Strobism isn’t everything

There, I’ve said it.

Now, to back up what I mean, I suppose I should explain. When I shot a Christmas party on behalf of a friend many years ago, the shots – for which I’d tried to use flash – were so miserably bad that I was too ashamed to even give them to the client. I was crushed that I had failed so spectacularly at a paying gig, and this awful experience probably turned me even further away from wanting to become a regular working photographer.

When I found the Strobist website a few years back, my interest was piqued. When I saw what was possible using little speedlights, I jumped in with both feet. Many, many photo shoots, experiments, shopping trips and blog posts later, I have now reached the stage where using artificial lighting of any kind is a skill which I feel to have very well under control. While there will always be one more piece of kit to buy, one more technique to try out, or one more article to read on the subject, it is no longer foreign territory to me. Artificial light is a great extension to my photo bag and one which I will continue to turn to in the future.

However, there is much more to photography than embroiling oneself in technical solutions. Some photographers use artificial lighting effectively and much of their work is heavily staged, where setting up the lighting for the shot takes infinitely longer than actually taking the picture. This has been the case in many of my photo shoots over the past couple of years, when the setup has taken up to an hour before shooting for literally a couple of minutes. The results have been great in the main, and the collection of shots in my portraiture portfolio are proof that the setup has been well worth it in most cases. Without additional lighting and the skills which I’ve spent so much time developing over the past two or three years, shots like those from my bumblebee shoot, for example, would never have been possible.

Gimme! Gimme!

However, now that I have the technique of artifical lighting well under control, I’m going to shift down a gear. In the more recent of the photo shoots I’ve been organizing, not least the one in Montreux just recently, I’ve keen acutely aware that my people photography hasn’t been as good – as fluid – as it once was. As people have said: I’ve been paying too much attention to the technical side, whilst leaving the model (or volunteer) to either stand around or feel that they are in second place to the lighting. Whilst setting up lights to create a special effect is fine and I’m pleased with many of the results, it is affecting not just the quality of my photographs, but also the quality of my interaction with my subjects.

Even if I have a clear image in my head of what I want to achieve, the technical aspect is quick to prepare, and everything works perfectly, the person in front of the camera is never as much at ease if there’s a great technical preparation. They feel off-balance to start with, which means that the photos are more likely to be forced and less successful than when they can be themselves.

Valerie at the Suisse Majestic in Montreux

Too dark? Pull out a flashgun or reflector and use it sparingly. Don’t crank up a lightstand, open up an umbrella, attach remote controls and spend ten minutes fiddling before you take a photo just because you can. The light in the photo of Valerie above is gorgeous, but the best of it is natural light. The fill light on Valerie’s shoulder and back, coming in from the right, is a flash fired through a white umbrella. To get the effect and positioning of it, it took me 15 minutes to fiddle about and get exactly the right light settings.

If I’d used the white reflector I had with me, it would’ve taken about 20 seconds.

I’m going to use the lighting equipment in my camera bag in the same way as I would any other piece of kit from now on: like a tripod, or a lens, or a filter. If the shot needs it, then add it. But only if the shot needs it. By working in this way again, I will gain from the experience gained in the past couple of years to use the light which is available, be it natural or not.

Behind the scenes