Worst. Shoot. Ever.

I knew the lighting for one person would not work for ten people, but I didn't expect the particular lighting challenges of this fast-paced shoot.

First of all, it’s not their fault. I knew I would be asked to photograph a lot of different set-ups in a very narrow time frame.

Second, I can now confirm that a warning I’ve heard for years is good advice indeed: Do not experiment with new techniques or equipment during a time-sensitive shoot.

Third, one should never shoot with the expectation of “fixing it in post,” but thank goodness we can fix some things in post. When nothing is going according to plan, make sure you’re shooting in RAW.

Fourth, don’t believe everything you think. I thought the sets would be in place and our biggest challenge would be shadows on the backgrounds. All of my lighting plans were based on this belief. But there were no sets in place, and my biggest problem was separating the subjects from a dark, marred background. I was slow to adapt. A little initiative on my part – a call or email to the director – would have better prepared me for reality.

I’m sharing all of this not because I enjoy whining, although I do, but because I want to remember this experience and learn from it.

The Set-Up

I arrived early and prepared my gear, including two light stands: One with a 42” umbrella and an SB800 flash, the other with a 60” umbrella and two SB600 flashes. I planned to use the big umbrella as the key and the smaller one for fill. Dr. Jim Halverson happened to walk by as I finished setting up, so I asked him to stand on the mark.

Dr. Halverson hit the mark and gave me a smile. Two SB600s on the left and one SB800 on the right. Afterwards, everything went wrong.

This first image of the evening was also the last one lit as I expected. For the rest of the session, flashes failed to fire, output levels varied, batteries failed, and there was simply NO TIME to adjust or problem-solve. The director had the flu, but I was sweating just as much as he.

Did I mention that all of the problems were user error? Sigh.

Overconfidence Strikes Again

FedEx delivered my new, 60” umbrella about two hours before the shoot. But really, an umbrella is an umbrella, and does not count as a piece of untested equipment.

This is a very big umbrella, so I wanted to fire two flashes into it. The idea was to produce a BIG, SOFT light. So I bought the Lastolite TriFlash Three Pocket Flash Tilt-Head mount. Was that the problem? Not exactly. The mount held the flashes and the umbrella as expected. What I hadn’t tested in advance was actually firing two SB600 flashes inserted into the mount.

Two flashes in a big umbrella on the left, and one flash in a small umbrella to the right. It worked great, except when it didn't work at all.

Nikon’s built-in wireless flash system communicates via infrared light. As I’ve mentioned before, the system does not work well in theaters, because the black walls, ceilings and curtains absorb infrared signals that would otherwise reflect to the flash units. Pointing two flashes into the big umbrella obscured one unit’s infrared sensor. As a result, sometimes both flashes fired, but sometimes one did not. This was complicated by the fact that I had to keep moving the stands – and consequently the sensor – as we jumped back and forth from individual subjects to large groups to small groups to individuals.

Lighting this group is a completely different challenge than lighting a couple or an individual.

Had I tested the full set-up at home, I might have foreseen the sensor problem. I eventually solved it by turning off one of the flashes and shooting as I normally would, but with one flash pointing at an unusually large umbrella.

If A Equals B and B Equals C, All Men Are Socrates

A change in distance from flash to subject also requires a change in flash power, and this is where some world-class user error comes into play.

Typically, I assign the SB800 as a key light, an SB600 for fill, and the other SB600 for background, backlight, or kicker. Thus, the key light is programmed to be “Group A,” while the fill is “Group B.” I kept forgetting that the units switched roles for this shoot, so when the key light needed a bump, I accidentally bumped the fill light, and vice-versa. This happened repeatedly. Of course, the director only saw that I was taking pictures, so as he tried to move the next subject into place, I pled for another shot of the current subject, since only I knew that I was screwing up picture after picture. I’m getting a stomachache just remembering it.

With a light at the center of the hypotenuse, this would be a very exciting picture. I was too flustered to realize it at the time. Imagine a backlight on those hats!

Battery Strategy

When my flashes start misbehaving, it’s usually a sign of weakening batteries. I should have replaced all twelve AA batteries before the session began, but I hate to do so, because I end up tossing (recycling) 12 batteries that I have not worn out. It’s a waste of money and resources. Of course, I then had to replace all twelve batteries in the heat of battle, causing delays and additional stress for all involved. I need a new battery philosophy: I’m going to buy 24 rechargeable AAs so I can start every session with fresh batteries.

Imagine getting a bunch of teenagers into costume, describing the moment, getting the pose, and then having to change batteries in three separate flash units. That was my evening with the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Keeping Pace

The tight schedule meant we could only snap three or four frames for each set-up, including lighting tests. With individuals and duos, we got away with it, although we might have managed even better expressions with more time and comfort. But with the larger groups, every shot was a compromise. The lighting could not be perfected, and the law of permutations kicked in: Every group shot includes closed eyes and/or at least one other significant imperfection.

A study in compromises, in lighting, pose, and lens choice.

All images required more time than I usually allot for post-processing. Much of this involved finding a dodge and burn compromise that separated dark hair or hats from the background, and “airbrushing” the background itself.

I could go on, but I cannot imagine anyone is still reading. Suffice to say that I believe I delivered images suitable for PR and program use, but they do not meet my standards and the price seemed high: Had I any hair, I would have lost it. In the future, I’ll make sure of the background(s) in advance, stick to lighting set-ups I trust, start such sessions with fresh batteries, and I will bring an assistant, so I don’t have to stop everything to move a flash or change some batteries.

But a lesson I’ll really have to think about is this: Would I have been pleased with the experience and the results if everything HAD gone according to plan? It was a very hectic atmosphere with a goal of very generic images. If this is not the kind of photography I want to do, should I even accept such requests?

Pushed to the edge, I can light a group of people for use in a theater program. But is this the kind of photography I want to produce?

Is this the sort of theater photography I'd like to create? If so, should I settle for anything less?

1 Comment

Filed under Dance and Theater, Lighting, Personal, Post Processing

One response to “Worst. Shoot. Ever.

  1. myrna

    there are always other days, other theaters! … you are your own tough critic as these will be fine for pr … if i recall, you entered into this shoot with some trepidation … try k’s m.o. of entering with good intentions that the shoot will go well regardless of the hurdles … if anything it will relax you as photog and all around you

    i think the poses of the women (in triangle set up) are great! and mr blue eyes on your shakespeare shoot is spectacular


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