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.
With handshake blur canceled by stabilization, you’d be surprised what’ll come out sharp even at slower shutter speeds.
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.
Around 1928 René Magritte painted a piece titled La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), a famous picture of a pipe with an inscription in French: Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). His point was a good one, possibly one on of the best ever made by a visual artist, and spoke to a common perception fallacy we engage in. A pipe is a real thing, an item with a certain character, size, and dimensionality. It is tangible. Magritte’s picture of the pipe was not a pipe, it was a picture. The fallacy is in our desire to label representations of things we recognize as if they were the things themselves.
And that was almost a century ago at this point. Since the introduction of color printing, the saturation of photography, and the invention and rise of the internet we have become even more exposed to mere representations of items. Pictures in books and magazines have long been substitutes for seeing the actual thing, be it an item, animal, or exotic place. And the prevalence of digital photography and ease of distribution via the internet has only accelerated that. If you want to see something, almost anything in the world, you can. Instantly. At least, that is, you can see an image of the thing. It is now the case that most things we will ever see in our lives are not the thing themselves, but rather the image of the thing. A flattened picture of it.
The art world does not escape this. It is impossible for an individual to see in person every piece of art that they can see in books and online. Many people will never fully understand the difference it makes to see an oil painting in person. Because paint is a different visual experience than a photograph, it has texture, and depth, and it can have layers built through the use of glazes and varnishes that provide a different experience in an environment where you can move and examine them from different perspectives.
But, by and large, we won’t encounter these actual items. We won’t hold the pipe. What we will see are the images. The pictures. The representations of the real item. And that means a handful of lucky few will have a completely different experience of any given work than the majority will, because they will have seen the thing and not merely the image. And, that’s not fair, is it?
In this series I seek to resolve the conflict that Magritte first brought up, and that the digital age has exacerbated. The image is not the thing. Unless, of course, you make it the thing. If the representation of the painting was not just a representation, but the piece itself. In this series, the painting is almost inconsequential as an object. it exists for the purpose of getting the photograph, and then it is no longer needed. To reduce confusion about this, the painting is even destroyed. Leaving only the image behind to examine, to show, and to share. Excepting for variances such as brightness, and monitor calibration, everyone gets what approximates the same image. It’s the same perspective. The texture has been flattened from only one vantage, and everyone examining it minutely will see the same details. The photograph is the piece, and the piece is not a painting.
Because, in this digital age, the painting was unnecessary anyway. It’s the image of it that matters. And in this case, the image is all there is left.
This first entry is called Aglets, and The Smell of Earth After Rain, and was shot at the abode of the lovely Nicholas and Moxie Henry. A video of the prop used to create this image being destroyed will be posted once I get a chance to cut it. Because, really, who doesn’t like seeing things get reduced to itty-bitty pieces? Boring people, that’s who. Besides, I want everyone to know I’m putting things on the line here. The photograph is the work of art, and I have not kept the painting somewhere. That would imply that there was value separate from the photograph remaining still in the painting. Seeing it destroyed is my way of proving to you that there is not. And, since most of you will have never seen any of my paintings in person, you’ll never know the difference anyway.
This is not a painting. It no longer needs to be.
Updated 10:36pm June 25, 2013: Added additional BTS shot for Jeremy Grimmer’s shot
I hate mornings. Hate’em. Being awake in the morning means I’ve either interrupted or forgone entirely one of my favorite things in life: sleep. Not even the fact that it’s socially acceptable to drink an entire pot of coffee and swear under your breath during morning hours save them from my animosity. They’re a blight and a curse and if I had my way they’d just cease to exist.
So, when it panned out that my latest shoot for EclecticPond got scheduled at 9:30 (bad enough during the week, but unforgivable on a Sunday), I should have been a lot crankier about the whole thing than I was. I really should’ve been. But, I couldn’t bring myself to be anything but excited, due to the following instructions I’d received from Tom, the artistic director:
We need an image of each cast member looking suitably epic, but also entirely random – think bizarre fashion shoots, like you might see in magazines, to accompany interview features. Also group random epic image. So, clothing-wise, think formal-ish, with a hint of oddness… Hope these give you some ideas…
I like random fashion-ist-y shots. So much so that I’ve made a reputation off of it. But, even more than that, I’d seen where we were shooting– a massive props department full of the most random things. A spherical wire bird cage, a miniature statue of David, an actual rocking horse, a giant turkey on a sled, two boxes labeled “Tweed Trilbys,” a field scythe, rubber barbed wire, fake pies, you name it. It was a wonderland, and I had been asked to come play in it. I looked up from the email body to the headers to see who all was going to be in the shoot. My smile got bigger. I recognized most of the names: Kate Homan and Meagan Matlock from the company itself (and regulars in their imagery), Jeremy Grimmer who I’d recently shot for Much Ado About Nothing and who is quite animated, Scott Russell from Eloisa & Abelard (and who still shows up in my homepage images to this day), Michael Hosp from Dracula: The Panto… There was only one new name in the list, and instant recognition of it from Mr. Nick Henry assured me he’d fit right in with what I was expecting from the others.
Morning or not, it was destined to be a good shoot.
Chairs. Oh so many chairs. Photo by Megan Caylor.
So, Sunday morning Megan and I woke up, dragged ourselves out of bed, packed up my gear and the new bluetooth stereo, filled some coffee mugs and hit the road. We got there a bit early and chatted with Tom for a bit before meeting our person and getting in. I put some music on for the first time at any ETC shoot, got the lights set-up, and Megan and I checked out cameras. I was shooting the company, and for once she was going to help out by shooting me shooting them instead of just being a voice-activated bounce reflector stand and grip. Tom and I grabbed some decorative columns and clamped a roll of ornate (read:tacky) fabric off of it to make the first of many backdrops we’d need. We were just getting everything finished up when the actors arrived, and then it was show-time.
A carefully curated collection of madness. Photo by Megan Caylor.
Up first was the new guy, one Mr. Zachary Joyce. He looked at the collection of pre-approved props Tom and I had selected, and wisely chose the croquet set. If his beard and vest hadn’t endeared him to me, that decision would’ve. Croquet is one of my old-people games that I have a curious love for (the other, of course, being shuffleboard.) I positioned him in front of the impromptu background with a simple softbox+bounce set-up, and the day really got going.
Photo by Megan Caylor.
The lighting for this one is one of my favorites for this style project. One softbox up and down, with its front diffuser pulled out so it gets just a bit more “edge” to the light. A large silver bounce is set up on the other side to throw back a little of the wasted light as some faint wrap fill without getting the modeling too even. My new flash is behind Zach with a Fong cloud diffuser and cap on it to serve as a background light. The cloth backdrop wouldn’t quite stay taught, which left some obvious folds in it when we tried some looser compositions:
So, in the end I just tightened the framing in, which lost the stake in the rear pocket but also really brought attention to the ridiculous lawn-polo look Zach was giving us. We had our first shot down.
Up next to bat was Mr. Michael Hosp, with a new, twirly villain mustache. And no pants. He picked up the cement-covered trowel and held it diagonally across his chest up to his shoulder. I shook my head. “Do it American Gothic style!” His arm snapped to attention and I had to stifle a giggle. Tom and I rolled out a new backdrop and then we were back to it.
Tall. Definitely tall. Photo by Megan Caylor.
The problem that immediately became apparent was that Michael is tall. Quite so. In fact, he was very nearly as tall as the backdrop Tom and I had made. The only way to keep his head inside the backdrop was to close the distance between him and it. Bye-bye background light. Instead, I took the diffuser off and moved the flash out to provide some much-needed spot lighting directly on the trowel. Otherwise, the set-up remained the same (if much higher, vertically.) One softbox as key, bounce for wrap. Being of a non-impressive height myself I needed a bench to get the shot squared up, but it was quick business once I got that settled.
Some ideas don’t work out. Photo by Megan Caylor.
The third shot was where hiccups finally caught up to us. The backdrop was uncooperative. Even more so than the first one with loved getting swoops in it, so we spent entirely too long trying to add those on purpose. The flash returned as a background light but the shiny fabric looked awful lit by it. Jeremy’s Banksy reference was an absolute riot, and I supported it by putting on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack for him, but the first pose we tried with the banana pointed at the lens wasn’t working. The background still sucked. The depth-of-field didn’t reach back to include Jeremy, and the more of it I added the uglier that background got. Two things changed in short order. One, we turned Jeremy to face right into the light, and shot him from the side. Two, the background had to go, and I shot it in my favorite “blackout” low-key style instead. Final lighting was a strip bank for the key, to better illuminate the height of his torso from the one-direction. The bounce was still set-up, but pushed out of the way into the land of disuse.
This is the exact set-up and ambient lighting that yielded the shot below. Photo by Megan Caylor.
Next up was Kate Homan, who’s delightfully hammy nature has earned her the mantle of “my favorite” since Nick no longer accompanies me everywhere my camera goes. She had opted to combine the overtly decorative throne chair with a sword cane for the ultimate in badassery, and Tom and the stage manager set about making a suitably posh backdrop to support the look. This time the background went behind the columns, so that they became elements themselves, and a separate drop went onto the floor. And, if you want to see imperial splendor, observe Kate while a total of four people slave away making the background behind her:
Eat you heart out, Leon Kennedy. Photo by Megan Caylor.
Some day I hope to command that kind of respect. Also, it’s worth pointing out that we actually used giant prop cartoon sandbags to sandbag my lights the whole shoot. That’s worth so many awesome points I can’t calculate them all. Anyway.
Because of the hyper-centered composition the photo was demanding, I wanted to keep it simpler with the primary light almost centered itself, just beating down on her. However, lacking a boom I had to settle for it being a bit more off-center, and ended up with quite an ugly shadow to the left of the frame. After quite a few shots edging the second quadra head in to fill that area I ended up shooting it bare-bulb with just a gaff flag to keep her legs from getting baked while I filled in the shadow.
Before resetting for the fourth photo, Ms Meagan Matlock wanted to jump in and get a shot with Kate. I kicked the B channel head back out and shot it with just the softbox and I regret nothing.
Meet ETC’s Education Team. No, really.
Meagan’s shot was up next, and for it Tom selected a few panels of corrugated sheet metal to be the backdrop. Now, I’m no spring chicken anymore and I could tell right up that shooting large, metallic surfaces with lights was going to make things tricky. So, rather than make Meagan in her full get up suffer while I got it set-up, we swapped her out for my Megan who is getting rather good at helping me while I dial in lights.
For once it’s a photo of Megan Caylor
To give the Me(a)gans a bit more of a feminine fashion lighting, and to give the metal a more diffuse blasting, I switched to my 64″ PLM I fondly dubbed “Moonraker” with a white diffuser cap, making it act very much like a giant deep octa. Directional, soft light everywhere. And, to help explain how best to hold the
bondage crop invisible dog lead I actually got out there and showed them my own moves.
Photos by Megan Caylor. Sarcasm by me.
Wisely they decided to have Meagan do them instead, and we got her posed up and after a quick hairclip to the skirt to tame its poofiness (tiny lady + poofy skirt = silly photos, as Audrey Tautou can testify) we were shooting.
She does it better. Photo by Megan Caylor.
By nature, Meagan Matlock always strikes me as a pretty sweet lady, but given the harsh backdrop and bondage-Bo-Peep outfit I felt we needed to get her away from that for the shot, and we probably spent more time nailing the perfect look of haughty disdain than we did with the weird posing contortions, which probably goes to show something. That she’s getting too used to working with me, probably.
Last up was Scott Russell, whom I turned around to find sporting a lime green scarf on top of a pink apron with kitschy white polka dots. To go with his homemaker apparel, he had selected the fake pies. Which disappointed me, as I’d really hoped to go with the rocking horse. But, he had pie on the mind and so we set to work. I left Moonraker set up as the background light, and tried first (and foolishly) to use the gridded barndoor as key, but quickly saw the liight and went back to the softbox. After that, Scott pretty much stole the show and it was short work.
He was so proud of the heel kick, and I couldn’t fit it in. Sigh. Photo by Megan Caylor.
That just left the “epic group photo,” and Tom and our various friends and help set about raiding the props to build a giant wall of luggage to use as a backdrop. Meanwhile, I dragged a staircase ladder over and lugged Moonraker up it so that I could illuminate such a large area filled with six comically dressed actors. When I got back down, I found that they had made quite an exquisite set of junk, with pretty much everything including a literal kitchen sink.
They had however left out my two favorite props from the pull which hadn’t gotten used: the tiny statue of David and the rocking horse. I asked someone to go fetch me the giant-handed Biblical wonder and then, determined to get my shot of Scott on the rocking horse, dragged it over and made him sit down on it. I ran the B channel from the Quadra into the softbox and pointed it at Scott so I could keep him in the foreground, and only then let myself be concerned with posing the others. It took a bit of careful shuffling to keep David visible in the final shot (though the juxtaposition of the tiny naked classical statue next to the pantsless giant was well worth it,) and we ended up having to find a middle ground area to pose Meagan in to prevent things from just being a flat row of actors. The end result was totally what I was after, though, and is easily the best full cast shot I’ve done for the company yet.
The cast of “Shakespeare Wrote What…?”
And… that was it. It took three hours, and with the stiff, hot air in the warehouse and all the running around everyone was more than happy to clear out. Megan and I broke down my gear while Tom, Cat (the Managing Director), and Nik (our contact) tidied up the other bits. I got home and did my usual time in Lightroom, made shorter than usual by having very clear picks for each session readily apparent. All that was left was a quick trip into Photoshop to add in the pseudo-poster promotional copy so we could get these out as teasers, and that was that. My first shoot of the first season with me as a full-company member, and, I have to say, if it’s any indication you’re in for a more awesome to come this season.
It might even be worth waking up early for.
Follow the production itself on ETC’s site, and give a shout out to Megan for all her awesome behind-the-scenes shots on Twitter at @myotislucy!
Or, “How I Learned To Stop Aperture Prioritizing and Love The S Mode”
While I’m killing some time waiting for my headshot session with my chums at EclecticPond I figured I’d throw a blog post out into the netiverse, particularly one wherein I talk about one of my favorite subjects: the trials and tribulations of lighting in photographs.
You see, recently I’ve been finding more and more of those annoying where my beloved Quadras aren’t quite the right tool for the job, or where they needed a little buddy to help them along. I’ve needed an accent light. I’ve been wanting the lazy luxury of TTL. It was time to face it, I needed a hotshoe flash like a real photo boy. So, since I had some spare cash come in from a project I did for a lovely little English-as-Second-Language group, I decided to get an SB-700.
After a night of harassing the cats, a beer bottle, and my glass of wine, I came to a few conclusions:
- The awesomeness of the Nikon “Creative Lighting System” has not been over-exaggerated, and the flash performed minor miracles balancing itself with the ambience and giving me near-perfect shots both on and off the camera.
- I was going to have to figure out how to get the convenience of TTL (subject moved? Cloud cover set in? TTL is unconcerned, correct exposure for you) with lighting ratios other than “balanced.”
- I had no idea how to do so. And neither did the manual.
Balanced exposure has a time and place, but, man I love me some drama. Give me half the chance to knock the ambient down a stop or three and I will basically every time. But, Nikon’s TTL wasn’t designed to do that. It was designed to round out an exposure, not be the exposure. So, getting that to happen was… tricky.
First, I tried using the camera’s exposure compensation set to a negative value, then added that back as postiive flash compensation. It worked. Sorta. But the results were hinky and unreliable. Some shots were underexposed, a lot. Others had flash burn. It was no bueno.
Luckily, a comment from local photowonder Paul D’Andrea set me down a much better line of thinking that reminded me whatever else, only the shutter speed controls the ambient. And, lo and behold, the camera has a shutter priority mode. Working with Quadras has me pretty comfortable with how much ambient what shutter speeds will leave in, and I’m already used to setting values between 1/30-1/320 in manual anyway. By applying those to S priority, I was able to fix my ambient ratio while keeping the advantage of the system picking an aperture and forcing the flash to fill in the rest. Perfect! Now, I was able to quickly set ratios on the fly, without having to set have of it manually, which always leads to trouble in dynamic shoots. Behold, the results:
On the left, the world’s best trophy shot with off-camera remote flash set to TTL, no compensation, shutter priority at 1/320. On the right, the same set-up but I flipped to aperture priority and let the camera and TTL do what they were built to do. The figure is essentially correctly exposed in both, the only difference is how much the ambient is left in. Awesome. Perfect. I’m in love.
More adventures in small flash to come, I’m sure.