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Simple Solutions: When Most of the Light Is Right

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

There's a lot of light in the world! How about that for a gratuitous truism? But it's true, nonetheless, and I see a whole lot of photographers putting a lot of work into lighting scenes that don't really need lighting. Well, at least they don't need a LOT of lighting. The light just needs a little tweaking.

This scene up in the warehouse of the Highland Park distillery in Orkney is a pretty good example. I was lucky and the good folks at Highland Park agreed to let me photograph the endless stacks of Highland Park casks snoozing away the years in their long wait to become one of the great whiskies of the world.

I love getting into a whisky warehouse. The scene is always redolent of age and time, with dusty casks lined up into the distance. And then there is the aroma. Oh, my gosh! The "angel's share" slapped me in the face as we stepped inside. I stood there in a daze for a few minutes, just soaking it all in. Wow!

Finally I came back to my senses and got back to the job—taking pictures.

Usually warehouses are dim and this one was no exception. There were some small skylights, but overall the light level was not too high. But it's important to distinguish between low light, which with enough exposure can be quite pretty, and bad light. This wasn't bad light. Overall it was quite soft and moody, just what I needed. But it needed a little help. Just an accent, maybe a little warmth someplace, and it would all be quite nice. I could have gotten out the lighting kit and started placing strobes all over the place. I could have put a gold umbrella up front on the man pushing the cask, then gone on back and added strobes among the rows of casks to light the background. Done a ratio fill on the other casks here in the front row. Just lit the heck out of it. And there are times when I would have done just that, depending on the job and what the picture needed to look like.

I didn't do that. Here's what I did. I asked them to leave the warehouse door open so some light could come in, illuminating the front row of casks. Since it was a sliding door I could vary the amount of light so I didn't overpower the background light too much. Then I added my accent. I asked Kathy, my mostly patient wife, to hold my gold reflector in the sunlight outside and send a shaft of golden light onto the man with the cask. It was just amazing how it brought the scene to life. I put my camera on a tripod and waited until he held still for a moment and shot the picture.

Total time for setup? About three minutes. That's important. You don't always get unlimited time in a location. And your subjects often have limited patience. For the first 15 minutes they are a bundle of energy. After an hour of waiting for you to fiddle with yet another lighting option their eyes are dead and their feet are dragging. There are lots of ways to shoot a bad picture and that's one of them. I know because I've done a lot of bad pictures in my time.

Besides that, if you get into some place like a distillery you are going to have limited time, a couple of hours, maybe. In that time you'll want to shoot about six locations and get 10 to 15 pictures out of it. You might have to do a full lighting job somewhere along the line. If so, then get on with it. Just don't expect to get unlimited time to go all out on every picture.

It's really important to have a bunch of simple solutions in your arsenal.

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