We All Screw Up. Don't Worry About It.
Look, no one is born a lighting genius. We all make mistakes. And we are all gonna make mistakes in the future.
And just to make you feel a little better about it, today I am gonna tell you about my stupidest moment as a lighting photographer.
One Cocky Photojournalism Student…
The year was 1986. I was a photojournalism student at the University of Florida. (Go Gators, beat Florida State.) And during the winter break I had elected to take a photo practicum.
A photo practicum was a week in which you drove to another city, slept on someone's floor and worked your ass off at a good photo paper for a week. For free. In fact, it was less than free, as you had to buy the credit hour to get the credit needed for graduation. And you needed at least two of them. And an internship.
In 1986 our archrival at UF was Florida State University, located in Tallahassee, FL. The local newspaper there was the Tallahassee Democrat, which was a pretty damn good photo paper — especially for a small market paper. I still remember the staff by name, much like I still remember the starting lineup of the 1972 Cincinnati Reds.
Phil Sears, Mike Ewen, Phil Coale and Mark Wallheiser. They did good work – especially in their coverage of the UF/FSU game, of which I never failed to compare notes. So, brimming with misplaced confidence, I chose the Tally Democrat as my second of two photojournalism practicums.
Plus One Inter-School Rivalry…
It is important to know the depth of the rivalry between UF and FSU. As adults, the Democrat staff were (mostly) past all of that, but it was important to me. I was not gonna screw this up and lose face as a Gator.
Which is why I wanted to go above and beyond, all week long. And which is why I would do anything to make my photos better.
So when I got an assignment to do a biz shoot of a new hair salon the better part of an hour away, I packed up my (then) lighting kit, a set of Novatron 240s. I went with stands and a couple of Larson "Reflectasol" umbrellas. Think normal umbrellas but with these gawdawful mini-boom clamps that were, to me, beyond useless. But they were what I had.
I made the drive, grabbed my gear out of my car and lit the hell out of that place. Yes I did. Go Gators.
… Equals a Recipe For Disaster
Now, back in them days we didn't have no digital cameras. We had Polaroid backs. And for $2 a shot, you could check your lighting.
But I didn't have a Polaroid back. Or two dollars, for that matter. So I always winged it.
Besides, I liked being a little surprised by the results when I pulled my film out of the fixer early for a l'il peek. Miss that, actually. Not the brown-tipped fingers I sported from the developer stains. But I do miss editing film and I miss seeing my prints fade in while in the developer tray. I'm old.
It should be said at this point that the salon I was shooting was pretty snazzy. Very mod. Lots of windows and lots of big framed prints on the wall. With glass in front of them.
You can see where this is going.
Back to the Paper
So I light it, shoot it and break down. Then I take the long drive back to the Democrat.
Even as a practicum student, I had late-night access to the photo department (we shot night games, obviously, for sports.) So of course I nixed dinner and went straight back to the paper to soup my Tri-X. This biz shoot was gonna rock.
So, soup the film and dinner from the vending machine while the film was in the Senrac dryer and get ready to edit on the light table. We edited straight from negatives. It's easy — after a while, your brain just starts transposing the tones naturally. And telling critical sharpness is easy with a loupe.
So let's take a look.
That Moment When...
First frame. Looks really nice, except for there appears to be a big image of, oh, let's call it a photographic umbrella in the glass of most of the picture frames on the wall. Don't remember seeing that. In fact, I don't even remember mentally processing what the pictures were of in the first place.
Meh, we got more. I shot three rolls, all different angles. So I keep editing.
Umbrella reflections. Umbrella reflections. Umbrella reflections. Every frame.
No prob. Next roll.
Third roll. Same thing. Every effing frame. There was no need to even print them. You could easily see the photo umbrellas on every single negative, right on the light table.
What the hell am I gonna do? I can't let a bunch of FSU-liking photographers find out about this. Ever. Or at least for the next 27 years. (Hey, Mark!)
So the next day, on my day off, I did the 90-min round trip drive to re-shoot it. I can't even remember the excuse I gave to the salon owner as to why I was coming back out. I'm sure it was brilliant. At least give me that.
That Other Moment When…
So I arrive back at the salon. I grab my cameras. I grab my case of Novatrons. And I head in.
Naturally, the very first thing I am gonna do is to look at all of the picture frames real good. I want to figure out where I can position the camera and lights to avoid coming back to the paper for a second time with a bunch of useless images of photographic umbrellas.
As I was walking up, I would not have thought it possible to feel any dumber than I had at the light table, 40 miles away, the night before. I was wrong.
The moment I opened the door I instantly raised the bar to a whole new level of stupid. I saw immediately that the stylish, poster-sized images were all actually pictures of photographic umbrellas.
The whole salon had a cool, edgy photo shoot theme. In my lighting tunnel vision mind I had just not noticed it. Until I was at the light table.
So I made a half dozen more frames so I wouldn't look like the moron I was in front of the owner, and drove back to the paper. I never told them, either. Not until now.
Go Gators. Beat Florida State.