Thursday, March 11, 2010

Working with what you have

One of the things that I've come to realize about my particular style of photography is that I tend to be more of an "improvisational" photographer than a "carefully planned" photographer.  Some photographers like to plan a shoot down to the letter in advance so that they know exactly what poses they will shoot and how they will set up their lighting.  They'll work out all the details ahead of time in the studio before setting out to do the shoot.

I tend to fly by the seat of my pants.

It comes from shooting so many weddings.  You can't plan everything out in advance when you are shooting in changing conditions every week so you learn to think fast and look to your surroundings for inspiration.  Don't get me wrong, I spend a lot of time in preparation, it's just that I tend to practice things that will be used quickly.  For example, where a "planning" photographer might spend 20 minutes setting up lighting to light an entire room, I am more likely to try and "drag the shutter" to get the affect I want which means I am calling on the hours I have spent practicing that technique in my studio. 

This week I was at Carrollwood Day School in Tampa to take pictures of their annual play.  I shot the dress rehearsal (which allows me to go onstage if I wish and use flash) and then stayed after for some cast photo's.

By the way, can I just say that "Beauty and the Beast" has so many great roles!  For me, I would love playing Gaston ("In a spitting contest no one spits like Gaston!"), the candleabra ("Be our guest!") or, of course, the Beast.  If only we had this play back when I was in high school in the days before electricity and indoor plumbing.

The building that the school is in used to be a church and so the "auditorium" is the only one in town that has a choir loft.  I'm told they plan to renovate the entire room but I actually like it the way it is, church pew seating and all.  It's a very cool room and it's a shame I never got to shoot a wedding their before it was sold.

Because the loft is so big, it's impossible to light the entire stage area.  It would require at least 3 strobes and they would have to be on stage, which is out-of-the-question with a stage full of students singing and dancing. So, my background was going to be pretty dark.

After the dress rehearsal we had a few minutes to shoot group shots and the principle actors.  First we assembled everyone on the steps of the stage and shot different groups.  I used my off-camera strobe and my on-camera strobe for those shots so that I could get enough light for the entire group.  I had my 3-step ladder with me so I could get a good angle on all the faces.

Then, after we were done with the big groups it was time to shoot smaller groups and pairings.  It's at this point that the "fly by the seat of my pants" philosophy starts to kick in.  I noticed the stage lights up above me and thought, "Hey, those might look cool in the shot.  What if I could use the stage lights as kickers or rim lights?"

So, I went onstage and starting shooting with the audience as the background instead of the stage.  I figured I already had tons of picture of the stage that I shot during the rehearsal, why not try something different?  First up was the wolves.  I had my assistant set the off-camer strobe about 45 degees to my left with an umbrella to soften the light.  Then I got down on the floor so that the stage lights would be behind the actors heads and create highlights in all that fur.  I could have set up another strobe with a radio remote to achieve this affect but I was under a time-crunch.  These kids had to go to lunch so I had to work fast.  I work my fastest with one light and my surroundings.

For the "napkins" group I decided to use my ladder again.  You may not think it but dance floors and stages make great backgrounds because they are so warm with wood.  I bounced my strobe straight off the ceiling above me to bring down a nice wash of light.  To be clear, I also took a standard, full-length group shot of the "napkins" to be safe.  Everything I attempt "on-the-fly" doesn't always work!  What's important is that you aren't afraid to try new things when you are working with clients.  Sometimes it's the chances you take that create the most dramatic results.

Finally, it was time to shoot Belle and the Beast.  Luckily I already knew what I wanted to do for this shot because they had done it during the play.

I had the actors assume the same pose that they do in the play when the beast "dies."  This time I turned them so that the stage lights would be hitting them from back-left.  I wanted a rim-light on the left side but not the right because I planned to light that with my strobe.  It took a few minutes because the Beast kept making Belle laugh but we finally got it.  I love this shot.  The strobe lights her face beautifully while leaving the side in shadow for great contrast.  The stage lights provide a nice rim light on the left side to seperate her from the background.  I could have done without the windows in the background but you can't have everything!

Here's a shot of my setup when photographing the wolves.  My assistant Jodi took this picture and also handled my light during the portraits. 

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