Lighting Journal

As a student of photography I shot strictly natural light for years, then I made the switch to film school and it seemed I knew nothing. Lighting I, Lighting II, Advanced Lighting, the classes kept coming but I still didn’t get it. In the natural world or in watching a movie, I couldn't identify each light source or describe it’s qualities, much less the psychological impact. And then came an assignment to do those exact things. Direction. Color. Quality. Intensity. It was our task to gather stills from feature films, and then describe these characteristics for each light source, along with the mood and tone they conveyed. 

In each scene from a movie, consider how much information the lighting actually gives: where to look, who is important, are they good or bad, what time of year is it, time of day, is this a comedy, is this set in the past/future, is this person trustworthy? The list goes on and on. As a photographer, your lighting is communicating something, why not learn it’s language and start identifying it’s characteristics? 

Drawing Lighting Inspiration from Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’

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Left: Lincoln - Janusz Kaminski, ASC                              Right: test shot with light/fog 

Nick approached me as he was finishing his degree, wanting his portrait taken to commemorate the event. With his references, wardrobe, and location, I saw an opportunity to replicate some of the lighting I had seen in Spielberg's Lincoln. As a period film set in the mid 1800's, light "sources" were limited to daylight, moonlight, or oil lamps and candles. My hope was to capture the magic of Kaminski's lighting, while also adapting it for the purpose of a more traditional portrait. 

Once on location, I start by creating a reference - adjusting my settings and capturing an image in camera that looks accurate to what is seen with the eye. Our starting point is a mid summer evening in Orlando, which means the sunset is a vibrant orange, with plenty of reflected green light from the surrounding foliage. This quality of light isn't necessarily bad, it's just not what we wanted.

golden hour and reflected green light from exterior

So we placed a strobe through the window with curtains as the only diffusion and voilla, a light we can finally work with. Notice how easily a setting sun is eclipsed with today's strobes, though a high noon sun would have taken quite a bit more power. 

strobe outside window, tungsten clamp light just out of frame - camera left 

So we have our light but we're not finished, we need to give that backlight all the glory it deserves. More often than not, hazers are used in films to provide some atmosphere or texture for the light to 'grab.' At times it's justified in the scene with a character smoking, a hot shower, a fireplace, etc. Yet even when it's not justified, we(the audience) are still ok with it. Actual hazers are pretty expensive, so I find myself using a cheap amazon fogger and fan to break it up. The key word here is subtlety, give the fog time to settle and then break it up with a fan. 

first shot w/ Nick in wardrobe and fog on blast

For the final image we let the fog settle, brought Nick a chair, put on a 28mm lens and used a silver bounce for his key light, with strobe pointed through the window as a backlight. The tungsten clamp light just outside of frame is more or less to throw some warmth on the wood paneled wall. 

Taking inspiration from period films gives you a great opportunity to create a cinematic look with minimal equipment. Sometimes you want to create something stylized like this daylight/moonlight, or maybe you want it to be a different time of year? Either way, it helps to have your own personal database by taking notes and screen captures of movies you love and then seeing if it can be replicated. With a bit of study and the right equipment, it's easy to change up your portraits with light from the movies. So get out there and shoot the light you want, rather than just the light you're given.  

Final image

9/11 Memorial

If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate.
— Sandy Dahl, wife of pilot of Flight 93 Jason Dahl

With the memorial and tower complete, I loaded up some b&w film and captured the images you see above. Below is an account of my experience.  

Still several blocks from ground zero, I asked my driver to go ahead and let me out, giving me some time to think and approach the site at my own pace. After several hundred yards and even more steps I found myself in a courtyard, complete with official "9/11 Memorial" signs directing visitors towards restrooms or ticket offices for the museum. It all seemed so civil yet here I was, 14yrs after that September morning in high school, after my time in the Marines, after a tour in Iraq, post college and marriage. "I have a new life now," I thought. But finally standing there and considering it all, it seemed of little consolation. I suddenly felt small again, hurt, vulnerable, like the blow had just been struck. 

I continued circling the place where each tower had once stood, touching the names now cut into it's metal perimeter, trying to grasp what each person must have felt on that day. Below the names cascaded sheets of water down black granite, towards and infinitely deep void, a place where the destination cannot be seen no matter the angle. And so it is well that it cannot be seen - the beyond, the separation between this life and the next, where it ends or begins. Though we know they are not gone forever, we know something is missing, that they the lost are no longer here with us as they once were. 

I've seen memorials all over the world - marking sites of battle, commemorating those who gave their lives for a cause, for a country, for an idea. But this, the 9/11 memorial was different. It did not seek to console, to offer some false sense of hope or shy away from the horror of that day. It is fully terrible, heartbreaking, a reminder of what is so easily forgotten and rarely considered: that this life, our time on earth is something sacred, something we should not take lightly.  


All images captured with a Fuji 6x9 on Ilford HP5. Scanned on an Epson v500

Shooting at 13,500ft

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“What single moment defines a skydiver?” This is the question I kept asking myself as I prepared to photograph Sarah. At the time of this shoot, I only had a few tandem jumps(attached to an instructor.) But still that "moment" for me at least, had always been getting in the door before a jump. You can put the gear on, you can ride the plane up, but getting to the door is where you really have to face yourself. And so it was this moment that I chose for our shoot: at the door, arms overhead, eyes fixed on the beyond.  

Final Image

Knowing the tight space I'd be working in, I rehearsed the night before, imagining myself on the plane and quickly dismissed the use of a soft box or umbrella. So I decided to instead bounce a flash off the metallic fuselage. In my office I set up a silver reflector and observed the quality of light bouncing across the room, as seen in the pictures below. This bounced - artificial light turned out to be the key in giving Sarah enough fill if I was to also properly expose for the exterior.  

Left: flash pointed at silver reflector                                                                Right: bounced light across the room

Drop zones turn a profit with a very simple concept: get a plane full of jumpers up and down as quickly as possible(so as to burn as little fuel as necessary.) After the last jumper has exited the plane, every minute left in the air would be on borrowed time. I needed to be certain of my plan and wear it out, completely exhausting the angle I had chosen. Composition, focal length, exposure, all of these decisions had to be made before we took off. 

On the ground we took some test shots, exposing for the landscape(soon to be sky) in the first image and then bouncing a flash off the cabin to hit her with enough fill light as seen in the second image. I made a few adjustments and took note of my settings(including a flash at maximum output to counter the natural light.)

Left: exposed for ext, no flash                                                                      Right: with flash bounced off fuselage 


Considering I’d be untethered and near an open door, it was mandatory that I wear a rig “just incase.” Sarah helped me wrangle all the straps while someone else pointed towards a handle and stated simply “if you find yourself outside the plane just pull this, but you shouldn’t need to.” “Well, alright then” I thought. As we climbed upwards a layer of atmosphere was quickly building between us and the ground, our "world was now much different than it had just been. We reach our altitude with one last pull upwards, the plane slows - shuttering a bit, the door goes up and a green light comes on, a rush of cold air enters the plane and a thought of “oh shit,” crosses my mind. At ground level the temperature was a balmy 85deg, at 13,500ft that’s been cut in half. But it’s not the cold that has my attention, it's the realization that we’ve entered another dimension of sorts, where everyone readies themselves in their own way, and then with a “woosh,” are quickly falling towards the earth. 

With everyone out, the plane is empty and our time has arrived. I ask our pilot Tommy, to position the sun at the tail, giving Sarah a backlight. With sun in place we moved in and fire the first shot without a flash, a few more with the flash, and then, with hair catching the wind, the moment I had hoped for perfectly arrives.  


And just like that, I give Sarah a thumbs up, and told Tommy that we had the shot, he asks if we're sure and generously offers more time, “Nah I think we’re good!” I yelled over the noise. “Alright!” he replies in a “get ready” sort of way. The ensuing descent can only be described as an all out dive. As we hurtle through the air I kept shooting (images below) until Sarah and I both thought it best we just brace ourselves. We continue banking harder and are soon facing more ground than sky. 


With feet firmly planted on the ground, I take a moment to admire the beautiful sunset Florida so often gives (while trying not to look like someone who almost threw up.) And though exhilarated from our shoot, I found myself longing more for the jump that had not been. It may have actually been this photo shoot that helped me realize I could no longer just observe something so incredible. Today I have 27 jumps and thanks to Sarah and Jairo, now stand within arm’s reach of finally having my A-license! 

Follow Sarah & Jairo on IG for all their skydiving exploits, and come jump with us at Skydive Palatka