Amanda Marsalis on Recreating Southern California’s Natural Light

August 6, 2012

By Conor Risch

© Amanda Marsalis

An ad for PacSun, shot by Amanda Marsalis. To see more of her work, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

In Southern California one finds “amazing, long, slow, sunny days that disintegrate into something totally gorgeous” all year round, notes Los Angeles-based photographer Amanda Marsalis, waxing a bit poetic about the California sunshine she’s become known for utilizing to its utmost potential.

Born in San Francisco, where she also attended California College of the Arts and studied with Larry Sultan and Jim Goldberg, Marsalis didn’t set out to make “California sunshine pictures” her calling card. “It wasn’t a conscious thought of, ‘My photos are going to look this way,’” she explains. “It was, ‘My photos look this way because I was out with a camera and this is what really excited me.’” Her images have also excited commercial clients that include Adidas, American Express, Apple, Discover, FedEx, Microsoft, Nike, Sony and Visa, among many others.

And while she prefers to rely on beautiful, natural light, for Marsalis, being a pro means being able to manufacture “Amanda pictures” when nature doesn’t cooperate. “At this point I can deliver no matter what the situation is, and I think that’s where I feel like a true professional,” Marsalis relates. “In every single creative call [with clients] we talk about it: How are you going to get this if it’s not perfect?”

Initially the answer was to hire good assistants who knew how to create the look of natural light and who were also good collaborators. The latter wasn’t so easily done. Marsalis began shooting big advertising jobs at a young age, and felt as if a lot of assistants she worked with early on were “used to working for somebody other than a young woman.” There was a lot of trial and error, she recalls. “I had to go through a lot of people to figure out who was going to collaborate with me and not just think they could push me around.”

She also admits that “learning to communicate what you need” clearly was key early on. Now she’s been working with the same assistant, Gal Harpaz, for the past six years. “We’re a really great team, and I respect him a lot and think that my jobs are better because of the whole team that I build,” she says. And when they need to, they can “bring the sun.”

Although there’s “nothing like the real thing,” Marsalis says, in a pinch there are a couple of ways to approximate sunlight that “can look really good.” If a client is looking for a backlit shot with sun flare, “you throw a head in the background, put gels on it and then you’re shooting into the light so it’s flaring.” Composing the image so the subject slightly obscures the head makes it difficult for a layperson to tell the difference between it and the actual sun. “It’s a perfect little spot to find,” Marsalis says, noting also that the light stand can be taken out of the image in post.

“But,” she adds, “when I’ve tried to do this on a day when it’s maybe raining a little bit, that doesn’t work because the strobes pick up all the moisture in the air,” which creates tiny dots throughout the image. In that situation she can rig a 12 x 12-foot or 20 x 20-foot background cloth over the set like a giant umbrella, “but normally we would just shoot another day,” she says.

In a situation where sun flare isn’t necessary but she still needs to get a “glowy, dreamy, warm look” when it’s darker outside, “you shoot in shadow and blow out your background so then everything brightens up, and then in post you’re just making it warmer,” Marsalis explains.

Her longtime retoucher, Anna Bolek, who’s worked with Marsalis for years, plays a role in getting the look of her images right when conditions on a shoot aren’t great. “My retoucher is very important, but I don’t have a ton of post on my images,” Marsalis explains. “It’s almost like she’s really important because she knows how little to do … She knows exactly what I want and we work together really well. I’m lucky to have her.”

Southern California isn’t the only place Marsalis has found the quality of light that has become such an important component of her photographic style. Summers in upstate New York and the south of France offer her “the same thing,” she says, and she’s found beautiful natural light all over the world while on travel and editorial assignments for a lengthy list of magazine clients. “There’s nothing like the real thing as far as I am concerned, but that’s the kind of photographer I am,” Marsalis says. “Before I started working professionally it never occurred to me to set a photograph up, I would just be out with my camera and something would be happening and I would take a photo.”