Clinton Lubbe agreed to answer a few questions we had about his photography , especially regarding lighting effects. Born in 1972 he grew up around photography, seemingly developing his compositional eye from a young age. While photography was always within the scope of his work, it was not a focus until in his 30’s.
What is your ideal way to start the day?
Coffee, good coffee.
Define artificial light in your own words?
I don’t know if artificial light is a term I would enjoy defining. Light is everything; all photography is related to and derived from the way in which you use light. Even available light needs to be looked at and ‘artificially stimulated’ from time to time, with the change of an angle, waiting for the right time of day, moving into a shadow, bouncing, diffusing or cutting. In the democracy of photography all light is equally important and similarly treated, even the sources that are reliant on a cord.
You’ve photographed numerous South African celebrities for various magazines, how did you get into the industry?
I think it is somewhat of a snowball effect. I remember the first time on set with a magazine crew. While we were looking at the images the beauty editor gushed with a measure of surprise and glee, suggesting that she had discovered a new talent. “Why haven’t I heard of you before?” Shortly after this she moved on to another publication and I never heard from her again. So it has mostly to do with who you know and the circles you move in – have the people who you want to work with heard of you? Thereafter they will decide whether you are worthy of breaking into their cocooned clique.
You started out as a photographer but later branched out into film making as well, was it a natural progression or did you deliberately expand your services?
I’d have to say both. Moving pictures needed a little motivation along with a measure of curiosity, though not my first love it is a very appealing medium. Motivation was in the form of a limited photographic market space and the desire to expand my services. Natural progression was part curiosity and part egotistical in thinking that film makers in South Africa don’t know how to use light thinking, “I’ll show them”. I still think the majority out there are ill equipped but I also learned very quickly that the process is so massive in comparison to photography. Photographers can luxuriantly deliberate and fumble over lighting while testing each disposable exposure while film on the other hand, is a giant snarling beast that strikes at every opportunity with hurdles, complications, fresh challenges and tight timelines to be met by an overworked and underpaid crew of willing but weary soldiers. Bless them all, I have been humbled.
Do you think there is a difference in the way artificial light is used on photo vs film sets?
There is a massive difference. At first it wouldn’t seem that way but putting theory into practice was an awakening. Of course there are instances when the picture is just what it seems and the frames tick away happily on your time code but in general it is probably the scale that complicates. A simple dialogue scene between two people will most often be shot from at least three different angles. These angles must all work seamlessly with ideally one light set up and feel like one picture in the edit… Not as easy to digest as a single photograph from a single angle if you are the type of photographer who’s world revolves around a light being two degrees to the left or five degrees higher and for the loop to be in exactly the right place!
We see a definite trend in cinematic lighting being used on photo sets. Do you feel you approach lighting a photoset differently after your exposure to filmmaking?
Chucking a kicker in to spill across the frame dramatically enhancing the depth is fast becoming a staple ‘cinematic mood’ yes but I feel that it is also coming from grading the look into the photograph which for me has as much to do with social media’s instant filter looks (similar to grading in film processes) as adopting film lighting techniques. My own approach to photographic lighting has been affected in that the psychology of the light being used is carefully considered… I have learned to embrace shadow as a very important aspect of light, making the visual more interesting and less commercial.
Do you prefer constant or strobe/flash lighting? Why?
Each one has it’s own merit. I own strobe lights, fluorescent flat panels or Kinos in film speak, LED lights, Chimera’s and Arri’s. About twenty lights in total, which I will use selectively according to what I feel the end result should be and the circumstances under which I am shooting. My favorite will always be available light under the right circumstances but we are talking artificial light sources so no favorites just horses for courses. Unfortunately we are programmed to deliver mostly the crispness of a strobe in the South African market which in it’s place is great but I do love to feel the nuance of a warm constant.
Which light-shaping tool do you find yourself working with the most and why?
Again, it is horses for courses. The requirement of each photograph is to tell a story and my feeling is that, as much as possible, every story needs to be unique. So I try not to lean on a favourite but rather asses the story to be told first. I have found myself using five different types of light in a single shoot, trying desperately to make them all look like they are part of one story at different moments. A huge amount of effort for subtlety that few besides myself will swoon over, recounting eagerly with sweeping gestures to anyone that will listen.
Are you a light meter or histogram type of guy?
I made extensive use of light meters in my formative film and darkroom years, when I didn’t take photography too seriously. It was probably to impress whoever cared to notice but it would seem that digital has now negated the use of such overpriced and authoritative looking equipment. I am now a run around naked and feel if the light is warm kind of guy. Possibly my favourite story from Koos van der Lende is that he will walk without a shirt and measure the warmth of the light on his skin… What an eternally romantic notion to enjoy of photography, the master and his art so intimate. For me, instinct and a predetermined notion of what I would like to see… high key, low key and skin tone.
Do you mostly shoot in studio or on location?
An equal share, it is determined by the client and or the brief. I do tend to feel stifled after extended spells in the studio, those four walls can only hold so much story. Much like life it is good to stimulate creativity in a location other than that which you are familiar with.
Artificial light can be tricky for beginners, what advice do you have for them in this field?
The best will be to get a mentor or tutor to guide you past the initial frustration of strobes and feeling very uncertain about how to control them. If you can’t find one of those I have always advised starting out with constants. It’s a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) situation that will facilitate your learning process. In the digital era it is easier than ever to set up a light, take a picture, learn, delete, adapt and take another.
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. What inspires you to stay creative and motivated?
Any expensive psychologist or cheap agony aunty will divulge that you should first love yourself before you can love others. Inspiration is something you unlock within; constantly searching for it existentially you will always be squeezing the last drop out of a dry rag. Get to know who you are as a photographer, that is called your voice, others might refer to it as your style. It doesn’t come easy but when you find it, stay true to it and it will guide you.
Are you busy with any personal projects? Anything you care to share?
I have a UNICEF child portrait project in the works, SUPERHERO, a painful yet sensual portrait project called MIGRANT, a satirical one called JACOB THE CONQUEROR, a nude series called SPECIMEN, a yet unnamed exotic series about colonised peoples across the globe, a street photography fine art concept about seeing multiple outcomes from a single perspective and a few more loosely defined ideas that either grow organically or get cast away after squeezing the first few attempts out. It may seem overwhelming to have so many projects outside of your day job but when one considers the luxurious Valium of time it makes easy sense. Also never forget that a good personal project can grow into a gallery event or book when presented to the right set of eyes.
How important are personal projects?
Personal projects are the life-blood of the photographer. If your aspiration is to be an artist and you are merely pressing buttons and swinging dials for a fee, then you will probably not amount to much more than a moderately successful businessperson. Passion and personal projects will teach you a lot about yourself as a photographer and prove indispensable in discovering your voice. Photography is very easily misconstrued as an easily accessible pursuit because of the disposable nature of a digital file… anyone can be a photographer. It is this fast food, instant gratification melee that causes the photographer to lose sight of the long-term journey. A project that takes years to add to and complete serves as a constant reminder of who you are, where you come from and where you are heading to.
Lastly, give us one lifesaving lighting tip or trick.
Too many photographers don’t do their homework! Plan, prepare and know what mood you want to create. Write down a buzzword or singular concept then at shoot time look, think and breathe. I still find myself rushing through a shoot because there is pressure to perform for all of these people in my space. I constantly have to remind myself that I am in control of the space and that if I am not entirely satisfied by what I see then I will change it. This can however only be done if you have a plan or a desired outcome.