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Pictured: Dean Collins, 1953-2005

“Rules are no good if they don’t work!” The only real rules are the laws of physics and optics. -Dean Collins

Dean Collins was a master of lighting – both using it to make great photographs and teaching how light works. Dean did not provide recipes for the lighting setups. He explained the light itself. He taught what light was and why it worked the way it does.

Lighting seminars

In the early 1980s, Bell & Howell Mamiya Company sponsored Dean Collins Lighting Seminars across the United States to promote the Mamiya line of professional medium format cameras. I worked for the company as a technical representative. One of my jobs was to help Dean with his presentations. As such, I had the honor of seeing him explain how the light worked at least 20 times. He would show a photo and then go backstage with his multimedia slide projectors to show the setups. I sat with the others in each seminar and absorbed the inner workings of the light.

More than configuration

Dean Collins with the Hasselblad version of the Foveon Studio Camera at Photo Plus Expo in 2000. Photo: ©Kevin Ames

Seeing the lights setup was great. Even better, Dean Collins explained what’s going on and why it works the way it does. He realized that light and its operation were a constant. The light still worked the same way. Lenses and cameras recorded light reproducibly. The key was to understand the light. Dean was the master and a masterful teacher. He understood that photography was a question of light and not of camera.

commercial photographer

Dean Collins had a studio on G Street in San Diego where he worked for clients. He has photographed everything from cars and hotels to fashion, beauty and businesses. All of his photographs told the stories that his clients wanted to convey to their customers.

I visited his studio and watched him shoot a fashion set. He created the lighting he wanted on the model, measured the light, then ran a Polaroid test. The Polaroid confirmed what he already knew: he had the look he wanted. He puts a film back on the camera and works with the model through a dozen poses and expressions. He changed film backs and took twelve more photographs on color slides. After the second throw, he politely said “Thanks, I understand!” to the model. The filming part lasted maybe five minutes.

No bracketing

Dean Collins did not frame his exhibits during the session with the model. He focused on the look the dummy was giving him. He knew that all the technical aspects of filming were locked down. Only his subject mattered. When he showed me the developed film, it was no surprise that every exposure was perfect. It only remained to choose the hero’s move.

fine light

Dean Collins lived for light, capturing it on film and teaching other photographers how to do what he did. He worked while all the photographs were made on film.

His Finelight publications featured his work on their covers and inside pages showed Polaroid tests and detailed explanations along with easy-to-understand lighting diagrams. His work covers all areas of photography. He has done product, food, editorial, special effects and portraiture in his studio and on location.

Pictured: Dean Collins, 1953-2005
Spiral copy of Finelight by Dean Collins published in 1985.

The opening photo features images of Dean Collins from my personal collection of Finelight portfolios.

bad sense of humor

Dean Collins taught crowds of avid photographers who wanted to understand the mysteries of how light works. His words were peppered with jokes. One of my favorites is when he describes what photographers do.

He said, now paraphrasing, “Photographers take objects that exist in four dimensions – height, width, depth and time, then translate them into two dimensions, height and width for one-dimensional art directors.” Photographers loved it.

Skip Cohen, President of Platypod and Principal of Skip Cohen University, spoke about his participation in Dean Collins’ seminars. “I’ve attended hundreds of workshops and no one compares to Dean’s style and comfort level when it comes to being in front of a crowd,” Cohen wrote. “He was also quick on his return volleys. Once asked, “Dean, it’s no wonder all of your images are stunning; look how beautiful all your models are. Do you ever photograph ugly people? There was not a second of hesitation when he replied, “Of course you are and why don’t you get your family together and come over here right now and we’ll do a portrait!”

“Beauty is in the eye of the checkbook holder,” Dean Collins once said. I’m pretty sure he was also the first to notice that customers are their own worst enemy.

Dean Collins on Interiors

He was in high demand for his ability to make hotel rooms welcoming and worth visiting. He described interior photography this way: “Lighting a room is 5% technique and 95% moving furniture.”

This video is courtesy of Photoshop Cafe. He shows a segment from the “Dean Collins on Lighting – Live at Brooks Institute of Photography” DVD set which shows him sharing how to light hotel rooms. Video was made in 1991 long before HD video and high dynamic range cameras. While the quality is poor by today’s standards, the information is invaluable.

Sit down for seven and a half minutes and meet Dean Collins who I had the good fortune to see so many times live and work with him at the dawn of digital photography. Like so many others who knew and loved Dean, I still have his cell phone number in my contacts. He was and is my friend. I often think of him, especially when lighting a scene.

Dean Collins teaches students at the Brooks Institute of Photography all there is to know about lighting Hyatt guest interiors.

Sources: Skip Cohen University, Photoshop Cafe, San Diego Union-Tribune.

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