6.03.2010

Becky's New Car. Dress Rehearsal.

There's a fun play opening at Zachary Scott Theater.  It's called "Becky's New Car".  I shot the final dress rehearsal last night and had a lot of fun doing it.  I packed two camera bags because I wasn't sure how I wanted to shoot the show.  I'm not always decisive while packing.  Bravo to those of you who do things the same way every time.  It must be a real time saver.....

My first idea was to use the Pen cameras.  I recently got a second EVF so I could have finders on both the EPL and the EP2.  That's the way I like to shoot these cameras.   I packed a bag with the Panasonic 20mm 1.7, the little zoom (just for safety) and several Pen F film lenses, including the 38mm 1.8, the 60mm 1.5 and the 70mm f2.  I brought along extra batteries and two 8 gig memory cards.

In the second small Domke bag I brought along the Canon 5d mk2 with the 24-105mm zoom lens.  At the last minute the marketing director called and asked me to bring some lights for a set up shot or two after the rehearsal.  I added three of the Vivitar 383 flashes (two dedicated to Olympus and one dedicated to Canon )  three small Manfrotto stands and two small (32") umbrellas.
Just as I was leaving the house, the moment I turned around to wave goodbye to my dog, a snaky shot of lightening flashed up the sky and the longest and most ominous kettle drum of thunder I've ever heard shook me and the ground.  I tossed the camera bags into the car, along with the small stand bag, and headed off to grab a quick dinner before the show.  I grabbed a quick sandwich in a nearly empty restaurant and sat looking out the window watching a hard driving, gray rain swirl in waves and pelt the windows.  As I stared out the window I wasn't thinking particularly deep thoughts....I was trying to decide which cameras to shoot with.

I knew the file quality would be "better" if I used the bigger camera.  But in some sort of "Rebel Without a Cause",  contrarian mindset I wanted to use the small cameras to show off.  To pull great files from the small sensors and to write column touting what could be done with these little tools in the "right" hands.  Yes.  Total Hubris.  The kind of stuff that's been the downfall of heros, villains and overly indulged photographers since time immemorial......or at least since the 1960's.  It's rare that I slow down and examine, in the time, what my real motivations are for choosing a camera or, for that matter, saying something out loud.  For instance, I haven't thought through why I'm even telling you the thought process behind all this.....perhaps it's therapeutic...
So now I'm in the small theater.  This stage is a theater in the round and all the light is top lighting.  Our biggest problem in shooting here is that the high angle of the lighting causes "raccoon" eyes for a lot of our talent.  I've got both the Pen cameras out.  With the 60mm on the EP2 I can see that I'll be shooting at ISO 800 to get 1/125th at f2.8.  I want to shoot at 2.8 to cover the focusing slop of my old eyes and the manual focus lens.  I do some test shots and they look okay.  But in the dark of the theater I'm having trouble really seeing "in focus".  I could do this if I shot a lot.  If I really cover myself.

But then I chuck the small cameras back in the bag and relent.  I pull out the Canon and shoot the show with the 24-105 locked at f4.  With the center focusing point I know I'm getting focus much more accurately than what I could do by hand.  The photos work.  But I'm deflated. I guess I like shooting with cameras like the Pen with manual lenses because they require some sort of skill.  Some use of my years of training and experience.  I guess the whole problem for me is that the cameras have become so easy.  My rational mind reminds me that the real crux of our professional is "how" we see, not anything technical.  So my irrational mind really just mourns for the loss of the need for technical prowess over equipment budget.  In the old days a Nikon FM could turn out just as good an image as a Nikon F5, in the right hands......

Now each generation of new camera can trump the previous one by dint of automation and the march of technology.  We can echo the platitude that "it's the guy behind the finder" that makes or breaks the image.  And I get that.  I really do.  But I miss the challenge.  Maybe there is a big market out there for psychologist helping experienced photographers get over the idea that hard won technical skills don't really matter that much anymore.  It's a tough one and an idea that goes back to the basis of our self-image as masters of so many arcane facts.

At some point you just have to relax and enjoy the show......
I shot about 700 shots and spent half an hour narrowing down the take to a more manageable 400 for the marketing director, Jim.  He's seen me use so many cameras over the years in the dark and contrasty space of the two theaters.  The first digital stuff we shot in the theater was with an Olympus e10 and quickly followed by a Kodak 660.  We could only shoot at ISO 100 with the Kodak.  Anything higher was a mess of blue channel noise.  with the e10 we got away with ISO 200.  Then came all the others.
I never imagined five years ago that a slow zoom and a high ISO would be a good combination for theater.  In the bad ISO days as in the film days, we were always chasing faster lenses and radical noise reduction schemes.  It's nice to get some depth of field...
And it's good to keep reminding myself that the only thing that truly matters is the final image.  How we get there is really of very little concern to most clients, to the actors and to the patrons of the theater.  The real issue is:  Did we capture the emotion of the play in a way that might make people interested in buying a ticket....?
Have we captured the spirit of the performance?
Funny thing.  I looked at the new gallery in the main offices of the theater.  They recently hung a permanent show of my work from over the last 17 years.  All the prints look good.  From the early Leicas to the sturdy squares from the Hasselblads to the early digital stuff shot with painful timing on tripods to the latest digital stuff.  The plays come through.  The technique recedes or is invisible.  And that's the way it's really supposed to be.