People At Work
Available Light Portraits

Telling jokes might not seem like work, but it is for comedian Jake Johannsen. Portrait made with a 300mm f/2.8 lens on a Nikon N90 on Kodak's KPT ISO 320 tungsten-balanced slide film.
Photos © 1998, Barry Staver, All Rights Reserved

Over the years, photographers have come up with a lot of clever names for "available light." When working under less than ideal lighting condition, you'll hear some people call it "available darkness" or "unavailable light," or when using supplementary lighting they may refer to it as using "every light that's available." Out in the real world, photographers working under whatever light that exists in a given environment sometimes face many challenges in producing any images at all. Nowhere is this more challenging than when creating available light portraits.

Dick Stolley, who many consider Time-Life's best Managing Editor, once told People magazine's contributing photographers that a successful photograph elicited a "Gasp Factor" from the viewer. If the image stopped the reader, forced them to take a second look at it, to read the story's headline, and then perhaps the rest of the story, the photograph passed his test. Often the best photographs--the "gasp factor" ones--are taken under less than ideal lighting conditions. These "gasp" images are made on dark, cloudy, stormy days, at the crack of dawn, at sunset, or even during in the dark of the night. One of those People magazine photographers that Stolley was talking to was Barry Staver, who took me behind the scenes of some of his assignments while photographing people at work under less than perfect lighting conditions. Based on my conversations with him, you will see there is more to making available light portraits than just cameras and film. Staver's style of photojournalism, which emphasizes the way he works with his subjects, rather than the hardware used to create the images, places him into the environment so he can capture action without being noticed.

Lenses used during the teacher assignment included the 24mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.8, and 180mm f/2.8. This image was made with a Nikon F3 and 85mm f/1.8 lens. Film was Kodak Tri-X and was metered with a Minolta Flashmeter III in incident mode.

In A One-Room Schoolhouse. One of Staver's personally rewarding and favorite People magazine assignments was the "Lowest Paid Teacher in America" as uncovered by a National Education Association survey. The woman's name was Janice Herbranson who taught five elementary school kids in a 100-year-old, one-room schoolhouse in McLeod, North Dakota, a small farming town near Fargo. Not only did Janice teach kindergarten through sixth grade; she prepared two hot meals a day for the kids--breakfast and lunch. She arrived early each morning, in the dark during the winter, to start cooking a hot breakfast and begin lunch preparation in a small kitchen off the main classroom. During morning classes she periodically tended to the lunch being cooked. After school she cleaned the building, sweeping the wooden floor with a broom. In addition to her duties, she became adept at the mountains of paperwork needed to obtain grants for the school. For her efforts to educate the students, feed them two hot meals a day, and clean the school each night Herbranson earned $6300 per year.

Staver spent two days in early February with Herbranson and her kids. Outside the temperature was 18° below zero and she sent them outside for recess. While shooting indoors, Staver took off his boots so he could quietly move about the small one-room school photographing without disrupting the activities. It only took the kids a couple of hours to accept him and stop looking up every time his shutter clicked. The resulting images were used as the lead "Up Front" story in People magazine. The piece was 10 pages long and was the first time the magazine led an issue with a feature story which was told only by the photographs and captions.

Lighting in the old building was dim, illuminated by bare bulbs hanging from the high tin ceiling. The snow covered ground and overcast sky blasted white light through the tall narrow windows. If ever there was a time for black and white film, Staver thought, "this was it." One roll of color was shot for comparison, but none of these images were used. The rest of the images were shot with a Nikon F3 using Kodak's Tri-X film rated at an Exposure Index of 1200, one and a half stops above its normal ISO 400. Using a higher exposure index made it possible to use smaller apertures and provided the photographs with more depth of field and the ability to use faster shutter speeds. It also made it possible to shoot the assignment completely with available light and eliminated the need for flash that would have been very distracting to the teacher and her students as well as ruining the ambiance of the old schoolhouse.

The Navajo weaver photograph was taken with a Nikon N90 and 24mm f/2.8 lens on Kodak Tri-X black and white film rated normally. Bracketing was not used because it would have taken additional time and the weaver was uncomfortable having strangers in her home.

It's Not Always Easy To Blend In. Another Staver assignment for People magazine was following a veterinarian as he traveled across a Navajo reservation in New Mexico reintroducing an all but extinct breed of sheep to the women of the tribe. This sheep's wool made for superior weaving into beautiful Navajo rugs. The Navajo people welcomed the sheep, the wool, and the veterinarian, but not the photographer. The only reason one of the weavers allowed the photographer into her home was because he was traveling with the veterinarian. In addition, since the woman did not speak English, a translator was needed. In her home, which had no electricity or running water, the loom was the central fixture. The entire scene was illuminated by light coming from a window behind Staver's main camera position and the one on the left. Since the majority of the photographs he made of the Navajo weaver are of the same brightness it was easily metered using the camera's built-in meter. If the window at the left had been larger or more prominent, it would have misled the Nikon N90's built-in meter by telling it there was more light than there really was--which would have caused the image to be underexposed. Out of respect for the weaver, Staver only made a few exposures then left.

One way that Staver ensures that a bright or dark object doesn't fool the built-in meter is to point the camera away from the subject while the light reading is taken, save that exposure using whatever meter lock system the camera has, and reframe the photograph. Another way to ensure correct exposure is to bracket your shots. Some photographers perform the over-under bracketing in 1/3 f/stops. After the "correct" metered reading has been shot, they shoot -1/3, -2/3, -1 stop. Then they go the other way, +1/3, +2/3, and +1 full stop. I prefer to use a "biased bracket" system in which you use the computer built into the top of your head to determine if the correct exposure will be either over or under the stated meter's reading. That way you save film and get more usable images from a smaller number of bracketed frames.

For this photograph of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a Nikon N90s with 300mm f/4 mounted on a monopod was used. Film was Fuji ISO 800 color negative film rated at 1600. Exposure was 1/60 sec at f/4.

Photographing A Speaker. One of the most common photographs anyone--amateur and professional--gets to make is that of a person making a speech. On assignment for The Denver Post, Staver had to photograph Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. while he was making a speech on a Denver college campus. Lighting in these situations can be unpredictable, and the Kennedy speech was no exception. The room Staver worked in had two weak spotlights haphazardly aimed at the stage. One of the concepts Staver and I agree on is that it is always a good idea to arrive early for any shoot. In this case, arriving early for the assignment gave Staver the time to locate the building's electrician and get his help in aiming the spots toward the speaker's podium. The speech was photographed with two basic lenses: an 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom and a 300mm f/4 and both lenses were supported by a monopod. A camera-mounted Nikon SB26 electronic flash was set on TTL mode with flash exposure compensation set at -2/3 stops to fill in the shadows under the speaker's eyes.

For general work the 300mm f/4 is a good choice for a telephoto lens. It's smaller than its big brother, the 300mm f/2.8, and weighs less. Fast lenses are a necessity for many available light situations, but a 300mm f/4 is adequate for stationary subjects like people making speeches. The podium was on an elevated stage placing Kennedy head and shoulders above the crowd which created another problem for Staver. When you look up at someone from close range what do you see? You see right up their noses. It can't be missed; it's right there in the center of their face. Editors don't like this camera angle any more than photographers (or subjects for that matter) who care how their work looks. Using a 300mm lens allowed Staver to be at a camera position farther back from the stage, which reduced the angle from camera to subject.

When working in a "no light" available situation there is only one solution: bring your own. While working in a gold mine, Barry Staver used two Nikon SB24 electronic flash units hard-wired together with the Nikon three-meter cords that were modified to reach 25'. Camera was Nikon N90s with 20mm f/2.8 lens and Kodak 100SW film.

Mining For Photographic Gold. When a low-light event becomes a no light experience, you need to add enough extra light for the photograph to succeed. In these kind of situations, light can be added in several ways. Turning on nearby light sources can often do the trick. Aiming vehicle headlights (turn the high beams on, too) works well if the cars are nearby. If you provide the main light from a flash or a continuous light source, any available lamp can become an accent light.

The battery operated lamps on their hard hats that miners drilling underground at the Newmont Gold Mine in Nevada use don't provide enough light for even the highest speed film available. Without any electrical power, hot lights weren't practical and the cabling necessary could pose a safety concern in the darkened mine shaft. In difficult situations like this one, small portable electronic flash units are the best way to light small areas. To make the photographs for this assignment, Staver held one flash off-camera high and to the left, while an assistant aimed a second small flash at the background and second miner.

Since a mine shaft is a far cry from a comfy studio, several factors need to be addressed to ensure a successful shoot:
1. The absence of light on the subjects makes focusing difficult. If a bright enough flashlight is available, it should be aimed at the subject long enough to focus on him. A seasoned veteran may be able to "guesstimate" the camera-to-subject distance and pre-focus the lens, but a more foolproof way is to actually measure the distance with a tape measure, then set focus on the lens. That's the way they do it in the movies.

2. Once these drills are turned on, it gets noisy. Ear protection is essential. Hearing anybody is impossible and hand signals won't work--remember it's dark in there. Preplanning before the drilling starts is the only way to master the assignment. Before he did anything, Staver talked to the miners to see how long they will drill in a particular spot. He told his assistant exactly where to stand, checked his camera settings, and was ready to shoot when the work began.

3. Underground mines generally have wet spots as water seeps through the rock and some mines are very wet. Be prepared to deal with moisture by having clear plastic bags to wrap around cameras and flashes. Drilling into rock produces fine powdery dust that can ruin camera equipment. Plastic bags will not only keep equipment dry, but will protect the gear from dust, too.

4. A flash fired in a darkened area can really blind someone. Before the session started, Staver checked with the miners and did test firings to make sure the Nikon SB24 electronic flashes doesn't hit them directly in the face.

5. Working in mines can be hazardous and dangerous. Drills are heavy and bits can break. They can also slip out of operators hands, letting rocks fly farther than intended. Staver hasn't been in a mine yet where the mine Safety Officer didn't accompany the photography crew and make sure that all working conditions were as safe as possible.

No Laughing Matter. Staver had to photograph comedian Jake Johannsen in a theater in Boulder, Colorado, during the taping of an HBO special. Despite arriving two hours before the show's curtain call, lighting had not been set and technicians were still making adjustments to the backdrop and props. It was chaotic and the needs of a still photographer in the midst of a major television project rank at the lowest possible point on the totem pole.

Because of these problems, it was not possible to take a handheld incident meter reading that would take into account the final lighting setup. Once the show began there were only two shooting positions available to Staver. One was off to one side and the other was halfway back in the audience. These locations kept the photographer out of range of the television cameras, but also kept him from getting a meter reading from the front of the stage. Using an in-camera meter reading would be wrong since the set or backdrop for this show was a very dark blue and the subject was bathed in much brighter light. The view through the viewfinder of his Nikon N90 camera with a 300mm f/2.8 lens attached showed the comedian from knees up, to a spot approximately 3' above his head. From the location, the middle of the theater, Staver was able with a Pentax spot meter to obtain a reflected reading off the comedian's face.

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