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Yes I said it. I can hear the outraged shrieks of equipment addicted photographers, but hear me out. In February, I went to Capetown for a month to please my trigger finger and shot eight stories in the same location using just natural light. South Africa is a renowned location for occidental productions. When it is snowing in Europe and in the States, it is summer season there. During that time the only weather complication can arise from wind with the upside being constant blue skies. During my stay, I got unpredictable rain and clouds. When I was done throwing tantrums at the black skies and banging my head against a wall questioning my decision of spending hard earned bucks to fly to the southern tip of Africa, I capitulated and went with the flow. And learned a lot in the process. Getting out of my comfort zone reminded me about the core of photography: my vision.
I am a beauty and fashion photographer. My home has always been the studio where lighting techniques are essential, and a normal set up starts with six flash heads, the popping of the generators creating a f.16-22 symphony. It always amazed me how big a studio set up can be to photograph a face. Flashes give you the desired sharpness and depth of field and but they do not do that good a job at letting you see with your own eyes how the light falls on a model. You need experience to visualize the end result and you might still have some good or bad surprises when that image comes up on your monitor.
To really see what you are doing continuous light is the way to go; nevertheless if you haven't recently won the lottery, not everybody can afford renting 10K of HMIs, the accessories, the studio and the assistants that need to go with it. So that leaves us with natural light. And lets put it out there: is there anything more beautiful then natural light? When organizing my trip to South Africa, I was going for imagery with strong light, hard shadows. Seeing them and playing with them was going to be a treat that I gave myself. Thor decided to teach me a lesson.
I had rented a flat with a wrap around outdoor veranda that would be my mini studio for my shoots. Beauty does not require a lot of space so it was a perfect fit. The morning of my first shoot clouds rolled in and it started to rain. My whole mood-board got flushed down the toilet. As a studio photographer I am trained to have complete control over the light that enables consistency during the whole day and has made me into a maniac: I want what I want when I want it to a tenth of a stop precision. Try having that conversation with the skies. I did not get very far.
I canceled my first shoot and booked another one. Same scenario the following morning and the weather forecast made me think I was doomed. So I adapted and discovered the magic of shooting with grey skies.
I spent the following day in the flat observing the way light would move and fall during the whole day. I borrowed two flash heads from a friend but ended up using them for the background only once. I bought three meters of see-through fabric as a gigantic scrim, clamps and rope to be able to hang one of my reflectors and a plastic mirror for some harsh reflections. It was not much, and yet the DIY method worked marvelously. To be fair, unless you have the muscle structure of Rambo, working with natural light does require one essential element for the unstable hand: a tripod – a piece of equipment I had always previously disregarded – and an assistant would be welcome but I learned to use my toes to angle a reflector, and sang praise to gaffer tape. Having the raw minimum I was able to shoot different stories in the same location and adapt to the natural light – whether it was sunny or overcast, morning or evening. When you take the time to observe light and understand it you are ready to make some magic happen. Everything becomes a possible reflector, the walls, the window, simple material.
Becoming a one-man production machine was not the most important thing. Photography is a fickle art. You might start with the plan to shoot perfume bottles and end up doing corporate portraits. You might think at some point in your career that uber retouched imagery is your signature only to realize that the natural look that you though so boring is becoming a key ingredient in your style. Yes there are individuals who have a distinct style even when they are toddlers but for the rest of us - human beings - our art is forged by the gruesome practice of trail and fail. Experimenting with new things is not just for the beginners! It is part of the process of any creative.
Not having the tools that I have been using for the last 6 years opened my eyes and rebooted my creativity: I stopped being obsessed by the technicality of the process and focused more on what I wanted to show in my images. By taking away that enormous studio with all its gear I took away the distractions. I was finally not trying to showcase the extension of my lighting skills. What was left was something authentic because it was about emotions; the ones that pushed me to become a photographer in the first place and the ones I wanted to create in my images. Less is more they say in the fashion industry so don’t let gear direct your vision. It is there to help you not to enslave you.
You have only one master: your imagination. Keep that beast satisfied.
Images: copyright Anna Dabrowska