Light is Not Your Problem.

Here's a little news flash for the majority of the people reading this site right now -- yours truly included:

Your lighting is probably not what is holding you back. A trained monkey can learn how to light. It is the stuff which your lighting is supposed to be secondary to that is holding you back.

It is your ideas -- or lack of them -- that is holding you back. Ditto, your ability to create a moment within the environment of all of that nifty light you have set up.

Who or what are you going to shoot? How are you going to approach it? Why? How are you going to create the personal intersection between subject and photographer that allows for even the possibility of a great photo to happen? How can you coax a moment of visual candor out of them?

That, for me, is the hard part.

So when I see a video of a photographer whom I really respect talking holistically about what goes into his or her photography, I am gonna watch it. Repeatedly. Even more so when the photographer in question is Dan Winters, my favorite photographer working today.

This video really got me thinking on several levels. But I would be curious to know how it caused you to think about your approach, too. So I want to open the comments up to that.

This interview is from FLYP, a wonderfully diverse multimedia magazine, of which you can see more here. And if you are not familiar with Dan Winters, his website is here.



Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Kevin Housen said...

I was so glad to see the title of this post. At least now I can feel better about my lighting.

But, after looking through all the images after these assignments, seems clear that a compelling image is equal parts of good technical skills, an interesting subject and an ability to evoke something special from the subject.

Thanks for another interesting post.

September 22, 2009 9:54 PM  
Blogger DTK said...

That was really enjoyable. In some ways it is inspirational, and in others a little disappointing to see some much thoughtfulness applied to celebrity portraiture. I guess I'll have to explore more of his work.

Thanks for sharing something so non-technical.

September 22, 2009 10:20 PM  
Blogger mjk_photo said...

Very good thing to hear!
It really makes you take a step back and really think about your shot ahead of time!

September 22, 2009 10:24 PM  
Blogger jrrome said...

I loves me some Dan Winters!

I think not having a 4x5 camera is my problem. That MUST be it.

P.S. You'd think those FLYP guys would know how to frame a subject for an interview. Upper Third! Upper Third! Dan looks like he's 3'6"

September 22, 2009 11:13 PM  
Blogger smwoerner said...

There were two parts of the video that really hit home with me. The first is where he said he has concentrated more on his sensibility than a style. It is less restrictive and allows him more diversity. That’s the way I’ve always felt about my shooting and I’ve been struggling of late with style. I think now I’ll go back to concentrating more on my subject matter and less about what I want to shoot at any given time fits into a style.

The second thing that caught my ear was when he talked about having done his homework and “driving the bus”. Rather than photographers maybe we should think of ourselves more as still image artists. I was going to say director but, that still implies that good portion of the image is dependent on the skill and actions of the subject. I am not dismissing the skills of models and actors, but rather saying that there are times when the person with the camera needs to be in charge to take the subject to a new and different place.

September 22, 2009 11:13 PM  
Blogger Nicholas McIntosh said...

Awesome Post! I've been thinking a lot about this lately. So many times I read about art directors/photo editors talking about the photographer's vision, talking about how it's not the style of the photograph but about the moment... forget post processing, forget about lighting... forget about technique... when does the photographer push the button. As Cartier-Bresson called it "the decisive moment." Until recently I have thought what separated the pro from the amateur was mastery of light. It was something they never really taught me in school... the very basic idea of photography... recording light. But I'm beginning to see it from the photography buyer's perspective. Just as David put it: "A trained monkey can learn how to light." What separates us is the "decisive moment", the "homework." It's much harder than I realized!

September 22, 2009 11:20 PM  
Blogger Seán Cook said...

I just want to watch him talk for 5 more hours. I hope there is more to come.

September 22, 2009 11:22 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Thanks for posting this. Dan's work is incredible. Grids has a great post on the edit of his new book.



September 22, 2009 11:35 PM  
Blogger alohadave said...

I know that my goals in photography have changed in the past year and a half since I started learning about light.

The more I shoot people, the more I want to shoot them, and catch a glimpse into their lives. Partly to document, partly to feel a connection to people that is difficult (for me) in any other way.

I know that it will be the hardest part of being a photographer and my own inhibitions will hold me back, but it will be the most rewarding part as well.

September 22, 2009 11:49 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

I've followed your blog from the beginning and this is the first post that speaks to the most important aspect of photograph. Also, thank you for opening up enough to share your own self doubt. More effortlessly than any other art medium, photograph is a barometer of one's inner nature.

September 23, 2009 12:39 AM  
Blogger SB said...

These are two great videos. I have much of the same demeanor as Dan Winters, yet have not developed my ability to own the photo shoot like he does. This is very inspirational.

I have to remember that when it is my photo session, I run it and own it. I want to be open to suggestions and ideas from the model(s) and other people, but I am ultimately responsible for the images.

This reminds me of something I heard Richard Avedon say. When discussing his mindset during a session, he said," I am in control. You (the model) are there. I can't do this by myself, but it is my view."

Great post. I would like to link to this post in the near future from a post in my blog that I am writing.

September 23, 2009 12:41 AM  
OpenID restaurantouring said...

I think for me, I've got more problems than just lack of inspiration. I think I get caught up too easily in trivial matters -- I lose focus, I miss the point. Sometimes, I find myself with all these ideas kicking around in my head, looking for a way out, but I don't try to forge those ideas into images. Instead, I get caught up into thinking, "Oh, I need another/bigger light for that idea," or "oh, wouldn't it be nicer if I could have a kicker/rim light back there?" or something similar. Sure, it'd be nice if I got some more lights, but in the end, I guess I have to call a spade a spade: my second thoughts and self doubts are really just poor excuses, laziness, and a bit of a lack of confidence.

I'm calling it a night. Gonna start over tomorrow.

September 23, 2009 1:32 AM  
Blogger Jase said...

This really struck home as I'm beginning to realise that no matter how good your photography is, or your lighting, it doesn't mean jack when the subject or what you're seeing through your lens is boring.

A striking photography I think must be 90% the actual image and 10% the correct gear/settings/etc.

If you don't have interesting content then it's just not going to cut it.

Of course if you're doing a portrait for someone and it's just for them or their family then that's irrelevant to some degree - it's only valid when you are putting something out there to the world that you want to generate some resonance with.

Thanks David for an interesting posts.

Cheers, Jason

September 23, 2009 2:49 AM  
Blogger Stefen Chow said...

I love the interview, and there is always something to learn from a photographer's work which I have tremendous respect for.

I guess my takeaway was his understanding of his own role between his subjects and the eventual work, and how he is firm on many things and also relaxed and accepting of other factors.

A very focused and talented individual indeed.


September 23, 2009 4:53 AM  
Blogger Ed Davis said...

These are great videos. They really make you step back and think about the shots you take. I've not looked at Dan Winters stuff before but I will make a point of it now. He seems like a really cool guy too. Thanks.

September 23, 2009 6:14 AM  
Blogger Tagsta said...

great post as always

just all sounds a bit melancholic, isn't strobism about getting a ninja snap in 9.5 mins against the odds leaving you more sandwich time?
now everyone wants to be an 'artist' - good luck with that, why do you think that geeza lopped his ears off (allegedly)
spending some time with an elinchrom ranger quadra sorted me out

September 23, 2009 6:23 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

(Not for publication)

David it took me about four reads of the last sentence in this paragraph to understand what you were getting at...

Your lighting is probably not what is holding you back. A trained monkey can learn how to light. It is the stuff that your lighting is supposed to be secondary to that is holding you back.

Consider changing to It is the stuff WHICH your lighting is supposed to be secondary to that is holding you back.

Such is the usual level of writing on the web that I kept reading it thinking that you'd tried to write It is the stuff that you're lighting... and then getting horribly, horribly lost.



September 23, 2009 7:13 AM  
Blogger Jeryc Garcia said...

Hi, David,

Would you know a more direct way of contacting Mr. Winters, or is already it? He mentioned in the video that he's interested in anything WWII, so I thought I'd share my portraits of WWII veterans with him. Hope you can help.



September 23, 2009 8:00 AM  
Blogger Magic Ship said...

I haven't watched the videos since I'll have to do that later. But I *heart* DanWinters' work. Ever since the wife and I saw his hardback 'Periodical' book in a book shop the other day, I was blown away. Looking forward to watching the vids. I would really like a poster print of his 'Candy Rack' photo, but can't find one. Shame.

September 23, 2009 8:24 AM  
Blogger David said...


I cannot think of a worse compass point. That's the kind of thing I would only do under very dire time constraints, and is hopefully a part of my life that is behind me.


Published -- as you are correct -- publicly admonished, noted and changed. :)


Of course! I will find his personal cell phone number and post it shortly, as I cannot think of a better way to show my respect and admiration for Mr. Winters.

(You are on your own, there, pal.)

September 23, 2009 8:48 AM  
Blogger Jeryc Garcia said...

Hi, David!

Thanks for helping out. Looking forward to that personal cellphone number. (Although an alternative email would also welcome since I don't live in the States.) Will share the portraits with you as well. Thanks again.


September 23, 2009 9:15 AM  
Blogger Jose Saenz said...

OMG! I had never heard of Dan Winters. I'm an illustrator and very new to Photography. Thank you so much for featuring him. I looked up his website. I'm an instant fan! His illustrations are equally as impressive as his photography. That was a treat.

His approach is enlightening. I can totally relate to what he said about how having a personal style can be restricting. As an illustrator myself, I'm often conflicted on whether or not to do a piece that does not fit within the style that people are used to seeing from me. When you're trying to make a name for yourself, you're often concerned with people being able to distinguish you from the next artist. Sticking to a style is a good way of doing that, but if you're not careful you'll find that you are restricting yourself.

Very inspirational post. Thanks David.

-Jose S.

September 23, 2009 10:14 AM  
Blogger James Pratt said...

I love Dan Winter's work and his attitude. Very low key, lets his work do the talking. Much better than Chase "I coined the phrase 'the best camera is the one you have with you'" Jarvis, who also probably invented the Internet.

Thanks David, really like your site and your humble attitude. Great work.

September 23, 2009 12:24 PM  
Blogger rjgreenphoto said...

Wow. This gentleman is the real deal. I am worn out by photographers calling themselves artists. They toss the word around, apply it to themselves and don't seem to really do any work. Or their effort is minimal. When I was in art school, "artists" would put 2 lightbulbs next to each other and call it art. After I stopped laughing, someone would ask, "How can I criticize it? Who am I to say what art is?" Obviously I am no one special, but I can tell when someone is putting "thought" into something. Mr. Winters is putting "thought" into his work. He is an artist.

September 23, 2009 1:37 PM  
Blogger arianabauer said...


Thanks so much for this post. It is so important to not always make it about the technical aspects, but make it about the image, the inspiration, the subject.

Dan Winters is both humble and amazing. A great inspiration for my day!

September 23, 2009 1:47 PM  
Blogger reWind said...

Dan will be at the Academy of Art here in San Francisco tonight 7:30 - 9:30. Doors open at 6:30. General Admission is $15 at the door. If you're an AAU Student or Employee - it's free. I'll definitely be there!

AAU Morgan Auditorium, 491 Post St., San Francisco.

September 23, 2009 1:50 PM  
Blogger heidi said...

This was really relevant for me to see......I focus on portraiture and his comment about him "driving the bus" and "galvanizing" an image struck home.

September 23, 2009 2:37 PM  
Blogger h.linton said...

His comment at the end of the FLYP article, "I have a friend who said to me, 'people aren't going to remember the things you do, they're going to remember how you make them feel.' And I've always tried to adhere to that", really stuck with me since I read it
last week.

I've come to think that it's 90% personality/10% equipment. It's a hard one to live up to.

September 23, 2009 3:25 PM  
OpenID jayjanner said...

Great post David. I too am a big fan of Dan Winters’ work. I had the pleasure of meeting Dan at his studio a few months ago. I was there to take a portrait of him for a newspaper article about his new book. You have no idea how intimidating that was! But he was such a nice guy, and totally put me at ease. He gave me a tour of his studio, and I got to watch him build one of his props. I’ll never forget it.

September 23, 2009 5:01 PM  
OpenID jayjanner said...

Great post David. I too am a big fan of Dan Winters’ work. I had the pleasure of meeting Dan at his studio a few months ago. I was there to take a portrait of him for a newspaper article about his new book. You have no idea how intimidating that was! But he was such a nice guy, and totally put me at ease. He gave me a tour of his studio, and I got to watch him build one of his props. I’ll never forget it.

September 23, 2009 5:04 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I looked at the Spike Jonze cover photo on the New York Times Magazine for a week or two ago. I thought:
that's gotta be Dan Winters. Lo and behold...
He is awesome.

September 23, 2009 5:59 PM  
Blogger LouJanelle said...

The difference between someone who "takes pictures" and someone who is a "photographer" is "Hard Work" -- working out the lighting details, researching the product (or subject), posing, editing, revising. etc.

Although Winters gives the impression that the most important part of his work is eliciting the correct response or interpretation he leaves out the basic assumption that one has really done the background work before touching the camera.

I found the videos to be very inspirational. When you examine the images on his website you become aware that the images are the work of a hard working craftsman.

Thank you, David ...

September 23, 2009 6:08 PM  
Blogger Graham McBride said...

Dan is given a speach in San Fran tonight at AAU Morgan Auditorium, 491 Post, SF I cant wait to go....

September 23, 2009 8:37 PM  
Blogger marco said...

Thank you for this post. I apologize to raise a technical question on a rather philosophical mood, but I am the monkey who is still learning to light.

Carefully watching the portraits on his site, I find the lighting very similar, not to say identical, between some of the studio shots. I can't decipher the precise lighting, I think there should be a softbox camera right then maybe a beauty dish? Can anyone help me reverse engineer that beautiful light?

And, the Mia Farrow portrait is just awesome.


September 24, 2009 3:43 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Inspiration has to take both subject and photographer, attracted by a catching idea and a sparkling moment.

Trained monkey does his job quite independently and provides free space to the creative where artist photographer is free to concentrate on his idea, interaction and the magic moment.

Which might come for parts of a second or lasts few seconds only. And we have to use this unique chance undetractedly by any jumping monkey (even while inside of us).

Intersection point of close ideas is in the camera but if the same inspiration catches both cameraman and actor, moreover a great moment might happen.

We feel it before we get even the time to see it on the back of the camera.

This is my experience.
Therefore I train my monkey like a musician does learning his instrument for years - and the more I have learned to play my camera, the more I am ready to listen to the sizzling noise of approaching in-spiration.

September 24, 2009 8:56 AM  
Blogger taipan said...

Certainly brings me back to the most pure basics of the art of photography. Something that a lot of us need a gentle nudge toward. It's great to know there are still photographers out there with this integrity and the willingness to share their passion on an inner level. Thanks for the post... and the added MSG to keep us all wanting a little more.


September 24, 2009 10:12 AM  
Blogger charles said...

The most important piece of photographice equipment isn't some hi-zoot camera or a magic bullet strobe. It isn't high priced, although it is worth a fortune. It's your brain.

A good photographer can take excellent photos using a manual focus film camera and available light. So do you want to become a good photographer or a snap-shooter who owns a lot of expensive toys?

September 24, 2009 12:13 PM  
Blogger Abba said...

Four ingredients for making a photograph: Brains, Eyes, Heart and Camera. Dan is Intelligent, Sees, is Compassionate. Camera? Maybe he uses a fancy Pinhole contraption, who cares?

September 24, 2009 2:07 PM  
Blogger said...

Shooting important peopleand working for famous magazines makes you a talented photographer?

Please don't spread such iconic vices.

Photography is about talent, pure talent, not mass recognized names, nor equipment.

Hope you like it.


September 24, 2009 5:36 PM  
Blogger Ogalthorpe said...

for some reason i think i'm being followed...

September 25, 2009 1:39 AM  
Blogger jennifer said...

After another sleepless night of what can I do to create better lighting this was just what I needed! Dan Winters is right on!
What truly resonated was his remark about how the person (subject) feels when they leave you. This speaks volumes about your interaction with them.
I feel like I'm on the right track now. Hands down the one constant I have going for me is the joy with which people leave my studio, next is that they can't decide on which image they love best. AAHHH sleep may still come ;)

September 25, 2009 9:59 AM  
Blogger Amy Larson said...

Loved it! Both the video and your thoughts. I've been feeling lately that lighting is this Goliath that I need to conquer, but both you and Dan reminded me that that is NOT the heartbeat of what I do.

I SO agree that what a person FEELS, either when I am shooting them or when they are viewing previous photos of mine, is the real reason I do this! If I'm shooting a person, I want them to feel fantastic, beautiful, comfortable, alive... If I'm taking a photo of something else (a thing, a place, etc.) I want the photo itself to make people FEEL something. I LOVE the concept of finding the place where the subject and the photographer "connect". That changes the whole dynamic of the shoot, and frees me from my war on Goliath!!

Thanks for sharing this!

September 25, 2009 9:30 PM  
OpenID greywolfstudios said...

Nice to see someone making a point. Technique is really important, so important that it should not be part of the discussion. It should come by default. You have to master technique and set apart from it in order to let your personality come to play.

If you're spending your shoot struggling with equipment, the chances of getting something good are slim.
Master technique so you can leave it behind and let photography be your number one concern.

Thanks for your great posts David.

September 26, 2009 6:41 AM  
Blogger Craig said...

Hello chaps,

Not sure whether you had a look at the Flypmedia site - note the link to that in the lower right corner of the Youtube vid. Anyway, there's an article on Dan Winters in there, which may be of interest if you haven't seen his stuff before:



September 26, 2009 8:40 AM  
Blogger Steve Korn said...

I think the point here is that there can be, and in my opinion should be, a bigger purpose to making pictures than simply a demonstration of technique and style.

Learning to use the tools, like learning grammar is vital to communicating ideas, but if the result is never beyond big words and fancy language, the idea is lost. Learn to use the tools and then use them to communicate your idea effectively.

Dan transcends the technique and the camera for that matter. The tools are simply a means of getting at something deeper, his subjects and what he hopes to communicate about them.

Great post, David.

September 27, 2009 11:44 AM  
Blogger John said...

Great job.
I saw a human actually interested in other humans.
But he is also undeniably a master of subtle lighting. Put the two together, sit back and enjoy the show.
Rock on Dan.

October 01, 2009 7:18 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

I found this video very informative. My only critique would be that it doesn't allow for more innovative thinking on your feet intuative lighting solutions.

December 31, 2009 1:34 PM  
Blogger Ted Sabarese said...

Dan is dead on when he talks about the need to create something concrete in this brave new digital world we have entered. Our kids won't even know what a photomat is. His images' simplicity is where all the beauty lies.


September 01, 2010 4:42 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home