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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Night Moves/ Light Moves

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

You know the joke about the amateur sculptor, right? The one about the elephant?

OK, OK. This guy goes up to a sculptor, who's wearing his brand new beret, his brand new smock. The guy asks the sculptor what he's going to do.

"I'm gonna make a statue of an elephant," the sculptor says proudly.

"Is it hard?" the guy asks.

"Nah."

"Really?"

"Sure, I got this hammer. I got this chisel. Now all I gotta do is get rid of anything that doesn't look like an elephant."

Which is a roundabout way of saying that stone sculpture is a subtractive process. Photography, by contrast, is an additive one. Whether film or digital, photography is all about the addition of light to a sensitive medium, whether it's a piece of film or a compact flash card.

Most amateurs start by making pictures by available light, then "graduate" to using flash – which adds even more light to a subject. In most cases the exposures made under these circumstances last less than a heartbeat: 1/60th of a second, 1/250th of a second, etc.

In the gradual evolution from being a snap-shooter to being a photographer there is the liberating discovery that comes, first, when you free your flash – most often via a long cable that lets the light be used off-camera for more dramatic or flattering angles – and, second, when you discover how to modify your flash through diffusion or indirection. Combining these techniques with really long exposures to make maximum use of available light was, for me anyway, one of the most exciting lessons I ever learned in photography. No longer was I limited to making what looked like harshly lit mugshots. Simply by using flash that was off-camera and diffused, even with something as mundane as a handkerchief, I was able to create a huge improvement in the quality of my pictures.

And shooting a seconds-long exposure (most often with my camera held steady on a tripod) meant that when shooting interiors, not only would the flash-lit foreground be well exposed, but my background would be pleasingly lit as well, as opposed to going a depressing black. This happened because the long exposure allowed the area that was not lit by the flash to be better illuminated by the additional light that was "sucked up" onto the film during the long time that the shutter was open. [Note: I still use this technique all the time in my personal and professional work – and I still think it's magic.]

When Judy and I made our fourth trip to Venice last November, to gather more images for our next book, we used still another "additive" technique that is neither difficult nor frankly all that sophisticated. But the results from it can be dramatic. "Painting with Light" is the colorful way to describe what we did when Judy and I returned to the beautiful public gardens, "Il Giardini", just a few vaporetto stops from Piazza San Marco in this most beautiful of cities. Judy, who besides being a photographer and sculptor, is a wonderful gardener, loved the huge derelict greenhouse that dominated one part of the garden grounds. On our previous trip to Venice, ten months earlier in January, Judy had said she wanted to make a dramatic image of the greenhouse and asked my help in figuring how to do that.

A really long time exposure (a couple of minutes, perhaps, at a small aperture to render maximum detail) was one option. But, if we were to make the shot at dusk, with the evening sky still showing some somber light, a time exposure would run the risk of making the sky blow out – or look as if it were daylight. That would effectively spoil the somber mood Judy was seeking, so we ruled out that technique.

A somewhat shorter, seconds-long, exposure augmented by a single blast from a stationary camera-mounted flash unit, would have been another option. But in this case, there were two key drawbacks. First, no single flash unit offers coverage so wide as to light a huge building like a greenhouse. Second, Judy and I were working portably, which meant we were not toting huge studio strobe heads with us as we strolled near midnight through Venice.

In fact the only flash unit we had with us was a piddly little thing that was barely as large as a pack of cigarettes. Yet, used correctly, this little gizmo made all the difference and let Judy come up with this really moody, yet really well exposed, image. The flash we used was a tiny Mecablitz 34CS-2 made by Metz, the German lighting company that has been making superb lighting equipment for decades.

Steve Hash, owner of Photo Pro in Kensington, Md., suggested the unit to me when I asked his recommendation for a flash that was smaller than even my workhorse Vivitar 283's [Remember: this was a post September 11th trip, and Judy and I wanted to travel as light as possible.]

Steve was so sure I'd like the unit that he lent it to me for my trip and said if I wanted to buy it we could talk on our return. Come to think of it, that's the same technique rug sellers have used on Judy and me. But, hey, he was right. I loved the way this flash worked and was happy to fork over $170, the street price on this unit, which lists for $225.

Here's what Judy and I did to make this photograph. First, Judy lined up the shot the way she wanted it, with her Nikon N90s on a tripod. She wanted a fairly wide shot and so used a 24mm Nikkor wide-angle lens.

Then I cranked the Mecablitz up to full manual power (this little sucker can blast out a surprising amount of light, by the way) then made a single flash exposure with my Minolta Spotmeter F set in "Flash" mode.

This gave me a baseline exposure calculation, from which I planned our final routine. With the flashmeter giving us an correct aperture of, say f.5.6, I figured we easily could stop down by a stop or two, then make up for it my using multiple flash pops and a fairly long exposure of around 30 seconds. The important thing, though, was that, instead of standing by Judy and the camera, I simply walked the length of the greenhouse, firing the flash about a half a dozen times during the long exposure, literally "painting with light".

When using a technique like this, it is wise to do several different exposures – with more or fewer flash pops, larger or smaller apertures – to cover all the exposure bases. You'll be surprised how many of these experiments produce gorgeous images, each very different.

Which is half the fun, right?

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.


© Judith Goodman
Trust me, this gorgeous Venetian greenhouse was in virtually total shadow when Judy and I photographed it last November. Multiple pops from tiny flash, fired from different angles, made all the difference.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

A Lost Legacy

Lemonade

'Photo Hero'

Holga's (Now-Unblinking) Plastic Eye

Telefonini and Carciofi for All!!

Bearing Witness to the Unthinkable



Northern Short Course in Photojournalism.

For more than two decades, the National Press Photographers Association has sponsored a series of intense mini-workshops taught by some of the best news shooters and editors in the business. This year's is no exception. The 2002 Northern Short Course will be held March 14-16 at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in Cherry Hill, N.J., just 20 minutes from Philadelphia.

The three-day affair will cover topics ranging from the broad (Tips and Trends in TV Photojournalism, Business and copyright issues, Surviving in the job after 9/11) to the nitty-gritty specific (Nikon Digital Flash, Location Lighting, Photoshop, Learning to love the Canon EOS 1D). Lecturers will include such well-known still and video photojournalists as Steve McCurry, Matt Rainey, Julie Ritson and David Handschuh.

For information: e-mail NorthernSC@mindspring.com or go to the website: www.northernshortcourse.com