*All Images contained in this post are provided for educational purposes only, not commercial, and credit for images and links to their web pages have been provided for those who wish to undertake further research*
In a later post I’m going to discuss the misguided sanctimony of artists, and how that directly impacts photography in today’s world. But there is one particular type of sanctimony that is very common among photographers and that exists right at the heart of the craft. It deserves discussion right along side the perils of gear lust.
It is the debate over “available light”.
Here’s the deal: some photographers believe that the pure way to shoot a scene is with available light only—no flash or other interference by the photographer is desired. Other photographers believe that the only reason someone would shoot available light is because they don’t know how to use strobes and flash systems (often said with a bit of a sneer at the simpletons who can't afford or learn complex flash systems).
Both camps tend to be overly fervent, and for a reason. Perfecting either method takes years of hard work, and so they are invested in their points of view. Each assumes the ignorance or the impurity of the other.
If the debate is unpleasant, then, why is it important to take the time to sort through it? Because this debate is the essence of photography. Light is the great pillar of the art. Every critical setting or dial on your camera defines one aspect of your relationship to the light or another.
The key to becoming a great photographer is to master light. We have to learn to look for it, to see it everywhere around us, to predict how it will change, and to use it make great photographs. So the emotion behind the points of view about how we engage light is understandable. The question is, does the debate serve us in a meaningful way?
If it gets us to think through our approach and our methodologies and to focus on doing a few things amazingly well, then yes. It is of use. But if it serves to prop up sanctimony, to over-invest in expensive gear, or disconnects us from the craft itself then it has little value.
I am an “available light” photographer. At least, as much as I can be. This has as much to do with my roots in photography as anything else—I was drawn in by documentary photographers like James Nachtwey, Salgado, Jeff Ascough, and Fan Ho. These photographers worked almost exclusively with available light, and I find their work to be unbelievably inspiring and authentic in a way that more staged styles just do not satisfy for me.
So for me, the motivation to give the energy to photography that it takes to improve is driven by a desire to make great photographs with as little interference as possible. The more I have to influence a scene, or a model, to get the right shot the less interesting the work is to me. I've had a lot of fun setting up studio shoots in the past, and learning in the studio was one of the early thrills in formally studying photography under a teacher. I’ve read many of the great lighting books, and will continue to. But once the newness of sets and strobes wore off for me, I realized very quickly that nothing about that side of the craft motivated me to improve and to keep shooting. I also saw that a skilled photographer could shoot fashion, editorial, and marketing images at a high level and not have to carry around a light bag. There are times we may have to be a bit more clever than a seasoned strobist to get the image, but when we get it right it can be world class.
I struggle to use available light as much as possible for the same reasons that I work hard not to direct or stage models any more than is absolutely necessary—the closer to authenticity I can work, the more meaning the work has for me. This hits right at the heart of my values as a photographer. Sometimes I have to compromise all over the place—that goes with photography—but I don’t look for it.
This is why I try to avoid shooting with large camera bodies and huge lenses (though they are beautiful creative tools). Once that big piece of glass goes up in front of other humans, their behavior begins to change. The more I influence the scene, the more I’ve influenced the photograph taken of it. And I’m hardly a photography purist—I edit in post. But I truly honor that there is a mood and a part to the story that is more authentic the less I engineer it as a photographer.
If I have to use flash to nail a commission for a client—I will. That’s my professional responsibility. So I’m not an extremest about it either (good luck getting family portraits at a wedding, in a dark church, without flash).
Does this mean flash is bad? Absolutely not. Some of my favorite photographers use supplemental light and they produce some of the greatest work in in the medium. Look at Irving Penn, Carlos Serrao, and Heisler. I admire their work, study their work, and learn from them. I just don’t spend my days attempting to mimic their methodologies for my preferred workflow (though you'd better believe that when I do need to use supplemental light, I'm taking my cues and inspirations from their work). There’s just as much electricity for me in staged scenes.
(To see some current samples by talented working photographers, look at the portraiture work of Sid Ceaser)
For photographers, then, the question is not “available light or studio light”. The question is about developing a point of view about the relationship we desire to have with our subjects, and about developing values about our photography that will supply the energy that it takes to improve. Photography can be hard. Especially if you’re trying to make a living at it. Putting a little bit of your energy into a thousand things that you only care a little about is how you burn out (and spend a long career shooting work that doesn’t move you, much less others).
Whatever styles you choose, and the relationships you cultivate that will fuel those styles, be rigorous and seek to master your style. If light sources don’t matter to you one way or another, be true to that. If posing models and spending hours on their fashion and hair drive you—pursue it with full force and don’t listen to the people snarking at you as you pass them by.
Either way, be intentional about how you interact with light as it is at the heart of your craft.
And there’s a warning in here, too. If you decide to follow the exciting call of the strobes—start simple. Master a single light before you move on to two. Remember, light is at the heart and it’s more important to master it than almost any other aspect of photography. Master two light sources before you go on to three. And don’t feel any pressure to go buy expensive lighting gear in order to be a “real photographer”. Nachtwey, Salgado, Parks, and Ho are world class photographers and most of their greatest images are shot without any light kits, much less expensive ones. And some of the greatest supplemental-light portrait artists kept themselves to one or two additional sources in some of their most recognized work—which again speaks to the fact that mastery is much more important than cash spent.
If you want to buy a great lighting kit, look used. Make sure it works, but due to the culture of gear lust we have there is so much great photography equipment for sale is was hardly used at all and it can be acquired at half of the new price (this is a great reason to support your local camera stores, if you have them, as they can provide you with a source for used equipment and the ability to test it out before you sink a lot of money into it).
However you shoot, feel free to focus on the few values that drive your style and focus like hell on those things. Be obsessive. Learn all you can. Don’t fall for the belief that one approach or another is superior—the only thing that makes a photograph superior are the merits of the actual photographs made. Some blurry photographs are famous, and some crystal sharp photographs are so bad they are unwitnessable and embarrassing.
And whatever you do, don’t let the sanctimony of others spend a dollar of your hard earned money for you. While they’re spending the fourth day in a row in front of their computers cruising gear blogs with their brand new whizbang9000 sitting lifeless on the shelf next to them, you will be out in the world, or in a studio, doing the very work that will move you forward and leave them behind.