The Most Powerful Light In Your Bag

Last year I photographed Michael Stebbins for Rep Stage, which is how I got to know him for the Glass Menagerie photos.

The Smith Theater, where I shot him, is big and dark. In fact, I had shot someone else there about twenty years earlier for a magazine assignment -- and the Smith Theater had kicked my butt.

I brought every light I had (many, many watt-seconds worth) but I still did not have what I really needed -- the understanding required to work in a big, dark setting.

I even had with me the exact of piece of gear I needed. It was just that I just didn't know how to use it.

Time is Your Most Powerful Light

My mistake at the time was trying to light that big cavern with flash. The best I could do was to light a section of seats and have the rest of the cave drift into darkness. And this was with several big White Lightning flashes.

There's a perfectly good explanation, too -- I was young and stupid. What I should have done was to use a longer ambient exposure to let the theater to light itself, and add just a little bit of light to my subject.

A Lighting Photographer's Best Friend

All you need to tame a big, dark space (before you add light) is a tripod. But if you are not going to buy a decent tripod, don't even bother.

The one you are looking at on the left is my sidekick for the last 25 years -- a Gitzo Reporter Performance tripod with a Slik Pro Ball head. There are a lot of places where you can cut corners in lighting gear, but your tripod should not be one of them. And frankly, most people do cut corners on their first tripod.

This Gitzo was my third or fourth tripod, if memory serves. And back then, it was pretty much the only brand to buy if you were serious about it. I resisted and bought a few crappy tripods, because the Gitzos were very expensive at the time. And they came in two choices -- heavy steel and heavy steel.

But times have changed, and now tripods are made out of things like carbon fiber and magnesium alloy. Which means lighter weight, but still very strong. And there are other companies making good tripods, too. Which is a good thing, because Gitzo tripods have gotten just silly expensive.

So why should you fork out for a good tripod, and how do you choose?

As to the first question, I tripod is not worth a hill of beans if it won't hold your camera rock steady. Seriously, what's the point? If you cannot leave your shutter open for 30 seconds and get a sharp frame, the tripod is not doing the one job it was designed to do.

And being able to keep that camera still means you can light people in big, dark spaces.

Take the photo of Stebbins, above. Rather than trying to nuke the place with more power (like I did as a pimply-faced newb) I now understand that you let the theater ambient come to you. Then you finesse your subject with small amounts of flash.

In fact, this is one of those times when a Profoto or AlienBee might not even be able to dial down far enough to help you. They might give you a maximum (i.e., widest) working aperture of f/5.6 or f/8, when you'd really rather be able to work at f/4 or f/2.8. Why do you want to work closer to wide open? Because of the corresponding shutter speed.

In my case, I underexposed the theater by about two stops by shooting at 1/20th of a second at f/4. That made the ambient light in the room become the fill. Which let me light Michael with very modest amounts of light from three speedlights.

(Of course, the theater was lit with tungsten light. So I had to shoot on tungsten WB and gel the flashes to bring it together.)

In the end, it's the room that does the heavy lifting. It lights itself -- if you can just keep your camera steady enough long enough for it to happen.

And that's the irony of the Big Dark Room. It scares you as a lighting photographer until you realize that you are only a half-second or so away from that room looking beautiful and subdued. You just have to be able to keep your camera perfectly still while the shutter is open. Then you finesse just the areas you want with a small flash or two.

In that sense, I would feel perfectly comfy heading into a portrait assignment in a big dark room with just one speedlight and an umbrella. As long as I had a good tripod to bring it all together.

Tripod Buying 101

First: Don't buy a crappy, no-name tripod. You'll only have to repeat the process later. Trust me on that one. I learned the hard way.

Second, don't buy too much tripod. Buy enough to support whatever platform you are using. That will allow you to point your money towards good quality rather than just buying a larger piece of crap. If you shoot with a DSLR, buy a tripod that is designed for s DSLR. Don't waste money on the next size up in hope of more stability.

One exception might be if the tripod is going to do double duty (i.e., supporting a telescope, etc.) or if you plan to tether and want to mount your laptop to a dual plate up top. In that case, buying bigger might make sense to get the flexibility.

Carbon fiber or alloy? That's up to you. My recommendation is, unless you are a backpacker, go with alloy. Carbon fiber is nice, but I am looking for the most stability and quality per dollar. That's a personal choice tho, obviously.

As for the head, get one matched to the tripod. No sense in getting great legs and a crappy head, or vice versa. I like ball heads because they are very fast. But if you shoot, say, architecture, you might want to be able to adjust your axes independently.

One thing I would absolutely recommend is to choose a tripod with a stability hook. This allows you to hang your camera bag from the bottom of the tripod's center column for greatly increased stability.

Buy for the long term, and/or consider buying used if you are on a budget. You may only be dating your DSLRs for a few years each, but you'll probably marry the tripod.

And there is no reason your tripod shouldn't last a lifetime.


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