A Photographer Walks Into a Bar, Part 2

I had to use the joke intended for this space on facebook yesterday, so here’s an alternate: A dog limps into the saloon and says, “I’m looking for the man who shot my paw.”

Okay, back to our story.

Sometime in the last millennium, an employer’s generous profit-sharing plan provided me a brief window of unusually high income. I spent much of it on booze and women, but I squandered a lot, too. That’s why I’m so frugal now. Reviewing images from the OjaiAid photo shoot, I wondered whether money would have improved the results.

Certainly, if I were rich again I would have walked into The Jester with a Nikon D3s camera (aka “the lord of darkness”), as well as Nikon’s three latest f1.4 lenses: 24mm, 50mm, 85mm. All together, that’s about $9,400 worth of gear – except that I’d prefer two camera bodies, so make that $14,600.  I would confidently shoot at ISO 12,800 (four times more sensitive than the ISO 3200 setting I used for most of the show), getting higher shutter speeds (to freeze the action) and maybe even smaller apertures (for greater depth of field).

Anyone that doubts the power of an engaged workforce should have been at The Village Jester for OjaiAid. Or, you could read my book, E Pluribus Kinko's. ISO 1600, 1/30, f2.8

As it was, I walked into that bar with my trusty, battle-hardened Nikon D300 and my three fastest lenses: 85mm f1.8, 35mm f2.0, and 50mm f1.8.  Of course, I’ve studied military history, so I know the importance of arriving first with overwhelming force. I snuck in a couple of hours before the event and stashed a bag near the BBQ. The bag included four more lenses (11-16 f2.8, 17-55 f2.8, 70-200 f2.8, 105 f2.8) and three flash units. No, I was never a boy scout, but I’ve seen The Untouchables, so I know better than to bring a knife to a gunfight. That 11-16 eventually delivered the money shot of the day.

Still, test shots revealed that my f2.8 lenses – which are considered fast lenses by everyone that sells them – would not be fast enough for the circumstances. Thank goodness Nikon has kept their camera/lens combinations backward compatible, so my old, faster prime lenses work with my digital camera.

Don Cardinali, shot with a lens older than my adult children. ISO 3200, 1/160, f1.8. A lot of compromises, but there's no way I get the shot at all with an f2.8 lens. Note the hat effect - there will be a rant later. As you can see, the razor-thin depth of field punishes us for the slightest mis-focus.

I’m very comfortable using the D300 at ISO 1600 – that’s how I shoot most theater and dance events. And as I’ve noted before, I can get away with ISO 3200 when the image is well exposed. But for most of the day, I shot at ISO 3200 with the lenses wide open – or close to wide open – to get an almost-but-not-quite-fast-enough shutter speed. Constantly underexposing images at the top end of your ISO range is a guaranteed noise- and ulcer-generator. But when your gear is maxed out, what’s plan b?

For the first couple of hours, I got a little boost from ambient light through the window behind the stage. But as evening came on and the images got darker and darker, I made a crucial decision. I had always planned to convert the images to black and white, because I knew they would be grainy, but now I took the bold step of setting the camera to SHOOT in black and white. Why? I was shooting in jpeg anyway, and decided I’d just take the WYSIWYG bull by the horns and make my exposure decisions based on the LCD monitor.

I switched to Monochrome capture during Cindy Kalmenson's set, and I was pleased with the camera's tonal rendering. I also spent most of her set wondering if she might have a thing for bald, overweight, married men. But then, what woman doesn't? ISO 2800, 1/160, f2.0

“Wait a minute,” demands the observant regular reader. “Why on earth would you shoot something so important in jpeg! You told us you shoot important things in RAW! Have you lied to us? You, our rock of sages; the still center of an ever spinning photographic universe?”

There, there; go ahead and cry. Let it all out. But yes, I shot in jpeg, and yes, it was a mistake under the circumstances. I was carrying 20gb worth of compact flash cards, but I expected to shoot for at least seven hours. I sometimes fill 12gb at a two-hour dance concert. Would you have risked running out of image storage space before the show was over?

But this was not a dance concert, and at the end of eight hours, I’d captured only a thousand images. I could have shot in RAW, and I should have shot in RAW. The original decision was not a mistake, but forgetting to adapt to changing conditions was indeed an oversight. RAW would have given me better noise control, wider post-processing options, and a slight improvement in dynamic range. Spilt milk, though, and fodder for a future blog entry on the post-processing of these images.

B. Willing James. Sometimes, technical limitations lead to more striking images, but I cannot go into a shoot counting on that. Nor can I expect to fix everything in post. ISO 3200, 1/160, f2.o

Speaking of less noise and greater dynamic range, I imagine many of you are already taking up a collection to get me a Nikon D3s and some faster lenses. That’s very kind, but you know what? A D3s and superfast lenses may not have made that big a difference in my images. Yes, they might be sharper and would certainly offer smoother tonal gradations (less noise and greater dynamic range), and the bokeh (rendering of out-of-focus highlights) would be creamy and beautiful, but most people wouldn’t notice. Why? Because while I was obsessing over the effects of low light levels, two other factors affected the images more noticeably: the direction of the light and my limited mobility. I reckon that’s what we’ll discuss in part three.

Coming in part 3: I throw caution to the wind make a couple of really good photographs. ISO 3200, 1/60, f2.8

1 Comment

Filed under Camera Gear, Camera Settings, Low Light, Post Processing

One response to “A Photographer Walks Into a Bar, Part 2

  1. Great shots, Dean. And there’s something soothing about the language of photography, despite my not having a blessed clue what you’re on about there some of the time.

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