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Studio photography is about creative control. Setting and illumination and background and almost everything else are defined by the photographer. With the right light and a little Photoshop, you can create anything in a glorified parking garage.

But despite the power of creativity , truth is always more vibrant than fiction – and finding that truth means leaving the big lights at home.

A shoot in the studio

I started working in photography as a production assistant; a gofer and walking light stand. Beyond parking the car and serving as hat tree for tipsy bridesmaids, I had one important job: lighting.

Working in the chaos of downtown Las Vegas meant working fast thanks to a loophole in city law allowed the expensive and tedious commercial permit process to be bypassed through one simple expedient: the lighting equipment could never, ever touch the ground.

It was a lot like this. Except replace the umbrella with a cinderblock.

And thus one of the world’s most back-breaking games of “The Floor Is Lava,” featuring thousands of dollars of camera flash hoisted above concrete by a mostly untrained 22-year-old. I spent hours under the sweltering sun hoisting a light stand on my shoulders to illuminate happy couples and bridal parties (and the odd terrified Vancouverites that hadn’t realized the photoshoot would be public.) I should’ve asked for an ibuprofen allowance.

I spent a lot of time trying to imitate my employer’s lighting techniques. Unfortunately, I lacked my boss’ lights – instead of the massive strobes that could overpower daylight, I had rinky-dinky AA-powered camera flashes of the sort your dad would perch on his camera for family photos. They were legitimately older than I was.

The results were amateurish imitations at best. I lacked the power for massive illumination, and when it was enough, I had no assistants to hold the lights. Either the light was at dreadful angles or the Nevada breeze converted my light stands into inconvenient box kites. And what serious photographer uses flimsy pop-up diffusion or clamps his speedlite to a drainpipe?

As I soon found out, perhaps the greatest of them.

One tiny AA-powered camera flash is providing the light in front of the model, behind them, and on the background – mounted to a railing 20′ away.

I had the good fortune of attending a presentation by the great Joe McNally at a local convention that changed the way I approach photography. While unquestionably brilliant with any kind of light, McNally is nicknamed the “patron saint of speedlite” for a reason: he’s legendary for taking big photos with small flash, often in the most unlikely of places – often with the very same antiques I cursed daily.

I was enraptured by his stories of images captured in impossible places: sewers, crawlspaces, the interiors of fighter jets photographed midair. He used tiny pops of flash not for power, but to freeze motion – or enhance it. With my little tiny lights and a lot of practice, I could do anything.

Two tiny flashes, one extremely large trampoline.

I stopped worrying about a perfect shot and pursued getting the shot. Having lights on hand at all time allowed me to take photos I’d previously thought impossible: urban chaos, the middle of the desert, wild parties full of male exotic dancers frozen in midair by the magic of xenon. (See picture right, which used a lighting kit that would fit in my elementary school school lunchbox.)

And my work has been the better for it.

Capturing images is a daunting task at the easiest of times due to the world’s unpredictability. Lighting is in many ways the worst of it. An hour’s wait will turn the amber hues of golden hour into the resolute blues of dusk – and clouds moving across the sun will turn the stark bare light into a uniform gray casting raccoon shadows in the eyes of everyone beneath it.

Bringing the gear required to define the look of an image reduces the difficulty enormously. Sunny, overcast, or cloudy, a massive strobe and big TV studio diffusion change any light to how you want it; bring enough crew, and you can place that light as far in the sky as you want.

But the most interesting parts of life don’t come with a loading dock. Engaging minimalism means adding to or subtracting from what is present rather than replacing it. If the sunlight changes, so must my lighting – in brightness, color, and direction.

But I find the most meaningful images are those that exist – not those that are created. And when making images of the most important things in life, it is best to take them as they are.

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