Groups photos are stressful events. It's crucial that a photographer master the technical and crowd control skills so that the stress becomes instead a creative buzz.
This photo for Sound Transit is one I've done before, so I knew where I wanted to be and how to light the hall. Even though this looks like a well lit space (and it is), the primary light is from the rear of the hall. Anyone facing me is going to be the darkest thing in the frame.
I like to light so that it doesn't look like I used lights. Mainly, I only wanted enough light to match the ambient. This was going to be a large group I was photographing, and I didn't want a lot of light falloff from front to back. The trick to lighting a deep crowd is to feather the light. You can see below that my light boxes are aimed upward. This way the people in the front of the crowd get roughly the same light on them as those 10 or 15 feet back. I spent about half an hour with a light meter, walking the space, and adjusting the angle and intensity of my three lights. My goal was to have no more than a half stop falloff from front to back.
I clamped the camera to the ladder, and checked the Pocket Wizard sync again and again. I had my client walk the space while I looked through the viewfinder, and I put gaffer tape on the floor to mark the front and corner edges of where I wanted my crowd. I noticed that the ladder and the arm had a lot of movement memory when I touched anything, so I attached a cable release. My final exposure was 1/10 at f/8, ISO 400. I put the focus on manual to about mid-hall.
I was finished an hour ahead of time, which gave me time to ponder what else could go wrong and how I could make it more complicated. I decided I wanted a few exposures with another lens (a fisheye), and put a pouch on my belt so I could change it up on the ladder. In that hour, the hall grew brighter by a half stop, so I adjusted for that.
The meeting broke up, and staff poured into the hall for the Photo Event. I had people ready to organize the group, and I had them squish and move them about so that they more or less fit my marks on the floor. It was a larger crowd than I expected, and I suddenly felt the need to raise the camera a foot. I think I was feeling too under control and I needed to raise my stress level. I leveled the camera again, and people were ready.
When you have a large group at your command, you need to be commanding. I shouted encouraging and commanding things to them, and we got a pumping arms-up-in-celebration thing going. It felt good, and I only took 10 or so frames. I really like to work through groups quickly—I want that initial energetic look, which you will never find on frame 40.
Then I decided to change lenses. Slowly, as though I had all the time in the world, I peeled one lens off, put on the fisheye, and capped and stowed the 17-35. The camera was dead. Again, as if I had all the time in the world, I checked the power, reset the lens, tried again. In this circumstance, you really have to be only in the world of the camera, and not in the world of 300 people watching you work. The third time I peeled off the lens and reset it, it worked. I pulled a few more exposures to make sure it did. “OK everyone, One!” Flash. “Two!” Flash. “Three!” Flash. “Last one, yeah!” Flash.
There's a great post at Jim Richardson's blog on the importance of understanding where and when a shot is going to occur, and getting all the pieces in place ahead of time. I have been planning all week for a photograph of a single event, the inauguration of light rail service in Seattle, this Saturday. I have a generous budget, so I have resources for pre-production planning for the five cameras I'll have operating to cover that single moment.
At this point I've made four scouting trips to the station: to identify my remote spots, to find my distant viewpoint sites, to see what a train looks like under a cloudy sky, and under a sunny one. I had my perfect spot already nailed down, when this morning I found workers constructing a chain link fence in front of that perfect spot. Without this morning's visit I wouldn't have known to add another ladder to the equipment list. Last trip I learned I'll need to keep the camera on manual, as the exposure goes all wonky when a large white object crosses the frame. This morning I learned that I'll need to underexpose a full stop if the sun is out.
We have permits to mount remote cameras on the platform on the overhanging light fixtures. I hired an assistant who knows way more than I do about how to hang and trigger remote setups.
We start work late night Friday, get 5 hours of sleep if we're lucky, then turn on all the power switches before 6:30am Saturday. I'll see what I got when we retrieve the cameras Saturday night.
Here's an unsolicited email I got today from my last wedding client:
We just took a look at the photos and WE COULDN'T STOP!! Ed kept saying, "WOW!" and "THAT"S AMAZING!" and "OH, PERFECT!!" I don't know if I mentioned that his first job was as a photographer. After winning several awards for his commercial photos of his dad's mining ventures, he went to work at Moulin studios in SF, CA and has done everything from ads and Ice Follies to weddings and his own personal photography. I also like to shoot and Ed thinks enough of my work that he bought me a digital M8 last year. I did some photojournalism in my youth, but it was too stressful and I went back to the beach before ever starting a career... Anyway, we both think these are the best wedding photos we have ever seen, and we aren't just prejudiced towards the ones of us! We love the shots of the kids and the folks at the river and the music shots; everything is just beautiful!
It is not the collision. It's not the airbags. It's not the thought of, what is our best friend going to think of me cracking up her van?
The moment that is still with me is seeing the van ahead of me stopped dead. I'm going 50. I brake, then brake fully, as distance closes far too fast. I don't know if I can do it.
I remember my surprise at seeing the rear view mirror skewed weirdly. I remember the gentleness of the airbag, like smushing onto a pillow. I thought it would be a hard, sudden strike that would embed my glasses into my skull, but it wasn't. That I had stopped in time and not hit the car in front wasn't enough. I remember steeling myself for a car behind to hit, and that we're about to be in a car crash. These thoughts all happened very fast.
I had just been to the airport, loading the borrowed van with Eileen and Dick (relatives of Robin from LA), their three grandchildren, and a mountain of luggage. They were going to lunch with us before boarding a cruise ship to Alaska for the week. “I can't find a place for my seatbelt,” said one of the kids at the airport. A suitcase blocked it, so I rearranged the van and made sure he, and everyone else, was belted in. That moment too is still with me. What would have been the consequences of a different decision? It was a hassle to rearrange the van, but I took the time to do it.
One by one I look at every passenger. “Are you OK? You? You?” Then I check with the van in front of me. Everyone OK here? Then behind me, the 93 LeSabre. She and her two kids are unhurt, and she's already called 911. I had tried, and couldn't get through, I thought. I couldn't hear Robin on the phone either, and much later, realized I didn't have a bluetooth on my ear anymore. My conversations were one way. Robin had the sense to call Eileen on her phone and I caught her up.
After the incident truck and the state trooper leave, we are all able to drive away. Lunchtime is a debrief session. Robin does trauma therapy on the two kids who are most distressed. Then the hastily hired town car came and takes our guests away to the cruise ship pier.
A back and forth Twitter conversation with Paul Butzi over who was more obsessive (he balances display spots with an incident meter, I used to color balance dual slide projectors with a color meter) got me thinking about this latest craze of mine to properly prepare the wedding photos from last weekend. “Are they going to notice?” Robin asked, knowing, of course, what my answer would be. “I will,” I said.
Once I ran all the RAW1 shots from the Mark II through the kludgy Canon raw processer, I had to reconcile the different look with the shots from the second camera body, the old Canon 5D, which looked great. But different great. Canon read and processed the files fine, but I was absent a lot of the fine grained controls that I'm used to in Adobe Raw Converter. So I ran the batch again, through Adobe, as jpgs, and set black points and color temps to a closer match. You can see above where I started, and where I was aiming for.
Thanks to all the suggestions for alternative RAW processers. I looked at them all, and decided I had invested enough brain time into mastering Canon's (which, because it can't do much, isn't so hard). It's amazing how much variety is out there, and how stuck we're going to be when a particular company that makes our favorite app disappears. It brings home the point, again, how fugitive photography is now compared to the days of silver and dye.