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Conversations in Light: Creative Challenges in Commercial Photography

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Each genre of photography offers challenges; however, corporate photography offers its own set of challenges. Although the clients you shoot for may depend on photography, oftentimes they might not provide the luxury of time and access that you, as a photographer, would prefer. For this reason, you have to be on top of your photographic skills, especially when it comes to lighting.

For this conversation, we brought together photographers Seth Joel and Kirk Tuck. They both contend with similar creative challenges, but they’ve each found unique ways to use light to serve their clients and their creative vision.

Seth Joel, a Commercial Photographer: Seth Joel (www.sethjoel.com) is a commercial photographer with more than 25 years of experience. As a local photographer in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, his clients have included American Express, Passages Malibu, First America, Fidelity, Smithsonian magazine, Nikken, and Greenhaus Design. He is partnered with Charlie Holland, former Director of Photography for Getty Images.

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Kirk Tuck, a Commercial Photographer: Kirk Tuck (www.kirktuck.com) is also a commercial photographer with more than 25 years of experience. He’s based in Austin, and his clients have included Dell Computers, Motorola, AMD, Time Warner, The Arts Council of Texas, and Southwest Water Company. He’s also an author of several books on commercial photography and lighting, the most recent of which is LED Lighting: Professional Techniques for Digital Photographers

Ibarionex Perello: When it comes to lighting, I’ve always thought of light as being not only a creative tool, but also a valuable tool for resolving problems arising from an assignment.

Inspired by light

Seth Joel

Tuck: It’s interesting that we’re discussing this today, because next week I’m headed off to Denver to do a three-day workshop about shooting portraits. There, we’ll talk about cameras for only about 15 minutes, and the rest of the time will be all about light.

Joel: That sounds like a very good workshop.

Tuck: There’s really very little to teach people about cameras. It’s lighting that has this infinite range of structure and tonality. That takes time to learn.

Joel: Yes, it’s nuance. And it really takes time to learn how to finesse it.

Tuck: Yeah, the formulas are one thing, but how do you translate them into the real world?

Joel: When you and I started, we realized pretty early on, I suspect, that you throw the formulas out the window. Then, you really start to embrace the light and make it your own.

Tuck: Exactly, and I always used to think that I didn’t have a style. When I started running the blog writing about my portraits, people pointed out that I always tend to light from a particular angle. They noted that I always work with a real soft light, but with a real hard shadow. So, I went back and looked and said, “Wow, I’ve developed a style in 25 years.” 

Inspired by light

Kirk Tuck

Can you each comment on that point you just agreed on: about throwing out the formulas? 

Tuck: Yeah. I have a basic way that I light, as do most photographers. I love the look of a large, soft light from one side and deep, inky shadows on the other side. There’s a formula for lighting a face, but that’s only one step of the process. Basically, you have to throw the formula away and think about what you want to do to make it work. If I were to do it the way the books told me, my main light would be a smaller, harder light, which would be more cross light on the face. I’d have this big fill light, and so on. But early on, I picked up on the fact that this was the least interesting way to light a portrait, so I’d adjust it to make it look the way I wanted it to look: with those deeper shadows.

Inspired by light

Kirk Tuck

What was the response? 

Tuck: At first, art directors asked, “Can you fill in the shadows?” Now, art directors are saying, “You’re filling in the shadows too much. Make it darker.” 

Joel: That’s wonderful.

Tuck: That’s when you know you’ve broken the formula. 

Joel: You trained them to see a little differently. We’re always training our clients, working hard to take them to another level. I think that lighting and lens combinations are the two most important photographic tools we have to work with.  

Tuck: Oh, yeah.  

Inspired by light

Kirk Tuck

Joel: Kirk, I’m different from you in that I like to use a lot of natural light. I combine color temperatures, and that’s really where I throw all the rules out the window. I’ll combine tungsten and flash and daylight and quartz, and I’ll create a cocktail of color and tone in a way that keeps it very natural. I don’t try to neutralize too much. Working in digital has given me a lot of freedom to do that. 

Tuck: I come from a different point of view. The stuff that I like to do is so studio-oriented. Even if I’m on location, I feel as if I’m finding ways to re-create my Kirk Tuck portrait studio. I’ll walk into a space and look at it and say, “I still want this big, soft light to come from this side, and I still want that inky black shadow on the other side. Damn it, I’m going to figure out how to make this work.” So, when I walk into a room, I’m looking for that big wall of windows to try and short-light my subjects with it. 

I guess the crazy part for me, over the last four years, is that I stumbled into this LED thing and wrote a book about it. Then I stumbled into the fluorescent thing and wrote a book on that. I tried things that I hadn’t done for the first 20 years, when we depended on electronic flash, because that’s the way we had to deal with film.

Inspired by light

Seth Joel

Joel: Digital has given us this great freedom to mix light sources and also use light sources that wouldn’t normally be powerful enough for a film emulsion. At ISO 3200 or 6400, you can take those LEDS and little flashlights and do the coolest things with them. 

Tuck: Absolutely! At the other end of the spectrum, digital cameras are really remarkable at whatever their native ISO might be. I bought a Sony A77, which goes down to ISO 50, and started shooting at that ISO. I still wanted to use the continuous light sources because I liked what I was seeing: the way that it mixes with daylight, and other weird light sources. It made me totally embrace the role of the tripod in an almost-Arnold Newman approach: shooting things at 1 second or 1/4 or 1/8, because in those kinds of images you can almost see the person breathe. We typically work hard to try to obscure micro details (pores and stuff), but if you shoot people slowly, they’ll do their own retouch on their pores just by sitting there and breathing.

Joel: That’s pretty amusing. I like that. 

Tuck: We just had a huge Arnold Newman exhibit at the Humanities Research Center here in Austin and he used flash so infrequently. So many of the portraits that we associate with Newman, such as the images of Picasso or Stravinsky, were all done with hot lights.

Inspired by light

Kirk Tuck

Joel: And they weren’t done with anything advanced. They were done with soup dishes and 45° reflector floods. 

Tuck: So, when you’re shooting with continuous light, unless you’re working within a black box, you’re always going to have these little infringements of light coming from a crack in the door or from the window. And they’re all adding their little layer to this piece in a way that flash never did for me. 

You touched on it earlier when you talked about walking into a room and analyzing it. That’s a big part of transitioning from what you learned in books or at school and moving into your own personal way of seeing. I don’t think you can ever experiment effectively with strobes or continuous lights until you consider the quality of the light you have to start with, and then building from there. 

Inspired by light

Seth Joel

Joel: I agree. You really summed it up beautifully. Part of the challenge of being a corporate industrial photographer and always going on location is working from the look and feel for which you’re known. I like to work in bright, friendly, and natural environments that aren’t busy or are often enhanced by either incandescent or natural light. It’s because I tend to shoot wide-open: I’m an f/1.4 guy.

Tuck: Really? Are you serious?

Joel: Oh, yeah. 

Tuck: Wow, that’s so scary!

Inspired by light

Seth Joel

Joel: I love it because when you capture the light and focus correctly, everything comes together like a symphony. It’s the way that film used to be, where things would be a little more natural in terms of the way they blend. Shooting digital wide-open has that similar characteristic because all of a sudden you’re not taking full advantage of the extreme sharpness.

Tuck: You know something that you do differently: You use wider lenses. 

Joel: Exactly, I’m a 35mm, f/1.4 guy. That’s my primary lens. 

Tuck: I can’t shoot anyone with something wider than 50mm. In fact, I’m not comfortable until I’m at something beyond 85mm. 

Joel: I like to get in closer so that I can communicate with my subjects comfortably and I can begin to stimulate them, and they stimulate me. 

Tuck: I’d rather control them. [Laughter.]  I want to reach into their brains and get them to do exactly what I want them to do. It’s such a weird and amazing difference. 

Inspired by light

Seth Joel

It seems as if both of you are working pretty simply. You have each developed your core tool set, not only in terms of the equipment you use, but also in the way that you work with it. Am I on the mark here?

Joel: In my case, I improvise a lot. I never know ahead of time exactly where I’m going to end up. The preproduction meeting talks about the look and feel, but I never get the chance to scout, so there are a few techniques that I’ll deploy. Sometimes, I’ll walk around an office, just stalling for time until I get a brainstorm. I’m looking around, going from room to room, and it’s not happening. Everything is dirty and cluttered and looks like crap. 

Tuck: Now I know why you shoot wide-open at f/1.4.

Joel: Yeah [laughter].

Inspired by light

Kirk Tuck

Tuck: It’s like, “What background?”

Joel: I can blow that out real easy!

Tuck: That’s an interesting perspective because I’m coming from the opposite point of view. When I go out to shoot portraits of corporate people, I pack everything I have the night before. It’s a meticulous planning process and when I get to the location, I don’t try to find a place that speaks to me, but one that’s malleable enough so that I can force it to let me do the lighting that I planned.

Joel: So, you try to create a studio. 

Tuck: Yeah, I consistently try to create a studio. There’s one photograph that I’m in love with (I’ve had it on my website for years) of an image of Juergen Bartels, who was the CEO of the Westin Hotels chain. I saw a row of windows at the location and the light looked good. I just couldn’t get him to hold still long enough to shoot it with available light, but I could bring in two Norman 2000s, pop them through a 12′ scrim, and emulate what I saw with the windows to get exactly what I wanted. So, the one thing that’s similar between the ways we light is that I’m not a fan of gratuitous backlighting or accent lighting.

Inspired by light

Kirk Tuck

Joel: Yes, that’s very ’80s. 

Tuck: Yeah, it seems very ’80s to me, too, but there are a lot of people who are setting up these little softboxes to try and get this gleam on the cheeks that you don’t see in real life. My whole lighting philosophy is a manifesto against unnatural light. So, I’m using artificial light to make my own light, but I always try to emulate what I see in nature. 

Joel: That’s a fabulous mantra. I try to do the same thing when I’m lighting with big equipment. I rarely go on location with such big stuff. 

If you had to pare things down, what would you choose for your essential piece of kit? What are the few things that you couldn’t do without? 

Joel: In my world, that’s an easy one. I’d have a couple of speedlights, my RadioPopper, two lenses, and two bodies.

Tuck: For me, that would be a light source of any variety, a 6×6 diffusion scrim, my tripod, a camera, and an 85mm lens.

What advice do you have for photographers who are producing work for corporate clients, or want to?

Joel: Start looking through a lot of books. Look at the pictures and really analyze them to see what those pictures communicate to you through the use of light.

Tuck: What Seth is saying is true, and I’m going to add that you need to have some sort of innate philosophy about your light. You’re using light to communicate a certain feeling that seems right and true to you.

Learn more about light and the impact it plays in your images with this series on the blog called, The Photographer’s Lighting Handbook, by Kevin Ames. And here is a quick tip from the LightroomKillerTips blog.

Inspired by light

Kirk Tuck