An interesting job with mixed light sources. On the stage.

I had several assignments during the course of the day this past Friday but this set of images for Zachary Scott Theatre was the most interesting to photograph. There's a scene at the end of the play, The Laramie Project, where one of the actors (Jaston Williams, of Greater Tuna and Tuna Texas fame) stands on a square riser covered in grass and is pelted by rain as he stretches his hands out from his side.  In the context of the play it's a very powerful moment.

I saw the scene the first time ten years ago during a dress rehearsal shoot and we captured it on film.  The shot was okay but not quite what we wanted.  Then, ten years later, I shot the scene again, during a recent dress rehearsal.  Technical issues kept me from getting the shot the marketing director and I both wanted.  The spot light on the actor was too contrasty (for the camera...just right for the audience) and the letters across the back were not bright enough.  The slow shutter speed we needed in order to dig into the darkness meant that we didn't get any sort of frozen motion on the rain drops.  We knew we'd have to light the shot to get the image that we both could visualize in our heads.  

I wanted to light up the rain drops and I knew I would have to do it with electronic flash to freeze the  motion of the rain.  I also knew from experience that the light from the flash would have to come from behind so that it didn't wash out the word, "hope" that was rear projected onto a screen behind Jaston.  It also occured to me that I'd have to filter the flash in order to get the color temperature of those light sources into the ball park with the stage lighting and, especially, the spot lights that were the main source of illumination for Jaston.

Finally, we needed to do all of our set up and all of our testing without Jaston in place because we didn't want him to have to spend much time at all in the water.  Even though the water is heated our supply of warm water would only last 11 minutes before the temperature dropped by 30 degrees or so...

To facilitate our set up I had the crew bring in a mannequin and place it on Jaston's mark.  We put the same kind of shirt on the mannequin that Jaston would be wearing so we could look at the reflectance and  see how to best light the set up so that we didn't burn out the tops of his shoulders or plunge the bottom part of the stage into blackness.

I placed two Elinchrom monolights behind the subject position to create effective backlighting for the rain (and for Jaston).  I used small, carefully focused, umbrellas with black backings as modifiers.  Through trial and error I found a sweet spot that did what I wanted with the rain (make it stand out against the background) and didn't over light Jaston in the process.

Since the main, filtered spot lights were around 3600K (as measured by a Minolta color temperature meter) I knew I needed to add a 1/2 CTO filter to each of the flashes for a better balance.  The flashes are as far back as I can get them; nearly touching the back screen.  Each one is just out of the frame on either side.

I was using a Sony a77 camera with a 16-50mm zoom as my main camera.  I settled on ISO 320 as being a good compromise between sharpness, the mix of the flash and low noise.  I shot each frame in raw.

The main frontal illumination for Jaston came from two spot lights mounted on a catwalk overhead.  He was also lit by a bank of blue gelled spots from the rear left and right. (You can see them in one of the photos below).

Once we had the test shots sorted out and approved by both the marketing director and the artistic director for the theater we removed the mannequin, quickly mopped the stage and then had Jaston step in and get settled on his mark.  I shot a couple frames of Jaston with no rain in order to assess how the light on his face looked and then I called "places" and asked the scene manager to "cue the rain."

I shot many variations of hand and arm position but all other settings were left alone.  We knew we had the lighting and color nailed.  After we got what was called for in the initial brief I wondered what the scene would look like from about five feet higher up so we gave Jaston a little break, reset the camera position up two rows in the audience seating and went through the process again.  I liked it better because the position change helped to "move" the word in the background up which gives us a few more options in final production.

I like the way the water dances off Jaston's shoulders and trickles off his ears. We started our set up around 3:15 pm and had all the technical stuff locked down and ready by 4:00 pm.  Jaston was on the set and ready. We shot for about 15 minutes, looked at samples and declared the shoot "wrapped."  The house electrician helped wrap cables and lights while I packed cameras and lenses.

Just a few photo tech notes:  The lights were far enough away from the water so that there was little danger in them getting wet.  Even so, we made sure that both cords were plugged into a GFI socket that would trip if there was a grounding issue.  I brought a total of four lights and four stands to cover the project even though I was pretty sure I would only need two.  I triggered the flashes with a Light Waves 2 radio trigger.  I brought two sets with two extra sets of batteries.

I brought two identical camera bodies just in case one failed.  I brought a total of four camera batteries.  I brought the 16-50mm zoom and a number of single focal length lenses that would cover the ranges of focal lengths I knew I wanted, just in case the lens failed.  I also brought an 85 and the 70-200mm 2.8 G Sony zoom just in case I wanted to go tight in on Jaston.  It never came up.

I cut filters for the lights in 1/4 and 1/2 CTO strengths, enough to cover all four lights, so I'd be prepared for more or less filtered main stage lights.  

I love working with a professional crew.  Having scenery manager who understood every hose, nut and bolt of the water prop was very efficient.  Having the house electrician at the lighting board for the theatrical lights was great.  We were able to adjust the levels to match the projected word light levels.  I love working with experienced marketing directors because they don't waste anybody's time with the newbie mantra, "Let's keep going, I'll know it when I see it."  We were on the same page from the first discussion.  And finally, working with a professional actor is so luxurious.  No nervousness.  No pretense.  Just, "Where do you want me? What is my action?  What is my affect?" Done.

And that's a wrap.  I didn't even need to ask someone to hand the actor a towel.  It was in his hand five seconds after the rain shut off...

This is the final camera POV.  You can see the two umbrella augmented monolights on either side of the curtain screen.  If you look directly up from the actor you'll see the two spots that are lighting the square grass prop and the actor.  Just to the outside edge of each umbrella you'll see banks of three blue gelled lights that edge light our subject.

Thanks to all the people at Zach Scott Theatre who made this moment and thousands of other magic moments happen.

(this post was edited at 7:47 pm to reflect my changing mood.)

Here's a great post from TOP:  http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2011/12/the-problem-with-perfection.html


Wille E said...

That is the truth, nice pic, Now I'm goin out with my G3, who needs hi flutin.....

John Bour said...

Thank you Kirk for the info on the shoot.and for your very wise words later on.
It is refreshing to hear some down to earth insights among all the pixelpeeping wannabee wisecracks on the fora ;-)
I'm a working professional since over 25 years, always used Nikon (as far as 35mm goes), still get my Mamiya RZ67 out from time to time. (my girlfriend called it the Mamamiya once, which kinda stuck LOL). Now I'm considering switching to Sony, mostly because of the EVF, and to led lighting. The latter is certain, but switching to a completely 'new' camera system is quite a big deal for me. Not financially but in terms of comfort, experience, 'feel'..I admire your drive to use all these different systems, and your reports might encourage me just enough to take the plunge. Having said that, the D800 is also mighty tempting..ah well..'die Qual der Wahl' as the germans say -'the torment of choice'. ;-)

c.d.embrey said...

Have you ever tried hard light to back-light rain? For me, hard light gives a crisper look. BTW nothing wrong with your rain, just wondering.

We all come from different backgrounds. Me, I learned lighting in Hollywood, way back in the last century. Commercials, Series television and Features.

Fora Fools spend a lot of time quoting the clueless gurus that they follow. In pre-internet days, misinformation didn't spread nearly as fast 8-0

Thankfully , I missed the buyer training. :-)


Daniel S. said...

That was an interesting read, thanks. It even made me think of buying electronic flashes for a second, until I remembered I haven't got the money and, since I shoot video, I'd be better off with LED panels in any case. Still, a missed opportunity to sell books, I think ;)

I love the third photo, too; it'd be enough to get me to buy tickets to the play, if it were showing anywhere nearby. Alas, it seems I'll have to settle for renting the movie based on it.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Daniel, Be sure to check out the new Lowel Prime Lights. It's a new line of LED panels that clock in at 91 CRI, which is pretty darn good color accuracy. Everything changes. It's so much fun.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

C.D. I have tried hard light but I was trying not to make any hard edged shadows from my back light and I think the slightly softer rain works well in this context. Plus, the small umbrellas further back seem to match the feel of the main lights. Thanks for the suggestion. I wish I had missed out on the buyer training... :D

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

If we don't try new stuff how will we keep up? Styles shift and the tools shift the looks as well. In the old days you could do the same stuff for a long time. Now I feel like we need to stay topical.

ginsbu said...

Very interesting write up and a great shot. Thanks!

Henrique Pereira said...

Wonderful image. Congratulations.

Vu Le, DDS said...

I thoroughly enjoy the construction (and deconstruction) of mixed lighting shots. My shoot tonight was less than glorious, so thank you for giving me something to aspire to.

Brian Fancher said...

So now I have a more solid grip on capturing rain and balancing mixed lighting in such a situation. That is all well and good but, in a nod to the TOP link, I'm fairly certain I have the technical chops to have figured that one out, given a requirement. I think I would be far more interested in a discussion beginning with the earlier disappointments, and how you and/or the art director had formed the idea of the shot and why it was important to capture the image you eventually technically solved. Surely the thought process between concept and the technical solution is far more interesting, and gets closer to the art of the shot. Of course these fundamentally artistic inclinations are much more difficult to pour into words.

GreggMack54 said...

I really enjoyed this post, Kirk. There is no way that I would ever have been in a situation where I could have been able to observe something like this, so I really appreciate you showing a "newbie" how it is really done. Thanks!

Mister Ian said...

Very informative. I haven't had the chance to shoot water on stage but smoke is fun too. I'm wondering with the (very non-directional) umbrellas blasting light back there how you didn't get any flare.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Brian, Unlike general advertising the image we were aiming for did not spring from the imaginations of myself or the art director but were already present in the staging of the play. The scene was blocked and rehearsed long before the AD or myself initially saw it. When the theater first presented the play over ten years ago we were just making the transition to full on digital imaging and the Theatre was just coming to grips with wide scale marketing an what was, for images, a nascent world wide web. (Bandwidth issues early on made instant, full color, big image advertising a mere wisp of what it is right now. We forget the restraints of the past sometimes). At the time I saw the scene as we were shooting the dress rehearsal (no time to stop and re-light or to even do the scene again---the actors and crew are exhausted and under the gun by the night before the opening.) I shot the scene as well as I could as it ran, fumbling to get both the right compromise on exposure between foreground and background, between highlights and shadows and focusing with the technology of the times (ten years ago ISO 400 was still a bit dicey with digital cameras. Really.) At any rate the images we got back then were good in the context of the day.

But over the last ten years both my expectations and the theater's expectations have risen. I shot the dress rehearsal again a little over a month ago and the result was closer to what the eye sees when you are in the audience. But the eye is still better at looking into shadow and highlight. The human eye doesn't let highlights burn out anywhere nearly as quick as does even the best sensor in a camera.

Previous marketing had shown that even in a muted and less than perfect permutation the image resonated powerfully within the target demographic for the show. We had the opportunity to take a scene that was more or less iconic and perfect it within the context of our own show.

There was nothing cerebral about our pre-production discussions. We had three things we were trying to acheive: 1. We wanted an image where the exposure was good in the highlights and shadows in that we wanted to see detail but we didn't want the shoulders of the actor's shirt (the part most exposed to the spotlights overhead) to burn out past white with detail. We wanted to freeze and accentuate the rain drops coming down. Without lighting they would get lost in the dark background. Without flash they would just look like noise. We needed to back light the rain so we didn't have degrading light on the background or overfill the front of the actor. Finally, we needed to control the balance of light from the rear screen projector, projecting the word, "Hope" at its maximum output with the spotlights that were the main lighting on the actor and then balance both of those settings with the flash. If I had not gelled the flash it would have added to much blue rim light to the actor. All of these are technical considerations.

The scene itself was set, locked and we were facilitating the image for print and electronic media. Converting live theater to two dimensional media. Our only real interpretation, from an aesthetic point of view, was to provide a range of arm positions and facial expressions. The artistic director of the theater will, no doubt, make the final selection.

I wish there was a better and more artistic "backstory" but......

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

I flagged the lenses as carefully as I could, using Black Wrap (tm) on two small light stands on either side of the camera lens. I learned to do this when I shot a lot of portraits with the Hasselblad 150mm f4 which flared like a mean nostril the minute you pointed a light source anywhere near camera.

Also, the Sony 16-50mm lens is really flare resistant for such a complex zoom, as you can no doubt see from the two images where unshielded umbrellas are in the scenes.

Rule of thumb for flagging: If you can see the highlight in the lens when you look from the front of the camera it will be able to induce flare..

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

You are welcome Gregg, I find it fascinating that so many "experts" on web forums have such narrowly described descriptions of what defines professional photography. This is so far away from shooting sports. I think most people only get to see photographers work at weddings and soccer games. If they realized how much paying work is set up and tested and shot slowly, with frame by frame adjustments they would better understand why the cameras don't really matter but the lighting and the thoughts behind the image do.

shambrick said...

Hi Kirk,

They say "when the student is ready, the Master will appear", and this post seems to have been written just for me.

I'm embarking on my first serious personal project with a 'fine art' bent. The theme, by sheer coincidence, is "Finding Hope". I'm working on two to three images that explore the nature of hope and our struggle to find it.

There are a number of challenges for me, many of which are themes in this post including:
(1) The need for subject driven lighting
(2) getting the right colour cast to reflect the objective and message of the image (CTO gels for areas lit by the key light and bluer casts for the darker shadow areas)
(3) having my key light in frame and the resultant risk of flare, and
(4) the need to prepare and test very deliberately prior to bringing in my subjects, as it's pretty cold in Melbourne right now.

Your description and pragmatic problem solving tips gives me ideas and inspiration as I stretch beyond my comfort zone. So thanks.

Assuming I don't 'drop the ball', the images will be exhibited and money raised will go to support the Hope Orphanage in Cambodia, who are helping HIV positive orphans. This gives me a motivations but raises the stakes somewhat.

If you're interested I'm happy to share the final images in the coming weeks, it would be great to leverage your reader base to raise awareness of the good work done by the orphanage. I'm not sure about your policy, but I have links I can post if you're OK with it.

Thanks for your ongoing commitment to this blog and its community. Keep up the good work!

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