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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography


By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The great location portraitist Arnold Newman once called available light "any light that's available" and I have to admit I have taken him at his word.

Besides daylight, I have made pictures by candlelight, by moonlight, by gaslight, by firelight-even by comet light. [That was some years ago when, on a whim while shooting a wedding at a rural inn, I set up a tripod and made gorgeous time exposures of the Hale-Bopp comet as guests joined me on the terrace to marvel at the light show in the heavens.]

Still, I find when I am out shooting, either commercially or for myself, I feel a little naked without a flash, just in case.

I'd be lost without a strobe when shooting a wedding. Ask me to cover a news event and I'll always have my flash handy. A commercial or magazine job? I'm usually good for at least three studio strobe heads, lightstands, softboxes and umbrellas.

Hell, one of my favorite dog-and-pony shows when I lecture to camera groups is a hands-on seminar called "Flash Photography Demystified."

Still, I am starting to feel this is backwards-though I doubt I'm going to change any time soon.

It's safe to say we all started as available light photographers. Those of us who are of a certain age can remember painstakingly fixing the exposure settings on our all-manual cameras after making an equally painstaking reading with our handheld exposure meters. [The image that comes to my mind right now is of my beautiful, British-made Weston Master IV, a selenium-powered exposure meter that used the sun's own light, not batteries, to help it calculate available light exposure. In those days before digital readouts, a wire-thin arrow floated over the meter's face and stopped when it registered maximum light. You then spun a dial to line up the right aperture and shutter speed.]

And no, wiseguy, this wasn't when Grant was president.

In my youth, I was influenced by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams. Later I got to know the work of Bruce Davidson and Harry Callahan, and later still that of Don McCullin and Joel Meyerowitz. Though not all of the work by these great photographers was by available light, much of it was. In fact, Cartier-Bresson once cracked that using a flash was impolite-like shooting a pistol in church.

Following the 1988 presidential campaign I was awed by former Newsweek shooter Arthur Grace's book, "Choose Me." My friend and former colleague had taken it on himself to cover the '88 campaign for the magazine working all in black and white, all in medium format-all by available light.

The images floored me. Later Arthur told me how tough it was at first to wean himself from motor-driven 35mm color flash photography. The whole process, he said, forced him to slow down and wait for just the right gesture, light and composition. The old twin-lens Rolleiflex he used for the project-dusted off from Newsweek's shelves-was initially so foreign in Grace's hands that he had to use a small Linhoff tripod just to keep his horizons straight.

But the pictures were worth it.

Segue ahead a decade or so and there I am judging slides and prints at a local camera club. Much of the work there is done by available light also. In fact, what few flash pictures I see usually are dismal-all harsh, intrusive shadows and blown out highlights-making me wonder whether Cartier-Bresson was right. But the stuff that is good-and some of it is very good-brings home to me yet again that there is a whole world out there that doesn't need fill-flash to make it beautiful. Just a photographer with patience, and maybe some high-speed film.

I said at the top that I doubt I am going to change the way I work any time soon. In fact, I doubt that I ever will. I love being able to create specific lighting effects on demand, be they obvious high-key flash pictures with lots of attitude or subtle, seemingly natural-light shots that in fact have a ton of electronic help to make them succeed. But what I am finding, as I mature as a photographer, is that the more adept I become at using flash and strobelight, the more I can appreciate the freedom that comes from chucking all that gear every now and then. Or put another way: the older I get the more willing I am to go back to my gizmo-deprived roots.

Try lugging a bracket-mounted camera, flash and high-voltage pack during a seven-hour wedding and you'll see what I mean. Or fantasize during a big commercial job out of town what it would be like not to have to wait by the luggage carousel for all your hernia-inducing lighting gear.

We've all benefited by great new emulsions that let us shoot handheld with confidence: Fujicolor 800 and 1600, Kodak T-Max 3200 and Ilford's phenomenal Delta 3200.

Canon is incorporating gyro stabilization into its high-end binoculars and lenses allowing us to work better and more accurately in low light.

And if one doesn't like high-speed film or gizmo-laden lenses, there's always one's tripod.

These simple tools will make our photography flourish, probably even more than the latest digital or electronic miracle that will be outdated in the next five minutes.

We just have to be willing to step back and learn from them.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Big Changes Likely for Leica
When Newer is Better
Street-Smart Guide To Avoiding Camera Thievery
Revisiting a Classic: The Legendary Leica M6
Surge Protection-or Practicing Safe Pix
The Plastic Nikon
The Incredible Shrinking Overhead
Simplified Location Portraiture
Simple (but Dramatic) Portraits
Photography's Maine Connection
Hell in a Viewfinder: Kosovo

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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