I don’t know what it is but I seem to work in the dim a lot. Rarely do my assignments take me to where the light is bright, the sun is full and I have to deal with almost too much illumination. Rather I’m so often working in less than ideal light from a technical standpoint. This has always been the case it seems.
Back in my early years shooting landscapes and nature everything was shot on slow chrome film there ISO 64 was standard and the high quality ISO 100 films were just coming out. Yeah the stone age huh? With that sort of thing you were shooting at f/11 on ISO 25, Kodachrome baby!, on a tripod and during the golden “hour”, more like golden 20 minutes, your exposures were in the 1/4 to 1/2 second range. Well the tripod kept the camera steady, no problem there, but you were constantly cursing any breeze that might cause that flower in the all important foreground to move just a tiny bit and render it unsharp.
Now with our amazing digital cameras it’s much less of a problem as you just crank the ISO up to 400 or 800 and off ya go! No more problems with softly swaying flowers. Ta-DA! But things are different when you are dealing with not just lowish light and slowly moving things like flowers where you can kinda predict their action and trigger the shutter at the right time. Put a person in place of that flower for a low light portrait and you see what I mean. I do this all the time where the ambient light is ISO400 1/60th @ f/2.8 or lower. Now that’s fine in a reportage state of mind. You just crank the ISO to 1600 and you get nice sharp photos with a 1/250th shutter. Oh wait! I need to light this and make the subject look good because we are indoors and all the light is coming from the ceiling creating that lovely “mask of death” look that’s so popular in Milan this season. UGH! Now what? Yep you gotta bring in the strobes and light your subject in an interesting and largely flattering way. Therein lies the rub.
Now we are going to be in the f8 region if we want the portrait to be environmental, again what I do all the time, or wider if it is much more about the subject than the space around. Both provide technical issues. If we are shooting at say f/5.6 then to blend our ambient light in given the above situation then our shutter speed is going to be a 1/15th. That is well below our threshold for hand holding so out comes our trusty tripod to keep the camera steady but it does nothing for keeping our subject sharp especially if we are trying to get expressions that are fleeting as they tend to be. Now I can just again crank the ISO to get a faster shutter speed but the problem is that my lights have a minimum output and raising the ISO makes the lights essentially even more powerful. Speedlights are often the cure because they have much less output than my monolights but it’s hard to get even illumination from them when in a four foot octabank.
Here is such a situation. I got an assignment to photograph at the Hazel Dell mushroom farm in Fort Collins Colorado. They are one of the few mushroom farms in the region so all the top restaurants in the area use them. The main grow room is very dim, mushrooms like it that way, and very humid. I shot Jim the owner at f/4.0 and 1/15th ISO 400 with one color balanced octa at camera left. Jim is a great guy but at a 1/15th keeping his laughter and expressions sharp was tough. As William Albert Allard said, “There is no such thing as a snapshot with a half second exposure.”