Real “Professional” Photographers
by William Lulow
I read an article last week in PDN (Photo District News) about Sang An, a photographer who shoots interiors and food. It was explaining how he did a particular image for a furniture manufacturer. It was shot in a studio with very expensive HMI lights (they run in the tens of thousands of dollars EACH). He wanted to simulate the light from a skylight, because there was no such light available in the studio. These lights use a kind of mercury-vapor technology that creates a very bright, continuous light that can be mixed with regular studio strobe units. Since these lights average around $15,000 each, I’m sure he uses them in multiple shooting situations AND he has the clientele who are willing and able to pay his fees. But, Mr. An is one example of what I like to call a “real, professional photographer.” While reading up on him a bit, I found that he graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology, which has one of the better, scientific photography programs in the country, if not the world. Students who graduate from RIT are taught the real science of what makes a photograph work, from film technology right up through the digital processes. Many of us who have successful photography businesses, basically learn how to run a professional studio and how to solve various lighting problems. We know a great deal and have obtained our information mostly through experimentation and constant practice. But, there have been times when I’ve wished I had taken the time to get that scientific education that an institution like RIT offers. It doesn’t make any of us who have not had that kind of training any less proficient in our craft, but knowing the science behind the technology is often helpful in solving various problems that arise with the everyday running of a photography business. For example; it’s one thing to know enough to avoid reflections when shooting glass objects, but it’s another thing to know the science behind the statement that the “angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection” when using lights of any kind. One of the trends I have noticed with today’s “professional” photographers is that they often develop a certain “knack” for taking a very specific kind of photograph. They even learn it well enough to begin making some money at it. In my mind, this does not make them professional photographers in the true sense. Yes, they may even make a majority of their income from this endeavor, but they still lack the true knowledge of the photographic process as a whole. Try to speak to them about the scientific aspects of someone else’s photograph and they would be lost. They are merely exploiting the small piece of the business that they have learned. Now, specialization is important if you wish to succeed in our crowded field. I’m not decrying that. But, wouldn’t it be nice if all these photographers truly understood what was happening when they took pictures?
Since I have studied photography for most of my life, and have run a successful business for over 30 years, I like to feel that I have probably seen just about every kind of lighting situation that can arise in the course of creating professional images. There are new technologies that are invented every day ,so I read a number of trade publications and try to stay abreast of what’s happening in our industry, generally. Reading articles like this one about Mr. An, always generates new information and often make me realize how much I do know.
As a case in point; here is an image I shot on film a number of years ago:
This shot presented various lighting problems. One was the sheer size of the space and the other was the fact that there were people in the shot. I was hired to make an image of a party setup in a Manhattan atrium. I had to make my images and be out of the space before the party started and the guests arrived. All the while, there were employees rushing about setting things up. There were two distinct levels I had to light while keeping the overall tone of the interior basically “natural.” This all required some specialized techniques. One was the age-old notion that with a very long exposure, anything in a scene that moved quickly would not show up in the image. (I had to shoot it this way because I couldn’t ask all the people to leave the scene right in the middle of the setup). If I shot the space with a normal exposure, my strobe lights would have stopped much of the action and people would have registered on the film. So, I took light meter readings of the ambient light and found that the average exposure in the space itself was approximately f/5.6 @ 1/4th of a second. At that exposure, I would have captured many of the people in the scene as blurs and they would have obscured the “setup” which I was hired to document. (As a matter of fact, there was one person who didn’t move as fast as I requested, so I captured a bit of him sitting at a table in the lower left portion of the image). In addition, f/5.6 might not have yielded the correct amount of depth-of-field, leaving much of the scene out of focus anyway. Having decided to make an extra long exposure, I found that shooting at f/22 @ 5 minutes would give me roughly the same density (exposure) on my film. This required the use of some ND (neutral density) filters over my lens in order to cut down a bit on the ambient light to allow me to use a small aperture like f/22 with a longer-than-normal exposure time. In addition, I wanted the spaces where the tables were set up to be lit correctly with my strobes. I set up two strobe lights on each level, all connected by radio slaves, and had an assistant “pop” them three times during the 5 minute exposure. As long as no one was in the way when the strobes fired, no one would be recorded on the film, and I was able to arrive at an image like the one above.
These days, with digital cameras and automatic white balance technology, you might not have to light the whole scene with a mixture of ambient light and strobe, but if you wanted all the workers to disappear, you would still require a long exposure that would need to be cut down by the use of ND filters to yield a similar effect.
So, even though this shot didn’t require expensive, mercury vapor lights, it did necessitate the use of some fundamental, photographic technology. You can’t make this kind of a shot with your average DSLR without the knowledge of how to solve this lighting problem. “Real” professional photographers are not just ones who make most of their livings through photography, they are people who understand the basics of all photographic technology and know how and when to use it.