The Ability to Improvise

March 31, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

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Helpful bartender, Gonaives, Haiti. Nikon D3S, 17-35mm/2.8 @ 20mm, 1/40s @ f4, +0.3EV, ISO 6,400
 


Following up on this topic of improvising a few weeks back, I was thinking about another example how important being able to not settle for "auto-everything" can be. I'm the lucky owner of the amazing Nikon D3S, arguably the best low-light camera available today. Sometimes even that, though, isn't enough to get the shot you want.p554533093-2

UN Elections Detail, Gonaives, Haiti. Nikon D3S, 17-35mm/2.8 @ 17mm, 1/25s @ f7.1, +0.3EV, ISO 12,800
 

Here's the setting: we were eating dinner in a rather dark restaurant in Gonaives. The table across from us had a group of UN police officers traveling throughout the country preparing for the upcoming elections. I had the opportunity to chat with one of them, Eddy from Lithuania, earlier in the hall and struck up a good conversation. We'd passed their convoy of 20+ Nissan pick up's and SUV's various times throughout the trip and now here they were, sitting across from us having dinner. Fun bunch. Having asked one of the guys earlier if he'd like a group shot before they head out the next morning, I wiped the goat off my beard, grabbed my camera and went over to sit with them for a bit. One thing led to another and pretty soon we were making images.

 
I didn't have my lighting with me and it was dark. Cranking the camera up to 6,400 gave me something like 1/10 at 2.8 which wasn't going to produce anything they'd be happy to see later. The D3S will go higher but I knew I needed more help and lowered the camera. Looking around for something - anything - to get a little more light to work with produced nothing. The bar tender saw what was going on and disappeared into the back room, emerging with a shop light (like from Lowes), encased in yellow plastic, on an extension cord.
 
Next thing I know my buddy Chuck jumps up, standing on the stool behind me and does a "Statue of Liberty" thing (one of the guys at the table was from France and we chuckled about it later...) getting that warm, tungsten shop light up high and bouncing off the light-colored ceiling and presto - enough light to make a decent image for them. Because I shoot RAW and wanted to get more depth of field, I kicked the ISO in the final shot up to 12,800, knowing I could clean up whatever noise was generated later in post. Better to have a little noise than have the guys in the back totally blurry due to shallow dof (which is unfixable in post).
 
Now, in case some of you are wondering why you couldn't just pop up the flash on the camera and let it figure things out; first, the D3S doesn't have an on-camera flash. Second, if it did, it would have produced a harsh, directional light blowing out the faces in the front of the image and barely reaching the guys in the back. And just as important - it would have produced a very unflattering hard shadow on everything behind the front row because the light would have originated from immediately in front of the camera. By getting it up higher and letting the point light radiate some light down on their faces, and bounce some light off the ceiling diffusing it, it softened things up. Don't get me wrong... if I'd taken the time to grab my flashes and umbrellas I'd have a much better image today. But the moment would have passed and the bigger point is being able to improvise with what you have at hand can be a valuable skill to develop as a photographer. No matter what, you're going to find yourself in opportunities for a good image that you don't have that perfect piece of gear for. Learning how to make do with what you have and getting creative will pay dividends down the road.
 
The real payoff for me was when I turned around to thank the bartender for his assistance. As I handed him the still-on shop light and saw how beautiful and rich that single, tungsten point light shining through the yellow backed housing brought out the warm atmosphere of the restaurant; his red shirt and smiling face - bang. One of my favorite images from the trip. Right there, totally impromptu, because you're engaging with other folks and having fun.
 
I'm no David Hobby or Joe McNally, but understanding how to improvise and think a little about light is a skill every photographer will benefit from. It's not rocket science... but just not settling for the "auto everything" mind set.

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