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

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 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 the heavy conceptual lifting has been done, the work having developed and evolved considerably from its earliest stages.

The idea for his new series originates 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 upon 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. That’s when I thought this is where it’s all starting to work, and I can see a stronger series of pictures.”

Where his original vision was 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.”

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 says 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.

“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 he doesn’t really need the whopping 50.6 megapixels for this project, but he is enjoying the difference in contrast when compared to 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’s excitement for his new series is palpable throughout our conversation, but it’s equally clear 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 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 wrap up our discussion, Wallace is about to fly to Wellington for a week-long architecture shoot. He is certain that the job will 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 vows to squeeze in a few more shoots for his series upon returning to Auckland, grateful that our interview has pushed the personal work back to the front of his mind.

It can be difficult to trigger that professional deadline-meeting instinct without 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.

Article originally appeared in The Photographer’s Mail 211 May-June 2016