I was brought up in Manhattan and although it has a fast pace, I think native New Yorkers have a learned technique of feeding off the energy of the city without being distracted by it. There is so much beauty in this town that many people miss because they're drawn into the frenzied pace.
I began my Nightlight series of images—of which my winning Calumet entry is a part—a few years ago to put myself in an uncontrolled environment where I could use my technical expertise in a more relaxed and fluid setting. It's also an attempt to allow others to see the world as I do.
My approach to lighting the Nighlight series is directly related to what I feel from the subject and how it inspires me. I try to use all existing "flattering" light sources, then add whatever light is needed to get the image to look the way I envision.
The images are created from a series of long exposures where the f-stop and exposure change dependent on how I "paint" with spot lights. The f-stop ranges from wide open to f/11; the exposures range from 1/250 sec. to 20 seconds. I shot the entire series with my Nikon D200 and Nikkor 12-24mm lens, borrowing light from the sun, Vector 2k spots, and Nikon SB-800 Speedlights. I downloaded to my Apple MacBook and edited with Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop.
Behind the Grand Prize Image
My image of the Reservoir Bridge W94 in Central Park forms part of Manhattan's daily backdrop, and is arguably the most graceful cast-iron bridge in the park. The evening of the shoot was a particularly ominous one. As usual with sunsets, you get the most beautiful ones with rapidly changing weather. There was about 60 seconds when everything balanced perfectly, then the blue sky peeked out just enough to balance the warm sun as it set to the West. The clouds were lit from underneath by the bright New York City lights. The details in its intricate design and lace cutouts worked beautifully with a series of soft lighting effects to highlight selected areas.
The Little Red Lighthouse
Most parents have read The Little Red Lighthouse, but how many know the lighthouse is located at the foot of the George Washington Bridge? I learned quite a few things the night I captured this image. For example, I learned that rats love bases of large bridges and seem to be attracted to Macs, but their typing skills vary. I also learned that when the Federal government says we can't shoot bridges in New York City, the anniversary of 9/11 may not be the best evening to test their resolve. I suppose a man wearing sweats, walking under the bridge with a little black wireless transmitter and a red blinking light in his hand is just a bit suspicous. Luckily, the New York educational system still teaches art appreciation, and the police liked what they saw.
Bow Bridge Inspiration
The evening I shot the Bow Bridge in Central Park I was particularly inspired. Couples were holding hands, and I imagined I was one of them, walking through the park in the early days of romance.
As I created this image, I saw every curve in this bridge with exquisite clarity. Those feelings translate to how you 'paint' the light on the object. Although I am a very technical photographer, I'm also a firm believer that you have to learn the rules in order to break them.
When you do that, you can take all the f-stops, shutter speeds, color balance issues, time of day, reflections, and let them all blend into a sense of just working with your equipment. Just as a painter uses a brush, or a sculptor uses a chisel, you feel the light and mix it with all those variables to create your vision.
Shooting commercial photography, in the studio or on location, is dramatically different from how I prepare for the Nightlight series. In the studio, there's the straight forward mathematics that go into calculating what's needed. And while you may make slight adjustments during the shoot, it's all carefully planned. You do test shots in advance, minimize the variables, and bring to life the art director's idea. There can be moments of spontaneous creation, but it is still within clear parameters.
For example, the DuPont Stainmaster Carpet image was hinted at in a 30-second TV commercial, but never actually shown. To create this image, a set was built on its side and the model jumped on a mini-trampoline while her hair and clothing were manipulated to create the illusion. I used powerful film lights for the blur, followed by strobe to freeze the action. The main image was then combined with a shot of the boy sitting in the chair.
I've always enjoyed taking an idea and creating an image that's beyond real. In the Nightlight series, I use new tools and techniques to create, without the burden of extensive tests. I've started to bring this approach to architectural photography and also plan to integrate it into my commercial work.
I was a beta tester for Photoshop 1.0 roughly 17 years ago, and now with the latest software and computers I'm able to work anywhere I choose. While it's wonderful to have thousands of times the processing power needed to send the Apollo astronauts to the moon, for me it's a luxury that simply enables me to be unaware of technology while I'm shooting.
As far as post production, just as there was a magical quality to seeing your first prints come out of the darkroom, I will always prefer working on my images in the dark, late at night, with a glass of red wine at my side.