Photography gets under your skin. It burrows itself into your soul and infects you for a lifetime. Like all great loves, it chooses you. When you meet other people who also love photography, their energy is infectious and it’s deeply inspiring to be around. They understand your obsession. And they want to talk about the virus that’s infected us all.
Several years ago, I was invited to join a group of instructors who shared a love of photography. In the fifteen years since that first workshop experience, I’ve noticed two consistent qualities among great teachers: The first is that each instructor is always from the top level of their profession. The second is that each one has a deep desire to peel back the layers of the photography process and share it. And not just casually share it, but share it like a kid who can’t keep a secret. Isn’t that the way every workshop should feel?
“Light can add flavor, depth and complexity to your vision. It can take an ordinary situation and turn it into something much more intriguing.”
For me, the secrets I most love to share involve light. Light is photography to me. In fact, the origin of the word photography actually means “drawing with light.” But light can be so much more than that. It can also add flavor, depth and complexity to your vision. It can take an ordinary situation and turn it into something much more intriguing. But more than anything, using light creatively can open doors to new clients and separate you from many other photographers competing for the same work.
At a recent Advanced Lighting Workshop, the emphasis was on using artificial light and we had a blast. Each student spent a day learning a different lighting specialty in diverse environments over the three-day weekend. Dave Black worked in the field capturing hi-speed sync action, Matt Hernandez worked to create active portraits in a local CrossFit gym, and I had students creating a variety of portraits in the studio. Everyone who attended the workshop wanted to rise above the competition, add some tools to their toolbox, and immerse themselves in the possibilities of light.
A large part of discovering how to use light creatively is learning to create something from nothing—just as a painter might when confronting a blank canvas. Artificial lighting usually requires you to “create” rather than “take” a photograph, and nowhere is this more true than on a photo stage. Inside a studio, there’s often very little environmentally to work with so the light frequently becomes the environment for the subject. Our studio group had the opportunity to make straightforward portraits, stylized portraits, bridal portraits, and even a few sexy portraits.For the first setup, we built an image around a curvy white leather couch. We used three Profoto light heads in a very controlled fashion so that the light felt sensuous for our model Julie’s beautiful face and striking pose. Her face was illuminated by a 10-degree grid, while her hair and back were lighted with a small soft box fitted with a 20-degree fabric grid to control the light spill. The final light was a medium soft box that was placed just to the right of camera and reduced several stops so that it only provided some minor value to the shadows.
We also were able to photograph Julie tucked into a studio window accompanied by two additional sets of hands pressed up against the outside of the glass. We used a 3-degree grid with full and half CTO gels combined to light her face and a medium soft box to illuminate the rest of the interior.By shifting the color balance in camera to 2500K, the entire photograph was rendered as a deep blue with the exception of her face. Her skin rendered accurately because the light passing through the CTO gels delivered light that matched the 2500K setting of the camera and made her face a “correct” visual anchor in a sea of blue.
Our final image was of a beautiful bride. Now, I’m not a wedding photographer but I love photographing brides. They are glowing with beauty, the dresses are often incredibly ornate, and the whole look of a bride is regal. They make wonderful subjects and the resulting photographs are often worthy of a lingering stare.
Our model, Meagan, was not only gorgeous, but all-in and committed to helping us to make some nice portraits. Using one of the walls of the studio, I wanted to create an image that felt spacious and demonstrated a very different type of lighting philosophy than our first two situations. In the previous two images, the light was more intimate and designed around the subject. This image was more about first creating interesting light and then placing the subject into that light.
The main source was a reflector head placed high and near the studio wall. The light was then controlled with a set of barn doors that helped to direct the light along the wall surface to create a subtle shaft of light. A second head was placed into a medium soft box fitted with a 40-degree fabric grid and positioned to camera left. The grid would enable us to deliver a small amount of fill light onto the back of her dress and hair without lighting up the shadow on the wall. Because the light was so specific and directional, Meagan would have to look up toward the first head so that the light would illuminate her face in a flattering way.
When the photography had ended, our entire group gathered at a local pub to discuss light, pictures, and careers. Instead of a camera, many of us were now holding a beer and it was a perfect time to look at portfolios and exchange ideas. So often, these informal gatherings turn out to be insanely valuable conversations that last into the wee hours of the morning.
Soon, I’ll be part of another fantastic Summit Series Workshop. As always, the focus will be on sharing the kind of information that can take students to the next level in photography. Many, many students who’ve attended these workshops have gone on to become regular contributors at Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, the New York Times, and countless other publications. Whether you need help with the technical aspects of shooting, picture advice from elite photo editors, or guidance on how to make the leap into full-time photography, the Summit Series structures their workshops so that you leave with useful insights and techniques.
If you want to get a feel for the experience, cinematographer Jarod Sumpter has created some terrific videos that really encapsulate what the workshops are like. I hope to see you there!