The last play I shot at Zach was a very intense, three person performance called the The Book of Grace. I shot that with my Canon 5D2, my 1dmk2 and the holy trinity of Zeiss primes, the 35, 50 and 85. All manual focus. All super duper sharp. That photoshoot was a workout. Since the theater was "in the round" I had to: anticipate where the action would unfold, get to the right spot to shoot, choose the camera with the focal length I wanted, focus dynamically with the action and.....watch the exposure and shift it manually when the light changed. We ended up with a bunch of good photos but I had to shoot a lot and work the ratio to get enough coverage to make me (and the marketing director ) comfortable.
Last night we shot the musical comedy, Hairspray, and I approached it from a totally different technical point of view, largely driven by some tight constraints. This is a big and complicated show with lots and lots of cast and lots of movement and lighting changes. We've had a tough time scheduling a dress rehearsal shoot because I'm booked with lots of conflicting corporate work and, a show like this is always a work in progress. Our one day to shoot without an audience would be next Tues. but as luck would have it I'll be in San Antonio shooting at a conference for a production company. Last night was a "preview" show with a small audience. The marketing director and I decided to try shooting during the show from a seat that's just off the center seating area, near the front. It's a one seat row with no one in front or on either side. From a line of sight aspect it worked well. The big task would be shooting quietly so I didn't disturb the audience. And for the first time in years of shooting performances I would not be able to move freely around the sides of the stage. In fact, I spent the entire evening in my seat. That called for different gear and a different approach.
Choosing the right camera. I knew the minute we talked about shooting in a paid house that we'd need to do something to ameliorate the camera noise so I started by choosing the camera with the quietest shutter. And the shutter whose frequency is least annoying. In the Canon line up that's the 7D. When I shot Nikon that would have been the D300. In Olympus it was the E1. All of these cameras are far quieter than full frame cameras in their families because the mass of the shutters is much smaller and they are incredibly well damped. But I thought I needed to take it a step further and I fashioned a homemade blimp. Not a full on Jacobsen blimp, ala Hollywood, but a Kirk Tuck blimp ala Zing. I grabbed a thick Zing brand neoprene camera cover, one that was made for a camera with an attached motor and I cut a hole in the front snoot so the lens could stick thru. Then I cut out an oversized hole in the back so I could look through the finder at eye level. The Zing was oversized for the 7D but that worked to my advantage because I could stick my fingers in and around the pouch to work the controls and quickly pull down the back to check images from time to time on the LCD screen. The black KT blimp did a great job cutting down sound and it blocked out light from the LCD review so I wasn't guilty of "texting" the audience with a blast of light every time the camera reviewed. The assemblage wasn't beautiful but it worked well and took only a few seconds to remove for lens and card changes. I always wanted a blimp for my cameras and now, with an old Zing and a few deft moves with scissors I have it.
Choosing the right lenses. Since I knew I wouldn't be able to compose with my Nikes I gave some hard thought to lenses that would cover the scenes, work well with the 7D and also give me image stabilization. I knew I wanted to use the 24-105mm L lens but the long lens was giving me pause. I have a 70-200 L f4 lens but it isn't image stabilized and I wanted a really long reach on the off chance that I'd want to reach out and pull in a tight head shot......from my seat. I picked up a lens I've been researching for swim meet use recently. It's the Canon 70-300mm USM IS f4-5.6. Totally counterintuitive until you start thinking about big crowds on a well lit stage show. While we all think we'd love to shoot all theater with an f1.4 or f2 lens all the time the reality is that some shows call for shots of multiple people in the frame and those multiple people are rarely in the same plane. When I shoot at f4 with the 24-105 I get enough DOF to cover a couple of people and make sense of what's going on in the background. So, if the light levels are high enough slower lenses don't really present that big a problem.
The 70-300 gets great reviews, is much lighter than the L lens and has the most recent version of IS. I found a nearly new, used copy at Precision Camera yesterday, at a good price and I decided to bring it along as the long end of my tool kit. (See the second shot from the top for a quick assessment of how this lens worked, wide open at 300mm. On the 7D this is the equivalent of using, handheld!!!!, a 450mm lens. Two things about lenses: 1. The Canon 24-105 is a miraculous. It may have some geometric distortion but in the center of the frame it's quite sharp wide open. 2. IS is totally fun to have for telephoto lenses. If you can't put the lens on a tripod it's the way to go.
Camera set up. Once you've decided on a camera and lenses you need to take stock of the light levels in the theater and decide just where you'll be comfortable with the old ISO versus Noise versus Action Freezing equation. Where do all the curved lines on our graph intersect? If I'd been using the Canon 5D2 I would have been comfortable with 3200 ISO. On the 7D I'm totally comfortable shooting at 1600 ISO. In this production the light levels were generally high enough to get me between 1/125th of a second to 1/250th of a second, wide open. When you add in the image stabilization you'll rarely miss a shot due to camera movement. And if you shoot for the apogee of the action you'll find there's typically a spot where the action freezes before cascading down. (See above shot.)
RAW or Jpeg? I generally like shooting Jpegs because I can go for quantity and look like a hero based on statistics. But last night, being chair bound, I wasn't sure I'd have light where I needed it and decided to shoot raw. And I'm glad I did. Most of the images have a bit of fill light added to them in Lightroom. And I cooled the color temperature down a few hundred degrees. They are slightly sharpened. The one compromise I did feel comfortable making was to take advantage of the Canon's raw flexibility to set different pixel dimensions. I set the camera to shoot medium raws which are around 11 megapixels. More than adequate for direct mail printing and the typical use on the website.
Workflow. I shot 800 images last night which took up nearly 12 gigabytes of card space. I was using Sandisk Extreme cards (a 4 and an 8 gig). I only brought the two cards with me so I kept an eye on the frame counter and shot more judiciously than I usually do. I could tell that I wasn't losing images to subject or camera movement and since I wasn't moving around I could concentrate better on expressions and timing. It seemed to make a difference. The percentage of usuable frames was probably my highest yet.
As soon as I got home from the show I plugged in my UDMA CF card reader and started ingesting the images into Lightroom. I used the import interface to re-name the files as "HRSPRA-original filename" so I would know what job they belong to and to prevent them having duplicate names (which is very likely since Canon won't let you personalize names for each camera.......idiots). I also set Lightroom to save each file to two separate 3 terabyte hard drives. That way I'd have back up.
This morning I opened Lightroom and got to work. The first thing I did was to assess the overall color balance and make a universal correction for that. I also enabled the automatic lens correction during this overall synchronization. Then I got to work batch correcting for changes in density, slight color shifts and corrections in contrast. During this process I'm sending to the garbage any images I don't like and any which are over represented. Finally I select all the remaining files and export them as Jpegs using the 92% setting with the longest pixel length being 4000. Of course they are profiled as srgb's. I burn two DVD's for myself and one for Zach Scott Theatre. The marketing director dropped by the house at noon to snag a disk. The last thing I do before I finish with a job like this is to burn a set of DVD's as additional back-up. Time consuming. But that's why I blog. It fills the time I spend waiting for disks to burn. :-)
(loving the 70-300mm USM IS)
But......how was the show? I can't remember watching a musical play this funny since I watched "Das Barbeque." It was uniformly good. This theatre has their technical chops down. The music was great, the miking of the actors was perfect and the choreography and blocking was very well done. I'm planning to go back several times and bring some groups of friends to see it. It's happy, upbeat and witty.
I'm sure, as other photographers read this, they will think that the whole thing could have been done better with M series Leicas and fast German glass, or "see in the dark" Nikon D3's and fast Nikon glass. And the hordes of Canon shooters will opine that I missed the mark and should have shot this with a brace of Canon 5Dmk2's and a tiara box full of L primes. And I'm sure they are all correct. For them.
The bottom line is that I shoot what I'm interested in. If it works I'm happy. And so far, whether I've shot plays with an Olympus e10, a Sony R1 or an old, manual focus Hasselblad, even a Leica M3, I've always been able to deliver what the marketing people want and need. So I guess that begs the question: Is there a single "right" answer when it comes to gear?
I'd say it's like hairspray. Everyone has their own preference. And sometimes you change brands. You still have hair. If you're lucky.