Zach Theatre. Dress Rehearsal.
We see the world in continuous light and we embrace the constant stream of connected information from that continuous light as our pervasive reality; one critical part of our sensory perception, so why do we default to episodic and intermittent flash to make visual documents of our world? It's really wild. As photographers our mantra seems to be that it's all about the light but the light that it seems to be all about seems to be mostly artificial constructs of our memory of what real light is, as expressed by short flash bursts. Yes, images capture of moment of time but that's hardly how we see those moments or how we sense them. We see our images as a continuous stream and we're most comfortable catching moments from the stream, like a bear grabbing the unlucky salmon from a mountain stream. Seeing your life as a series of lightning storms....
I've been thinking a lot about our flash addictions. The reason flash came into such wide use in our industry has more to do with the rigidity of our early capture materials than it does with any aesthetic concerns. It also has to do with efficiency versus lux inefficiency. In the days of ISO 25 film and the need for rock steady images with no glimmer of motion the choice was often the use of electronic flash or flash bulbs versus thousands of watts of withering, direct lights. Now we can carry the equivalent of big light in a side pocket of our camera bag with portable electronic flash. But what have we lost?
I'd postulate that we've lost a delicate intertwining of all the different colors and qualities of existing and continuous light sources. We've homogenized color temperatures (which was critical in the days of film) but in doing so we've also homogenized our vision of what lighting could be and how it should be constructed. And in the process we've lost a certain range of voice that made so much art photography so interesting for so long. Over time we've come to understand that it's the little imperfections in art that are the source of interest or the source of engaging frisson and we long for them even as we evict the possibility of imperfection by the meticulous selection of tools that are reliable and consistent.
When I first started working with LED panels my linearly inclined photographer associates were immediately critical of perceived color spectrum failures and the horror of low light output. I embrace the visual differences and am excited by the need to work in the realm of slower shutter speeds and wider lens apertures. When I started working with fluorescent lights I loved the ability to "drag" the shutter and introduce slight movements and the sensation of breathing into portraits. How much more real it seems to me than the locked in sharpness of instantaneous flash.
And it's not even a factor to me that the cameras have gotten better and better at delivering pristine images at high ISO's. Once we learned how to make technically perfect files all that technique became boring and repetitive and bourgeois. The ability to make sharp images with no apparent subject movement became as desirable as making your own leisure suits. Uniformity of tools and purpose becomes an affirmation of a static status quo.
It's been a while since I happily reached for an electronic flash to use in making a portrait. I've surrendered to the wonderful mix of continuous light and live view. I love to watch the image of a person swirl in my electronic viewfinder, me alert, waiting for that perfect moment. Or that perfect movement which may, by its blurry motivation, make a more interesting image than one I could have captured by totally controlling the process.
I am doing a program this week that's all about portrait lighting. I've dutifully packed my studio flashes because I think that's what my producers really want the audience to see. But I've also packed and shipped several fluorescent panels, a Fiilex P360 LED light, a few LED panels and two hot lights just because I think they represent so much of what we've temporarily abandoned, out of necessity, and then out of routine, and I want to show how differently they impel and inform the process of taking a portrait. A rapport is a continuous and evolving process. It seems that the staccato intermittency of flash is at odds with the bedrock gestalt of that process.
If you've grown up with flash it may be an interesting experiment to play with and leverage some continuous light sources. Digital imaging is allowing us to reinvent and rediscover processes that served our industry ancestors both well and differently. Viva la difference.
The Fiilex P360 kicks out good light, gives me tungsten to daylight color control and is dimmable from 100 % to 10% and fits in my camera bag. Thankfully, it doesn't flash.