Capturing the highlights in low light
Catherine Lacey Dodd interview on shooting in low light.
Autumn is here and the days are officially shorter, so we talked to someone who has made a living out of shooting fantastic stories in low light.
Catherine Lacey Dodd is a London born, LA based photographer, whose resume includes beautiful hued portraiture in stunning locations around the world. She talks to us about her early influences, the beauty of natural light and how planning is everything when it comes to taking advantage of the environment.
A lot of your work features children, was it your own family that first inspired you to pick up a camera and start shooting?
I first picked up a film camera in the 80’s. I was reading geography at a University in London and have always had a rather obsessive interest in both cultures and the mechanics of the Earth. So my early influences were both the fashion pages, which adorned my Uni walls, and my growing collection of travel guides, bursting as they were with global photographic inspirations. Paired with my love of National Geographic, I wanted to be a creator of the images I was seeing and to do so, I needed to be there and everywhere.
Geography was my root to photography, rather than parenthood, which wouldn't come until 20 years later. It compelled me towards continued travel and exploration of the cultures and terrain of more than 50 counties, capturing the micro moments and splendour on Earth. I was, quite simply, influenced as a photographer by geography, the world in which we live.
Later, my first career in advertising strategy in the field of investment banking, gave me the experience of working with photographers and creatives, and it compelled me to take a second career. It's a big leap to transition from the safe, corporate world, into the global art community, but I feel every experience I've had from an early age – travel, geography, along with the Postgrad in Marketing – has helped facilitate that step.
My personal journey of documenting my children's growing years on camera then became a vehicle for me to gain that essential experience in working as a photographer. I didn't desire a focused strategy, instead being much more enthralled by diversification, even if the advice to specialise within photography meant I would be less compelling commercially to buyers. I wanted each day to be unique to open up my creativity, and I've felt I can't achieve that if I specialise.
© Catherine Lacey Dodd
Mostly you’re relying on natural light. Is this a conscious decision to avoid studio lighting?
Studio lighting is one of the only areas of photography that I've studied in a formal sense [WPPI, conventions, etc] and yet it doesn't grab or challenge me in the way continually attempting to master natural light does. I save Off Camera Flash (OCF) for shooting events after hours and during the day, rely entirely on natural light.
I feel I come into my own behind the camera, being outdoors, experiencing nature, intense sunlight, theatrical rain storms and I might add, even standing out when the eye of Hurricane Wilma hit in Florida in 2005, the eerie calm of the eye allowing me to photograph what was unfolding.
Having moved from Britain to LA, have you found a shift in how/what you shoot?
Definitely. I was raised in London and now live by the coast in LA. The intensity of colour, the quality of the brightness, I find quite seductive to shoot. Whether real or imagined, it's as if the light is being reflected off micro sandy particles in the air and projecting back into the lens. The oranges and yellows are much more intense than in Britain. I just spent six weeks in Northern Europe focusing on street photography in eight countries, and it not only emphasized that difference in the colour of light for me, but also that putting on my sunglasses because it was sunny when leaving the car was no guarantee that I wouldn't be faced with hailstones 10 minutes later. In Los Angeles, I'm guaranteed good weather for most of the year and that certainly aids my ability to master natural light photography. I get to practice every day and that's how you learn, in the field.
What are the main difficulties you encounter shooting with natural light?
One of the main difficulties is that there are no constants with natural light. I arrive at the scene and this is perhaps what I most love about natural like photography, I need to instantly analyse the light and where it's falling on my subject. For candid photography, I'm not always going to have perfectly situated light so I need to reposition myself, or capitalise where harsh light falls on the subject to artistic effect.
© Catherine Lacey Dodd
This month Canon is focusing on autumn and low light photography, what’s your favourite thing about shooting in autumn?
While we don't have the same demarcation of seasons in Southern California as the temperate climbs, there is still a gentle demarcation. I'm recalling years ago outside in mid-November in London. It was one of those magic autumnal days when the sun sat low on the horizon, the sky was an incredible pure blue and sublimely complimented with the golden hues of the trees. I had colour theory right there in nature and it's especially prevalent in autumn.
Using streams, creeks, ponds and rivers to reflect the colour of autumnal maples, oaks and sycamores which lends an isolated warm glow, contrast and texture onto the body of water in the midst of all the blue that has been reflected from the sky. In LA, I'll venture inland in the autumn, and within an hour of Los Angeles I can be in splendid autumnal colour at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. These microclimates are aided by the stark elevation changes from sea level in Santa Monica to summit at the ski resorts.
Do you have any top tips for shooting in the autumn or in low light conditions?
Location and timing are critical. There is this wonderful window of opportunity dictated by geography and which I use to plan ahead for the fleeting season. A good seasonally inspired photograph is testament to accurately forecasting, through experience, for these image opportunities.
In autumn, I'll sidelight my image when the sun is low on the horizon at twilight to create a catch-light in my subject's eyes. On an overcast day, for an environmental portrait, I'll use the soft, flat, even light to flatter the skin. For a landscape, I'll use the greys to contrast with the saturated autumnal leaves. I'll look for ways in which a ray of light is dancing on the leaves and avoid an expanse of visually unappealing grey sky which would tend to blow the highlights.
What’s your one piece of kit you couldn’t live without during the autumn or when you’re shooting in low light?
A collapsible reflector. I'll often use one to push light back into the eyes. In the absence of a reflector, I'll look for a natural reflector, golden autumnal light reflecting off a body of water, or in an urban environment, I'll use concrete as a natural reflector. Above all, I need my gear to work for me rather than me having to work it, a powerful camera body that reacts to my commands, and that gorgeous buttery decadence of a telephoto lens.
© Catherine Lacey Dodd
Canon is all about living for the story; do you have any advice for people trying to tell a story with their images?
Collaboration is key. Whilst it's important to get the perfect portraits that show what a person looks like in the bag at the start, your energy should then focus on capturing the essence of the person, their hearts and personalities. The storytelling then becomes one of the relationships within the subject body and that elevates the photograph to a level of artistry.
Approach photography with a historian's mind-set. What aspects of the image, what social commentary will be important in the future?
What’s next on your horizon?
As a creative, my mind is eternally restless and tends to explode with thoughts on what I want to achieve next.
I'm motivated to take on more commercial assignments that will take me back to my geographical roots of travelling and photography, refining my skills of fusing still and moving images.
Perhaps what I haven't achieved to date is to collaborate on photographic works. My learning intelligence is very intrapersonal, I approach art introspectively, and it would challenge me to come together with like-minded individuals to develop and execute a shared artistic vision.
Primarily, there are causes very dear to my heart as a mother of a child with special needs, an environmentalist and a humanitarian. My need is to utilise this documentary tool to aid these causes, to intertwine philanthropy and photography through thought provoking and emotional storytelling.
© Catherine Lacey Dodd
And finally, what’s in your kit bag?
A whole lot of Canon. My go to gear includes a blend of prime lenses for key scenes I'm presented with, along with the quite magical eye of the telephoto. On my recent European trip, I solely relied on Canon's EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM and EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM and found they covered most scenarios for me, though I was itching to get home to my telephoto.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Canon EOS 40D
Interview credit: Written by Martin Fleming