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In The Last Day

Making The Shot: The School Performance

Posted 11/11/10 by
Last Updated: 11/12/10
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Making The Shot: The School Performance


Many people buy DSLR's primarily to take better pictures of their kids, and one of the most challenging environments to get great shots of your little ones is at the inevitable school play, recital, or other performance.

A little background first, my eldest daughter is part of her Karate Schools Demo Team, and the Demo Team were performing at their annual Black Belt Ceremony - the biggest event of their year. More specifically, my daughter was ending the Demo Team section of the show with a weapons demonstration, performing a Kata with a Fighting Fan.

Now the key to getting any great shot is proper preparation, so having She Who Must Be Obeyed (SWMBO) ask "aren't you taking a camera, I wanted some nice pictures?" literally as we were walking out the door with our 5 year old twins is less than ideal. Especially when all you were planning to take was a video camera.

Equipment Choice:

I've got 30 seconds to grab a camera or we'll be late. Hauling a bunch of gear is not an option: the standard photographer parents dilemma, with a couple of small kids running around I've got to have one eye through the viewfinder and the other on them, especially if they end up with food or drink, or anything that can be used as a weapon. The event is in a ballroom in a hotel basement, it is going to be dark with a lit stage, and messing round with gear/settings is going to be more difficult. So pick the D700 for its low light ability. I have no idea how close to the stage I'm going to be able to get, I'll be in a crowd with several hundred people watching, and don't want to take a multiple lenses. I opt for a 85mm f/1.4D - focus speed is a little slow for action, but the reach and f1.4 may come in very useful. MB-D10 is on the camera already - great, 8 could be useful.

I choose not to bother with the flash for multiple reasons: (i) Got to keep one eye on the kids, so trying to do a full McNally lighting extravaganza in the dark with no prep and using just the other eye is just plain masochistic; (ii) flash limits the ability to use a high frame rate (not always bad, shooting to peak of action is an equally valid approach, especially if you have more prep time); and (iii) I have no idea how far away or what type of backdrop will be used, so plenty of potential for horrible shadows and washed out faces using a single flash. With no prep time available and no knowledge of the shooting location, use the KISS approach (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

The Location:

We arrive as the place is filling up, and while looking for seats I notice a spot between the presenters' table and some stairs right at the front of the 2' tall stage: perfect location to sit on the floor and shoot while my daughter is performing. However the 85mm may be a little long, the 50mm f1.4 would probably have been a better choice. Ho hum, just have to deal with it. Backdrop is a black curtain (excellent), but with a big white projection screen and assorted other pieces of equipment in front of it (not excellent). Florescent track lighting is on so people can find their seats, but there are 2 banks of 3 spotlights at the front of the stage - it's a very big stage to evenly light with just 6 spotlights, so metering is going to be fun. With that a couple of the twins friends show up (ages 5 and 3) and decide to hang out with us, now we have 4 kids playing, getting excited, getting bored, needing the bathroom, hungry, thirsty and generally demanding attention - if you have little kids you'll relate.

Setting the Camera:

While the lights are on, do a quick check of the camera settings - make sure it is in RAW with Auto White Balance (potentially have a mix of fluorescents and the incandescent spotlights, so will most likely have to tweak white balance in post anyway). Set the ISO to 2000. Aperture Priority mode with the lens wide open (f/1.4) - that's going to give a very shallow depth of field, but want to keep the frame rate up around 1/250th to 1/500th - the Kata is pretty fast moving with spins and flying kicks, so a little bit of movement is okay to show motion, but you also want to be able to freeze the head and get sharp eyes. For now leave it on Matrix metering, until the spotlights come on and you can tweak your baseline settings.

Lights go out, pitch black. Spotlights come on. Crap, it's worse than I was expecting. The spots are all aimed randomly, mostly at the front 3rd of the stage, basically creating 6 hotspots and leaving the rest of the stage relatively dark. Doesn't look too bad with the human eye, but a DSLR has much more limited dynamic range. I know from watching her practice that she moves about 10 foot front to back during her Fan Kata, and about 8 ft left to right, so she is going to be in and out of those hotspots fast. Clearly the lighting level varies by at least 3-4 stops over any 10 ft area on the front half of the stage. With a black background, dark blue floor, and my daughter wearing in a primarily black Gi while moving rapidly though the different light levels, any thoughts of using manual exposure go out the window.

Making The Shot: The School Performance

You can see from the above screen capture from View NX2 that the lighting was horrible (hotspots on the floor/curtain, cluttered background), White Balance is way off, and that the Matrix Metering was far from consistent. However after scanning through the photographs, several family members requested a print of the same image.

Getting the skin tones in the face (and stopping the black uniform from disappearing into the black background) is going to be the big challenge. Ideally you'd spot meter from her face to get the skin tones and maybe push the exposure a stop to the right (to make sure you capture uniform detail without blowing out the skin tones, then tweak in post as appropriate). However keeping a spot meter on her face while she spins, jumps and kicks is not going to be easy when she's filling the frame with the 85mm lens right in front of me.

After some quick playing around in the dark, Matrix metering looks like it the best of several bad choices - the camera is clearly over exposing the skin tones by 1-2 stops (but not completely blowing it out), as it tries to make sense of the black uniform on a black background and turn everything gray, but that's roughly what I want so I don't loose the uniform detail. The spots are a little brighter than I expected, allowing me to bring down the ISO to 1600 and up the aperture to f/2 for a little bit more depth of field - depending where on stage people are Aperture Priority is giving me anywhere from 1/60th to 1/640th of a second exposure time, mostly in the 1/200th-1/500th range, which is exactly where I want to be. That also confirms my suspicions that there are 3-4 stops differences in the light levels on stage, just by moving a couple of feet in any direction.

The Capture:

Below is the image, pretty much as it came out of the camera (slight crop, adjusted White Balance):

Making The Shot: The School Performance

You can see from the floor the huge difference in lighting levels; with the foot area virtually blown out, but just a couple of feet back the floor is an dark blue. The background is noisy, and while it is wonderful to be able to nail everything in-camera, unfortunately this time you have to play the cards you were dealt (which included the "no prep time" time card, the "crappy lighting conditions" card and several "distracting kids" cards). However the detail and focus is mostly there, the picture just needs some work.

Post Processing:

Unfortunately this picture needed a fair amount of post. All of these steps were done using Capture NX2:
  1. First step was to fix the white balance - switching it to Incandescent did the trick.
  2. Next is pull back the exposure to get the skin tones close - about 1 2/3rd stops were needed.
  3. Because of the overhead lights there was a dark shadow under her left eye, making it look like she hadn't slept in days. A quick adjustment using a color control point solved that.
  4. Sharpen (USM 40/5/4).
  5. Crop to print at 8"x10".
  6. Clean up the background (blacken out the clutter, use the erase tool to get rid of some small specs).
  7. Selectively tweak the exposure on several areas (just like dodging and burning in the darkroom) to make certain areas less distracting - in this case using Color Control Points in NX2.
  8. Use the erase tool to tidy up some minor details in the image.
Below is the final result. While not a prize winning photo, and by no means comparable with a properly lit studio shot, it is a photo most parents would be proud to hang on their wall, and taken under extremely challenging conditions.

Making The Shot: The School Performance

Gear Used:

The following gear was used for this capture:
  • Nikon D700 - ideal for its ability to control noise at high ISO's. A Nikon D3s would be even better, a D7000 would be a good choice also.
  • Nikon 85mm f/1.4D - in hindsight the 50mm f/1.4 would have been a better choice, since it has faster focusing and would have been a better focal length, but I didn't expect to be able to get that close to the stage ahead of time. The 85mm got the results though.
  • Nikon MB-D10 grip - 8 f.p.s. combined with the vertical controls absolutely made a difference.
  • Nikon Capture NX2 - while it is always better to get it right in camera, this picture required a fair amount of post.

Next Time (Ways to Improve the Picture):

The biggest problem was the unevenness of the lighting thanks to the poor positioning of the spotlights. With proper preparation, scouting the location ahead of time and perhaps even remotely triggering a couple of speed lights (which could be Justin Clamp'ed the light stands holding the spotlights), and I could have got much closer to nailing the picture in camera. Even some gentle on camera fill flash would help get the exposure closer and reduce the work in post.

But given absolutely no preparation and literally grabbing a camera as you walk out the front door, this is a picture most people would be happy with.

The key points to getting this kind of shot are:

  1. Really know your gear, be able to set controls in the dark.
  2. Make sure the shutter speed and aperture are in the range you want to convey the look you want in the picture (in this instance using the aperture to make sure enough of the subject is in focus while blurring background, and shutter speed set to freeze the eyes but still show slight traces of movement).
  3. Really understand exposure and lighting. In this scenario the light falling on the subjects face can change by up to 4 stops in a split second as she moves forward, so you really need to understand the exposure you want. This time after some quick experimentation Matrix seemed the best (but far from ideal) option, it was consistently overexposing the scene by 1-2 stops, but without completely blowing out the skin tones in the face, and also retaining the detail in the uniform.
  4. Aim to get it right in camera, but understand there are situations where fixing in post is a valid choice - in this case 'exposing to the right' (overexposing slightly) is a fair choice to retain detail.

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