The Authentic Fake

While I'll be doing a lot of new blog posts here, I realized a lot of writing  I did way back when I wrote the ProVision column in Petersen's Photographic magazine still resonates today, with some minor updating. So here is the first of from my archives, the story behind one of my favorite lighting lessons - the authentic fake:

Way back, about a gazillion years ago, when I was a fresh faced, newly minted photography graduate of RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology), I thought I knew it all. Well, assisting in NY right out of school showed me how much more I needed to learn. All the equipment, the new techniques I learned in those first two months was more than I learned in a whole year in college. Life in a commercial studio was like being educated in dog years, in that every studio month was like a seven school months. After about 6 months into assisting, I finally had the opportunity to shoot something for myself. The photographer I was working for in that first job was kind enough to let me shoot for my own portfolio during the evening or weekend.

Well when the time came that I was able to shoot something for myself, I decided I was going to use all my new knowledge and all the studio’s equipment I could now utilize. Luckily I was smart enough to see how bad that first attempt was after I got the film back (This was in that long ago era, BD, before digital). I tried too many techniques and tried to use too many tools for what should have been a simple photograph. And now years later, I find that the same phenomenon takes over my assistants, when they finally get to steer the ship, known as “the studio”. All those toys! All those gadgets! All those techniques they now know! If they try and do it all at once, their results are the same as my first one. Too much ambition and not enough photo.  They, as I did years ago, forgot the KISS rule (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

What does this have to do with the photo in this blog? Everything. I had an art director call me for this job, to shoot a three-year old catching a fish, to illustrate what you can do with the CanoScan, which at the time was a new film scanner made by Canon. The fish was enlarged, multiplied, and brightly colored in the final ad. The art director wanted to shoot outdoors, in March. With the weather being finicky and three-year-olds being even more finicky in less than ideal weather, and holding a dead fish, I decided that I could do it better in the studio. We built a dock for the set. Used a water and sky painted backdrop. Added in pilings by the dock and some placed buoys and fishing nets on the dock. Terrific.

Now for the most important element of the shot, the thing that will make or break it as far as shooting in the studio. The lighting. Without the right light, this shoot would look as dead as a mackerel. Now while I have lots of lighting equipment and grip equipment, I decided to light this entire set with just one light. One strobe head plugged into a 1000ws power pack.

What better way to copy sunlight, which is basically one light, than with just one light? KISS. The strobe head is in the far back, right side of the set and there is a 4’x8’ white foamcore reflector on the near left side, very close and in front of the model. While the light was coming from the strobe head in the back, I based my exposure on the reflected light from the reflector. Basically I exposed for the open shadow and let the highlight from the light source, that single strobe head, wash out the side of the model. I made sure that my exposure was low enough that I could shoot at a wide aperture, like F/4 or wider on a 200mm f1.8 Canon L lens. The combination of long lens and wide aperture makes the background go way out of focus and makes the in focus model the center of attention. Not to mention it helps minimize the “fakeness” of the background.

Ad for scanner shot in the studio with just one strobe light.

Ad for scanner shot in the studio with just one strobe light.

The final result is a very realistic looking “day light” in the studio.  If I had used all the lights at my disposal, with a main light, a fill light, a hair light this photo would have looked like a faked studio shoot instead of a realistic looking, fake studio shoot.