Just a lit­tle light

Com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­pher Alex Wal­lace talks with Adrian Hatwell about how a lit­tle cre­ative time to your­self can go a long way when you’re a busy pro­fes­sional shooter

The Shed - - Personal - Alex Wal­lace

Viewed from the end­point, a strong per­sonal pho­tog­ra­phy pro­ject can seem the re­sult of an ar­row-straight process: the artist, with unerring vi­sion, con­ceives a con­cept and art­fully sees it to com­ple­tion. Be­hind the scenes, how­ever, the jour­ney is usu­ally a lit­tle windier — ideas need to de­velop, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion has its ca­su­al­ties, mo­ti­va­tion flags, con­fi­dence shakes, and suc­cess is built on the back of nu­mer­ous fail­ures. Com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­pher Alex Wal­lace is in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar with the messy lab­o­ra­tory of per­sonal projects and has bravely of­fered to lift the cur­tain on his lat­est work in progress.

Orig­i­nally from the UK, Wal­lace has spent the bet­ter part of a decade build­ing up his highly re­spected pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phy busi­ness, based in Auck­land. Ini­tially shoot­ing what­ever came his way — wed­dings, por­traits, edi­to­rial, you name it — he has now re­fined his fo­cus and client base to shoot purely com­mer­cial. Work is busy, and Wal­lace has be­come an ad­mired name in the com­mer­cial world, but the time de­mands of this suc­cess have meant that other cre­ative ar­eas inevitably suf­fer some ne­glect.

“I don’t do enough per­sonal work,” he ex­plained. “It’s one of those things you al­ways put on the back-burner; you choose the paid work over the per­sonal work.”

It is a sit­u­a­tion that the pho­tog­ra­pher is cur­rently putting to rights with his lat­est per­sonal pro­ject, a se­ries of warm en­vi­ron­men­tal por­traits of chil­dren lit in such a way as to push Wal­lace into ground not cov­ered in his com­mer­cial work. He is per­haps at the mid­point of the se­ries now and is yet to give the pro­ject a name, but feels that the heavy con­cep­tual lift­ing has been done, the work hav­ing de­vel­oped and evolved con­sid­er­ably from its ear­li­est stages.

The idea for his new se­ries orig­i­nated in tri­als with LED light sources, af­ter Wal­lace was gifted an LED torch sev­eral Christ­mases ago. Af­ter a pe­riod of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and re­search, the pho­tog­ra­pher seized on a light­ing con­cept that tick­led his cre­ative fancy: “I just kind of had this idea that I could have peo­ple hold­ing a light where you couldn’t see what the source was. Get it re­ally close to their face and you get that nice drop-off from the front of their face to their ears. It’s a no­tice­able cou­ple of stops’ dif­fer­ence.”

Wal­lace first got the op­por­tu­nity to test-drive the idea while shoot­ing head­shots for an ac­tor who was keen to try some­thing dif­fer­ent. The re­sult­ing im­ages were good, not great, but they had set the de­vel­op­men­tal ball rolling. A trip to the elec­tron­ics store to cob­ble to­gether a stronger LED source put him a step closer to ful­fill­ing his tech­ni­cal vi­sion, but some­thing about the adult mod­els didn’t sit right with the sce­nario scratch­ing about in the pho­tog­ra­pher’s head. It

wasn’t un­til he tried the tech­nique out on his own child that nar­ra­tive in­spi­ra­tion struck.

“As soon as I saw my daugh­ter hold­ing the glow­ing light, that’s when it all started to gel,” he said. “That’s when I thought this is where it’s all start­ing to work, and I can see a stronger se­ries of pic­tures.”

From his orig­i­nal vi­sion — a se­ries cov­er­ing sub­jects of vary­ing ages, from the very old to very young — Wal­lace has piv­oted his idea to fo­cus solely on chil­dren.

“I think the ethe­real magic to the shot is some­thing that would be in a kid’s world, not in an adult’s world. So, that has steered me along that path,” he ex­plained.

Hav­ing worked with kids on var­i­ous com­mer­cial jobs, he knows the old adage about never work­ing with chil­dren or an­i­mals is only par­tial ex­ag­ger­a­tion, but the pho­tog­ra­pher is dead set on ex­plor­ing child­hood won­der, re­gard­less of the chal­lenges: “Kids are cer­tainly more dif­fi­cult in some ways. You can di­rect them, but if they’re not in the mood to do it, they won’t. Some of the kids that I have pho­tographed, you give them a lit­tle bit of di­rec­tion, but there’s an el­e­ment of serendip­ity as to what they ac­tu­ally end up do­ing on the day. That has helped the pro­ject along.”

He points to the im­age fea­tur­ing a young boy in the Su­per­man cos­tume as an ex­am­ple of this serendip­ity at work. Once the light­ing set-up had been painstak­ingly ar­ranged, the young sub­ject was placed into the scene, and, af­ter no more than 30 sec­onds of hold­ing the LED, he be­gan to com­plain of bore­dom. While the shoot could have been over be­fore it be­gan, it in­stead took on an as­pect that the pho­tog­ra­pher hadn’t planned.

“It worked out well, be­cause he was a bit dis­tracted, and he started play­ing around with the light, mak­ing th­ese shapes with his hands. That ac­tu­ally made the shot in the end. I kept him in the same place, but, once his mind started to wan­der, he started do­ing dif­fer­ent things. It’s that el­e­ment of the un­ex­pected that cre­ated the magic in the shot.”

Wal­lace said that hav­ing kids of his own, who served as the first mod­els for the se­ries, has ben­e­fited his abil­ity to work with lit­tle ones in front of the lens. He doesn’t claim to be able to com­mu­ni­cate any bet­ter with chil­dren, but par­ent­hood has made him more aware of what can rea­son­ably be ex­pected of younger sub­jects. His pri­mary les­son: you will only ever have a short time to get done what you need.

Noted Wal­lace, “In the com­mer­cial world, it’s al­ways a ques­tion that comes up; if you’re ever go­ing to pho­to­graph kids, the client wants to know if you’ve got kids. Then they are more trust­ing of you if you do.”

As well as chang­ing up his usual light­ing ap­proach for this se­ries, Wal­lace is us­ing the pro­ject as a test­ing ground for a new cam­era, the ex­tremely high–res­o­lu­tion Canon 5DS. The pho­tog­ra­pher ad­mits that he doesn’t re­ally need the whop­ping 50.6 megapix­els for this pro­ject, but he is en­joy­ing the dif­fer­ence in con­trast when com­pared with his cus­tom­ary work­horse, the Canon 1D X.

“The blacks are so much darker, you can pull less out of them. So, I’ve used that to my ad­van­tage, giv­ing the pic­tures a punchier, con­trast-y look. If I was us­ing the 1D X, I would have re­lied more on the am­bi­ent light in the scene, whereas, with the 5DS, I’ve been us­ing speed­lights just to put lit­tle pools of light in the back­ground and put in lit­tle glows. So, I’ve had to con­struct that back­ground light­ing more.”

He has paired the 5DS with the new Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens, af­ter run­ning glass com­par­isons against Canon’s mighty 35mm f/1.4. He con­cedes that the Canon lens is su­pe­rior and eas­ily pro­duces nice, soft back­grounds, but the qual­ity gap is minis­cule enough that the big price dif­fer­ence tipped the bal­ance in Sigma’s favour.

“I’ll stick with the same lens-cam­era com­bi­na­tion through­out the se­ries, to give it some sim­i­lar­ity and con­stancy,” Wal­lace said.

The pho­tog­ra­pher’s ex­cite­ment for his new se­ries was pal­pa­ble through­out our con­ver­sa­tion, but it was equally clear that he is fight­ing an on­go­ing bat­tle to bal­ance his busy com­mer­cial work­load with fam­ily time, as well as squeez­ing in per­sonal-de­vel­op­ment projects. But he re­mains stead­fast in his be­lief in the value of per­sonal work: not only does it pro­vide a safe prov­ing ground for new tech­niques that can later be used on the job but the ex­per­i­men­tal im­agery has also al­ready at­tracted the at­ten­tion of clients look­ing for some­thing spe­cial.

When he first be­gan play­ing with his LED Christ­mas gift, Wal­lace cre­ated a se­ries of im­ages of him­self and his fam­ily, us­ing the torch’s book-like de­sign to con­trol the flood of light. Mana mag­a­zine came across the test im­ages on the pho­tog­ra­pher’s web­site and asked him to do some­thing sim­i­lar for an edi­to­rial shoot with mu­si­cian Stan Walker. The mood­ily lit por­trait be­came the is­sue’s cover photo and ended up net­ting the mag­a­zine the Best Spe­cial In­ter­est Cover nod at the 2015 Mag­a­zine Pub­lish­ing Awards.

As we wrapped up our dis­cus­sion, Wal­lace was about to fly to Welling­ton for a week-long ar­chi­tec­ture shoot. He was cer­tain that the job would see him break his self-im­posed guide­line of not work­ing evenings or week­ends; such is the re­al­ity for a busy com­mer­cial shooter. De­spite the packed sched­ule, he vowed to squeeze in a few more shoots for his se­ries on re­turn­ing to Auck­land, grate­ful that our in­ter­view had pushed the per­sonal work back to the front of his mind.

It can be dif­fi­cult to trig­ger that pro­fes­sional dead­line-meet­ing in­stinct with­out the aid of a com­mer­cial brief, but Wal­lace is a pho­tog­ra­pher who un­der­stands the value and im­por­tance of mak­ing time to shine the light of his own cre­ative vi­sion.

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