Photographing "A Christmas Carol" at Zach Theatre, circa 2015

a quick collection of my favorite shots from "A Christmas Carol" at Zach Theatre.

Let's discuss actual photography. One of my jobs as a freelance photographer is to take photographs during the dress rehearsal of the plays at Zach Theatre. Technically, these are called running shoots because we do the photography while the cast is running the play. In the very early days of my theater photography we did our running shoots in black and white because, in Austin at the time, all of the outlets for public relations photos related to entertainment, ran in black and white; and mostly in tabloids that were web printed on newsprint. If we wanted to do color shots we found it very difficult to work at the highest quality under the hot lights and with the slow films available in tungsten color balance.

When we attempted to shoot color during the actual dress rehearsal I would load up Leica M series cameras with Kodak's ProTungsten 320 film and push the ISO one stop to 640. At 640 I had a fighting chance at getting a high enough shutter speed (if I watched for the peak of action) to freeze movement while getting a workable f-stop. I was generally walking the line between 1/60th and 1/125th of second...

To get really great color stuff we would do set up shoots. Sometimes on stage and sometimes in my studio, depending on how far along a show as in the rehearsal. Sometimes the crew is working on creating a set right up to the week of the play and back in the film days the lead time for publications was appreciably longer that today.

I loved doing the set up shoots because the quality of the images wasn't constrained by the stage lighting, and we could stop the action and pose our actors exactly the way we wanted to. If we had some feature in the background we really liked we could change camera angles or an actor's position to accommodate the feature. The most compelling reason for my appreciation of the "set up" shoots was that they represented an opportunity to light the shots extensively and also to bring to bear our medium format cameras and lenses, along with slow, delicious, rich color transparency films.

My good friend, Jim Reynolds, who was the marketing director at the theatre during most of my career, would come to the studio or the stage with five or six different shots in mind and we'd carefully set them up and light them, always trying to make them look as though they'd been lit with theatrical lights, only with much better results. My tools back then were a mix of big, 4x6 foot soft boxes along with small fresnel fixtures made for Norman and Profoto flash heads. We worked around the contrast limitations of the film with smart lighting. The images could be amazing. They were the backbone of the theatre's marketing in the days before online social media and we spread them around everywhere as post cards, subscription mailer content and posters.

Now we tend to rely on the running shoots (dress rehearsals) for everything and in some ways it limits us from evolving the absolute best images from a play. The chance to re-stage and to shoot iterations of the same gesture or look are very powerful tools and I think we tend to ignore them in the rush to maximize efficiency and the time commitment of cast and crew. I long for the days when it was the standard to at least aim for perfection in our work. I think it imbued the photographs with more energy and that came across to the viewers.

The one other thing that has changed for me is the change of the actual theater space. Three or four years ago we moved from a very small, intimate theater space to a beautiful new theatre that can seat 350 people. With it came all the attendant costs of owning and using a very large space: more crew, more electricity, more expensive lighting instruments with which to throw longer and longer beams of light, and a much bigger stage. Once we did this the theatre decided that we'd bring in audiences to the house for the dress rehearsal. These audiences are "family and friends" and there's no denying that it's a good experience for the actors to play to a nearly full house before the first performance in front of an audience paying the full ticket price. But with a full house I no longer really have the option of stalking the actors from directly in front of the stairs.

We've changed the methodology and now I am constricted into a small space that's much further from the stage. This means that we're using more and more telephoto lenses which, in turn means we're seeing less and less depth in the shots and more compression. What's lost in the translation is a sense of visual intimacy that the immersive nature of a wide angle lens, used close, provides.

Instead of shooting from ten feet away with a fast, wide zoom I am shooting from thirty or forty feet away (or more) with a longer lens like an 80-200mm f2.8.

While I understand the restrictions we're working under as regards the space, the budgets and the availability of the actors, no small part of me wishes we could go back to the previous methodologies because they helped me to create more interesting and, I think, harder marketing images.

For the play I shot yesterday, A Christmas Carol, I worked in the new methodology with both a longer zoom on the Nikon D810 and a shorter zoom on a D750. I'm now shooting down on the stage instead of at eye level to the actors. Since most of the stage is dark and the actors are in pools of every changing light I use manual exposure and try to anticipate and rides the shutter speed as needed. The goal is to watch scenes form, choose a composition that's tight and graphic and then make sure I have sharp focus on the important subjects, as well as the right exposure. I cheat a bit lately by shooting in raw with the Nikons and having the option to pull up or push down exposure in either direction by one stop.

There is always a battle of sorts, in my mind, between lighting that works well and is exciting for an audience versus lighting that works well for photography. We're constantly trying to tame wild contrast ranges and at the same time work to figure out what the dominate light color is. It's a fast chess game for the brain; especially when you know that you won't get "do overs" of any particular scene.

With all the constrictions aside, the challenge of the shoots and the potential to get really exciting visual content certainly makes shooting live theater worthwhile to me. If you can shoot a fast moving show with a huge range of contrasts and constantly changing colors I think you are ready to shoot just about anything. I always go back to see the shows later, without a camera in front of my face. It's amazing how different a show is when you are working and then when you are a part of the audience.

This version of A Christmas Carol was amazing. I can hardly wait to see it again.

I have to be in New Jersey for a shoot all next week but I'm already making plans to see it again the following week. I know I'll love it even more!

I love to go to a dress rehearsal of a play that brings (happy) tears to my eyes and "A Christmas Carol" at Zach Theatre does it to me every time.

I may be more emotional and nostalgic than most manly photographers who seem drawn to our business, but I have to admit that there are times when I am photographing a great play and there's a special, heart warming moment that brings tears of joy or tears of recognition to my eyes. The point in the holiday play, A Christmas Carol, (Charles Dickens) when Scrooge discovers his humanity and undergoes his spiritual catharsis is one such occasion upon which I must pretend that I've been beset by allergies and that must be the reason my eyes are watering and my nose is running, a bit. Not to mention the lump in my throat...

I had a Nikon D810 in front of my face when Tiny Tim, hoisted up in Scrooge's arms, says, "God Bless us, everyone." and I must confess that I kept the camera and lens there for a few moments longer so as to regain my composure.

Seriously though, Dave Steakley, the artistic director at Zach has infused what was a hoary classic with so much modern music, incredible choreography and joyous singing that he has transformed the play into a wonderful new....instant classic. When actor, Kenny Williams, belts out Pharell William's song, Happy, at the end, surrounded by the entire cast .... well, just like Suess's Grinch, my heart felt like it grew two sizes that day.

From beginning to end I was transfixed. I have to go back as soon as I can to experience the magic that this cast delivers without the distraction of my camera and lenses. I guess I just kicked off my own holiday season ---- and it feels so good!

If you live within 100 miles of Austin you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get over and see the show. It's opening TODAY.


I have a new camera bag. It cost $20. It's comfortable to carry and holds a lot of lenses. It's also bright red.

So, I was sitting around one day reading some book on critical theory or the unconscious when I heard a tiny noise that sounded suspiciously like a leaky toilet. I put my book down and wandered around the house looking for the culprit. Yep. Time to replace a flapper in the toilet tank. Should be a $5-$7 repair but it never really works out for me that way...

I headed to the hardware store to buy a flap and then I made my typical mistake; I looked around at all the cool stuff on display. Well, of course I might need a new adjustable wrench because I wasn't really sure where the old one might be. I can always use a couple more "A" clamps. And, of course, I needed to see what's new in economical, new LED light bulbs.

But as I turned down one aisle to walk to the check out I notice mountains of these red bags and I reached out and touched one. I'm not sure what construction workers use these for but you can readily see that there are three pockets on the side facing the camera as well as two big pockets on the ends and (while you can't see them in this photo) there are three more pockets on the other side. The bag is big and roomy and, on the interior, there are pockets all around the edges.  The handle are stout and well padded and you can see that they are anchored all the way around the bag.

I started thinking about a kind of job I do often. I'll arrive at a big, sprawling business office with the assignment of walking around looking for interesting photographs of interiors, intermixed with casual and set up portraits of different kinds. I walk through a space, find the image I want, and then reach into my bag to get the lens that might work best. I also reach into the bag from time to time to grab a new battery or switch out camera bodies. In location assignments like this I don't need the padding or the secure lid closure or the velcro flaps that are part and parcel of the typical camera bag.

There is a reason for bags to be designed the way they are. Most often they are used outside, in non-secure environments. But most of my recent assignments aren't like that. They are more about being in a secure and controlled environment where I have the luxury of putting my bag on the floor and walking away for a while. I may be naive but in my 30+ years of doing work like this I have yet to have any piece of gear go missing...

At any rate I saw this Husky brand bag and I looked for a price. It was about $20. I'd purchased a similar (but not as well made) bag from my local cinema supply store and it was probably three or four times the price. I decided to buy the Husky bag and try it out for the kind of project I've outlined above.

The fabric of the bag is very thick and resilient and the bag stands up well on its own. I had a job on the six floor of a new office building, located in on of the dozens of new developments of office towers and mixed use buildings that are popping up all over Austin. The brief was to shoot everything from the CEO greeting employees to the  brand new office, to lots of interior architectural details, to many shots of people working at their open plan desks. We spent a couple hours making modern environmental portraits of the executive leadership team, and ended the day with an "all hands" champagne toast to the company's new offices.

I put all the camera gear into the Husky bag. It contained two Olympus OMD EM5.2 cameras, a bevy of lenses, placed around the periphery of the bag, in the external pockets, and also a Nikon D750 with a 24-120mm lens. The bag also held the usual photo shoot "pocket" trash: the cellphone, a shot list,  extra batteries for everything, a small flash and off camera cord, and a small notebook and a pen.

I could see all the available lenses at a glance and the handles made the bag easy to carry from place to place. The bag never ended up on my shoulder --- there is no shoulder strap.

On almost every job like this I bring a cart to move all the gear from the car to the shooting location. The cart has the heavy stuff like light stands and cases of lights. This bag rides in on the cart and then, for most of the day (unless its contents are needed) the cart sits in a corner waiting, with it's load of gear, to be pressed into service.  The rest of the day I work out of the bag.

How did it work?  I loved not having to fasten the fasteners on a camera bag before hoisting it up on my shoulder; closing up the bag is a habit developed to make sure the traditional camera bag doesn't dump its precious cargo onto a hard floor. I didn't miss the ritual of opening each velcro'd pocket to search for that one needed, but hidden from sight, lens.

As I pushed my cart back to the car at the end of the day I had two thoughts. The first was of all the money I'd spent chasing the "ultimate" camera bag when, most times a cheap bag like this would actually be more efficient for many of the jobs that take most of my time. Second, I remember looking around as I headed to the parking garage and seeing dozens of construction workers who were carrying the same or similar bags filled with tools and materials for their jobs. I felt like I'd crossed over from some photo-snob attitude into the mainstream demographic of "worker."

Yeah. I used the same bag again for a dress rehearsal shoot at Zach Theatre. The bag sat at my feet and I could reach down and grab a lens directly from a pocket. I could drop a body and lens right into the center of the bag without messing with lids and straps. It worked well and seems to also be making my left shoulder a happier shoulder. Here's to thinking "outside the bag."