Granted, I have spent big bucks on everything from big studio strobe heads to small slaved flash units no larger than a pocket tape measure. But for all these, a slow shutter speed is the best "tool" I know for creating real depth and layering in my photographs, especially if I am pressed for time.
What do I mean by layering?
Consider your average wedding or event photograph, especially one taken in a fairly dark meeting room or ballroom. If the shot was made by a pro, it will be sharp as a tack and the exposure will be perfect. In short, it will be a fine photograph -- as far as it goes. But in the majority of cases, I'll bet the background will be almost black. This is because the average wedding shooter will be concentrating more on making a salable, sharp picture of the people in the viewfinder than in creating an environmental portrait capturing much of the atmosphere surrounding his or her subject. Even if the wedding shooter has an assistant holding a slaved flash unit at a 90-degree angle to the subject to create a hairlight or other interesting effect, their prime concern in virtually all cases will be lighting the subject, not the background.
Ironically, this is exactly what happens in flash pictures made by amateurs. The mainlight - usually a pop-up flash -- lights the photographer's subject, but does nothing for the background, which then will go completely dark.
In short, not my idea of a great, or interesting, picture.
Allowing more of the background to show in photographs like these creates, in my view anyway, the kind of visual tableau -- or layering -- that leads to a far more interesting picture, one that helps broaden the context of the photograph and thereby tell a more complete story.
Consider the three accompanying photographs.
In the first picture, a bridal portrait made in a church, Judy and I had maybe 20 minutes to a half-hour to complete a long list of formal and family group photos after the ceremony. Even if we were allowed to photograph before the wedding, which we prefer not to do because everyone tends to be nervous [never mind delayed by the hairdresser], we refuse to subject our clients to a two- or three-hour portrait session. These sessions, which so many brides endure, often take so long because of elaborate lighting setups and poses. By contrast, we work with one light on camera for 95 percent of our wedding and event work.
But it's the slow shutter speed that makes the difference between a mediocre one-light shot and a beautiful one.
In this case, I used the church's own soft tungsten lighting at the altar to create a warm glow around the bride. Standing on a stepstool and using a bracket-mounted flash with a diffusion head, I shot at 1/15 of a second to bring up the ambient. The effect is of a far more elaborate setup. Even in a darker church, this same effect can be achieved by setting the camera on a tripod and shooting flash at, say one-half, or even a full second. In most cases, especially if the subject is told to stand very still, the flash will freeze any motion by the subject, while the slow shutter will bring up tons of ambient light and give the final product a much more natural, and professional, look.
In Photo # 2, of a heavily laden buffet table, I didn't care if the people around the
table were moving. In fact, the motion of people around the table creates a sense of drama and excitement. Shooting handheld at 1/8 of a second lets me bring up a lot of the surrounding, warm-toned tungsten light while the daylight-balanced flash on camera freezes my "subject"-the dishes of food in the foreground -- and renders them with no tungsten color shift. [Note: when shooting pix like these you have to move fast-these folks are hungry.]
Finally, Photo # 3 is a prime example of why shooting at slower than expected shutter speeds while on location can make up for a lot. I made this photo of David Yates, a sawmill operator in Lubec, Maine, on a dismal and rainy November afternoon. David was a man with a lot of attitude and I wanted to capture that and render him full figure. At the same time I wanted to show off the expanse of his wonderfully old-time sawmill, especially the mammoth saw blades behind him. Lighting the place with additional strobes was out the question since it was doubtful I could have powered the units adequately, much less have found a place for them. And the sun wasn't providing much help either.
Posing David where I wanted him, with the saw blades over his left shoulder, put him in total darkness, but the blades were nicely outlined by a little bit of light coming through an open door at the back of the mill.
I set up two portable barebulb flash units on either side of my tripod-mounted Hasselblad and made some Polaroid tests. [It was so dark on David that Judy had to shine a flashlight on his face so I could focus!] As I suspected, higher shutter speeds gave this flash picture a flat quality, but once I went down to ¼ of a second, the background came up beautifully.
Next week: Mixing light sources for dramatic effect.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.