Dr. Ockenfels: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sun

We live in a world constantly fascinated by technology. We want the TV with the greatest definition. We want the tablet with the shiniest screen. And, as photographers, we always want the most expensive gear and the most elaborate new toys. But the more you grow as an artist, you'll quickly realize it's the man that makes the equipment, not the equipment that makes the man (or woman).

Like all human beings, including the special breed of human most commonly referred to as a photographer, the first light source I ever knew was the sun. Or I suppose, in some cases, it would be the moon. Or whatever brand of bulb was installed in the delivery room. You get my point. We are born into this world, not manipulating light, but rather reading the beauty of the natural sources of light that surround us.

Of course, as photographers, we have a special relationship with light. Our job is not only to appreciate light, but summon it on command. We become known for our ability to bend it. To mold light in a way that meets both our clients as well as our own aesthetic needs. The main difference between a professional photographer and a hobbyist is quite simply one’s ability to replicate our own particular breed of lighting consistently and effectively, even when the conditions are less than ideal. Anyone can take a great shot when it’s a beautiful day with a beautiful subject and they have little else to do but push a button. But, as I learned assisting a great photographer one day, what do you do when you’re outside on a golf course at night in the middle of a rare Los Angeles thunderstorm, and you have twenty plus representatives of a major brand with a six figure budget on set expecting you to make images that appear to have been shot on a sunny afternoon? Well, that’s where light comes in.  

More on that experience to come in another post.

But it is precisely knowing the importance of lighting that brings me to today’s story. Or, more specifically, brings me back to one of the formative experiences of my career.

Prior to becoming a still photographer, my life was consumed by motion pictures. Judging by the number of posters and film references which still adorn my walls, it’s safe to say I’m still consumed. But, back then, I was but a striving writer-director looking to produce his own work. When it dawned on me, ever so suddenly, that it would be difficult to make a film without actually knowing how to work a camera, I attempted to rectify the situation by enrolling at UCLA Extension Studies for Cinematography and spent my evenings and weekends in pursuit of knowledge. It was knowledge that would lead several years later to the birth of my still career, but again, we’ll save that transition for another day.

The important things I learned there are the basics of lighting. How to differentiate between hard and soft. Where to position the lights during a scene.  Daylight versus Tungsten. Catch lights. Fill lights. Hair lights. Oh my!

Of course, as motion pictures run at 24 frames per second, I learned lighting using continuous light. I had never even heard of strobes. So, when I began my transition to the still world and began to learn more about the tools of the trade, I became obsessed by learning about what these big lights that pumped out illumination at 1/200 of a second could do for me. And much like before, I decided the best way to learn would be to take a class.

I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity.

Once a year, Southern California hosts the Palm Springs Photo Festival. About a two or three hour drive East of Los Angeles, the festival brings together photographers of all levels for a week of instructional workshops, portfolio reviews, and general frivolity. It’s a great way to connect with the broader photo community and learn a trick or two in the process.

As I was just starting out at the time, I had a lot to learn. So when I heard that the legendary Frank Ockenfels was giving a workshop on lighting, my only question was “Where do I sign up?”

For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Frank is one of the most in demand shooters working today. For nearly three decades, he's been shooting everyone from the most famous people in the world to the most infamous. He's shot covers from everything from Rolling Stone to GQ. He's shot over 200 album covers for the likes of people like Norah Jones and someone simply known as The Boss (aka Bruce Springsteen). He shoots major advertisements for major companies, especially in the world of entertainment. The list goes on.

I couldn't wait to learn at his feet. Finally, I could learn about big strobes. Finally, I could see that big grip truck backing up and get a chance to plug in lights so big that their generator requires it's own generator!

So, you can imagine my surprise when I showed up for my first day of the workshop only to find no lights present at all. No Profoto heads. No softboxes. No power packs. Not even anything that could be plugged in. Just a bunch of folks standing around with their cameras and their dreams.

But how could this be? Frank is a MAJOR photographer. He’s shot for every major movie studio, for every major brand. He’s one of the most widely respected photographers working today, and his work is simply AMAZING. Surely, he must use all the shiniest tools and most expensive equipment, right? I mean, how else can he get such amazing imagery?

To be fair, there was one small piece of “equipment.” Although I can't say I recognized it as such upon first glance.

Around the room, there were spread small hand cut pieces of reflective material. About the size of a sheet of paper. Simply foam core with two sides. One coated in a metallic silver. The other a metallic gold. Each student was asked to claim one of these small boards and told that this would be the only light source necessary for the duration of the workshop.

Of course, my initial reaction was somewhere in the realm of “what the f…?” Surely we couldn't accomplish anything photographically with something you could pick up for a couple bucks at any local art store? Surely, this was just a way to train us before wheeling out the big guns on Day Two?

But, true to his word, Frank proceeded to teach the entire class with little more at our disposal than these mini reflectors. He showed us how to use the small boards to create fierce almost strobe light effect against a darkened sky. How to feather the light to alter between hard and soft. How to use additional boards to create catch lights, hair lights, and any other sort of illumination one could imagine. I even got to use the boards at night, reflecting the existing street lamps to create a moody noir look I previously would have only thought possible with a small armada of 10Ks and a team of trucks. He taught us how to add editorial quality edginess to your portraits with available resources like flashlights or in one case, the headlights of the nearest vehicle. He even showed us how some of his best known work, including an iconic image for the billboard of the original Spiderman movie, was made with these same handheld reflector without a strobe in sight.  

By the end of the class, my photography had improved by leaps and bounds, and the wider lesson had sunk in.

What made Frank’s work so special wasn't the equipment he used. What made Frank’s work so special was… well, Frank.

Certainly he knows how to use studio lights and does when the occasion is right. And I'm sure he owns a nice camera, although I can't remember seeing anything in terms of equipment that would be out of the financial reach of anyone reading this post. In fact, the most exotic piece of equipment he ever talked about was his collection of broken lenses he'd picked up second hand from various thrift stores (as well as a few he'd broken on his own). In most people's hands, these devices would be rendered useless. Worse yet, they wouldn't even be considered. But in Frank’s hands they were tools for invention. A different way to see.

The real lesson of the week was that it is not the equipment that makes the photographer. A truly great artist will use whatever tools he or she has in hand and still be able to create something of value. Because the value derives from their individual voice, not the piece of machinery in their hand.

I spent the next couple of years following that workshop literally working with nothing more than natural light and the same small piece of foam core I got in Frank’s class. I created portrait after portrait in endless variations and with endless personalities simply by using that same light that was available to me on my first day on Earth.

And while, over the years, I have grown to use large strobes and other light courses, my foundation always goes back to those years I spent using nothing but the sun. So, when a client mentions to me that they only want natural light, or that there's no money in the budget for this or that piece of equipment, or if strobes just don't make sense aesthetically, I can flip to natural light mode without skipping a beat. Especially since, to this day, is still keep my secret weapon on me at all times.

My gift from Frank Ockenfels: a small piece of reflective foam core and the knowledge that making a great image is not about the what you use, it's what you have to say.

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4 Comments

Good article. While I agree that "a truly great artist" can make do with whatever they have on hand, photography is uniquely a rather technical craft too. Always has been. The technical side of photography can not be reproduced through art alone.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Yes, photography does exist at the intersection of art and science/mathmatics

Kellan McCall's picture

Ockenfels work is so... indescribable. He's the artist that does it all better than any individual who specializes in a single aspect of it. And he's so genuine and down to earth. What an inspiration.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Absolutely. He really is an Artist (capital A)