Get ready: Lighting 103 is coming in January.


You Screwed Up. Congratulations!

National Geographic photographer Bill Allard famously said that in photography, interesting failures are more valuable than boring successes. That's a thought that has been sticking in my mind recently as I try to find ways to give more of an edge to my lighting.

It is easy to hang out in a comfort zone, because you have the security blanket of knowing that your go-to tricks will always work. But they also lead to a sameness and safeness that is antithetical to growing as a photographer.

For a good example, I offer a pair of photos by Strobist reader Tom Miles, after the jump.
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I was cruising through the Strobist Flickr pool recently, and saw two photos by London-based reader Tom Miles, of ice skater John Hamer. John was shooting Hamer for Men's Fitness Magazine, which focuses on alternative sports.

Miles posted two photos of Hamer performing a move called a "death drop." In the first, above, Miles' lights fired as he intended them to.

The next photo was a mistake, in which Miles' front light did not fire.

Said Miles of the photo:

"... Obviously, it'd look loads better if the front light had fired. Bugger. ..."

Call me crazy, but I find the mistake photo more interesting than the success.

Is is ideal? No. But it would get me thinking along a more interesting path that might involve creating the scene for a photo through backlighting, then adding just a little hard, directional light, maybe from hard camera left, to crosslight just a little detail.

Does that mean you go out and shoot just the edgy photo and come back with only that? No, not if you want to get called back to shoot another assingment. But if you can adjust your workflow so as to not waste much time and energy getting the safer stuff, you can move on to photos that take more of a chance -- and offer a bigger payoff if they connect.

And between these two photos, IMO, the sweet spot if somewhere in the middle. Build the lighting around edgy backlight, then light just enough from the front to reveal sufficient to satisfy the literal content needs of the magazine. Maybe a 1/2 CTB on the background and a 1/2 CTO on the hard-left skater light, too. Not much color, just a little cool/warm contrast.

In my experience, happy accidents such as Tom's have been the most frequent way in which I have gotten those little visual kicks-in-the-butt that make me think very differently about lighting. My default is to get something safe, early, and then see what I can do to stretch myself a little. Or a lot.

It's unintended consequences like the almost-silhouette above that get me thinking about planning a shot like this from the get-go next time. Not that I am not still gonna play it safe -- I want to come back with a useable image. But if I can get that quickly, I would always be looking to be going for something more interesting and risky.

And the more often you pull off an interesting, risky success, the more you start to realize that when it comes to designing lighting, safe is the enemy of interesting.

(Click the pix for 500-pixel versions. Especially the "screwed-up" one.)


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