So, recently I had one of those super-awesome opportunities that are so prone to giving me impostor-syndrome: thanks to my ETC peeps I ended up helping the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre out by shooting their annual fund-raising Radio Show. I guess shooting it fell off their usual guy’s radar, so, I was helping them out at as a last-minute fill-in. But really, given that the Radio Show is a fun little night of local celebrities and Indy big whigs, it was really them doing me a solid.
I knew going in I was going to have to grab a photo for a cast of 30, and in a hurry at that. Not an easy task under normal circumstances, and in an unfamiliar place and with a time-crunch I thought it was a good excuse to finally try the epic 86″ version of my beloved parabolic umbrella. The 64″ extreme silver I have has served me well for years now, and with a diffuser cap on it did an admirable job shooting the much smaller cast for ETC’s “Shakespeare Wrote What?” last summer.
64″ Extreme Silver PLM with diffuser about 20′ from cast on top of a metal stair ladder.
Since the medium PLM did such a good job with a small cast, I figured the larger version with the softer silver would probably be a good choice with a larger cast. So, I dragged it out to the IRT, and set-it up a good distance from the stage and about as high as I could get it:
Actually, I got it a bit higher than this, and reduced the angle a bit in the end.
And, sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. Because of the rush I had it slightly off center, so, I had about a 1 stop gradient across the frame, but nothing LR couldn’t handle in post. The shadows cast by the umbrella were, for the context, just perfect. Hard enough for definition, soft enough to be pleasant still.
Can you guess who everyone is? I sure couldn’t.
It wasn’t until the actual performance I learned who the cast was for the evening. The sudden realization that you just took a picture of the CEO of Lily and his wife, one half of the infamous Bob and Tom radio show, one of the newer member of the Colts, and a bunch of other People who are People To Know is a bit of a terrifying rush, let me just say.
But boy, a lot of people made it out to see them (and, you know, to help the IRT raise money for little things like underwriting tickets and transportation costs so students can see more live theatre).
After an hour or so running around through two packed floors of guests and cast mingling (shot with a Fong Cloudsphere, love those things), it was back into the main theatre to catch the Radio Show on the One America Main Stage. It was a delightful “parody” of Downton Abbey (“Downtown Abbey”), with lots of good cracks at Indianapolis foibles and follies. Fun was had, and quite a deal of money was raised very quickly to help underwrite those student tickets. I was glad to be there for it, and glad to see how strong the theatre patronage in Indy really is.
And, boy, am I glad with work like this I made the jump those years ago to a D700. Everyone assumes the problem with working in theatres like this is the dark, but you know, very rarely did I have to go above ISO 3200 (thanks in part to the awesome new Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 VC I was giving a spin). The real problem with theatres is actually the light in the dark, if that makes sense. It’s the stage lights, which aren’t by themselves technically bright, but they are much, much brighter than the dark without them, creating a pretty big EV range to try to capture. And the dirty secret of high ISO too few people think about is that as ISO increases, dynamic range decreases. So, the trick of shooting these conditions isn’t to just ramp up the ISO and call it a day. If you do that, you end up either only having the highlights exposed and just massive stretches of pure black blah, or else you get the shadows but your highlights are too blown to recover. The D700 has much better headroom for highlights in RAW than my E-3 ever did, and that’s made shooting like this possible. I usually try to split the difference these days, where the shadows are a bit dark and the highlights slightly blown then I fix them in post to have something that looks more, well, natural than a pure “in the camera” process could ever give me.
Shooting theatre is fun, but it’s definitely got its own flow. Most of your attention has to be on the performance itself, trying to watch the actors, how they behave, who does interesting things, and trying to predict where the action is going to move on you. So, you don’t have a lot of time for focusing on the technical. Which, thanks to the decreased DR of the higher ISOs you need but the expanded range of the actual scene thanks to the stage lights means you have to take a lot of shortcuts. The big one is that I only use stabilized lenses, both tele and wide/standard, when I shoot like this. Sure, stabilization doesn’t compensate for actors moving, but at slower speeds like 1/50 it sure does take out a lot of the slop my own shakey hands would otherwise be introducing to the mix. Speak of 1/50, that’s about as slow as I care to go shooting theatre. Slower than that and you get too much blur too often. It’s nice to go faster when you can, but, once it requires raising the ISO the lack of blur is compromised by further compressed dynamic range, so, I prefer to err on the side of motion blur. So, what little time I do have to devote to the technical mostly goes to constantly fiddling the shutter up and down a few stops to compensate for the rapidly changing (and meter-baffling) stage lights.
All-in-all, I shot well over a thousand frames at the Radio Show. Mostly because, heck, I was having fun. It was a cool event, and one I was glad to be present for–even if I was technically working it. And, hey, the gal handling the audience cue cards totally rocked it with the best dress in the house and green hair. Take that, things.