Curious photographers always have questions and many often involve questions about equipment or settings. Some of the most frequent include: “What kind of camera do you shoot with?” or “What’s the best f/stop to use?” or “What’s your favorite lens?” Those are all really important questions and they all deserve answers. The problem is, there isn’t a “right” answer for any of them.
The subjective nature of photography occurred to me the other day as I was listening to another photographer talk about lighting. This person is very well-respected—and also an amazing teacher—and he was discussing the use of grids and diffusion material being used together. Someone asked him whether the diffusion material should go between the grid and the light source or between the grid and the subject. Without a bit of hesitation, he said, “It goes on the inside.” Then, with all the self-assuredness in the world he said, “I know, I know…I see photographers putting it on the outside all the time. It’s kinda sad, right?”
I was struck by the smug certainty of his statement—as though there is only one way. The genius painters Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne all used oils and canvas to make their masterpieces in very different ways. The question is, did one of them use their tools in the “right” way? For them, yes. So, whenever I hear another photographer say with great certainty that there is only one way to do something, I know it’s time to start testing.
Is There Only One Right Way?
There are many ways to get the results you want in a picture (or a painting, for that matter) and there is rarely only one way to go about it. In the case of how to properly use grids and diffusion material together—or pretty much anything else in photography—it simply depends on what effect you’re attempting to achieve. For example, people often ask me about the type of lights I use for a portrait. They’ll ask, “Which is better: Speedlights, battery strobes or AC-powered studio lights?” My answer is often, “All of them.”
Recently, I photographed golf course architect Bill Coore and I used a variety of tools—Speedlights, studio strobes, grids, diffusion, a super-wide lens and a long telephoto lens to make the pictures I wanted to make. I don’t think any of the tools—or the way I used them—are more “right” than any other. They were simply right for me on this particular day. On a different day, and for a different photographer, the tools might be different to suit the situation and the subject.
For this project, I was fortunate to have my good friend and world-class shooter Bill Knapp along for his always great advice. Since I needed to fly to photograph Mr. Coore, the cost of traveling with an assistant is always a tough sell to a budget-concious client. But, since the savings on over-allowance baggage charges were worth more that the cost of a ticket, taking a familiar and experienced assistant rather than hiring someone locally that I might not know made both logical and economic sense. Ultimately, we ended up traveling with six cases of lights and grip equipment—including two Profoto packs and four light heads to make an indoor portrait as well as some Speedlights and modifiers to make a couple of outdoor portraits.
The portrait on the golf course was made with a FourSquare soft box with a single Speedlight inside that was triggered by a PocketWizard TT1 and TT5. I chose this lightweight arrangement because getting around on a golf course with a lot of gear can be time-consuming and I knew that since I wanted to make three different pictures in three different locations, I wouldn’t have a lot of time to set-up. The FourSquare is a very efficient setup when you have to get around using only a golf cart.
The portrait in front of the building was also made with a Speedlight, but for this shot I wanted a more controlled light. I used one of David Honl’s 1/8″ grids—just barely out of view of the 17mm lens I was using to achieve some dramatic distortion in the building and a wide expanse of the sky. The Honl system is amazing in it’s design and flexibility and it’s perfect when you just want to use your Speedlight in the most controlled way possible. Both exterior portraits used one light on a stand and both were shot with the flash set to manual.
For the conservative indoor shot I used three lights—a small soft box as the main light, a medium soft box for fill and a 10-degree grid on the wall behind him to give him some separation. Starting with the background light, I placed the grid light up high and about a foot from the wall surface to give it some tone and texture. The overall size of the light looked okay, but the grid alone produced too much of a defined edge. By simply adding some Rosco Opal Frost to the outside of the grid and moving it back and forth, I was able to get exactly the amount of feather to the edge that I wanted. The thin quality of the opal maintained the angle of the beam, but the edge became less defined as I moved it farther and farther from the front of the grid. (Incidentally, if you ever wish to simulate the look of those wonderful old Mole-Richardson hot lights with fresnel lenses that lighted many of the classic 30’s and 40’s Hollywood portraits, I find that using opal directly on top of a grid is an excellent way to achieve that look without the weight and heat of actually using the Mole’s themselves.)
The main light was a small soft box with a Lighttools fabric grid to keep most of the light on the subject’s face and also to control the spill of the box and keep it from hitting the wall and “polluting” the light I was trying to achieve with the 10-degree grid.
The final light was a large soft box that provided some overall fill illumination to the subject, but also to the wall so that the shadows didn’t plunge into a deep, deep black.
By the time the assignment was over, we’d made three completely different portraits, using three different types of light, in three different locations, with three different cameras and three different lenses. Each portrait was made in a very different way and with a variety of tools.
Five ideas that helped make Bill Coore a successful shoot:
- Use different types of light to achieve variety.
- Speedlights and studio strobes can both be used successfully.
- The last 10% of finessing the light makes more than a 10% difference.
- A super-wide lens for a portrait? Why not?
- There is no single “right” way.
Joey Terrill is a Los Angeles-based photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Red Bull, and Sports Illustrated. He teaches workshops and speaks at seminars including the Summit Series Workshops, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, World in Focus, and Nikon School.