Tech Feature: Seeing the Light with Rocco Ancora and Nikon School

“Lighting can be the difference between a good shot and a great one.” It’s a simple statement, uttered by Australian wedding and portraiture great and Nikon Ambassador Rocco Ancora mid-lecture, but so true – and he would know. The 4-time AIPP Australian Wedding photographer of the year is such a master of light that he has his own Nikon flash kit by that name – the “Master of Light” flash kit – so to spend a day learning about light from this master was not an opportunity I was willing to pass up.

And we all got to take home a free lanyard! I am inspired, indeed.

19 keen Nikon-camera-wielding photophiles from the greater south-east Queensland area descended on Fox Studios in Albion in Brisbane’s inner suburbs to spend 7 hours learning to speak the language of light from Rocco Ancora as part of the Nikon School program – a photography education program run by Nikon exclusively for Nikon customers. We came from various shooting backgrounds and levels – plenty of enthusiasts, a few students and semi-pros, and a handful of professional photographers – but we were all there to push ourselves and learn something new. Despite having been a faithful Nikon shooter since 2010, I had never attended a Nikon School class before this one. Now I’m wondering what else I might have missed out on.

The day was divided into two halves – a lecture and a practical half, with a great spread of sandwiches, wraps and salads for lunch provided. For the morning session, Rocco walked us through the terminology, all the way from chiaroscuro in baroque art to closed and open loop studio lighting, then took us behind the scenes on some of his iconic images, describing in detail how he achieved the light in each one. “Light is the key to emotion,” he says. “Don’t be afraid of shadows.” He armed us with plenty of ideas and a failsafe pose, we broke for lunch and then returned refreshed and ready to play.

It was nice to see a room full of familiar equipment, and even nicer to have access to a host of the latest and greatest from Nikon’s camera lineup – and of course, Rocco’s “Master of Light” kit was available for sale at a students-only discount. My kit is holding up well, but my two D800 bodies are starting to show their age, so it was fun to wield a D850 again  in order to test out the WR-T10 and WR-R10 wireless remote control units.

Shot with Nikon D850, Nikkor 58mm f1.4 lens and Nikon SB5000 speedlight, off camera. 1/200 sec, f1.4, ISO 200. Click to see hi res version on Flickr.

Two models to share between 19 photographers meant we didn’t have a lot of time to experiment with the models one on one, but we had a great production line going – taking turns shooting, playing assistant for each other and watching the others try new techniques, while Rocco and the team from Nikon School flitted through giving help where it was needed. We started in the studio, then headed outside into a sports field’s carpark across the street to watch Rocco combine his speed lights with the natural afternoon sun, making magic with light I would have previously considered “bad”.

Above: Shot with a Nikon D800 and Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens, and window light only. 1/250 sec, f2.8, ISO 320, 40mm. Click for hi res version on Flickr.

Two of Rocco’s concepts really resonated with me – I found myself having lightbulb moments in my back row seat as he spoke. The first is that you can always make an incredible picture, even if you think the light is terrible – you just haven’t learned to see it for what it COULD be yet. The second is that there’s a difference between “correct” exposure and appropriate exposure – that sometimes, in order to capture the mood, you need to “underexpose” (by the camera’s reckoning). Just because the histogram isn’t totally balanced doesn’t mean your shot isn’t valid or correct.

Sometimes you just have to get lowww. That leg on the ground there belongs to Rocco.

I still have a lot of practice ahead of me, but I walked away from the workshop feeling inspired, renewed and determined to conquer the speedlight. Thanks to Rocco I’ve found myself looking at natural light in a whole new way – especially the dreaded middle-of-the-day sun.

Nikon School runs both courses and one-day workshops all over Australia for a variety of skill levels and areas of interest. Check them out here. You can find Rocco Ancora and his work here.


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