A PhotoShoot That Took a Long, Long Time. Two Cameras Systems and Three Rehearsals Later....

Zach Theatre is producing "Beauty and the Beast" and it's been a rugged slog for me this week. Not that it's particularly hard to be a theater photographer but it's hard to know sometimes when to stop.

Let me explain.

This production required some large and complex set pieces; a big castle that would sit on the turntable at the Topfer Theatre meant that it needed to be finished out in 360 degrees. There was a large, live band. There were fog machines and amazingly complex lighting and effects. The costumes were amazing and intricate. And the cast was numerous.

I decided at some point, probably while walking around aimlessly in the heat, that I'd really like to shoot the marketing photographs at the dress rehearsal and tech rehearsal with my two Nikon D800 cameras. On reflection I remembered that we generally had an audience at our invited dress rehearsals and that the Nikons are far from silent. I decided to finally order an accessory I've gone back and forth about for well over a year; a Camera Muzzle. I found the link on Amazon and ordered one. It's a soft-sided semi-blimp that reduces the sound of shutter clicks by enclosing the camera in a very well padded (and roomy) case. There's even
an attachment for lenses that further attenuates the shutter noise (it's particularly good for the higher frequency tones!).

The Camera Muzzle came in on time and I had a day to test it before my planned Sunday shoot at the tech rehearsal.  There is no audience (other than crew) at a Tech Rehearsal since usually the crew is going over and over problem spots, making last minute mechanical fixes and, in some cases, the actors are still nailing down their lines....

I didn't need the Camera Muzzle Blimpy Thing for the Sunday rehearsal but felt pretty sure it would see action on Tues. I was ready. The batteries for the big, battle-ax Nikons were well charged and my fast memory cards were cleared off in anticipation. I love Sunday rehearsals because I can move all around the theater to get the best angles and working distances of/from the stage.

In part, the noise from the cameras is inconsequential during Sunday rehearsals because everyone in the house is working on the production, and usually not very quietly. Toss in the orchestra and you'd be hard pressed to hear even the loudest shutter. And it's noise that's expected. The difference with an invited house (audience) is that I'm usually in a stationary position in the middle of the "house" and there are people in front, behind and on the sides of me. I like to keep a buffer of two seats on each side of me but still, noisy cameras are just unacceptable.

So, cameras and lenses in an old video bag, extra batteries and name badge in the side pocket, parking hangtag swinging from the car mirror, and I'm ready to go. But then I get the text that tells me the production is not ready for photography on Sunday evening. I still want to see the show and scout it so I decide to head over anyway and park myself in a seat and see things like the blocking and the stage lighting cues. The production is behind. I sit for about three hours and we're not into the second act yet. I figure we'll just get what we need at the Tuesday dress rehearsal; after all, I've got my new Camera Muzzle and I'm anxious to check out how well it performs in the noisy, real world.

The dress rehearsals are on Tuesday evenings and we usually have a smallish audience. I get a "head's up" Tuesday afternoon that there will NOT be an audience that night. The production team still has some stuff to nail down and perfect and it's not quite ready for an audience, but it's far enough along to shoot. I ditch the Camera Muzzle because my thought is that we've got one evening to get what we need, we don't need to worry about camera noise, and I don't need to be experimenting while under a tight deadline.

I ask Belinda if she wants to come along and see the dress rehearsal. We have an early dinner at a close by restaurant and then head over in time to get the cameras ready and to say "hi" to all our friends in the crew.

The play is a bit rough. The lighting cues are not quite there yet. The set still needs tweaks. The mechanical details (turntable rotation, compressed air tanks, fog machines) still need adjustments. The director is still working with the cast on blocking. And for some reason the stress is a bit contagious and I find myself ...... off. Just a bit, but...off.

The rehearsal stops and starts. We finally leave around 11:30pm. I'm hoping I've got good stuff but I'm thrown off my game by the fragmentary nature of the interrupted flow and I'm just not sure.

In the morning I pull the SD cards and start ingesting the images. Lightroom is humming, my morning swim went well and the coffee is steaming and filling the office with nice, luxurious coffee aroma. But I'm not loving the images. I really just basically struck out on the first 20-25% of the show. I'd like to blame the lights or something but it's one of those rare moments of just being off one's game. That, and the nagging feeling that they show just wasn't finished.

I touched nearly every one of the images I kept after the edit (edit means = selection, not "post processing") to tweak color, shadows and color temperatures, etc. but I still wasn't happy with my shots. I put up a gallery and went out for a walk.

When I got back to the studio I decided I needed to shoot the show one more time. Now we'd be in crunch time because there would be an audience on Weds. night and there are also equity rules about actor notification, and limits to the sheer number of times you can bump into the process.

Not happy with the files I got from the big Nikons (probably not their fault but I sure did miss the EVFs of my mirrorless cameras with their instant feedback....) I called the folks who make the big decisions, do a quasi-mea culpa and arrange to come back for a third night to get just the right kind of images to really sell this show. Any profit motive is already out the window in terms of time spent versus fees charged.

I get the thumbs up to do one more run. I pack the dynamic duo of theater shooting gear; two Panasonic GH5's along with the two Olympus Pro lenses that are quickly becoming my go-to lenses for theater; the 12/100mm f4.0 and the 40-150mm f2.8 Olympii.

I go in early to meet an old friend at the bar. He's doing his first EP and wants original art for the covers and promo. We chat over a glass of wine and make plans. Then I head into the theater to get set up. Both cameras get "night mode" set on the rear panels. Both are set identically at all other settings and controls. I should be able to handle them without much conscious thought. I've seen the play in rough form twice in the last few days. It's now or never.

I set zebras at 105% and shoot raw. I know that if I set exposure to excite the zebras and then back off by a third or half stop I'll get very usable files with no highlight failure. I've set three different white balance presets on the cameras to match what I've seen and measured in the previous shows. One is at 3200K, the second is at 4400K and the third is right around 5300K, which works well for the cues with lots of blue light.

The curtain goes up and I'm off and running. Well, off and shooting frames. At intermission I feel like I fixed all the issues I'd created for myself in my first attempts. The files look great and I'm feeling good.

I had an interesting conversation with the woman who sat right behind me. She asked about the cameras. More exactly she asked about the orange type against dark on the rear screens. She said she had some trepidation when they sat down at the beginning of the play and she and her companion watched as I pulled the two cameras out of my bag. She thought there would be shutter noise and she DREADED seeing a bright screen just in front of her, between her seat and the stage. She was amazed to find that the screens (which I mostly kept off) were not at all intrusive and that the cameras were silent. She was happy. We like happy audience members!!!

By the second act I was amazed at the transformation that had taken place over the previous 48 hours. The play came together like magic. There were no glitches. At least nothing I could see. By the end of the performance the audience leapt to their feet and gave the cast a standing ovation that lasted a long time. Everything came together. The production was beautiful. The actors amazing. And I finally had the images I needed for the marketing team.

Sometimes I feel like you just have to suck it up and push a project along until you really feel you've hit a good end. We might have been able to use Tuesday's images but I'm happier, and I think my client will be happier, with the stuff we ended up getting on Weds.

Now I need to go back and see the show without a camera in front of my face. Just be an audience member. I'm sure I missed so much by having all my attention in the viewfinder...

I'm still angling to  use that Camera Muzzle. Maybe we'll do it next time. Love the Nikons for careful studio work or files that I can shoot at low ISO which need to be big. Sure love the instant feedback loop of the incredibly good EVFs on the Panasonic GH5's. Good to have choices and specialized tools; it can make a difference in the work.


Fred said...

It's good to see that you took the advice of that guy who said you were "permanently welded to ancient DSLR technology" :-). (I still shake my head in wonder about his comment.)
One definition of a pro would be a person who gets the job done right. Sometimes it is easy and sometime you have to put in extra time and effort to get a product that meets your own standards. I would think it that is how it would work for any client but it must be easier with a long term client who appreciates your work knowing that they get consistent good value for their money.
And to comment on the (camera) size issue, I think from my playing briefly with a GH5 that I would be comfortable cranking out a ton of shots over a couple of hours with that body.

pixtorial said...

Kirk, great post that illustrates how professionalism and perseverance, combined with a bit of perfectionism (the new "Three-Ps"?) can come together to get the results we want. I've been through very similar with ballet productions. Up through the dress rehearsal and you're wondering how the ballet is going to come together, and then when the curtain goes up on opening night it is like you're watching the production after another week of work.

I find it interesting as well that the GH5 is becoming your go-to theatre camera, just a few short years ago and the idea of preferring a mirrorless, m4/3 option over full frame for stage work would have seemed strange, now it just makes sense. It certainly is the better technology package by being able to forego the mirror slap and bigger shutter.

Like we've been talking about, DSLRs and mirrorless bodies are both effective tools, but like any tool we'll find that some scenarios are better served by specific camera choices. That we have such an embarrassment of choices today is all the better!

Rufus said...

Camera muzzles? Really?

Are you going back down the rabbit hole of heavy DSLR and accommodating their shortfalls ?

You have already embraced mirrorless and all the benefits it brings - lighter cameras, great EVF, better workflow.

A sense of nostalgia seems to be taking you back? You have owned mirrorless cameras that can do it all including the heavy lifting of large files and serious megapickles that your D800's provide.

Buying a camera muzzle, to me would feel like deliberately choosing to use a pager rather than a mobile phone. If the time comes when I seriously consider buying a muzzle for my camera, would someone throw a bucket of icy water over me please.

Maybe the rumoured Nikon mirrorless will provide peace and salvation. :)