Photographer’s Profile: David Perkins
How did you become a photographer? Describe your career development?
I truly started getting into photography a couple of years after High School. In school I was always the “artsy guy” and was pretty well known for my work around the school and town. But there was no photography in school, and it wasn’t until I started working on cars for a living in Indianapolis that I bought a digital camera and started focusing on photography. About a year after that I applied for Savannah College of Art and Design for photography.
Once I graduated from SCAD, I immediately moved to NYC to begin an internship with Sarah Silver, a prominent fashion and beauty photographer in the city. SCAD managed to teach me a lot about my own personal style and how to define myself as a photographer, but it was really my internship with Sarah that launched me into the industry guns blazing. There are certain things that you simply cannot learn in a school; you must get real world experience, and working with Sarah really taught me a lot and set me up to succeed.
How do you learn your techniques?
Most of what I learned about technique and lighting I had originally taught myself. Before SCAD and before my internship I would read a lot of books and forums about how things were done. And a lot of it was simply screwing around and playing with what I had. Any time I ran across something I didn’t understand, or wanted to know how it was done, I looked it up and I figured out how to do it myself. So my first teacher in photography was Google.
Again, even at SCAD, most of my knowledge about lighting and technique came from asking questions and finding answers. I taught myself most of it. The courses were all starting points, of course, but they weren’t able to go in depth about all I wanted to know, so it was always really up to myself to learn it.
Now, when I started my internship, I was introduced to a couple of assistants and photographers who were nothing short of Rain Men of lighting and technique. They were truly masters of the art, and they were all willing to share with me. So I took full advantage of it and I asked them questions about everything. Any time I didn’t understand something I asked them to explain it. And then I tried to apply it to my own work. The only way to truly learn something is to apply it.
I still ask these guys questions all the time. Just the other night I was out with one of them for a few drinks and found myself in awe as he explained several lighting ideas I had been curious about for some time. I never stop learning, I never stop asking questions, and I never stop trying to figure out new ways of achieving things. So to answer the question of how I learn? I ask questions.
Who are your photo heroes? Or who has inspired your career?
In the beginning, I think like most (at least male) photographers, I was blown away by the glitzy, glamorous fashion and beauty photos in magazines, with all of the amazingly beautiful models, and I wanted to do that. I have always loved women (when I was younger I drew and painted them); now I was going to photograph them. So my early idols were all the big amazing fashion photographers: Craig McDean, Steven Meisel, Steven Klein, David LaChapelle. All of the big, flashy, sexy stuff.
As I got more into photography, I stumbled into photographing dancers in college. Almost overnight my interests changed from fashion and beauty to dance and movement. Looking back it makes total sense. My work, be it photographic or otherwise, has always been full of energy and movement. I took an advertising course once and a friend mentioned that my graphic drawings were just as energetic and moving as my dance photographs.
So, once I found dance, I found dance photographers. I think my earliest inspiration was Howard Schatz. His work still blows my mind, but his work with dancers underwater fascinated me. From there I found Andrew Eccles, who photographs for Alvin Ailey. Lois Greenfield’s work… pretty much anyone I could find that had ever shot a dancer I took in. But I’d say Howard Schatz may have been the single biggest influence in my early dance work.
Nowadays it’s not so much “who” as it is “what.” I don’t really pay too much attention to what other photographers are doing. There are a few people I’ve discovered whose work intrigues me: Guy Aroch, Damian Loble, Richard Phibbs’ work is pretty amazing. Also, Sarah Silver, the woman who I interned with – her work is constantly evolving and pushing limits which in turn always teaches me new things and constantly gives me new ideas for my own work.
But more importantly is the “what.” I’m constantly seeing things around me that influence ideas for shoots and projects. Everything from a plume of steam coming from the street to the way light is filling my apartment in the morning. Things like that influence me much more than other photographers. And my dancers are always inspiring me as well.
Learning from the Pro
What are we shooting today?
Today we are going to be doing a shoot involving mixed lighting sources. I’ll be using both continuous and strobe to achieve a unique light trail effect. This effect is really an amazing and fun thing to do with dancers.
How did you learn this technique?
This technique is actually a very fundamental manipulation of camera controls and lighting. Essentially all I am doing is “dragging” my shutter speed (slowing it down) to allow ambient light in, and then using a strobe – the broncolor Scoro S – to freeze movement. The fun thing about this idea is learning how to control and manipulate all three elements: hot lights, strobe, and camera, to achieve an interesting and unique feel to the imagery.
The real key to making this work is to keep your lights locked in place and move your camera while taking the shot. This is what makes the HMI, in this instance the Kobold Lite Pipe, to blur and turn in to light trails, while the strobe will freeze any movement and give you a nice, clearly exposed shot. That last part is something I learned while interning with Sarah Silver, who uses this technique to great effect in both fashion and beauty, as well as dance and movement.
To do all of this I used broncolor Kobold 400s. What I really love about the Kobolds is how small and easy to use they are. When you are on location, unless you have a large budget, you will usually be using whatever power supply is running through the building. That typically means your standard home power outlet. Most continuous lighting sources often require large amounts of power to run. They are big, heavy, get extremely hot, and need a very specific power supply. The Kobolds are none of that. They are super small and lightweight which allowed me to put them in very tight spaces, plug them straight into the wall, and not break into a nasty sweat while sitting underneath them for a few hours on end. On top of that you can use the standard light modifier attachments on them, which for me is great, because I already own an arsenal of umbrellas, and umbrellas are fantastic for location shooting. Small, lightweight, portable, and can deliver huge amounts of light.
Put all of that together and you have a very small, very powerful, and extremely versatile set of lights. Absolutely perfect for location shooting.
How do you do it?
The key to pulling this technique off successfully is to make sure that your strobe exposure is correct. The only thing that controls the exposure of a flash via the camera is your aperture. Strobe fires so quickly that the shutter speed has no effect on it. So once you have your proper ƒ stop to get your overall exposure, you can begin to adjust your continuous lighting.
Slowing down your shutter speed will allow the light to enter the camera. What you want to do is position your lights on to a certain part of the subject’s body. It’s important that the body be somewhat reflective. Bare skin, or something shiny on an outfit works great. (Essentially the “light trails” are the reflection of the light off the object) You can move and adjust the light how ever you see fit, and even modify the light, shape it, flag it, what ever you want to make it hit the subject the way you want it to. How and where this light hits the subject will determine what your light trails will look like.
At this point it is simply a matter of adjusting the shutter speed to get the intensity of light blurring you are after.