Friday, 3 September 2010

Lights and a plan.

Since hearing that I did NOT make it into this years Taylor Wessing selection (See post 8th August post - Showering in public) a new attitude toward my portraiture has preoccupied my thoughts. It has occurred that my reliance on available light is causing me to repeat the same picture over and over.

So when I was given an assignment to photograph Labour Leadership contender David Miliband, I immediately decided to break the cycle and pack my full lighting kit.

Using available light is the first instinct of anyone who has come up through documentary photography. It relies on observational skill, there are fewer things to go wrong and it offers the promise of flexibility - if the shot isn't working you can quickly move without fuss or fanfare and change the setting, background, tone etc.

IN the late 1990's, living in New York, I started to do more work for the magazine supplements. It required that I learn about lighting as very few clients were interested in "available lit" portraits at the time. To begin with, the hardest thing was not technical but the basic fact that when you set up your lighting, that's where you'll be taking the picture. In essence, your first instinct has to be good because there is rarely time to change your mind.

This is not always true of course. Some people have hours to spend on a shoot, others barely minutes but the leisurely ones are few and getting rarer all the time.

Learning to make those quick choices and envisage what something "could be" after a lifetime of trying to leave everything "just as it is" proved tricky and I invariably chose lighting that mimicked a diffuse window for the first year or so.

The great advantages of lighting are that by controlling the light you cease to be dependent on the amount and nature of your ambient light and you can choose lighting that is relevant to your subject and or setting. Also there are advantages of creativity over observation sometimes.

At the beginning of my journey into lit portraits I read a fascinating interview with Nigel Parry who talked about the experience of photographing Bill Clinton in a very short time-slot.

Amongst the many things he revealed was the fact that he had spent the night before the shoot doing timed a run-through with lighting set-ups so that he and his assistant could get what they needed before the curtain came down.

So the night before I decided on how I would light my portrait assignment. I picked three set-ups, all fairly straightforward and tailored to the assumption that it would be done in bare offices without any real environment that would pertain to David Miliband himself.

A quick run through led me to discard one of these ideas as, without an assistant, it would take too long to put-up and I suspected that time would be fleeting.

I am not as expert at lighting as some of my friends like Drew Gardner. Also, although I have three Profoto heads of various powers and a few light-shaping tools I do not have a limitless array of lighting weaponry.

Nonetheless I came up with a way of getting two distinct looks with a simple one-light configuration by just swapping the 20 degree honeycomb for a gridded soft-box and rotating the lamp-head so it skimmed in front rather than smacked into David's face.

This was primarily because I liked the idea of spotlights and all the metaphors they engender within the context of political power but also because they were quick to change and likely to work in whatever space I found at the location.

The coffee cup was his idea and came as he took a quick revivative swig while I quickly changed the light-shapers.

"I like this, it feels natural - like something I do regularly" he said.

"Yeah, it looks comfortable. It's honest, and there's not much of that going around at the moment," I jokingly replied.

I was lucky with the room in that the slope of the roof gave me a little visual interest to the right of the frame which seem to work if I lined his shoulder with the vertical of the corner. It gave another feature to distinguish from the spot-lit pictures shot a few feet over to the left which was a bonus.

Of course lighting all the time is just as likely to take me down a photographic cul-de-sac as using available. But for the time being my mantra will be "Carry lights and a plan" and if the sun is particularly lovely I can always switch them off!


Abbie said...

loving your work jedi, the upright is a winner x x x

Justin Sutcliffe said...

@ Abbie, thank you, my favorite too the other is a tad "newspapery" I suspect. xxx