11.13.2021

After Action Analysis of Photographing a Fund-Raising Gala. Two cameras deep.




Until this past Wednesday the last big event I photographed was back on November 14th, 2019. That's right at two years! That's a long time to go between galas. A lot of time to lose that eye/hand/brain photography coordination and ample time to decay whatever sparkly rapport one hones to usher people into collaborating for a good, quick photograph. With all this in mind I was happy but nervous to be invited back by Texas Appleseed to photograph this year's Good Apple Award Banquet at the Four Seasons Hotel. 

In the two years since our last adventure in non-profit fundraising I've gotten rid of all the camera gear I had back then and have assembled new and different gear based on how much everything has changed for me. But I wasn't sure the new stuff was quite capable of doing the same kind of flash photography and fast moving social reportage these kinds of events require. I wasn't sure I still had the ability/emotional intelligence to get people to stop and pose for me. I wasn't sure I could be nimble enough with fast changing exposures having only practiced shooting slow stuff or still life work for the last two years. And having not used an on camera flash in two years.

I vacillated between three different camera choices for the job. In one corner there was the Leica SL, which I like shooting with very much. I would pair that with a Godox V860 flash, which is completely manual in its operation. And I'd use the 24-90mm f2.8 lens. In another corner sat the Panasonic S5 with its companion, the 24-105mm zoom, and a dedicated for Panasonic Godox V1 flash. Finally, there was the dark horse in the race; the Fuji X100V, coupled with a very inexpensive Meike TTL flash.

When I finished packing the Panasonic was out of the running and the case contained a primary SL and an identical back-up body. The Leica zoom and the Panasonic 24-105mm as its back-up. Two Godox V860 flashes with their massive, proprietary, lithium batteries, one for work and the second as its back-up. 

I could have stopped there but I was very interested in how well the Fuji X100V would perform with its super cheap, Meike TTL flash attached. It's the one camera system in house that actually has phase detect AF and now can be paired with a full TTL flash. How would the manual flash and lack of flash automation with the Leica system (as I use it) stand up to a more modern implementation of flash photography?  And against a camera with a snappier AF?

I packed everything into a small photo backpack, shined my shoes, put on a suit and tie, and headed over to the hotel. We started the evening with a spontaneously added group shot of the staff from the non-profit outside on the lawn of the hotel, overlooking Lady Bird Lake, and then went inside to get ready for the arrival of the guests.

The first function started at six o'clock and was a half hour cocktail reception for a select group. That was followed by a general cocktail reception for all attendees and then dinner at seven with speeches and videos. The entire event was wrapped up by nine p.m. 

The cocktail receptions were held both inside the atrium to the ballroom and also spilled onto the outside patio area near the pool. I decided to use the Fuji X100V and the Meike MK420 flash for all of these photographs. They were mostly what we'd call "grip and grin" photos. Quick snapshots of couples, groups of four or more and some candid shots of people networking over drinks. I put the flash on the camera, selected TTL and then, having been down this road with many other flashes from many makers, dialed the exposure compensation on the flash down to minus one stop. I had a diffusion dome on the flash (the one that came with it) and aimed the dome mostly up towards the white ceiling. Since I was using ISO 1250 on the camera there was more than enough light from the flash to get me a rich f5.6. I used a shutter speed of 1/30th so the background wouldn't go inky black. 

Over the course of the hour I shot about 250 frames and of those about 8 gave me focus problems which sent me into manual focus mode. Not a bad performance, all things considered. The lighting was low, the suits and dresses mostly dark fabrics and my experience with the new set up ... a bit sketchy. I hedged my bets by shooting all the images in RAW and found that I really didn't need to. The vast majority could have been used right out of camera, but it was nice to be able to tweak frames with abandon. 

After 250 shots the battery indicator on the camera clicked down just two notches. The battery gauge on the flash never moved from full. In all, it was a great performance by that pair and it's a solution I'll go back to next time I shoot an event. 

The client will use many of the shots from the reception as mementos of the evening for the various donors. Some will also be used for their website to show off the attendance and general good vibe of the evening's festivities. 

Then I moved into the ballroom where a very elegant sit down dinner for 400 guests got underway. This client is very thoughtful and always sets a place for me at their staff table. Dinner was tasty and the wines were nicely paired. The Appleseed people were sweet about making sure my plates didn't get whisked away prematurely by the zealous wait staff when I needed to hop up, make my way closer to the front of the room, and photograph the various speakers at the podium. 

When we moved into the ballroom I tossed the Fuji back into the backpack and grabbed the Leica SL + 24-90mm lens and one of the Godox manual flashes. I set the camera's ISO to 3200, put a one stop diffuser on the flash and set the flash to 1/8th power. While using f5.6 I was able to get good exposures with those settings. The SL may be six years old but it's high ISO performance is really good. I'd made a series of tests and if you hit exposure correctly it's entirely possible to shoot clean files up to 10,000 ISO. At 6400 the files look very good and at ISO 3200 they look as good as anything that came out of my old Nikon D2Xs at ISO 200. I had not a moment's pause about using either 6400 or 3200 during the evening. 

With the flash bouncing off the high, white ceiling, and the lens delivering very high sharpness, I was completely happy with the results. Since the speakers at the podium were well lit with LED spot lights they were easy to focus on and by hitting the WB somewhere around 4400K the combination of the flash and the warmer LED spots, mixed, was just about perfect.

The shot count with the Leica SL and flash was somewhere in the ballpark of 400 frames. The camera nailed focus on every single frame; even the ones of attendees out in the audience with the house lights way down. The flash was still showing a full charge on the lithium batteries at the end of the evening. 

Once the scheduled events were over I stuck around for the more interesting shots of old friends coming up to congratulate the award winner and to chat for a while. I photographed the honorees having impromptu conversations with a congressman, a former senator, several Texas Supreme Court judges and many others. These are fun photographs for the guest of honor to have because they are more personal. 

At the end of the event the board chair for the organization announced that the gala had raised $745,000 in one evening. Additional donations were still coming in. It's fun to see how generous people can be for charities and organizations they really believe in. 

To learn more about Texas Appleseed go here

Last week's event marked my 20th year to photograph for Texas Appleseed. I was there for the very first event. Both at the gala and also making lots of portraits each year for their staff and associates. The only year in which I missed photographing the gala was last year when the program was cancelled....for obvious reasons. 

Earlier in the week I wrote that a requirement of attendance to the event was either proof of full vaccination or agreeing to take a rapid test on site. I'm happy to report that 100% of the 400 guests and the 20 staff members were able to produce proof of full vaccination. 

I asked what would have happened had a supporter/donor shown up without proof and refused to take the test. The organization said that if the person agreed to be masked they could attend the cocktail reception (presumably in the outdoor space) but they would not be allowed to attend the dinner. The organization would invite them instead to have a dinner at the Hotel's very good restaurant and the organization would pick up their tab. They really did a good job at anticipating and planning for glitches. 

The choice of cameras worked out well. Next time I'll try the entire event with just the Leicas. Gotta keep things fresh.