A Silk in the Sky « Joe McNally Photography

Summer is upon us, quite wonderfully, bringing beach time, vacations, and barbecues. For photographers, it also means doing battle with bleached skies, harsh shadows, blazing highlights and that uncompromising superheated orb in the sky that is capricious, unforgiving, and all powerful. How do we befriend light that seeks no accommodation, and takes no prisoners?

Up above, the banner photo is simply going with the flow. Raw sun, raw flash. Match the quality of what exists, and hope the gesture of the photo gives you a get out of jail free card for the harsh quality of the light.

But there is another way. It’s perhaps hard to believe a simple silk, the photo equivalent of a bedsheet, could tame the sun, and turn the bloody scream of summer sun into the gentlest of whispers. But it does.

The above, of the talented model and mural artist, Fefa, in Lima, Peru was shot in the worst of light. But, that freight train of harsh sunlight intersected with a 12′ silk, which tamed it into a gentle photon bath. Giveaway? Look at the upper left corner where you can see the telltale shadow of the silk frame. I could retouch it, but it actually doesn’t bother me. I amped up the under-the-silk light quality with a shoot through umbrella, and a Profoto B1X , just a pop, and Fefa and her art work fairly glows.

I used the same tactic photographing Winona Ryder, years ago. She’s been in the news of late, saying directors have found her unattractive. I beg to differ. On a Maryland farm, years ago, with summer sun banging a loud drum, I simply leaned a 12″ silk frame against the wall of the barn.

Presto chango….

Or, the natural medicine doc, Andrew Weill, out there in the blazing Southwestern sun. I drove the rental mini-van over to where I wanted to shoot, and bolted a 12′ silk to the luggage rack. Tilted it to an easy angle for a portrait, supported the rest of the frame with a couple c-stands, and we were done.

For a treatment a bit more luminous? Silk the sun, add 4′ Profoto Octa.

Now, a silk is a lot to manage, to be sure. I have worked by myself with a 6′ scrim and frame, but with a 12′, you need help. To add further spark, you can throw in a low bounce, creating silked sun, overhead fill pop, and an under light. Sigh. The list goes on. But…..

Failing dragging along a crew and a grip truck, a big ass umbrella does fine out there in the heat and the light of summer. Used judiciously, with a well placed subject and a relatively fast shutter speed, you can do things simply and well. The utterly beautiful Francesca Vilogron goes from pensively smooth light (above) to exuberance on the desert highway. Different scenes, different light, different feel.

On this highway, a big silk is ill-advised. The above is an umbrella on a pole, with three Speedlights on full power, filling the brolly with soft but directional light. A quick, movable light for the occasional traffic. The umbrella quality of light also has enough of a soft punch to get under the brim of her hat.

Baffling the summer sun. It’s a game we’ll play for the next few months.

More tk….


Joe McNally

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