I’m honestly not much of a DIY guy,
but I am fond of using found objects on
location. I take advantage of anything I
can get to craft light or help me produce
a picture in a tough location. From using
a white, parked panel truck as a bounce
board to someone’s white t-shirt as a
source of fill light, I am always looking for
anything that might be helpful.
One thing I do bring with me on a regular basis, or grab from
whatever hotel where I’m staying, is a white bed sheet. Nothing
fancy, no need for Egyptian luxury cotton or anything like that. Just
a straight-up, easy-to-find, cheap-to-buy bed sheet. If you pin that
over a window that has blazing sun coming through it, chances
are you can turn the whole room into a studio, with soft, glow-y,
directional light. It makes for a beautiful effect, if you’re looking for
a window-lit portrait.
On some shoots I use 15 or 20 different
strobe lights. There are countless stands
and sandbags and modifiers to go along
with the lights, and an expensive rental
bill usually follows. Even when I have all
these amazing instruments, my go-to
product is always something white.
Whether it’s a fill card, a reflector or flex-
fill, I always have one handy. And if I need
more than what I have or a larger source, I have been known to use
a bed sheet, shower curtain or tablecloth. A bit of ingenuity goes a
long way when you are trying to add just a touch of brightness or
open up harsh shadows. These creative options are inexpensive
and almost always readily available.
My favorite DIY lighting tips are found
within the images themselves. One
often sees scenes where a bright
stream of light is coming into a scene
and creating blown-out highlights.
The light looks too bright, the dynamic
range too high, and you dismiss the
scene entirely. Rather than looking at
this situation as a problem, embrace it
and use that strong light to your advan-
tage. If you expose only for the highlights and let everything else
go to shadow and into a rich black, you can isolate a situation
and create drama. Light can be too much of a good thing, and I
look for ways to make darkness as important as light.
In other situations, I’m always looking for the darkest spaces
where the scene is entirely black. Then I will use a reflector to
bounce a bit of sunlight into the scene to create the same effect. Again, I use the darkness as much as the light. In documentary photography, I don’t want to disturb the people I’m
photographing so, rather than bringing in lots of artificial lights
to create dramatic lighting, I use what’s already there to create
drama without disturbing the people in front of me.
My best lighting teacher is film. I
repeatedly study and analyze the
lighting in scenes from movies. This
habit has gradually made up my feeling
about lighting. I’ve been influenced a lot
by films like The Mood of Love. When
working on my own images, I always
have stories in mind before shooting.
Apart from arranging people, I also use
layout and lighting to create an effect
close to the image I already have in mind.
For 3448 89th St., we had a small north-facing window. This
made it difficult to use beautiful natural light, so I had to consider
artificial lights. I set up lights based on the story I want to tell
and make some test shots. Usually these pictures turn out to
be simple and rough. I save the best of them and make some
changes or add more lights. I keep shooting while modifying my
lights until I get the effect I want. This process is like drawing
with light, first drawing the structure and then adding the details.
I emphasize lighting, but there must be a story before creating
lighting effects. To me, technique always serves the art.
I tend to keep things as simple as I can
when lighting a photograph, so I don’t really have a whole lot of secrets or tricks
up my sleeve. I guess I’d say my most
valuable practice is keeping an open
mind and a willingness to step out of my
comfort zone, whatever that may be.
Take ten paces back, get up in someone
else’s personal space, climb a tree or get
down in the dirt. It’s easy to stagnate in a
look or style, and a fresh perspective is crucial in avoiding that.
Also, put a skateboard at the bottom of every light stand. Flash
units are just not built for impact.