Available Enlightenment

I am now, and long have been, though not exclusively, an available light photographer

So this is an apt and accurate description of my current style of portrait photography.  A descriptor that I value and respect, as it embraces a lifetime of study and experimentation with the nuances of lighting portrait subjects.

But wait a moment, didn’t I spend a large period of that time working with the best and most powerful of studio electronic flash units that money could buy?  Well yes, I did, but as I did so, I worked very hard to replicate the light that I saw around me.  Daylight that is.

To claim to be a skilled photographic practitioner in available light requires either years of experience or a high degree of visual education – rather than reflecting either the lack of a studio or the requisite equipment!

My concern about the misuse of the term, ‘available light photographer’ is based on the proliferation of photographers claiming such miraculous abilities.

A more forensic research effort into their advertising shows that they live on a mobile telephone and communicate via an obscure website or a free email address service.

Tony-Carter-New-Zealand

Shepherd; © Tony Carter, New Zealand.

I accept the fact that the day of the photographic studio carefully placed in the high street of every major city is now all but over.  This misuse of the available light term often indicates a lack of facility and equipment.  More importantly to me, it indicates a lack of photographic knowledge.

Rob-Heyman-Brisbane

Bride; © Rob Heyman, Brisbane.

Adam-Finch-Brisbane-Photographer

Model and Containers; © Adam Finch, Brisbane, 2013

When I review the photographic output of master photographers like Kiwi Tony Carter and Australians Rob Heyman and Adam Finch, I observe the skills that a photographer with a deep and intimate knowledge of light brings to the topic of portrait photography.  It has nothing to do with the presence of either a studio or a raft of equipment.  It is more a way of life, and a desire to make their images look real and lifelike.  Carter in recent correspondence said ‘give me a window and sheet of polystyrene any day’.  This is neither affectation nor laziness – it represents the skill-set of a practitioner who is supremely comfortable with his ability to replicate a natural environment in order to record a sublime portrait.

I haven’t always been such a devotee of natural light – my first commercial photographic assignments were photographing weddings and functions with portable flash units.  The Mecablitz 502 and the Braun equivalents were chunky because of the wet cell battery, and very heavy to carry.  There were even photographers who strapped a motor cycle battery to their units to give an extended performance.  Until I learnt the refinement of bounce flash, this style of unnatural lighting was about as subtle as a virtual shotgun round full into the face.  Available light, of the canned variety.  Always on hand, seldom subtle.

Whilst I no longer possess large floor packs of electronic flash, nor own a 400 square meter studio, I am proud of my skill in working with, and seeing, light.

Yes, today I do work from a mobile phone and an email address, but I like to think that I do so with a degree of prowess that has taken a lifetime to finesse and an age to express.

f11 MagazineThis essay first appeared in f11 :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOS, p144, issue 40, February 2015.

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