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Monthly Archives: October 2009

Happy lighting, under pressure

I had a great time at the KelbyTraining photography seminar yesterday in Washington, D.C. Renowned photojournalist and magazine photographer, Joe McNally, lead the attendees through a series of setups, showing various lighting techniques using small flashes that are very helpful especially when there is little time allowed for taking photos—a scenario faced by just about all professional photographers.

Watching Joe’s examples and hearing his stories about the time constraints he’s faced (12 minutes for Sports Illustrated cover shoots! … barely enough time for me to get my equipment setup), made me think of my own experiences with pressure-packed picture-taking.

In March of this year, Kim and I had the great opportunity to photograph Chris and Lindsay’s wedding here in Richmond. It was a beautiful occassion and they were a fantastic couple to work with (very laid-back and accomodating), but a wedding is a wedding and we had to work with the time and circumstances that were presented to us at each moment of the day.

As with most weddings I’ve  been to, we were asked not to use flashes during the ceremony. Very understandable but a bit of a problem for the photographer who doesn’t want the participants to look like ghosts, blurring all over the church sanctuary. Taking the sage advice of my photographer friend Kevin, I chose to “embrace the insanity” of the situation and crank up my camera’s ISO setting (a measure of the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light) to stop the action as best I could. My Canon 5D Mark II allowed me to do this and still keep the graininess to a minimum. So, to ISO 2000 I went!

Another constraint we faced was not being able to get close to the front of the church when all the ceremony-action was taking place. One of the most significant moments for the couple is when the bride arrives at the front to join the waiting groom. How do you capture the emotion of that moment when you’re in the back of the church? My wife Kim came up with the idea to simply shoot it beforehand during the guys’ group shots. Just stage it. Brilliant! My instructions for the groom were: “OK Chris, think about how you’ll feel when Lindsay gets to the front here.” Beaming smile!

The wedding reception added it’s own set of challenges: huge room, dark, people moving around, lots of activity. The approach I took there was to slow the shutter way down to be able to capture the ambient light of the room (warm, active and inviting) and use a flash with a dome diffuser attached to stop the action of my subjects so they weren’t blurry. There’s no guarantee of a good shot with this technique but I got a frame at just the right moment as Chris and Lindsay arrived for the reception party. Don’t think I could have art-directed them any better in their expressions and gestures. What a party it was! Congratulations again to Chris and Lindsay!

Kim and I left for home that day totally spent but exhilirated at the experience of sharing an important part of their special day. And with a new appreciation for how photographers handle time-pressures on happy occassions.


“Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.”

— Ansel Adams


One of the things about photography that never fails to fascinate me are it’s surprises. Going through a new set of freshly taken photos is like waking up on Christmas morning for me — there are things you find that you didn’t expect.

On a summer vacation trip years ago to central Kansas, we were visiting the small farming town of Goessel, where my father was born and grew up. We stopped into the model one-room schoolhouse, very much like the one he went to as a boy. It was like stepping back in time — small wooden desks, chalkboard at the front, pedal-organ for singing, and no air-conditioning (it was a Kansas-hot summer!)

I decided this was a great opportunity to try a “stitch” photo with our Powershot point-and-shoot, where several frames are taken in sequence, side-by-side, and later fitted together in post-processing to make one long image. I took several frames around the room and finally ended with this one, not very aware of the composition I was making at the time. Upon seeing it later at home, I found it to be one of my favorite images of the trip. The quality of the light, the arrangement of the space, the little girl looking through the book at the desk at that moment. And this from a point-and-shoot camera!

The surprise I got was that sometimes technology is not as important as being at the right place at the right time — and “feeling” the moment.