There is another show coming up at our local community theater, and the Marketing Director needed some early rehearsal shots for their web-page and for print publicity. The show is “Becky Shaw” which is a modern drama about The-Blind-Date-From-Hell. It is still 2-weeks to opening, so of course there are no sets, no costumes, no props and no lighting. In fact, 2 of the 5 cast members weren’t even available either, but the Marketing guy needs something for his deadlines, so the commission was to do some “in-rehearsal” shots with the people we had. Fortunately these included the two leads and because it is a contemporary setting, normal street-clothes were not inappropriate. With the bare-assed nature of the environment, this really demands tight shots of people in dramatic interaction. The way we usually do this is the director (who knows the show) selects a scene and the actors run through it with me popping away. Stage actors really don’t do so well with static poses. When setting up I often have to move junk out of the background or ask the actors to get closer together than they would ordinarily be. I don’t do a lot of my own “directing”, but a little is always necessary.
This show is being presented on the secondary stage in the loft of the theater. The place has a rough brick wall that has a lot of great character, but the problem is that it has too much character. If it is well-lit and in-focus the high-relief texture of the brick draws your eye and distracts you from the actors (which I know by sad experience). One of my objectives here therefore was to diminish that distraction as much as possible by trying to darken and blur the wall. I’ve tried to do this darkening and blurring in post before, but the results are much better if you can get it right in-camera. For this reason, although it won’t be the actual blocking for the show, I had the actors set up as far away from the wall as possible to help enhance the bokeh. I have the Canon 85mm f1.2 lens, but given the limited space in the loft I was concerned that this would be too tight, so I put on my Canon 50mm f1.4 lens. This lens is probably one of the best “values” out there for Canon cameras because it can produce decent output, good bokeh and work in very low light, and yet it is still not too outrageously expensive. I reach for this so often though that I am considering moving up to the Canon 50mm f1.2L lens for the sharper, cleaner output of the L-class lens – maybe this summer when they often go on sale.
The next thing of course is that while bokeh is great, you still need to have your subjects in focus, so I bumped the aperture down a stop. I also wanted to darken the background relative to the subjects, which is actually a little tricky because there are skylights above that brick wall and at this time of year there was still a lot of light coming through them (especially for that aperture). I knew that I was going to light the actors with flash, so I used a low ISO (50) and high shutter-speed (relatively) to compensate for the large aperture and help darken the ambient light in the background. Unfortunately the 5DmkIII max sync is only 1/160-sec which is slower than I would like – there is a lot more flexibility when you have very high sync-speeds available (my Fuji X-100 leaf-shutter syncs at 1/2000-sec). This was lit with two Canon 580EX flashes into reflecting umbrellas about 45-degrees both left and right. I had the lights pretty close to the actors (maybe 4-5 feet) and very high and pointed down at a sharp angle meeting in the middle. This was mainly to keep the flash light from reaching the back wall and giving me too much illumination back there. This did produce some deep shadows in the eye-sockets, but I was able to bring that up with NIK Viveza control points (have I mentioned how much I like NIK stuff? Oh, I have – OK).
So I had my aperture fixed at f2 for the bokeh and the shutter and ISO fixed to darken the ambient light, so the real variable here (as it often is) is the flash output. I had someone stand in for a few test shots and determined that a manual setting of 1/4-power was about right. After I had the units set and in place I decided that I wanted a smidgen more light than that, so I moved the aperture to f1.8. I take a whole bunch of shots in a case like this, because it is hard to tell when you have the Money Shot on that tiny 3-inch display screen on the camera. You can easily tell things like exposure, but sometimes someone’s expression isn’t quite right, or someone’s eyes are momentarily closed or the AF messed up (never me, of course), so the more options you have to choose from the better. On the other hand the director (who is always in-charge) could only give us about 20-minutes out of the rehearsal for this shoot, so you can’t spend too much time fooling around. I just have to be sure that I don’t shoot faster than the recycle time of the flash units, but at 1/4 –power that is pretty fast. Oh, and the flash are fired by inexpensive radio-triggers called Cactus V-4 (another great photographic bargain that I couldn’t live without).
In processing I did a little bit of cropping. You always want to frame a little wider than you need because it is easy to crop but really hard to get back something was never there in the first place. The final crop needs to be tight because some of this is going to newspapers who really demand that things be that close. Other than cropping and a little Viveza lightening of the faces there really wasn’t any other processing done here. I am pleased that the background and overall effect came SOOC pretty much exactly the way that I wanted it to. Anyone can get 10 great shots out of a thousand exposures just by serendipity and dumb luck, but it really feels good when you know what you want ahead of time and know what to do to get it to come out that way – and then it actually does.
The Marketing Guy also always wants something with the director being “directorial”, so here is a static setup with the director and the 3 actors who were there that night.
And just for the hell-of-it, here is an outdoor shot of the theater itself that I took a few weeks ago for their publicity use. This was heavily processed with NIK Viveza and NIK Color-Efex-Pro and it was also a HDR composite from 3 different exposures. Being associated with this theater is a great little gig that gives me tons of great experience, even if I do give it all away fer-nothin’.