It’s Autumn in New York, and I couldn’t be happier. Not just because it’s pumpkin everything and the soon to be colorful foliage, but because the East Coast has some of the best lighting this time of year.
I had an unconventional childhood. Other kids were playing football or baseball in the Fall with their Fathers. The two of us on the otherhand took long walks and sat on benches observing the light. How the light cast shadows, reflected off glass, created dance scenes with the falling leaves. Light became another character to engage life with, not just something you adjusted for a photograph.
Think about it, when was the last time you truly observed the light in your life? My apartment faces west, and can be drenched in some of the most gorgeous south-western light by mid-afternoon. My bathroom has frosted windows which diffuse the light as I brush my teeth in the morning. At sunset in the Fall, the light casts an orange hue that pairs lovely with the crisp Fall air and the digestive I’m imbibing. This is how I learned Light.
As I grew older, watching old black and white films was a natural progression in my understanding of light. We never really watched a whole movie at one time. Someone was always talking thorugh some scene, or my Father pointing out the lighting or some odd detail most people overlooked. There were no lighting setups in my childhood. No diagrams, but the feeling was there. The feeling of bathroom light, the feeling of beauty.
All things being equal, I’m uninterested in talking about lighting setups. There are thousands of photographers on YouTube etc who opine on how they shoot and how “They’ve cracked the code to lighting.” as if we need to have everything written down to the inch for replication. Boring.
Don’t get me wrong, I have written down my own setups over the years, and have general ideas of how I want to shoot with each new client, and my team builds my set accordingly. No doubt you’ve seen me explore a multitude of options using one key light with fill light bounce or reflectors.
The background may or may not be lit. If were in tight proximity, I might let the main light bleed on to the background for a bit of an assist. In my photos there maybe a variety of variables in between or things might just be simply sparce.
The constant variable that never changes is the person who steps into the studio/ the human variable is always constant in that people are never constant.
Insurmountable, unqantifiable, there is no forumal of lighting, camera setting applicable to the massive expanse of what it means to be Human and how somone will interact with your light, or the light provided from above when on the street.
There are tips & “tricks”, programs & paths I can take to guide whomever in front of my lens, but alas no code, no formula setup for the chaos that is each exciting new person I’m about to capture. And for me as a portrait photographer, that’s where the photo lies, in the chaos of discovery.
Unlike all the experts on social media, I can’t give you what I don’t have, the vernacular to describe how bathroom light feels, or how to explain what it means to truly BE in someone’s presence, being there, being seen, tuned in and turned on, what all that really is. And more importantly, I’m not sure I’d want to explain it, as that’s what a portrait should do, right? For me, that journey is worth the struggle of finding good light, extraordinary light, Autumn light, light that gives you more than you could have possibly imagined.
So should you find yourself dying to emulate my lighting setups, do as I did, study Avedon, Newton, Demarchalis, Horst, Halsman, Steiglitz, Ritz and so many others, but lest we forget the everyday is where our true study of light occurs. Don’t over look your every daily commute, that light as you’re making eggs, the mid-day coffee break at your local spot. Tune into the light of the world around you and you’ll find inspiration in your pursuit to create whatever kind of imagery lights up your soul. See what I did there?
The quest for gorgeous light drew me into finding authenticity through clean, elegantly stylish portraits with character, not because I looked at my notes and setups, but because I felt it with that beautiful Autumn light that I found brushing my teeth in the bathroom with.