Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

When in Doubt, Improvise

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Cold branding involves using dry ice to cool and then freeze brands on the cattle. I used four speed lights to focus attention on this activity, particularly with the glaring daylight from the open barn door.

Cold branding involves using dry ice to cool and then freeze brands on the cattle. I used four speed lights to focus attention on this activity, particularly with the glaring daylight from the open barn door.

I’m in Myanmar most of this month, leading a National Geographic Photo Expedition and photographing for an NGO. It’s fascinating—I’ve been coming here since 2007 and the country is rapidly changing. I’ll write more about that about in a future post. One thing that hasn’t changed is that in Myanmar, just as in other places, you must often improvise to make good pictures.

Actually, you could make the case that photojournalism is largely about improvising and problem solving. At least, that’s what we photojournalists seem to spend most of our days doing. We find the stories, secure access to people and places, work out logistics; only then do we make pictures. When shooting an assignment, the problems we face depend on the needs of the client for whom we’re making the pictures.

With documentary photography, often the biggest problem is to deliver a publishable memorial picture without influencing the situation. When I began my newspaper career the documentary approach was very influential. You couldn’t move the furniture; you couldn’t tell the subject what to do or where to stand. Artificial lighting was suspect. The idea was to make pictures was with minimal intrusion.

I didn’t quite buy that approach. I always carried a small flash and I’d bounce the light from any available surface to add a bit more needed illumination. I liked what the eminent photojournalist, Eugene Smith said: “My attitude towards available light is that I use whatever light is available.”

These days, much of my work is for magazines and nonprofit organizations. Whether the need is a documentary-style image or something more illustrative, I have to produce the best possible picture that accurately tells the story and I’ll use whatever lighting I can to solve problems.

I had a Smithsonian magazine assignment on breeding cattle for the consumer meat market that was all about improvision. I was told that much of the work would take place in a barn. I anticipated I would have to light the situation to get the necessary pictures

I am not what you’d call a heavy lighter. I prefer to work with whatever ambient sources available— daylight, florescent, incandescent, sodium vapor–and use Speed lights placed strategically around the subject to create emphasis. My lighting kit is four SB-800s, a couple of softboxes and umbrellas, Omini-Bounce domes and a few light stands.

For the Smithsonian job, I flew to Dallas, then drove four hours northwest to a small cattle ranching community. After a quick scout of the ranch, I realized that four Speedlights wouldn’t be enough. I’d imagined the barn to be a wooden structure with light filtering in through doors and windows. In reality it was a huge construction shed, with high ceilings, metal walls and no windows.

Here I again used four Speedlights to brighten the scene, along with a small handheld strobe on the shadowed face of the hat-wearing cowboy in the foreground.

Here I again used four Speedlights to brighten the scene, along with a small handheld strobe on the shadowed face of the hat-wearing cowboy in the foreground.

Maybe daylight would help. The barn had two large double doors opening to the outside and an overcast sky would give me some nice soft light.  Unfortunately the day was bright and sunny, and the open doors admitted a glaring shaft of daylight that cut right across the work area, creating a situation that was impossible to balance with the dark interior.

I ran tests for my original plan to mix Speedlights with the barn’s dim sodium vapor lights, but I wasn’t getting results that I liked and my four Speedlights didn’t have the power to replace the sodium vapor lights.

Well, if the lights won’t suit the original plan, I’d change the plan and work on a smaller scale to get the photos I needed. The cattle would be herded through a series of pens and gates, ending up in a chute that closed like a large clamp around the animals and immobilized them while they were branded and ultrasounds were performed on inseminated females to check the health of their fetuses. I’d photograph the animals while they were in the chutes; that way I’d limit the area I had to light.

I hung two speed lights upside down over the chute to backlight the animals.  The branding irons were cooled with dry ice and the lights emphasized bursts of steam released by the irons as they touched the animals. Away from the scene I set a third light with an OmniBounce on top, on a stand to light up the area where the branding equipment was placed.  I held the fourth SB-800 in my hand, off camera, to light up the cowboy doing the work. This Speedlight triggered the other three SB-800s, as all were set for wireless remote. The situation was a bit tricky since the cowboys naturally wore cowboy hats that shadowed their faces, and I had to continually move my handheld strobe to illuminate them.

This setup gave me a good picture of the activity, but the background remained dark. I wanted more of a sense of the place, and providing that required more light than I had with me. I asked the ranch manager, “You wouldn’t happen to have any floodlights?”

Luck was with me. The ranch had a couple of large commercial flood, the kind often used for night road construction. I placed one of them behind the chute area, bounced one of its heads off the ceiling to light the background and aimed its other head at the back of the chute to provide just enough rim lighting to make the images interesting. It wasn’t the slickest lighting job, but I liked the drama the floods gave the scene.

Of course, not every photo required an improvised lighting setup.  Here cowboys round up the cattle on the breeding stock ranch.

Of course, not every photo required an improvised lighting setup. Here cowboys round up the cattle on the breeding stock ranch.

I had to guess at my exposures for the floods, but with digital I was able to see the scene immediately and make necessary adjustments to exposure and white balances to handle the mix of flash, glaring daylight, overhead sodium vapor and halogen floodlights that comprised my improvised “available” light

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