Tom Willett and Jeff Smith Tackle Large Format Photography
By Lorraine A. DarConte
2 of a 4 Part Series
Commercial photographers A.T. (Tom) Willett and Jeff Smith met in Tucson, AZ, while attending college. Both had a penchant for photographing weather, in particular, lightning; eventually, they started working together. Photographing lightning is both a trick and a skill, notes Smith, who's spent more than 20 years perfecting his craft. "Some people would be shocked at the quality of the gear we take into the field, which includes Nikons, Canons, Hasselblads, and large format Pentax cameras, all of which can get wet, blow over, etc.," states Smith. "We're not working with cheap cameras even though we know they're going to be in the elements."
Willett and Smith prefer to shoot with film—Fuji Velvia/50—but recently started shooting digital, as well. "The latitude the film has and the quality of the scans still beats anything that's out there," explains Smith. "Also, the idea of putting a $50,000 digital camera in the rain doesn't make a lot of sense as they're not sealed as well as film cameras. However, we try not to shoot in the rain," he continues. "We get as close as we can to the storm to get the best photograph without actually being in the storm. Some of the best lightning we get is before the rain starts to fall."
Willett and Smith choose their storms using a variety of methods and tools including radar, online sources, and satellite loops. "We try to figure out what's going on with the weather so we can forecast where to go," says Willett. "We get together an hour before it gets dark and head in the direction we've decided on. We have to wait 15-20 minutes after sunset before we can shoot."
"Chasing storms is similar to how surfers look for waves," adds Smith. "We do it visually. And that's why it's good we work together—one person is driving, one is looking. Sometimes [a storm] is more interesting to the eye than it is to photograph. But, like anything, you have to take all those photos to get the great photos you're after."
The photographers are most active during the summer months as Tucson's monsoon season starts at the end of June and typically runs through the first week of September. Though that may seem like a lot of time, out of the entire season, notes Willett, there's maybe two nights that they capture all their best photos. Photographing lightning isn't without its hazards. "This year we got two close hits—one was a bolt that hit within fifty feet—scared the hell out of us," states Smith. "It makes you remember why you don't want to get hit by lightning."
This year, Willett and Smith exhibited their images at the prestigious Etherton Gallery in Tucson. Putting the show together was a collaboration between the photographers, Photographic Works lab, and Deadwood Framing. "Photographic Works was brought in because they had the 54-inch Roland d’Vinci printer," explains Smith.
The d'Vinci uses ErgoSoft, Inc.'s RIP software and boasts a 12-color ink set that includes orange and green and four dilutions of black. "The amazing thing for us—since we were new to the large scale printing process—was how much color there was," states Smith. "With all those inks laying down on that [Arches] watercolor paper, it really showed every little nuance of every color. The shading alone within the different blacks was really something. It was just a beautiful process."
"Before," adds Willett, "we probably adjusted everything too heavily—made the images too contrasty, too white, too black. We learned a lot about printing to output on the d'Vinci, and how to get the most out of the photos. We were surprised at the consistency throughout our work—all 30 shots had the same consistent color level and shadow and highlight detail. They all worked well together."
The exhibit was a success both artistically and financially. "Not only did we sell prints to individual collectors," states Smith, "but the Tucson Police Department bought a half dozen each of our prints for its new sub station. They wanted work that was non-political, non-religious, and very Tucson."
The duo's work was also recently installed in the lobby at the famed Canyon Ranch Spa and Resort, also in Tucson, and they are actively seeking new venues for the images.
After more than twenty years, the photographers are still looking for great shots. "You don't know what that is until you shoot it," concludes Willett. "We would like to shoot lightning in different places around the world. We'd also like to shoot in the Grand Canyon and Canyon de Chelly, but it's really hard to plan to be there for a great storm."
To view more images visit www.lightningsmiths.com.
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