Any Light That's Available

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Tuesday, October 4, 2005; 5:20 PM

So the story goes, the great photographer and location portraitist Arnold Newman once was asked whether he ever worked by available light when making his wonderful pictures.

"'Available light' is any light that's available,'" Newman famously cracked, and the line has been associated with him ever since.

To a location photographer like myself, Newman's response has the ring of revealed truth. Working on location--that is to say away from the secure confines of a studio containing all of your gizmos, do-hickeys and photo accessories--is something of a high-wire act. And on location you simply have no choice but to come back with images, especially if you are working on someone else's dime and deadline.

It can be an exhilarating experience. Get a bunch of location shooters together in a room and I guarantee by evening's end they will be trading tales of lighting pictures by flashlight, candlelight, moonlight and matchlight. And they will be doing it with the relish of kids describing Christmas morning.

This past summer in Maine, my wife Judy and I had a similar experience, but one that added a new wrinkle to our repertoire of stories about using odd sources of light to illuminate our work.

In our case, we worked by available light, but spent the entire photo shoot devising ways to make the light less available, not more. And in the process we got further evidence of the prodigious light-gathering power of digital photography.

Early in the season, through our artist friend Tim Gaydos, we met Deborah Healy, an artist/educator from Florida who recently had bought a house in our Down East Maine "neighborhood"--actually just a few miles away over the International Bridge, on Campobello Island, New Brunswick. Deborah, we found out, was eager to make watercolor paintings of the area's beautiful landscape and flowers, but she also was on a drop-dead deadline for a book she was writing on animation. And besides having to labor over the final manuscript, she was looking for a better author photo than the disappointing offering she had gotten a few weeks earlier.

Judy and I warmed to Deborah immediately and offered to give it a shot--even though we told her we had none of our normal location lighting gear with us. With the understanding that this was to be an experiment, and offering to take only a token payment, we said we would come to her house and try to make her portrait digitally, and by available light.

Happily, we had a little wiggle room as far as time was concerned, so we were able to make a scouting trip to her home a few days earlier, just to scope out a spot to place her. All Deborah needed was a head shot, not a full environmental portrait, which made things easier. We settled on one corner of a bay window in her parlor that had windows on three sides. Placing Deborah in a chair in the corner would light her from all sides, allowing us to regulate just how much light we needed by using baffles and scrims (read: cardboard and plastic garbage bags) accordingly.

Since we had no auxiliary lighting gear ourselves, we chose to shoot in the morning to get maximum daylight--which turned out to be almost too much of a good thing, and actually forced us to pull down every shade on every window almost as soon as the session began!

From the start we all were surprised at the light-gathering ability of our Fuji Finepix S2, which translated into a remarkable ability to render shadow detail. Conversely we had to make sure that we did not blow out detail at the high end--the perennial bugaboo of digital shooting. Toward that end Judy had what turned out to be the best idea of the shoot when she said we should place a cardboard rectangle covered in black paper directly behind Deborah's head to create an elegant background. This also helped to highlight our subject's dazzling light blonde hair, and kept extraneous window light from obscuring important detail.

As we do almost always when we photograph women, we set the camera on a tripod slightly above our subject. This minimizes double chins and avoids having the subject look imperious or threatening--the effect one would achieve if shooting even slightly from below eye level.

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