During his PhotoPlus Expo seminar, “Digital Vision in Low Light,” the photographer Gerd Ludwig offered a peek behind the curtain at the tools and techniques he uses to make National Geographic-worthy images under terrible conditions. The veteran photographer spoke for two hours about the ways he uses small strobes and long exposures as well as rapport with subjects to make the images he captures in Russia and the Ukraine for NatGeo, his book Broken Empire, and his Chernobyl iPad app, The Long Shadow of Chernobyl.
One of the first things Ludwig shared was that he had never had an image published in National Geographic that was shot at a speed higher than ISO 500. He often shoots at night—or in the case of a sarcophagus he photographed at Chernobyl, in pitch darkness—but darkness isn’t the only reason Ludwig likes to use strobes. Harsh fluorescent lighting can make for hideous color tone, something he would regularly encounter in Russia.
“The Russian fluorescent lights are the worst in the world,” Ludwig explains. “They’re very green.” He would use strobes to counteract the sickly green glow, often attaching gels to suit his esthetic.
For one famous shot of the control room of reactor #4 at Chernobyl, he revealed the secret to the dramatic lighting that seemed to emanate from within the control panel: During a long exposure, he and his assistant crouched behind the panel and fired strobes up onto the wall-mounted displays. Again, he used a variety of gels to get the tone of the light just right.
Here are some additional technical nuggets that Ludwig shared during his seminar:
- When shooting in low-light with strobes, Ludwig typically shoots TTL on Aperture Priority, firing his strobes at -1, or -2 1/3 EV.
- Strobes are often more effective when the subject looks away from the light.
- In falling snow, using a wide-angle on the strobe on camera illuminates the snow closest to you, to dramatic effect.
- Using a headlamp can be helpful when working in complete darkness (a trick he used in the sarcophagus at Chernobyl). You can get a red one that isn’t as intense, and during long exposures, you can “paint” your scene with the headlamps to emphasize various elements.
- In a pinch, you can use your hand as a reflector, provided you have light skin.
- You can use the free sample set of gels at your local camera store to make your own flash gels.
Much of Ludwig’s work in Chernobyl focuses not just on the ruins of the plant, but of the people affected by the plant’s meltdown, particularly, the children of victims of contamination from the disaster’s nuclear fallout. The children’s physical condition is difficult to witness—most are permanently disabled by the effects of radiation. But in videos he played of himself taking photographs in the hospital, he engaged the children completely, encouraging them to dance, even crawling under tables to meet them on their own level. In one particularly touching moment, he touches the hand of a blind and deaf boy, sitting on the ground because the boy cannot walk. The boy smiles instantly, and Ludwig returns the favor.
“When shooting underprivileged victims,” Ludwig told his audience, “you have to realize that when you point the camera at them, you temporarily increase their pain.”