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Wizard of Light : Young San Diego Dynamo Flashes New Methods for World of Photography

October 03, 1985|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — Dean Collins is one of those rare human machines that make the rest of us wonder how they do it, how they find the time in the day, how they come up with their ideas . . . how they make all that money.

Collins is a whiz kid (photographer-innovator-educator), and his life resembles 90 atomic power plants operating at one time. He works 14-hour days, six or seven days a week. Thirty percent of the year he's on the road lecturing--down from about 50% the last two years. Meanwhile, he puts out a monthly photography newsletter with an international circulation of about 4,000, creates photographic accessories, lectures to classes in his studio and somehow finds time to design and shoot photographs for such clients as Hyatt Corp., Kyocera Corp. and Fuji Film.

By any measure, the man is a success, but the feeling is that, at 32, he is just beginning. Already he runs four businesses, all begun less than five years ago, which together gross nearly $1 million a year.

More importantly, he is recognized by some of the top commercial photographers in the nation for his knowledge about the effect of lighting in photography, especially color photography. He not only understands lighting, he teaches others what he knows. And he creates accessories that make his knowledge easier for others to use.

When Collins explains what his life is about, be prepared for a wide-ranging verbal jaunt that stretches from a small studio in an old industrial section of downtown San Diego to Switzerland, to auto racing, to the White House, to an explanation of the physical properties of light.

"What I'm doing is generating a high-nutrition burger of information," he said of his varied educational efforts. A lot of hot-shot photographers and big-name publications are eager for a bite of that burger, including photographers from the Washington Post, Newsweek, National Geographic and the White House. What he offers is a new approach to photography through lighting.

"You cannot go to any school to learn lighting. I decided to start my own research school," he said. After studying the German method of training photographers in Switzerland, he took what he wanted and put it into the American vernacular. From the Germans he learned structure.

"In German-speaking countries--Germany, Austria, Switzerland--you have to have a college degree before you can open a studio," Collins said. "They want to see a photographer with a college education. Here, you have a roll of duct tape and a business card, and you're in business. The camera's optional. That's how we work. That's the free-enterprise system, and it's good. America is by far the major leader in photography. Always have been--always will be. That's because we're not organized."

Collins has added--but not imposed--organization on his photography by breaking down the physics of light. "I see photography as an art and a science: a predictable art when it becomes a controllable science," he said.

Collins blends the intuitive and the analytical. Like what Ansel Adams did with black-and-white photography, Collins has developed a zone system for color as a basis to work from. "Ansel Adams saw a range of contrasts versus the limits of the film," Collins said. "He took film and placed it to the situation. Commercial photography places the situation to the film.

"When I walk into a studio, everything's black. Nothing's happening. The idea is that you don't just put light on a set. You create contrasts. A photograph can be created with very little knowledge these days. You don't make the film. You don't make the chemistry. You don't make the optic. You don't make the camera. The only thing the photographer truly manufactures any more is his or her light. That's the raw product, and sometimes you don't even manufacture that."

Collins' skills are regularly illustrated in his monthly publication, Finelight. In a photo featuring black hands and white pearls, he showed how to use reflection for the black subject and shadow for the white to show form.

Most of Collins' efforts and fame have been in the area of teaching. His studio was the last business he formed.

"I wasn't prepared to go out and produce imagery, so I started out producing technical data," he said. "Then I said, 'OK, I feel worthy, so I'll start shooting.' " His skills are now showcased in an elegant national ad he created and shot for Hyatt Corp. employing a tall glass of champagne. He is currently working on a national ad campaign for Fuji Film. Having analyzed, understood and synthesized light, Collins can show photographers how to create any shade of any color once they understand how light affects photography.

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