I'm talking about shooting pictures by available light (and not by "any light that's available," as Arnold Newman used to say.) Though I have been having a ball in Venice shooting for our next book in this blessedly unencumbered way with my Nikon F-100 and Leica M6, I almost never have shot commercially by available, or natural, light.
For more than 20 years, in fact, almost every commercial job my wife Judy and I have done portraits, brochures, annual reports, weddings, interiors, album covers etc. has been done with at least some added light, most often flash, but sometimes, too, tungsten flood lights.
In fact, there has been a part of me that thought it was, well, unprofessional to show up at a job with basically a lone camera and no auxiliary lighting, either to be set up on multiple light stands or attached via flash bracket to a camera. Hell, that would be too much like an amateur wandering in and simply taking a few snapshots.
Who's gonna pay big money for that?
But I was forgetting three important things:
1. My wife Judy had made a whole separate career photographing children by available light, becoming one of the most sought-after children's photographers in the DC area. [Judy finally decided to quit this arduous work when we had grandchildren. Now she spends her free time photographing them.]
2. My late friend and colleague Fred Maroon once photographed then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat by available light. ["You're going to photograph this big man with that little camera?" one of Sadat's aides asked Fred when he showed up, Leica in hand. "That's right," Fred replied and afterward the palace placed a huge order for 11x14s to give as keepsakes.]
3. Many of my favorite photographers Robert Frank Garry Winogrand, Cartier-Bresson and Gianni Berengo Gardin, to name just four always use or used available light. [And they were the photojournalists. The landscape masters like Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro and John Sexton also worked this way, only in larger format.]
My problem, I think, was that I had gotten used to photographing things like weddings and events, knowing that my trusty diffusion-head, bracket-mounted, flash unit would deliver perfectly exposed images every time.
And when you want to make money with your camera, this is a good thing.
But even before I got a wake-up e-mail from a British photographer the other day, I think I finally was coming to miss in my commercial work, especially weddings, that ineffable quality that one only gets in pictures made by available light. My guess is that it's because I am seeing the wonderful stuff Judy and I are getting from our personal Venice work pictures whose mood would be shattered by flash.
The e-mail in question came unexpectedly from Jeff Ascough, a highly respected and much sought-after professional photographer based in England. Jeff had seen the column I had written recently about American shooter Paul Gero's return to shooting with film, especially for his personal wedding work.
"I think I might have had something to do with Paul changing back to film for his weddings." Jeff told me. "I [had] joined a digital wedding forum. I was a Leica wedding photographer in a big pool of digicammers, pushing the way that I do things in a non-digital way....Paul was one of the first guys from the forum to e-mail me and take notice of the 'alternative' route to shooting a wedding...I seemed to have instilled a bit of nostalgia to his shooting!!!"
In fact, the same kind of nostalgia I was feeling for available light photography.
So I went to Jeff's website www.jeffascough.com and checked out his available light wedding work.
"What simply gorgeous work!" I wrote back. "If I weren't happily married (20th anniversary this year) I'd ask you to shoot my next wedding. Your wedding work is among the best I ever have seen an absolute pleasure to see..."
As you will see from this mere handful of images, Jeff is finely attuned to light and, more important, knows how to see it, and work with it, rather than against it.
"When I am shooting inside, I look for the light direction first and try to work at angles to that light, to give me some modeling in the shot," Jeff said, when I asked him to describe his technique. "The lenses are always used wide open, and with b/w film, the backgrounds aren't too much of a problem. Outside I try and work back-lit or in the shade so that I can control the contrast. I use the camera meter to measure a neutral shadow tone, and let the highlights take care of themselves. If I'm faced with a tricky light problem, I'll use my Pentax digital spot meter to get me home. Indoors the light source could be anything from a table lamp to a big open window."
"I love to use available light, and adore black & white images. My kit...is an available light shooter's dream (only don't mention that to the digital brigade!!)
"I basically use three [Leica] M6TTL's. Two are loaded with Fuji Neopan CN and the other is loaded with Fuji 400 or 800 Superia. My lenses consist of a 50mm f1 Noctilux, a 50mm f2 Summicron, 35mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH, 90mm f2 Summicron ASPH, and a 21mm f2.8 ASPH...."
Here, really, is the only practical roadblock to someone wanting to rush out to emulate Jeff Ascough's technique.
It's damned expensive.
Even leaving aside the fact that he is using three, count 'em, three Leica M6 bodies (which list for nearly two grand each, but which can be had on the street for a mere $1400 or so apiece), the lenses he is using on those bodies are among the priciest 35mm glass on the planet. But they also are the some of the sharpest, fastest lenses around which makes them priceless for available light shooting.
"The lens I use the most for available light is the Noct and possibly the 35 [f1.4] If I can't get back any further. I use Leica because I can hand-hold the camera down to 1/8th sec. without any major trauma as long as I am careful, and I love the fact that I can still focus in virtually no light." [This latter is a reference to the fact that the M-series Leica is a rangefinder camera, not an SLR. It employs overlapping rangefinder images in a viewfinder for manual focusing a decades-old system that, in my opinion, still is miles ahead of even state-of-the-art SLR autofocusing, especially in low light.]
But even a Leica can't see in the dark.
"I never use flash indoors except when I am left with absolutely no option.
When I need flash I use the Metz MZ-3 strobes with a Sto-fen diffuser. The strobe output is controlled by the TTL adaptor on the camera. I still shoot wide open and usually at a 1/15th sec, to make sure that the flash mixes with the ambient light rather than dominates it. I've just bought the Leica SF20 [flash]gun, and a Nikon SC17 cable to use this year, as the Metz's tend to throw the Leicas off balance a bit. We'll have to see how I get on with this set up!!"
Pricey though Jeff's gear may be, I think someone working with more mundane glass, for example, might still be able to get good available light results by using faster film, like Ilford's fantastic Delta 3200, which Judy and I love for low-light shooting.
Still, what makes Jeff's work so arresting, aside from his superb eye for composition and for the precise moment to shoot, is the fact that the images are, well, creamy, not grainy. This is a function of the fact that his investment in superb lenses has allowed him to use slower, finer-grained films, which in turn produce the kind of silky prints that simply astound.
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 through his website www.GVRphoto.com.