The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits. —Albert Einstein
We are one year away from an incredible experience. On this date in 2017, a total solar eclipse passes over the United States on a path from Oregon to North Carolina. The premium viewing point is in Southern Illinois. Here in Indianapolis, though, we might actually see something more spectacular. Instead of a complete blackout in the middle of the day, we will be left with just the tiniest sliver of light. Granted, it will still be pretty freaking dark and you do not want to look at that thing with bare naked eyes. Optometrists don’t need the business that badly. Still, I’m anxious to see the effect of that tiny sliver of light.
Mythologies surrounding a solar eclipse are many. Several ancient cultures believed the sun was being eaten by one animal or another. Others believed a god was decapitated and obscured the sun. Ancient Greeks were all about doom and gloom and were certain that horrible, horrible things were about to happen. They were right. They would have been right without the eclipse as well. Ancient Greece was just screwed no matter what.
While we must have light, and lots of it, to live, there are benefits to using limited light, especially when it comes to creative matters. Working within those limits can be challenging, especially when what light exists comes from the wrong direction or a very weak source. Yet, when we take that challenge and bend it to our will, the limits we work within can result in wonderful creativity.
The Limits Of Sanity
My friend Keith allows me to borrow his creative space from time to time. There are some concepts that really need the tools and effects of a studio, but shooting in any indoor environment comes with some inherent limits. The lights are a different temperature than natural light. There are walls and a limit to how the light will spread. Backgrounds don’t always match the concept as well as we might like. Ceilings, ugh, are never high enough. Yet, there are benefits to working within those limits.
Where we stretch the limits of sanity, and of my camera, are when we reduce that light down as low as reasonably possible. Keith always looks at me like I’m crazy when I ask him to turn off all the lights but one. When working with such a limited light source, it doesn’t take much to generate a misfire and a photo that is unusable. Getting it right takes some experience, some precision, and no small amount of luck.
It’s one thing to employ this tactic on a still object. Doing it with a live model is even more challenging. Every time she moves risks putting her outside the light’s premium arc. We’re looking for highlights we can exploit and her range of motion is bound by the limits of where we know the light is going to hit. Not every frame is going to be usable. Am I crazy to put someone through these limits? Probably, but I’m doing it anyway.
A Little Bit Of Light
The effectiveness of such limited lights depends on the camera one is using and the settings one chooses. Both the Nikon D750 and the Canon 5DS have insanely high ISO ranges which allow for settings near 3,000 without experiencing a lot of digital noise in the image. To take the pictures below at such a setting would defeat the purpose. The highlights would be totally blown out and the rest of the image would feel off, cold, and awkward. As it turns out, though, I don’t have one of those cameras so I don’t have to make those choices.
The images below were shot at a standard ISO 100 with an aperture of f2.8. Again, more limits. At that setting, only the brightest of light is getting through. Focus is challenging as hell. Composition becomes guess work. We might have ended up with a complete mess. Yet, despite all the limits, or perhaps because of them, we came up with a collection that I like very much.
I have to admit, these photos were taken three years ago and I’m just now processing them. There were others in the collection from the same studio session that were more important. I’m not so sure but what waiting serves the best interest of the photographs. The processing method we used on these wasn’t possible back then. Sometimes waiting is worth the frustration.
Below is the end result. After all the limits came to bear, we still ended up with a set of images I really like. I hope you enjoy them as well.