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  • Dan Cavallari

The shot: Shark

The day I learned about light


I'll be honest with you: I don't always understand light. I never have. It has always found a way to surprise me, even though as a photographer I'm supposed to have some sort of supernatural understanding of what it's doing and how I should react to it. But it constantly throws me because I'm just a guy with a camera and light is celestial. Kind of unfair, isn't it?


Years ago, I was still learning so much about my relationship with light. Cameras still felt intimidating and balky to me, as though every photo was a wrestling match I was losing with fervor and flair. I spent a good bit of time in Flagstaff, Arizona hiring models just so I could practice with natural and artificial lights. Strangely enough, I started to understand light in a terribly-lit pool hall in downtown Flagstaff.


The Hotel Monte Vista is supposedly haunted. We rented a room there to get some moody shots that elicited the aura of darkness and gothic horror, but mostly, the room felt tacky. It was small, cramped, and bedecked with motel-esque accoutrements like an old television and bare wires falling from the wall-mounted lights. So we relocated downstairs to the bar next to the lobby, which sported sticky floors, couches touting questionable histories, and a few beat-to-shit pool tables with green lights hovering above them.


We relocated downstairs to the bar next to the lobby, which sported sticky floors, couches touting questionable histories, and a few beat-to-shit pool tables with green lights hovering above them.

It was the lights that excited me. I wanted them to cast brilliance on my model's face and capture the chalk dust from the cue, a blast of brilliant pink against the drab dimness of the bar.


Like many of my interactions with light over the years, it wasn't having my shit. At. All. The overhead lights were far too dim to cast the kind of light I wanted, and freezing the motion of the chalk turned out to be an overwhelming task for my Canon camera, which was famously bad in low light.


So we busted out a few speedlights to fake it. In the shot above, the model is sitting on the edge of the pool table. The cue is over-chalked by a longshot so we could get it blasting into the air. And the background? There's a couch back there, but you'll never see it. I made arrangements with the light to make sure of it.


About that arrangement: I used the speedlights to overpower everything. That's why the background is completely black. I was shooting directly at a few arcade games and a couch, but they're gone, there in the dark, by trusting the light. Like I said, Canon cameras were, at the time, famously bad in low light, so catching a focus was tricky work. I had to basically trust my lens that it would catch the model's face while I blacked everything else out. The speedlight would do the rest.


I shot this in burst mode, and this was the one that worked. The rest? They were okay. But the chalk didn't work in some, or the model's lips weren't perfect in others. Still others blurred slight edges, or a rogue shadow played games across the model's face. But this one...the light let me have this one.


There's a speedlight below the chalk to freeze it, and another above the model's forehead, if I remember correctly, to fill her face. It was the first time I can recall successfully negotiating with light to give me exactly what I wanted, and light drives a hard bargain.


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