This one is long overdue. Several weeks ago I shared a bit of behind-the-scenes look on what goes into preparing for a photo shoot – in this case, a very large shoot. Writing post-shoot now, I can easily say that it was indeed the biggest production shoot I’ve ever done. And it was outright awesome! Easily the most fun I’ve had in a long time and a great chance to flex my photographic muscles and see that pre-planning really can work out to produce the images I’d imagined.
Quick recap for those who missed it the first time around: I shot a promotional session for The Vintage Theater’s production of “Pride & Prejudice,” featuring most of the cast. This rendition of the story is set in the 1960s, so we went all out with costumes, props, and a set that matched the theme of a 1960s cocktail party.
All the bullet points from my previous post got met, so when we walked in on Saturday we had a plan for the afternoon and were able to get right down to work. For simplicity’s sake, we broke the session down into three segments. Each segment was built around a different part of our set, which was actually the family home of one of the show’s producers.
For each segment I setup an overall lighting scheme that would cover all the images we planned to make on that set with only minor adjustments. That way we were able to bring in different groups of actors quickly, making a few fine-tuning adjustments, and getting right back to shooting.
The first segment was set in the sitting room and featured associated groups of characters: the Bennett family; Darcy, Bingly, & Caroline; etc. I’ve always imagined the 60s as being somewhat poorly lit, with a lot of yellow incandescence. With that in mind, the average sitting room is probably even darker, which was the effect I aimed for.
As you can see in the diagram above, I’ve got my octabox overhead on a boom, pointed downward with the back against the ceiling. There are two Yongnuo YN-460 II flashes inside, each with a full-cut CTO gel.
I don’t recall the exact power setting of the flashes, but they were set so that the octabox’s output was a 1.5 stops underexposed.
There’s a 24” softbox and a 18” shoot-through umbrella on two additional lightstands, each facing the couch and subjects at roughly 45 degree angles, but feathered somewhat away. The softbox, on the left, is providing key light on the subjects while the umbrella, at right, is adding fill to subjects on the left side, mainly. (The softbox used another YN-460 II; the umbrella used an Olympus FL-50. Both used CTO gels.)
The logic behind this setup is this: the octabox is supposed to simulate an overhead light fixture, which are pretty common in living rooms. It’s providing widespread light across the scene, while the two stand-mounted lights are acting as mixed key and fill lights to bring up the levels on the subjects and make them stand out.
I made a slight modification to this setup in the photo below, where we rotated about 90 degrees from the couch to shoot Mrs Catherine sitting in an armchair with Darcy standing next to her. The idea here was a much more formal portrait, with the harsher of the characters. It was a simple matter to rotate the boom and bring the octabox overhead; the softbox provided key light at camera left and a white reflector at camera right added a little fill to the shadows without eliminating them.
In the first shot, the background to the left of Darcy – it’s the bottom of a staircase – was dark. I’m rather pleased with myself for noticing that as I worked, and adding in the umbrella to far camera left to fill that dark area.
Segment two was setup in the dining room and was the scene of the cocktail party itself. The lighting here used all the same lights as the first set, but in a new configuration; this room was already well-lit with ambient coming through three windows in the background. My light was designed to balance the backlighting, with the octabox was put against the far wall, up high and angled slightly down. The softbox was placed to the right (facing the windows) to provide light along the large, wooden hutch. The umbrella was setup in the doorway to the sitting room and provided fill from the right. All combined, the ambient and flashes managed to light the entire dining room fairly evenly, so that no matter where the actors moved, it was possible to photograph them.
Unlike the previous segment, which was more formally posed, the cocktail party was largely candid. We broke the cast into two sections, based on the character’s social status; the rich folks mingled for several minutes, then we pulled them out and let the poor folks mingle, before finally mixing them all in together. I moved around – and through – the room the whole time, shooting candid images as the actors played their parts. From time to time we did provide direction, moving characters around or mixing up the groupings altogether. But it was largely left to the actors to treat this like a real party (to which end I’m pretty sure some of the “prop” wine was consumed, it being the only non-imitation drink we had).
The final segment was designed to be a much simpler scene, with a very basic set that would let us focus on the characters and their interaction. We turned 180 degrees in the dining room and used a single settee in front of the staircase for our set. The octabox went back overhead and in front of the settee, actually in front of the room’s real chandelier, in the same role as in the first segment. I setup the softbox at camera left and put the Olympus speedlight at the top of the stairs via a Justin clamp, bouncing off the ceiling as a stairway light would. It provided some separation between the stairs and the foreground, and was used at various levels; the softbox was key while the octabox and ambient worked as different levels of fill.
With the simple set, it was easy to rotate the actor groups through and get them to express a lot of different emotions, though expression and body language, without any competition from the set itself. I’ve got to say that actors make amazing, painless models. They’re used to being in the spotlight, so the camera doesn’t frighten them the way it does regular folks. Plus, actors have an advanced understanding of how to be emotive, even how to be a little over-the-top in their posing, to get that theatrical element into play.
The one thing I can say is that despite the relative complexity of the lighting setups – multiple flashes and ambient mix – it all came easily. Not to sound conceited, but when lighting setups start to come easier like that, it’s a good feeling, like maybe you’ve finally got a decent handle on how it all works. It’s definitely a good feeling to leave a shoot with, as opposed to the sense of doom and failure that a failed lighting venture leaves you with. (Doom because when your lighting fails, you suffer it through it once on-set, and again in post & delivery.)
Technical info: I used both E-M5 bodies for this shoot, one with the Panasonic-Leica 25mm and the other with the Lumix 14mm. Although the settings varied a bit depending on the scene, then were generally f/8 and ISO 400 (in the dining room the ISO was reduced to 250). Shutter speed was the biggest variable, ranging from as low as 1/30 when I wanted to burn in the lamplight in the sitting room, to 1/160, the maximum sync speed of the camera.
The flashes were firing at or near full power for most of the day and kept up without issue right to the very end. I had Eneloop AA batteries in them, which I find much superior to the older Energizer rechargeables I’ve been using for years. I’ll be replacing all my AAs with the Eneloops soon.
I took custom white balance readings each time I changed the setup, using a 12” WB target and the E-M5’s custom WB setting. It worked out really well. I also shot a regular frame of the WB target to measure in ACR and found that the camera’s reading was always within a point or two of ACR’s sample off the target. The custom WB negated the CTO gels somewhat – it could be argued that the gels ate up light needlessly, requiring a higher flash power than I’d have needed otherwise. But my counter to this is that the gels did add color, especially when used at somewhat lower powers, and also color-shifted the ambient light in the way I wanted.
All the flashes were triggered with RF-602 radio slaves, which likewise worked flawlessly all day. I just switched the transmitter between cameras, depending on which body/lens combination I was using. The images were all shot as RAWs and processed in ACR; I used the VSCO Film Fuji 400H- emulation as a starting point, then adjusted them to taste before finishing in Photoshop.