I accused Hasselblad of not making sharp prism finders...
But that's a different story.
I used to get nervous about jobs with tight schedules and no opportunity for do-overs. Mostly because the future of my business depended on keeping clients happy and continuing to book me for more jobs. For some reason gala events were the most nerve wracking. Organizations generally have one big fund-raiser each year and that means the clients are perennial amateurs; they don't do big events often enough to be comfortable and fluid with the process. They tend to replace expertise with adrenaline and lots of last minute dramas.
While none of this really pertains to last night's client (they have their stuff together) it's hard to break habits and subconscious expectations. Five nervous and high strung event planners in a row sets a precedent and an expectation for the sixth event planner. I tended to come into the event jobs with a bit of armor on and a lot of redundant gear to offset the chance that a mechanical/electronic failure would hamper my ability to deliver good photographs for the client.
Yesterday I felt a little rusty because I haven't shot a large event since early September. I've also surrounded myself with a couple different systems and I was going back and forth, trying to decide whether to go with the tried-and-true cameras, lenses and flashes I used before or to try out something new (to me).
Here's the job description: Go to the Four Seasons Hotel and photograph in two different ways. The first part of the evening is a cocktail reception in a lobby space in front of the grand ballroom. All of the attendees are partners in law firms or the spouses of partners in law firms. All 400 of them are there to honor one of their peers for his pro bono work for the organization I'm working with. The space is tight and, since most of the attendees are over 50 years of age, nearly everyone's voice is raised so they can hear each other. It's almost as loud as a rock concert, although there is no musical accompaniment.
There are people from the board of directors of our charitable organization in the mix. Their name tags are festooned with an extra ribbon on the bottom that identifies them as such. Two ribbons on a name tag might indicate that a person is both a board member and a speaker at the event. My goal, and the expectation of the client's marketing team, is that I'll flow through the space, pull people together for quick, small group photographs, and, in the space of one hour capture nice images of couples, foursomes and small groups. Essentially, get a couple hundred pleasant photographs of everyone in the space, in various groupings, but be sure not to miss getting everyone whose name tag is embellished.
I'm no stranger to many of the people in the crowd. Some know me because they have attended, and I have photographed, all nineteen years of galas for the group. Others know me because my company is commissioned by theirs to make portraits and marketing images over the course of the year. Still others I know socially. In a funny way we've all grown up together. I was 45 when I photographed at the inaugural event. Now I'm 64. The faces of a quarter of the attendees are well known. Older than last time but still in the mix. We all wear dark suits and nicely shined shoes. Most of the men have gray or white hair. All have done well in their careers. That much was evidenced in the cash "auction" later in the evening. All for charity.
I dug my heels in and led with my art brain when I packed yesterday, much to the chagrin of my logical brain. I decided to work only with two Pentax K-1 cameras and two lenses. I brought along a 28-105mm zoom lens which I used in conjunction with on camera flash. For all the shots of speakers at the podium in the main ballroom I used a 100mm f2.8 macro lens. I've never traveled so light for an event like this one. Just to quell my fears of technical failure I did pack an extra 50mm lens to take over the grip and grin duties if the 28/105 glitched, and I did bring an extra flash.....just in case.
Had logic prevailed I would have gone with the same camera and lens set I used a number of times before this. It would have been a couple of Fuji X-H1 cameras, the two f2.8 zooms (16/55+50/140) along with supplemental lenses that would cover the range. That, and a few dedicated Fuji flashes.
On the other hand I just didn't feel ready to bring the Panasonics. Too new. No hands on experience with direct flash....
All my stuff fit in a small, black, photo back pack.
I pulled an older, navy blue suit out of the closet. I bought it in 1994. It's in good shape and had just come back from the dry cleaners. The suit is 25 years old. It still fits just as it did when I wore it for the first time to an IBM function. I reached into the shoe repository and grabbed a pair of Vince Camuto cordovan oxfords. No cap toe, no fancy stitching. They needed a quick refresh so I polished them.
The event started at 6 pm and I needed to be there half an hour early in order to show my face and allay any fears from the client side that I might be late, or worse, not there at all. Even though we're only five or six miles away rush hour starts earlier and earlier in Austin. I left at 4:30 just to make sure that I'd be there on time. A little rain and a few detours later I dropped the car with a valet right at 5:30pm. A good decision as traffic wasn't going to get any better later.
With the tight schedule of the reception and the even tighter spacing I needed to work without getting fancy with the flash. The room had those fake tungsten, LED down lights that are close to the same color temperature as older, incandescent bulbs but they come pretty standard with a bit of a green cast. I set my camera's color temperature at 3100K and then nudged the hue adjustment to a +5 of magenta to offset the green. I used a Godox V1 flash with a rounded front diffuser. I covered the diffuser with a CTO filter and then added a +5 green filter from my old Kodak/Wratten gel filter stash so the flash color would more closely match the ambient lights. On top of the filters I secured (by magnets!) a white dome diffuser which I used pointed at the ceiling of the room. Since the dome is 3D some of the light is direct and some spreads around the room but the majority of lumens come racing down from the ceiling. It's a decent look and it's easy to work a room that way.
In good light the Pentax K-1 focused well and the camera and flash worked reasonably well in the TTL mode (once I figured out that I needed a minus 1/2 stop permanent adjustment to the flash output). When I got into chancier light the camera hunted from time to time and it took a couple of seconds to lock in. I spent the hour going from little group to little group. Mostly they existed as closed circles which required me to politely insinuate myself into their space, interrupt whatever conversation they were in and getting them to all turn toward my camera. I'd do two exposures per group, in a mostly successful strategy for getting at least one shot where everyone's eyes were open and no one had a horrible facial tic. As I say, I was mostly successful...
In events like this the honoree is in high demand and the client would love it if we could photograph him, individually, with everyone in the room. That's when you need to help set client expectations.....
After a frenzied hour of photographing and trying to make sure everyone was represented in the growing collection of photographs a merciful banquet crew stepped out from the main ballroom and sounded chimes to signal that dinner was nigh and that the doors into the ballroom were open.
A quick note to those who've never had the extreme pleasure of photographing a nice gala at a Four Seasons hotel: They don't do rubber chicken dinners. I love working there because the food (and the wine) are always first class. BUT, no matter how much the client talks up the idea that you too will enjoy the fruits of the banquet kitchen you should know that you will do so only while jumping up to catch the next speaker and the next, and that plate with the perfect beef filet, paired with wonderfully executed jumbo shrimp will only arrive at your place as you are getting up to head to the front of the large room to photograph the guest of honor --- ahead of schedule.
Once you return to your place your plate will have either been whisked away or your food will be cold.
In the main ballroom I needed mostly to photograph anything or anybody that happened or happened to be at the podium on the small, clean stage. This year the lighting got improved by several levels. There were multiple spots on the stage and a clean wash onto a mostly white background with the client's logo and the branding for the gala. I don't use flash on speakers or presenters unless they are handing some lucky person an award and shaking hands. So, for the most part I'm trying to get close enough to make the image dynamic but far enough away so that my silhouette to the people behind me doesn't become part of the show.
Once one locks in the exposure for the speaker at the podium there is little need to revisit the setting unless the lighting changes. Yay! One less thing to think about. I chimped during the initial introductory speech and zero'd in on a good color balance and a good exposure. It never changed. Never. Not at all. A good reason to use your camera on manual and not screw with your settings!
I used a single AF point because I didn't want to get home and discover that my "smart" camera had elected to "celebrate" the speaker's microphone that evening instead of their (normally) sharp eyes.
I also shot raw because, well, I just did. I won't next time. Not needed.
The 100mm is the only long lens I have for the Pentax system but I figured that with the 36 megapixel resolution of the K-1 if I needed a longer reach I could either crop after the fact or set the camera to shoot APS-C and get a 50% increase in magnification. I did a bit of both.
The evening ended around 9 pm and we spent a bit of time making a group shot of the client's staff. I retrieved my car from the valet and headed home.
The images look pretty good. There are a few that I don't like the tonality of some skin tones. It's funny, there must be something odd with make-up these days as the camera will often "see" all the people in the frame with no make-up with absolute accuracy but the person with lots of make up takes on a color cast that's hard to remove. Also, Texas men seem to have spent too much time in the sun so I routinely hit the hue control in post and slide the red hue slider to the right by +5 to +10 which takes out some of the magenta from their "over tan" and I also drop the saturation a bit.
Out of about 960 frames I color corrected and delivered a gallery of 719 to the client today. It felt good to do the 19th year of the gala for the client. The only embarrassing thing is my realization as I worked on the files today, that I have used a different camera system for nearly every different year. Ah well. It keeps that part of the process fun.