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Best of ASMP 2009

As an extension of his corporate/industrial work, Stuart McCall’s series, Discontinuous Spectrums, records the inherent beauty and the otherworldly effects of industrial and municipal lighting, where maximum illumination is generated for the lowest possible cost. While he lets the lighting tell its own story with minimal use of color corrections or Photoshop magic, his image “Containers” extends the breadth of human vision, by stitching three adjacent exposures into a mystical panoramic.

Stuart McCall


Project: “Discontinuous Spectrums,” a personal project documenting the color effects of uncorrected, narrow-spectrum, artificial lighting as recorded in photographs.

© Stuart McCall
All images in this article © Stuart McCall

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

SM: Since 1982. I guess that makes it 27 years!

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

SM: Since 1987, 22 years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

SM: I shoot primarily corporate and editorial assignments. I’m also a stock shooter. I have images with Getty and a few other agencies.

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

SM: My brain. Followed by my eyes. Then the cameras, tripods, lighting….

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

SM: That’s a tough one. I try to be as real as possible in my dealing with both my clients and my subjects. My assignment work is not all about me, it’s about the client and their needs. My personal work is not.

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

SM: The process is straightforward enough. All of the images are shot at dusk or at night. I like the lighting to tell its own story. I try to stay away from color corrections, or Photoshop magic. However the image “Containers” is stitched together from 3 exposures using the Photomerge tool.

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: What led to your interest in photographing scenes illuminated by narrow spectrum lighting?

SM: Back in photo school, one of my instructors had some incredible technical jargon that really appealed to me. One of his terms was “Discontinuous Spectrums”. It stuck in my mind for over 20 years before it started to germinate. I have long enjoyed shooting at night and at the edges of light. About 3 years ago I started recognizing the inherent beauty of the effects of these uncorrected artificial lights — especially when cast against a natural sky. I began to experiment with these combinations of natural and artificial, and the project was born.

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: Please explain the various types of narrow spectrum lighting, where and why this lighting is so widely used, and how the quality of the light affects image capture.

SM: The three primary light sources that I encounter in the course of my corporate/industrial work are Metal Halide, Sodium Vapor, and Mercury Vapor. They all have their own characteristics, the primary one being that none of them contain the entire spectrum of light that we are accustomed to seeing. That means they have a significant color cast, blue or green or orange. These light sources are very popular for industrial and security purposes because they give off a great deal of illumination at a relatively low cost. To my mind, that is the beauty of it! The fantastic, unworldly light effects are completely unintentional!

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: How do you search out and select the locations you want to shoot?

SM: My eyes are never taking time off. Wherever I go, I’m on the lookout for things to shoot. Oftentimes, I am unable to stop and shoot when I’m going somewhere, but I take note of particularly good locations and try to go back to them. Occasionally, I’ll be able to gather some personal images when I’m in a location on assignment.

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: What camera system, optics, and support equipment do you use? How do you determine an optimum exposure for your images?

SM: I use Nikon equipment and a small Manfrotto tripod. Some of my earlier “Discontinuous Spectrums” were shot on medium- and small-format film and even 4x5, but of late I have enjoyed the convenience of using my Nikon digital bodies.

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: What technical issues must you consider when photographing narrow-spectrum lighting scenes?

SM: The biggest consideration is contrast. Is there enough ambient light to create interesting effects with the lighting combinations?

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: Given a national suspicion of those who photograph public facilities, especially at night, what problems have you encountered while working on this series?

SM: I have never had any problems with the authorities, or with security people. Here in Canada, the security consciousness is not quite as jacked up as it is there in the USA. If I think there’s a likelihood security people will shoo me away, I work fast. That’s another reason why I like to use my digital Nikons. I also try to shoot from public areas as much as possible. Having said that, I used to be able to wander in and out of the Vancouver Port areas where there are some fantastic lighting displays available, but since 911 the entire waterfront has been sealed off.

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: Do you seek permission from property owners to do this work and, if so, what is your process for making contact and obtaining clearance? Do you get permission in writing and/or a property release?

SM: Not yet.

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: Do you show these images to the property owners or other colleagues in industrial circles and, if so, what is their response to the images?

SM: I have shown them to our electric utility here in BC (a client). They loved them! But they haven’t bought any prints yet.

ASMP: What color corrections, if any, do you make to your captured images?

SM: Minimal.

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: Describe the shooting process and the Photoshop Photomerge technique used to produce the image “Containers.”

SM: I’m still learning how to do this most efficiently. The two most important things to remember are to set the camera on a single manual exposure for all the images, and to overlap the images by at least 25 percent. Oh, and also avoid using a wide-angle lens. Photomerge and Autopano Pro have trouble lining up the elements if they start out distorted.

ASMP: How many images from this series utilize Photomerge and how central is this technique to the success of your vision for this work?

SM: “Containers” is the only one. But I’ve started a new project that’s entirely panoramics!

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: Have you run into situations with this project where unexpected issues led to results that differed from what you were planning? If so what did you do to troubleshoot or adapt to this?

SM: One night I was going to photograph one of the huge industrial greenhouses near where I live, south of the city. Conditions were perfect! The sky was low and overcast, and there was a strong wind blowing the steam from the greenhouse chimneys over the top of the scene towards me, creating an incredible sky effect. I found my location, set up the camera, and fired off a couple of tests to establish exposure. Suddenly, just as I was about to release the shutter, the lights in the greenhouse went out and the moment was lost. I’ve been back several times, but it’s never been as good. And now there is a giant sign erected in the middle of my shot!

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: Have you learned anything through this project that you’ve been able to apply to your commercial work? Has your work on this series resulted in new clients or visibility for your business?

SM: I’ve had two shows at commercial art galleries, here in Vancouver and in Calgary. I have made several sales of the images, and that is good for business. I send invitations or notifications of exhibitions to my clients (or persons of interest), which keeps my name in their minds. I believe that clients like to know their photographer is an artist as well as a businessperson.

© Stuart McCall

ASMP: What are your future plans for the images from this project? Do you have aspirations to use this work for promotion or pursue opportunities like a book or an exhibition?

SM: I could go further with this body of work, but I’m currently working on new ideas!