A Flash of Inspiration – by Joe Grabham EFIAP/b
From the Front Line of the Olympus Training Academy
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was the not-so-proud owner of a Kodak Instamatic. I can admit this now, although for many years I kept rather quiet about it. This little box recorded the important moments and places in my life for several years and it did so in a way that can best be described as “uncomplicated”. There was no messing about pulling a film leader from one spool to another; this little gem did things in the modern way, by means of a drop-in film cartridge. Things were made even easier by the thoughtful non-inclusion of a focusing adjustment, so the only thing the budding David Bailey had to worry about was whether to leave the switch on the sunny symbol or turn it to the cloudy one. But the pinnacle of the Instamatic’s achievement had to be the Magicube; a chunky little plastic block that attached to the top of the camera and turned night to day with a brief flash of light from its four ‘mechanically triggered pyrotechnic detonators’.
The Magicube meant it was possible to take pictures at night or in dimly lit rooms, without having to worry about batteries or the need to stock up with a supply of magnesium flash powder. It was the ultimate in convenience – and yet… the flash photographs I got from it didn’t seem to be quite right. My subjects either looked as if they had been painted with whitewash or had just done a twelve hour shift in a coal mine. They had red eyes. Some of them even looked drunk (although, looking back on it that might not have been the fault of the camera).
Now, many years later and back on planet Earth, I wonder if those days of Instamatic flash were the start of an uneasy relationship between me and the artificial light source in general. I’ve never really used flash much and I’ve developed an attitude where I’ve told myself that the best light to use, for portraiture for instance, is always natural light. If that meant cranking up the ISO levels on the camera to unfeasibly high levels, then so be it. But like Saul on the Road to Damascus (who had his mind changed in a flash too), I’ve recently been ‘educated out’ of my former prejudice – only in my case it was by a visit to a photographic studio and not by being struck by lightning.
The occasion was an Olympus Training Academy Event, which was being run by Alan Clarke, Durham PS member and OlympusTraining Academy Principal,at his studio in Team Valley. I’m not an Olympus user, but Alan assured me that didn’t matter; we could bring any type of camera to use and, although there would be Olympus cameras there for us to use if we wanted, there would be no ‘hard sell’. Three other photographers were there with me for the afternoon session and I was quite relieved to discover they were all, like me, quite inexperienced with regard to studio lighting. Alan immediately put us at our ease, introduced us to our male and female models (Lance and Toni) and quickly ran through the basics of how everything worked. I was agreeably surprised to discover just how straightforward it was to take a light reading from the flash meter and turn that into a setting on the camera. Then Alan went through the placements of the flash units and diffusers and took a couple of pictures. We saw the results and all I remember thinking was “Wow!”. This was different.
Of course, an added bonus was having very experienced models to work with (although we lost Lance quite early on as he succumbed to the nasty cold he was trying to shake off). I always think, when taking pictures at the Edinburgh Fringe for example, how the subject contributes a huge amount to the final image. In the case of the Fringe, I am photographing actors and actresses who are using their skill to adopt an expression or pose as they try to take on a character– I have the easy part; I just have to capture it. It was the same in the studio. We would, in our simple way, ask Toni to stand at a particular spot and look in a particular direction – again, we did the easy bit – but Toni slipped into mode quite automatically as she assumed the graceful poses and fitting looks that gave us portraits far beyond our expectations.
So I have had my mind changed and, I hope, my photography skills extended. At the very least I have become more aware of the possibilities that studio work can provide and as a result I will be keen to do more of it in future.
Now, where did I put that Instamatic….?
Joe Grabham EFIAP/b
Pictured: Toni photographed by Joe Grabham
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