15 Apr 2012

Shooting a stage event (or boost the light conditions if you can)

Today's post is about photographing a dancing performance conducted by children on a school stage.
The event I was shooting was a local celebration of the Polish Presidency of the European Union Council and the show was prepared by the dance group "Children of Europe"
Taking photo of such event is quite challenging because of a combination of factors: there is a lot of movement on the stage (dancing), the lighting on the stage is limited, the required depth of field is relatively wide (because there is a group of 10-20 dancers, moving all over the stage and you want to capture all of them). The photo below illustrates my point.

Dancing on stage requiring wide depth of field
Ideally I wanted to have the persons on a first plane captured with the same quality as the ones in the background. So the aperture shouldn't be opened too wide (in the above case it was f/5.6, which worked quite well). Then the lighting. The typical options that I started with didn't offer enough:
  • Don't use flash. With the available stage lighting to be able to capture children during movement  and having reasonable shutter speeds, I'd need to use ISO of 3200. Not an option, since my D80 produces way too much noise with such high ISO values
  • Use the on-camera flash. It would work for the first plane, sure. But even with the powerful SB-900 it is impossible to cover the whole stage with light of good quality. The children on the background wouldn't be properly exposed.
So I needed some "lighting boost". And in this case I had some luck (yes, sometimes one needs just that). The ceiling above the stage was white and it was not too high. The photo from the rehearsal illustrates it:
Relatively low, white ceiling above the stage gave some lighting opportunities
Having the white ceiling opened a great opportunity to me: I was able to create a huge light source (nearly as big as the ceiling above the stage) projecting the light on the whole staging area. And taking photos like this one:
The lighting setup used for creating these light conditions is shown on the sketch below (view from the top):

The speedlights pointing the to the ceiling were put on the Lastolite all-in-oneumbrella stands. I had to put them quite high (about 220 cm) for two reasons: first, you don't want the flashes to be disturbing for the audience and the artists. And the second, I wanted to reduce the distance between the light source and the ceiling as much as possible to reduce light power loss. 
The primary purpose of SB-900 on the camera was to be used as a master flash of the created iTTL setup. I could use the built-in flash for this purpose as well, but I wanted to be on a safe side and use the power (and the coverage) of the SB-900 to trigger the remote flashes. And I wanted to have the decent light source with me while moving around the stage during the concert just in case the setup would not work.
Fine tuning of the setup took me about 20 minutes. A few consideration points:
  • The speedlights on the stand should be pointed and zoomed to cover as much of the ceiling as possible. This is a bit trial and error process: I made a setup by imaging a way will travel, take a photo, check the result, adapt the setup. For example I started with the diffuser domes, but took it off since they didn't contribute to the light quality, but were reducing the light power slightly
  • Decide where I would be shooting most during the performance and point the iTTL sensors of the remote speedlights in this direction. It increases stability of the setup tremendously.
  • I needed to crank up the power of the remote flashes to the maximum values. Which in turn drained the batteries quite quickly. So remember to have the spare set in your pocket when working with such setup.
  • The photos were slightly underexposed (in most cases by 1 EV). even with the maximum power of the speedlight flashes. This however was easy to correct in the post processing.
If one asks why one of the remote speedlights was SB-600 while another SB-900, the answer is simple: this is the equipment that I had with me.

As one can guess the described setup is not universal: there is not always a white ceiling above the stage, not every time one would have the opportunity to put his own equipment in the stage neighbourhood, the performance director will not always allow to take the photos. But if one has the freedom I had this approach is worth trying.

8 Apr 2012

How to choose a new camera body - my approach taken several years ago

I am up to change my primary camera body. What I have chosen and how I'll describe later. But first let me make a short retrospective of my selection process I did 6 years ago, when I decided to take the photography more seriously. Since my decision-taking process worked out quite good, I'd like to share it.

In 2006 I had some (somewhat limited) experience with digital photography. We had the point-and-shot camera from Canon. Good enough to discover the advantages of the digital photography. On the other hand we (my wife and myself) took our 'quality' photos with the analogue SLR from Canon - EOS 300.
The possibilities (and eventually the quality of photos) offered by the SLR camera were much broader comparing to the point-and-shot digital one. On the other hand I was not living under the rock and realized that the time of analogue (film) photography was coming to its end.

So my next camera would be a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. Then the decision process could start towards a specific model.
The factors that I took into account from the very beginning were:

  • The budget (of course)
  • The flexibility of the set. Six years ago I had no idea how my photography will evolve. So to be on a safe side I decided to look for something universal, yet adaptable to my (likely) changing requirements.
  • The extendibility of the set. When you start you realize after some readings and talks that technique being universally good rather doesn't exist. So you need to have possibilities of extending your basic set with some extra's (like lenses) that would make your gear more powerful over time.
  • The durability of the set (or rather the stability of the hardware ecosystem). When you spend quite some money on the set and decide to have an option of extending it over time you need to consider the camera manufacturers that are established players with the clear focus on their roadmap with respect to the photography.
The above four are quite generic criteria that can be applied to pretty each tangible, extendible system. Those four criteria helped me to make at least a 'short list' of the brands. I came to either Canon or Nikon gear. Remember, we are talking about 2006: Sony was starting with the digital photography, Olympus was not there (as far as I can remember), others didn't seem to have a stable portfolio.
Then reading of multiple pages of specifications started with a lot of tables putting the parameters next to each other, looking for the 'perfect' gear. Guess what? It didn't work  so well. The 'perfect' didn't exist.
If one camera had one important option (say Super option 1), the other one lacked it. For the other option (Super option 2) it was exactly the opposite.
I needed to revise my process and challenge my engineering mind to stop this 'specification madness'.
What has worked for me was the following additional criteria:
  • How does the camera feels? By comparing them one by one in a photo store I was able to decide almost instantly. Nikon was laying in my hands much better than Canon, I felt more comfortable with this gear.
  • How much help can I find about my gear? In 2006 I have discovered a very nice community of photographers called Nikonians. With a lot of information, reviews, comments, and very good sphere. I couldn't find anything similar for Canon users at this time.
Then things started to become easier. The only limitation was the budget. So finally I have chosen to start with Nikon D80 and Nikkor 18-200, 3.5-5.6 VR II lens. And had a lot of pleasure taking some good (and many bad :)) pictures. Later I extended the set with a Speedlight from Nikon (SB-600) and discovered the off-the-camera flash techniques (and the i-TTL system). So SB-900 was to follow (remember the extendibility criteria? Nikon D80 turned to be a perfectly extendible body). Later more lenses came (Tokina 11-16 mm, Nikkor 50 1.4). The journey continued. Six years later I am up to a newer gear, but I never regret my initial choices.