15 Apr 2012

Shooting a stage event (or boost the light conditions if you can)

Today's post is about photographing a dancing performance conducted by children on a school stage.
The event I was shooting was a local celebration of the Polish Presidency of the European Union Council and the show was prepared by the dance group "Children of Europe"
Taking photo of such event is quite challenging because of a combination of factors: there is a lot of movement on the stage (dancing), the lighting on the stage is limited, the required depth of field is relatively wide (because there is a group of 10-20 dancers, moving all over the stage and you want to capture all of them). The photo below illustrates my point.

Dancing on stage requiring wide depth of field
Ideally I wanted to have the persons on a first plane captured with the same quality as the ones in the background. So the aperture shouldn't be opened too wide (in the above case it was f/5.6, which worked quite well). Then the lighting. The typical options that I started with didn't offer enough:
  • Don't use flash. With the available stage lighting to be able to capture children during movement  and having reasonable shutter speeds, I'd need to use ISO of 3200. Not an option, since my D80 produces way too much noise with such high ISO values
  • Use the on-camera flash. It would work for the first plane, sure. But even with the powerful SB-900 it is impossible to cover the whole stage with light of good quality. The children on the background wouldn't be properly exposed.
So I needed some "lighting boost". And in this case I had some luck (yes, sometimes one needs just that). The ceiling above the stage was white and it was not too high. The photo from the rehearsal illustrates it:
Relatively low, white ceiling above the stage gave some lighting opportunities
Having the white ceiling opened a great opportunity to me: I was able to create a huge light source (nearly as big as the ceiling above the stage) projecting the light on the whole staging area. And taking photos like this one:
The lighting setup used for creating these light conditions is shown on the sketch below (view from the top):

The speedlights pointing the to the ceiling were put on the Lastolite all-in-oneumbrella stands. I had to put them quite high (about 220 cm) for two reasons: first, you don't want the flashes to be disturbing for the audience and the artists. And the second, I wanted to reduce the distance between the light source and the ceiling as much as possible to reduce light power loss. 
The primary purpose of SB-900 on the camera was to be used as a master flash of the created iTTL setup. I could use the built-in flash for this purpose as well, but I wanted to be on a safe side and use the power (and the coverage) of the SB-900 to trigger the remote flashes. And I wanted to have the decent light source with me while moving around the stage during the concert just in case the setup would not work.
Fine tuning of the setup took me about 20 minutes. A few consideration points:
  • The speedlights on the stand should be pointed and zoomed to cover as much of the ceiling as possible. This is a bit trial and error process: I made a setup by imaging a way will travel, take a photo, check the result, adapt the setup. For example I started with the diffuser domes, but took it off since they didn't contribute to the light quality, but were reducing the light power slightly
  • Decide where I would be shooting most during the performance and point the iTTL sensors of the remote speedlights in this direction. It increases stability of the setup tremendously.
  • I needed to crank up the power of the remote flashes to the maximum values. Which in turn drained the batteries quite quickly. So remember to have the spare set in your pocket when working with such setup.
  • The photos were slightly underexposed (in most cases by 1 EV). even with the maximum power of the speedlight flashes. This however was easy to correct in the post processing.
If one asks why one of the remote speedlights was SB-600 while another SB-900, the answer is simple: this is the equipment that I had with me.

As one can guess the described setup is not universal: there is not always a white ceiling above the stage, not every time one would have the opportunity to put his own equipment in the stage neighbourhood, the performance director will not always allow to take the photos. But if one has the freedom I had this approach is worth trying.