occurs. I mean, what right-minded pirate would think of being so rigid as to stick to some photographic code! They're guidelines, people!
But, really, they're not even that. And I'm beginning to observe that not having some sort of reasonably gelled idea, not having some set of guidelines for what I really want out of the photo, not having some set of rules and checks that I want to purposefully constrain myself within is affecting my not very well-formed vision of the shoot from coming to fruition. A plan you must have. You can have a plan and choose not to follow it. You can't choose to not follow a plan that doesn't exist. Just doesn't work very well.
Take this latest shoot, for example. The idea was simple: Aeon Flux. That's it. I would show up with the camera, take a few photos, and be gone. I asked about what they specifically wanted but didn't get very good direction beyond, "We're going to suspend her and try to recreate one or two shots from the original TV show." Ok. Didn't know that until I got there so I had no idea what those shots would have or should have resembled.
I'm fond of the phrase, "a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine." Only, in this case, it was my lack of planning that made it a struggle. We tried a few positions, took some shots. Mostly, it was an evening of aimless fucking about until something kind-of, sort-of began to gel together if you tilted your head to the left, squinted your right eye, and covered your left with the back of an aching, sweaty palm.
And yeah, I was fighting the light the entire time. I wanted something mood-filled. Dark. Reminiscent of what I recalled the cartoon to be. Tried using two lights. One in a large umbrella, one bare to get some separation from the background. In most cases, it just did not work out the way I kept envisioning it. I'm still mulling over why. Could have been the space we were shooting, the lack of a real shooting plan, the phase of the moon. I'm not sure. Frustrating, it was.
So like any good non-plan following jack, I did what I thought best: killed the second light, pulled the first in closer, and dropped to a smaller umbrella. And this helped. I was dealing with too much light. Well, not so much that there was too much light, but that there was too much being illuminated. The walls, the ceiling, the carpet, the midget in the corner. I wanted to layer light in a pleasing manner, but I could not do it. Just wasn't working and I was tired of bashing my head against the wall.
Lately, I've been playing with the idea of using smaller light sources. more controllable, more directional. And the umbrella makes it difficult for me to achieve this (or maybe it's just that I don't know how to do it effectively yet). So, I'm getting a small 15" softbox for my speedlights. I think that'll be a good first step to get what I want. Blast all the light forward, don't have to worry as much about light coming from places I don't want it (like reflecting off the beige wall behind me). And this is what I really needed for this Aeon shoot. More control.
Once I got to a smaller umbrella, things started to work better. I felt less and less like my clutch was slipping and more like I was making positive forward momentum (even if I was squealing tires and redlining the engine). And looking back at what I was doing before, I begin to realize that what Joe McNally is doing is second nature to him. He understands just what light mod needs to be in place to achieve a particular effect (plus a bit of magic and luck) and I'm still figuring that out.
Only, in my case it feels like "shoot, shoot some more, shoot again, and then ask questions." Not a great way to do it.
So, some things I walk away with from this shoot:
- Get a good idea of what the shoot is about. Include a list of photos you want to get.
- Plan your shots, even if it's only a tiny bit of ordering. This will help you know when you've got it ... or when you should just move on.
- Don't forget that you have control of the light. If something is broken, change it. Feather it, flag it, move it, change it, turn it into a duck. Whatever. Just try something different, but make sure it's a positive and directed different.
- Think about what you're lighting before you get there.
- Think about what you're NOT lighting before you get there.
- Make sure the place you're shooting is appropriate for the subject you're shooting. Had I fully realized what the shoot was intended to be, I would have pulled them to a much better location.
- Someone spinning around in the air really needs a tagline to hold them steady, otherwise you just cuss and frustrate yourself while attempting to get focus lock.
- Spend some time after the shoot to review what you did and what worked (or didn't work). Just writing all this down has helped me figure out a few things to keep in my mental checklist of shooting.
My Aeon is a local friend who's moving out of town. This was a Halloween outfit she created a year or two back and she wanted some good photos of it before she departed. She'll be away for quite awhile and likely will only rarely return for visits. My only regret was never being able to photograph her in her Mystique costume. Damn was that thing sexy.