Creating and Traveling Light

A conversation with Michelle Turner

Michelle Turner is a lifelong photographer, teacher, and traveler. She is constantly looking and learning, adapting and making things her own: from cultural traditions, to lighting techniques, to the weight of her camera bag. She is camp’s resident lighting expert.

You once prided yourself on being a natural light photographer – what made you decide to open yourself up to using a flash?

One wedding was the catalyst. I had a bride and groom who forgot their marriage license, so the wedding began two hours late.  Outdoor weddings usually have the ceremony an hour before sunset, and then I have this beautiful golden hour which is perfect for portraits and photographs.

Two hours makes a big difference.

The ceremony was at sunset and the portraits at the end. I knew just enough about flash to get through successfully. It was fine, but I came out of it thinking, I am going to give myself an ulcer if I don’t take control of my lighting. I also knew that I couldn’t in good conscience continue doing wedding and commercial photography and open myself to having this happen again.  I had to figure out how to make it work for me. I thought, I’m probably going to hate it but I am going to do it anyway. I ended up really loving it.

My lighting skills made my commercial business take off. If someone flew me into a location for 24 hours I was totally comfortable no matter what the weather, the timeframe, or what delays hair and make-up threw at us: we were going to be able to wrap it in one day. If there is no good light, I can still shoot. If there is no sun, I can make the sun.

Gear can be intimidating and it’s also heavy, last year at camp you had the smallest bag. How are you so light?

I used to wake up with the post wedding hangover, caused not by alcohol but by lugging all that gear. I realized it just wasn’t going to work. So I looked at ways to lighten my load. First I tried out prime lenses. It was lighter, yes, but it also made me more creative. Instead of zooming and having 10 shots at the same angle with different focal lengths I would move my feet and completely change the shot. Now I primarily work with two lenses: a 24 and an 85 or a 35 and an 85. Then when Fujifilm came out with their mirrorless camera I thought, I can make things even lighter. The FujiFilm and the smaller focal lengths combination really works for me. I have worked 10-12 hour days, and it feels like I’m just walking around—and my bag is smaller than most people’s purses!

I realized that sometimes having too many choices prevents you from thinking creatively. Even before I made the switch to less gear, I looked at my Lightroom catalog and found that that 90% of what I was shooting was primarily with 2-3 lenses. Why am I bringing 10 other lenses with me? I wouldn’t go back. 

So it’s not about the gear.

One thing that I see is photographers constantly comparing themselves to others, saying, “What lens do they have, what body? Maybe if I had that I’d like my work better.” I don’t have the gear lust any more. Instead I look at what others are doing, then look at my work and think, What am I missing? 90% of the time it isn’t gear – it is a technique, an angle, a lighting approach. Instead of trying to copy someone else, I take a technique and make it my own.

The ability to create something amazing lies within each of us.

Like many photographers you work in several areas. What are your key areas of focus? How do you balance them?

Photographer education is a year-round job. That’s great because that takes care of the academic, wordy side of my brain. Wedding and commercial work happens at different times in the year so it’s easier to balance. Most of my wedding work is destination-based, so primarily between November and May. I love being part of someone’s day. The commercial work comes regularly throughout the year but I am picky about the commercial work; I choose the gigs that are really interesting and allow me to stretch my creativity.

It’s great fun to work in three different areas. They each satisfy a different part of me.

You travel a lot and meet and work with many different kinds of people. How does that affect you, creatively?

For me getting out and looking at the rest of the world helps me be at peace with a lot of things that have happened in my life. Borrowing ideas, ideologies, from other people, from other cultures, from other locations, has been something that has helped get me through.

Every culture does something about living really well. Opening up and looking at how others deal with life experiences can be transformative. That’s probably my biggest lesson ever; there is not one way to live life. I can walk my own path and figure it out from there.

I was in two of your classes last year. You are an excellent teacher. You are articulate, clear, and you follow an organized agenda. You provide enough time for students to put the learning into action and manage to give everyone the help they need.  What motivates your approach to teaching?

I really enjoy working with people. I’m passionate about topics that I have found particularly difficult to master on my own. That’s one of the reasons I like teaching about light.  

My first experiences with off-camera flash were awful. There was not a lot of education out there that didn’t try to make it as complicated as possible. I found it extremely frustrating. If I can help get rid of that frustration for even just a handful of people in class, I am really satisfied.

Tell me about your experience at Firefly Institute Camp last year.

I didn’t know what to expect except that we had a lot of time to spend together. I was excited about that. It is depressing to show up to a conference, with one big room, have one talk, and then everyone goes their separate ways.

But I was blown away by the sense of community. People were happy to talk about everything, not just photography. It became about community, learning, spending time together, really enjoying one another’s company.

I am so excited to return to camp, to see some new faces, see some returning faces and to continue the experience. It is something that I have been looking forward to, quite literally, all year.

Are there new things that you will add to your classes this year?

Yes, I have done a lot of work recently on understanding natural light and how light works in general. I’m studying the properties and principles of light, how to soften it, work with it, how to consider it when choosing locations. I am excited to share what I’ve learned.

Michelle’s classes at October Camp