"In the American West"-type lighting

Discussion in 'Lighting Equipment' started by aslan_ivo, Sep 20, 2005.

  1. I will be doing so portraits outdoors, with the subject standing in
    front of a white sheet outdoors in a sunny environment, much like
    Avedon's In the American West (not that I'm comparing myself with
    Avedon!) I will be using a medium format camera, B&W100 film. Any
    suggestions, tips for lighting & metering? I want to make sure that
    the white comes out white and not grey . . .
  2. Wait for cloud cover, and print high contrast with lots of dodging and burning.
  3. jmf


    My suggestions:

    Use an incident meter, watch for lens flare (from the white sheet), shoot in light overcast or early morning/late afternoon. TriX in very dilute HC110, Tmax 100 or 400 in Xtol. Calibrate your process. That is to say, shoot a step chart and bracket your exposures in 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments. Then develop and decide what your film speed is given your lab.

    I'm not sure what you're going for, but tri-x has a certain look that seems to work well with faces that have "character". Tmax100 and Xtol are virtually grainless under moderate enlargements. Do not use Tmax developer. Even Kodak knows this, which is why they brought out Xtol.
  4. Avedon tended to do those portraits in open shade, no direct light, and they printed the
    hell out of them. as in: masking out the backgtrounds to print as a pure paper white.
  5. Did not know about the masking Ellis - that explains a lot:)
    He seemed to shoot when overcast also. Which is shown in a couple of location photos in the DVD "Darkness and Light" also.
  6. Try to find the documentary photos his assistant took throughout their travels. These photos reveal a very simple lighting setup that it exactly as Ellis described.

    Exposure and film processing is only half the journey. The rest is careful printing.
  7. Thanks. When metering, how should I do it (no spot meter) to account for the white background? All the expanse of the white scares me a bit that it may throw off the exposure of the subject. And on the other hand, I want to try to keep the white as white as possible.
  8. If you don't have an incident meter, then use your camera to meter off a grey card, or
    something else that is mid-grey.
  9. "Avedon at Work: In the American West" from 1993 is the book by his project assistant, Laura Wilson. She has an exhibit running concurrently with the new display of In The American West at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Here is what the museum has to say:

    "The photographs Laura Wilson made during the summers of 1979?1984 when she assisted Richard Avedon on his project In the American West are presented in this exhibition. Here we have an insider's look at Avedon creating the portraits for his landmark project, commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum in 1978. Wilson's photographs provide an extraordinary context in which to view In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon, which will be at the museum concurrently, September 17, 2005, through January 8, 2006."

    I certainly plan to see both, probably taking a Friday off and spending the weekend there. Of course, I am only 35 miles away. I still remember those Avedon portraits from the first time around. Come on down and see them.

    Meter for the subject or a gray card. The white will turn out OK. If sheet is too light, shade it. If too dark, brighten with reflectors. If you meter the white, your meter will think it is metering medium gray, because that is how meters are calibrated, and underexpose, giving your white sheet a medium gray look. When the meter meters the white, it thinks it is looking at a very brightly lighted medium gray and reduces the exposure to give a "correct" exposure.

    As I recall, Avedon shot in open shade. The lighting was created/modified by large scrims or reflectors placed around the subject, creating the right mix of softened directional light. See Laura Wilson's book for production shots.

  10. I saw the Laura Wilson book at Borders and skimmed through it. It gives the whole story from choosing the subjects to setting up the shots. Lots of pictures.

    It looks like most were really just open shade. Up against the side of buildings. Every now and then, a reflector card on the ground or propped up against the tripod. One shot with a couple of guys holding a card over someone's head to block the sun.

    What looked to me like an 11 x 14 view camera that was maybe always higher than the subject, looking down some. Maybe used view camera movements to straighten people out. Or maybe left them that way. I know this is a lot of "maybes," but that's how it is.

    A big mother tripod. Probably a Majestic or something like that. A head, probably made for portraiture, that you could crank to tilt forward.

    Check out the book and the photos at the Amon Carter. I just flipped through the book tonight.

  11. Thanks for the heads up, Bill, I'll check out the show myself. Haven't been to the Amon Carter for a few months.

    Aslan, the best approach is to meter properly for the subject's skin tones and take care of the white background some other way. Incident metering is often the easiest and best for photographing people under controlled or consistent lighting. If you prefer spotmetering a standard rule of thumb is to open up 1 stop from the meter reading, but this really depends on the skin tones, which part of the skin you meter and the desired results. You might want to try from +0.5 to +1.5 over the spotmeter reading.

    If you don't have good exposures for the subjects' skin it won't matter how white the background is. You can always keep the background white by aiming for extremely high contrast, but you probably won't like the results.

    Keep the background as clean and wrinkle free as possible for the shooting. The rest will have to be done during printing.

    With large format film printers could make things a bit easier on themselves by retouching the film to remove flaws. With smaller format films you'll probably have to retouch each print individually. That may involve careful dodging and bleaching to fix problem areas.

    If a particular negative really appeals to you but has an obvious flaw in the white background that you don't want to have to fix on each individual print, you can make a large master print to the highest standards you can manage, retouch it, then rephotograph it.

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