Lighting & Composition

Speedlights

(c) Lou Jones

It may be hubris, but what did the first artist look like?  Art stirs primal urges.  What circumstances turned an act of survival into an act of passion?  Most two dimensional art began organically: splashing pigment on cave rock, drawing lines in the sand, penning ink on paper. Its origins must have been simple. 

More recently to the game, photography has always been the red-headed stepchild because of its dependency on state-of-the-art technology, with the most advanced engineering at any point in its evolution.  Newer cameras, film, lenses and sensors have continually pushed the envelope of science.  Since the earliest days where practitioners reveled in grinding their own glass for lenses, mixing their own chemicals and measuring the Inverse Square Laws, they have been on a quest to make the processes easier for each new generation.

At the infancy of photography the inventors and innovators were all scientists, engineers, and do-it-yourself hobbyists.  The pleasures of making photographs remained out of the realm of many creative people because mastering the optics, chemistry and logistics was so complicated, and not to mention expensive. But, photography was so amazing in its persistent popularity that savvy manufacturers realized there was a market to exploit. 

The last hundred plus years have been spent trying to make the process no more difficult than drawing in a sketchbook.  The implements have gotten smaller and lighter.  The physics and chemistry have been reduced, almost eliminated.  Autofocus, automatic exposure, motordrives and software have made each skill ergonomic and mindless.  Armed with high-tech and less costly cameras, rank amateurs can make rather credible reproductions of their friends and relatives.  Echoing George Eastman’s motto found in early KODAK marketing, “you push the button, we do the rest”, today’s photography requires that you only supply the elusive imagination.

(c) Lou Jones

We have survived arguably the most cataclysmic revolution in any artform in recorded history with the implementation of computers and digital photography.  Painful in the onset, it has made it more accessible for a myriad of new enthusiasts.  Since computers have been introduced into our daily lives, using them is second nature.

There is nothing photographers love more than their gadgets and rituals.  Even though the photo community has embraced the changes brought about by the computer, lighting largely continues to be practiced with draconian resistance. Amateurs and professionals alike have shirked the duty of learning “artificial” lighting.  Even in today’s world, with bravado, many still proudly proclaim “I only use natural light.”  In the right hands the craft of lighting has gifted the world with luscious black/white and soft pastel photographs that need no excuse. 

Light over the years became a little more streamlined and fashionable, but it remained complicated, heavy, costly and cumbersome.  For decades, in addition to cameras, tripod, filters, etc., I dragged along ancillary cameras that shot instant films, lightmeters, and quirky Polaroid film in order to previsualize and ensure I got a proper picture. With the equipment above, by the time I made a proper exposure measurement, the scene had often changed irrevocably.

(c) Lou Jones

Fortunately, speedlights  have changed all that.  By putting computers into the cameras AND the flashes, and programming them to communicate with each other, the onerous tasks of coordinating artificial and available light are manageable.  Tremendous ingenuity has been used to manufacture flashes smarter than you.  They are also faster, cheaper and more intuitive.

It is uncanny that the camera companies do not fathom what they have fraught.  Most people use speedlights exactly as they have utilized flashes for decades, not trusting their potential.  This is perfectly understandable, but speedlights are designed to work independently and make exposure nearly foolproof.   However, speedlights are anything but normal flashes and there is no reason to leave so much capability on the table.  Mount one on top of your camera and improve the simplest fill lighting techniques, or fill a cathedral with the visible spectrum – automatically.

Speedlight’s real potential is in the unprecedented shepherding of multiple light sources. You can throw a handful of speedlights in every direction around a room and coordinate all of them effortlessly.  On sequential frames in your camera you can produce a traditional lighting scheme and then shoot with unorthodox lighting by flipping a switch, just to see how it looks.  The opportunity to experiment without reevaluating each alteration increases your value.  Although this changes the way we have lit in the past, the new effort is well worth the journey.  Shedding old habits is unsettling, but new freedom is gained in creativity, speed, flexibility and economy. 

(c) Lou Jones

As photographers, we cannot afford to be intimidated by the unclear instruction books and complicated menus that accompany these incredible tools.  To help you, we wrote Speedlights & Speedlites: Creative Flash Photography at Lightspeed. And recently, we were commissioned to write an updated version of the Elsevier/Focal Press book. 

We learned a lot since writing the first.  So stay tuned.  In the meantime, you can sign up to follow my blog, to receive updates and a FREE download of my eBOOK: SPeeDLIGHTS.  Also visit youTube or Vimeo to observe the flashes in action.  Only the gods can move the sun and with a little practice, soon you will realize you are like the gods.

Lou Jones
September 2011

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