Lighting is the fundamental ingredient in every photograph, it defines the mood and feel of a scene and how to handle it is always the primary question when evaluating a setting. Whether staging lighting to achieve a specific look or working with available light, we’ve always been at the mercy of time, conditions, or the technical limitations of the cameras.
There’s indisputable honesty and beauty in available light, and today’s cameras with higher low light sensitivities have made it easier to capture images which where impossible or very difficult just a few years ago. An example are these two images taken for an assignment at Trinity College in Hartford which were done totally by available light at night.
The middle eastern dancer, part of an international theme, was a fast moving unpredictable subject with varying intensities of light from the swirling fire batons. She was lit strictly by the light of the fires and little help from nearby street lamps. The second shot, of students around the new outdoor fire pits, was done by the light of the fire only with a side fill from the building’s interior lights on right. On both instances, on camera flash would open up more detail but would totally destroy the mood of the scenes.
These images were shot at ISO 3200 which still provided excellent detail and minimum noise. The camera’s sensitivity can be pushed even higher, and while some camera manufacturers brag about ISO going as high as 51,200 and beyond, it always comes at the cost of quality. As low light quality continually improves, it has been liberating and refreshing and it is changing the way we capture images.
Josie, our Wirehaired Pointing Griffon is totally ball crazy and on very hot days she’s smart enough to prefer I throw it into the pool for her. It is a ritual that she can repeat a thousand times and never tire, throw, bring it back, throw, bring it back, and so on. I believe she thinks of me more as her ball thrower than anything else.>
Like most dogs, Josie shakes off the excess water when she gets out of the pool, but I noticed that because of the late day light and against a shadowed background, it looked like an explosion of crystal droplets. To freeze such an ideal moment, it actually takes quite a high shutter speed, in this case about 1/2000th of a second.
And by the way, I also learned that the term “Dog Days of Summer” comes from the Romans associating the hot weather with the star Sirius of the constellation Canis Major, meaning Large Dog, which in the summer rises at times with the sun. It is also the brightest star in the night sky.
Now back to Josie, she’s waiting outside patiently for her ball thrower.
Much of photography often involves timing, luck, being at the right place at the right time, and at times patience is what’s needed most. When things are happening quickly, we rely on our instincts and experience, but when there’s time to get into the “zone”, we search and hope for whatever could make that particular scene better.
Having all the elements align to make a better photo is a rare event. The light is never right, there’s either a lack, too much, or not the right human element or it is missing whatever that one thing that elevates a picture above average. With people, more than the technical aspects of lighting and setting, it’s often that certain gesture or expression that define the image. In landscape photography, sometimes that wonderful play of light across the land can turn it into a truly magical event.
The above image taken in Portugal is an example of how sometimes good things happen to those who wait. After a thunderstorm had gone through, I could see the clouds breaking up and rays of sun dancing across the hillsides. Going to a favorite spot, I selected my angle and waited in the drizzle for a half hour and then for a few magical seconds this happened and I was ready.
Whether chasing sunbeams or exploring foreign alleyways, the same intuitive approach is used. Unless we are prepared to stage something, you never know what may happen so it is just a matter of searching, waiting, having an open mind and being ready when it happens. Like the alley in Naxos, Greece, the image came together when the cats wandered into the shot. In another alley in Lake Cuomo, Italy, the colors and textures caught my eye immediately but otherwise felt empty. After a few minutes this elderly lady slowly made her way up and I knew I had my shot.
That’s why photography is often a personal vision quest. Clients often wonder why we keep shooting when we should’ve gotten the shot by now. It’s because we never know if the next shot is going to be the better one. Good things do come to those who wait – but as someone else added, better things come to those who are patient.
There are good and bad points about location photography. The good is that no two locations are the same, and the bad is that no two locations are the same. When I leave the comfort of the studio, the primary mission is to work with whatever conditions and settings I encounter.
Scouting locations for environmental portraits becomes a matter of trying to visualize and balance many different factors including ultimately how the camera will see the scene based upon variables of different lenses and lighting. It’s often a luxury to have someone stand-in for the subject (assistants are the primary recruits), but there are still always last minute adjustments when the actual person arrives.
Two assignments recently demonstrated opposite extremes in working with available spaces, one in the humongous lobby of the Connecticut Convention Center and the other a tight stairwell between floors at Cigna.
For the above business portrait of Mike Freitmuth, Executive Director of the Capital Region Development Authority which oversees the Convention Center, I wanted to place Mr. Freimuth within the context of the building, the lobby being the main feature. But because of the architectural shapes and lines, it was matter of figuring the right perspective which would help emphasize the person. I liked the setting but it all seemed kinda busy, so he was photographed with a longer lens and shallow depth of field to soften the background and make him stand out. Due to being on the edge of a landing, he was lit with a single light on the right while the unpredictable sun coming in and out of clouds filled in the rest.
The second portrait below is of Nicole Jones, Executive VP and General Counsel for Cigna. Whenever possible I try to get away from behind the desk or office and find an interesting setting. I liked the angles and dynamics of a stairwell on the Customer Center, but it proved to be quite a different challenge due to the narrow stairway not allowing much room to place the lighting. There was only couple feet of space on the right and a low ceiling to work with. A second strobe was placed at top of the stairs working as a hair light and adding to the background. Luckily, the light walls offered a nice fill for the shadows.
One of the main lessons I learned as a photographer is to be flexible, adaptable and have an open mind since we never know what the situations will be like. I always remember what Bruce Lee once said: “Be water, my friend.”, just go with the flow.
Al Ferreira Photography’s photo blog is
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“One doesn’t stop seeing. One doesn’t stop framing. It doesn’t turn off and turn on. It’s on all the time.”
– Annie Leibovitz