Monday, June 29, 2015

Taking Pictures that Don't Suck: OneLight 2.0 Review

Your job as a photographer is to take pictures that don't suck.
                                       --Zack Arrias, OneLight 2.0

I've been a big fan of photographer Zack Arrias ever since I saw his appearance on the Pro Tog, Cheap Camera challenge run by DigitalRev TV.  Given a flash and a dinky point and shoot camera, he was tasked with taking portraits of people on the streets of Hong Kong.  And he doesn't speak Cantonese.  Obviously, his photographs were brilliant, but what really impressed me was his ability to communicate with people.  So, naturally, when I learned Zack had made a video course on photographic lighting, OneLight 2.0 (trailer here), I was incredibly excited.  Its premise is simple-- what can you do with a single flash?  As it so happens, I had recently bought a single flash and wanted to learn how to use it, so this was fortuitous.  I have now watched the entire seven-hour-long course, and here is my report!

The first two lessons cover gear-- flashes, strobes, light stands, hardware for mounting a flash on a flash stand, flash triggers, and modifiers like umbrellas, softboxes, and grids.  Unless you're the consummate gearhead, this topic isn't the most thrilling, but it's crucial information, covered thoroughly and clearly, with hands-on demonstrations.  I particularly enjoyed the section on lighting modifiers.  Zach doesn't just show you what the modifiers are, but what they can do.  He uses a mannequin to give demonstrations of different modifiers and what sorts of effects they can produce: everything from soft, even lighting to dramatic silhouettes.

The third and fourth lessons cover exposure, in other words, how to take photos in manual mode so that they don't turn out too light or too dark.  He discusses the elements that go into making the proper exposure: aperture, shutter speed, flash power, flash-to-subject distance, and ISO.  You might think this would be the dry, technical part, but I really enjoyed the math and science of it.  Zack's demonstrations with Carl the stuffed squirrel showed not only the technical consequences of varying the different settings, but also what creative and artistic effects you could achieve with them.  I was already familiar with some of these effects, like using the flash to control the brightness of the subject while using exposure time to control the brightness of the background, but I still found plenty of new ideas.  I hadn't thought to take it one step farther and move the camera to cause the background to streak-- Carl in Space! 

The next six lessons show examples of live photo shoots, one with a female model in a studio, one with a male model on location, and one with a band both in the studio and on location.  I found this to be a treasure trove of great creative ideas, as well as an insightful window into a working photographer's problem-solving process.

The eleventh lesson is a review of the photos Zack had taken during the photoshoots, as well as other images in his portfolio.  This serves partly as a critique, and partly as a lesson in how to read and reverse-engineer lighting from photos.  I found this last part particularly eye-opening, since it had never occurred to me to look at a photo and think through what lighting setup had been used. 

The final lesson serves as a wrap-up, and closes with a very reassuring message-- as long as you understand the technical foundations and work hard and thoughtfully, you'll do fine.

In conclusion, I highly recommend OneLight 2.0 if you already have some experience with a DSLR or mirrorless camera and you're interested in learning how to take better photos with off-camera flash.  It is fantastic.  Zack is a clear and relateable teacher, the theory and technical aspects are presented in a very understandable way, and it is packed full of interesting examples.   I appreciate Zack's teaching philosophy-- we're here to learn and understand technique in the service of art, not to learn technical details just to cram our heads full of information, or to produce art haphazardly or without the technical foundation to support it.  I also appreciate Zack's philosophy on buying gear-- only upgrade your gear once you've learned to work within the limitations of your current gear, and when you're constantly bumping up against these limitations.  It's a thoughtful and measured approach to photography.

It might seem odd for me to spend time reviewing a photography instructional video on a sewing blog, and to spend so much time on photography in general.  But, presumably, if you sew, you're already taking photos to show off your completed projects.  Why not have some fun with it?

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