4.26.2010

Dream. A MidSummer's Night Dream.

I dragged myself back from my project in east Texas and I was amazed how beat up I felt from racking up the miles on endless stretches of Texas Interstate and the cobweb of secondary highways that criss-cross our great state.  I'd put my eye to camera in service of commerce and I was ready for some down time.  Some camera fun.  I went to Eeyore's Birthday party, which is usually my favorite raucous hippy event of the Spring but somehow  I got fixated on the idea of disappearing subtlety in modern culture and it soured me on the whole thing.  One photographer in particular, in a stereotypic black t-shirt, dripping sweat, was pushing and shoving to get through a throng of party-goers so he could cover the ongoing dancing with the feverish intensity of a journalist confronted with the unfolding assassination of a world leader.  Thrusting his long zoom into the faces of young girls and grizzled old men alike he became his own theater of the absurd.  In days past we would have picked the right tool for the job.  A Leica M?  A Nikon FM with a demure 50?  In modern times perhaps the stealthy but effective Olympus Pen EP-2.  Very understated.  There were perfectly well behaved photographers there as well........ But I digress.

I was looking for photo fun and while you don't always get what you want, if you try sometime you get what you need.  My fun arrived disguised as a request to have me shoot a dress rehearsal for a play in the park.

Every Summer the Austin Shakespeare Theater puts on a production in the Hillside Theater at Zilker Park.  There's something wonderfully timeless about watching the modern interpretation of Shakespeare's work while sitting under the stars on a soft Spring night.  A person you are fond of next to you on a blanket.  Maybe a bottle of wine tucked into your bag.  This year, to my delight, the production they selected was, A MidSummer's Night Dream.  But it was done in a wonderful, modern fashion, complete with a great band and plenty of Austin style panache and humor.

The rehearsal was Sunday evening.  We got off to a bad start with a fried lighting board but we soldiered on with good humor.  I shot the play with two cameras.  Both Olympus.  I used the e30 with both of the fast, f2 lenses.
The 35-100 f2 (which is the equivalent of a 70-200mm in 35mm circles) and the wonderfully underrated 14-35mm f2 (which mimics the standard 28-70 zooms for larger formats).

Around my neck I wore my little Olympus EPL Pen camera.  The newest and cheapest of the breed.  I left the little zoom and the cute Panasonic lenses at home and brought the old film Pen lens I've come to respect, the 60mm 1.5.  Yes, a real f 1.5 made specifically to cover this exact format.  I expect my copy was put together in the late 1960's or early 1970's and it's still as smooth as butter.  The look is different but I really love the whole experience of shooting with this combo.  I used the zooms when I needed specific angles of view and I used the Pen F lens when I felt the call.

If you look through the photos you'll be able to tell pretty quickly which camera they came from.  The ones from the Pen start with the letter sequence KEPL..... While the files from the e30 start with K3.

I used both the cameras at ISO's ranging from 800 to 1600 but I mostly stuck around 1600.  Can you see noise?  At 100% there is a bit of chroma noise.   But it's balanced by the way the two zooms bite in and the way the prime owns the frame.  The prime (60mm) falls apart pretty quickly when you start to pixel peep but I have a routine solution for that which might help anyone afflicted by similar noise problems. ...... don't look at stuff too close.  Life is noisy--it's okay.  I could probably fix the noise in PS but in final use no one will look beyond the image itself.  Some of us care about noise, but not the general public.  To them the photo either works or it doesn't.  In reality, it's only the special effects that get called out.  If you do fun work all they see is the fun.

This file came from the e30 with the 14-35mm f2 lens.  You might not be able to see it well enough on the web but it was shot at f2.5, almost wide open, and the actor on the right is wickedly sharp.  But even more fun, the color tones and the general tonality of the shot are perfect, even though this was shot as a jpeg under stage lights!


My technique is pretty simple.  I chose wide open or close to wide open apertures.  If one person was the important subject I used f2 or f2.5.  If the shot had more than one person and I wanted a wider zone of focus I would shift to 2.8 or at the most f3.5.  Nothing smaller than that.   It's a small production company and the lights aren't as plentiful or as powerful as the lights we use at Zach shoots but the e30 handled the focusing without breaking a sweat.  Most of the exposures were some variation on the theme of 2.5 at 1/125th @ 1600 ISO.   I use manual exposure and I spot meter.  I try to be aware of light changes.  I chimp when I think it's necessary----but never for expression, always for basic light values.

With the EPL I was stepping back about two decades to the time in which we shot dress rehearsals with Leica M cameras.  I used the EPL and the 60mm as a totally manual tool.  The exposure and the focus were Kirk Kontrolled©
But it was a bit of a cheat since I could watch the image on the EVF and fine tune as I shot.

Next time I'll bring two Pens and do the whole thing with vintage lenses because I really liked the look.  Sharp but not too contrasty.

The gear was secondary to the experience.  I was in front of a group of actors committed to their craft.  No contingent of photographers leaping onto the stage to capture the "news in a flash" moment.  We were all engaged in what we loved and the whole process flowed.  I went home at the evening with 10 gigs of files and a feeling of refreshment and invigoration.

We had a folder full of selections ready before lunchtime and on television by the end of the day.  I got to test the limits of the Pen Cameras and, truthfully, I was impressed.

If you decide to shoot a dress rehearsal leave your flash and your ego at home.  Dress in black.  Move smoothly in front of the stage.  Try to have a feeling for the arc of the story you're recording.  Look for moments and gestures that resonate with you and they will resonate for the people who view your work. But I guess my biggest advice is to discard the role of casual voyeur and embrace the role as a member of the production team.
Because then it will be easier to serve the actual purpose.....to propel the show into the consciousness of the general public. Someone reminded me this week that I've been shooting theater productions here in Austin for 17 years.  I still learn tons of  stuff on each show because each production is so different.


At least in spirit, join in the dance.
Be like the character, Puck, and try not to take anything to seriously.
Do photography with passion.
Don't posture or make an ass of yourself.
And try not to get carried away.

If you have a theater or dance company in your town doing images for them is a great way to fine tune your skill set as a photographer.   Timing, exposure, focus and predicting the immediate future.  It's all there and chances are good that they need you too.

The play starts this week (April 29th, 30th and May 1st ) and continues through the end of the month.  It is free to the public and here's more info for the Austin readers: http://austinshakespeare.org/drupal/