Confessions of a Lighting Fanatic.
Ever since I came into photography I was and still am an incorrigible lighting fanatic. I was never satisfied with drab flat lighting regardless of the subject, As a portrait photographer this was never a problem because the studio I apprenticed in and every one that I work in since, including my own, had an abundance of lighting gear- lights were everywhere, on floor stands, boom arms and hanging on tracks from the ceiling. I was so often disappointed, however, by flat candid wedding photographs made with one light mounted on the camera. I guess I was lucky because my first boss and mentor was a lighting guru and always made his wedding candids with a minimum of two lights- one mounted on the camera and the other “slave” light held by none other than me (the studio slave)! Being the location light man at weddings was one of my first jobs at the studio and one of my great learning experiences. I was taught to place my light (within seconds) to provide not only a main light but at times a back/side light, a hair light and a multitude of various effects. This method was not only utilized for formal photography but all the fast action shots as well.
My mission is always to fight against the bad rap that flash photography had and in some cases still has- kind of a stigma. People still talk about artificial results, flat lighting, black unrealistic backgrounds in large churches and halls, red eye and distracting shadows on walls in the background. None of theses phenomena are the flat of electronic flash units but simply poor usage and bad technique. This is not to say that I don’t employ available light, window light and controlled outdoor lighting in my work but when the existing light is non-existent or there is just plain lousy lighting, I like to use my flash gear to create natural, dramatic and believable lighting that is effective crisp and flattering to the subjects, regardless of the location.
In most cases I start off with a single flash, mounted on a bracket that enables me to swing, flip or rotate the flash unit so that is always about 12” directly above the lens. This flash unit is configured so that it can be used straight on, in partial or full bounce positions or with bare bulb. It usually serves as a fill light. All my other lights are off camera. This is where my insanity kicks in; besides that mobile light that entrusted to my assistant, a most weddings I use up 9 lights. In this day and age of digital equipment and available light- I am surely considered a lunatic by most of my compatriots in that the can’t figure out how I can function with all that gear to drag around and how I can possibly work quickly and efficiently with all that stuff to worry about.
The answers are simple- it’s all a matter of price, quality and staff. In my area, I am the high end guy- my smallest billing for a wedding is now $6,000. I have at least 3 assistants on all my assignments and they are charged with the job of setting up the lights and of course pulling them down and transporting them to various to the venues when needed. Two of my people act as an advance team to set up before I arrive. When there is no time to “install” all of my lights, I will have 3 assistants with portables on monopods working on the floor with me. Of course if there are restrictions in churches, we have to work around them and improvise as best as we can to accommodate church rules and time limitations.
The general idea of the multiple off camera lighting is to strategically place my lights on 13’ sturdy light stands around the room where that are at out the way. A typical large ballroom will read about f/8- to f/11 right across the entire room. Depending on the action and the position of the subjects, some light will act as kickers, hair lights, main lights or lights that illuminate the entire venue so as to avoid that black hold effect. This lighting can be dramatic or festive- adjustment to the on-camera light will determine the ratio and therefore the mood of each scene. The light are often placed in balconies or in out of the way places on the perimeter of the room.
The reason that I go to all of this “trouble” is that for the price I am charging, I have to deliver something outstanding. As a portraitist, I love good lighting and as a “journalist” I like to interpret the festiveness of the receptions and the majesty of the ceremonies. Oftentimes existing light yields, murky, grainy images that do not accurately express the mood of the occasion. I also see a lot of overhead lighting that hides the eyes of the subject in shadow so that they look tired and lifeless- I call this “raccoon” lighting because the black shadows tend to encircle the eyes.
Believe it or not, when done properly, theses kinds of lighting setups enable fast working conditions and are not at all obtrusive when the lights are strategically placed.
I also love to include lots of PEOPLE on my candid shots. The reactions of relatives and friends add interest and gaiety to otherwise mundane or claustrophobic scenes. I hate to see a wedding album where you see the bride and groom coming and going without any atmosphere or environmental content in the background.
Portrait wise- I will often set up a portable studio at the venue providing the bridal party has allowed time for me to make a series of formals in a studio-like method. The image of the bride alone was made with a soft-box equipped mono-light and a reflector- that’s all and yes- a portable background.
This article is part of a series that I will present here on the PAF forum on an ongoing basis- your questions and comments are invited and appreciated. Thanks for reading!