Before I knew anything at all about photography, I knew the name Leon Kennamer. For old-school photographers, they might know that name. For those of you in the modern era of tiny high-power, remote control flashes, think David Hobby (Strobist) or Joe McNally but in reverse. Instead of adding lights whenever needed, you start with a flat ambient exposure and SUBTRACT light where you don’t want it. This is subtractive lighting.
The reason I knew of Leon Kennamer was not the fact that I was interested in photography… it was the fact that he lived and worked in my hometown of Guntersville, Alabama. His family and my family are – to this day – good friends. Who could have ever guessed that I would be taking his techniques and blending them into my own modern technical lighting 40 years later.
She is underneath a large overhang of a building but just barely. So, the ambient exposure would be full silhouette against the yellow trees except for the rim hair light. Then, there is a umbrella with flash just outside the frame, top-right.
Now, what makes this subtractive and not just a back-lit with fill flash front is the fact that she would be, in fact, almost completely un-lit from the front due to the long overhang of the building and the fact that no light is reflecting back at her.
Leon Kennamer used huge black felt panels – usually above and to one side – that resemble the large diffuser panels with which Joe McNally covers entire doorways. In this case, she is pulled far enough under the over-hang and the low fall light cuts in so far to do this without panels.
Okay, so if you’re curious what the set and exposure looks like without any flash whatsoever…
Oh, and by the way, you know those old photos – now a bit cliché – with heavy vignetting, either unusually or white or out of focus? Yeah, if not done in a dark-room, those were devices were called Leon vignetters and came in high-key, low-key, frost, soft-focus, and colored. There’s a reason that high-key vignette on your parent’s wedding photos has now become cliché… everybody did it! Blame it all on a little ol’ studio photographer in Guntersville, Alabama…