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Tough Night at the Gala Fundraiser

I worked a huge fundraising event last night for PBS, the sixth event I've done for them, but the first of this one held yearly. The first "working" job I did about 10 months ago was for them. The venue space they have to me is pretty difficult lighting wise, many different colors/kinds of lighting, setting sun blazing in through floor-to-ceiling windows (30 ft tall), but at my 3rd gig for them, I felt I got it right. Tungsten WB, 1/2 CTS get on bounced speedlite. I went there last night with my usual gear. They must have like my previous work, because they asked for me in an email.

Lo and behold, behind what I thought was a solid wall was another huge space. At least 150 ft wide, 100 ft deep, 40 ft high. Lots of food and wine vendor tables set up along the walls and in the middle. BLACK floor-to-ceiling curtains covering every wall. BLACK ceiling with black girders that had at least 200 spotlights of all colors including white, pointing in all different directions but mostly downward. Along the back wall was a lit stage where a band was performing.On top of that, in this space as well as in the one I had *mastered*, there were a bunch of 10 ft long by 1 foot diameter cylindrical chandeliers of all different colors hanging down.

I was pretty flummoxed. The usual technique described above in the first room wasn't quite working, and I felt it was because of the colored chandeliers. The other room really had no place to bounce anything, although I did indeed try. There was a second photographer there, a woman who has been doing wedding for a living for 20+years. She was also moaning about the lighting. At one point, I saw her using a Stofen on her flash pointed directly behind her into who-knows-what surface. Later on, I saw her with the on-camera bounce card pulled out.

The only on-camera Speedlite modifiers I own are: 8-inch octagon softbox; Lumiquest 80/20 system, DIY gel holder, BFT, and the pull-out bounce card. Because most of this venue setup was a surprise, I didn't have the first two. I felt my only option in this new (to me) space was to point the Speedlite straight up and use the bounce card.

The light that was falling on the patrons was dappled/streaked/harsh, and felt I could only ask them to move once. Most of the time, they just moved into lighting that was just as bad. As the night progressed, I worked more in the other room (the one I knew) and adjusted for the chandeliers mucking me up - but don't ask me what I did right now.

Of the 200+ shots I took, I bet only 75-85 are going to make it through, and I bet 25 of those are good shots of the vendors, their setups, and food. I wish I had a pull-back shot to show. I haven't looked at them all, but I did try switching from Tungsten to AWB and removed the gel, but I haven't seen those yet.

Now that I have caught my breath, I wonder how you guys would have handled this. I have a couple of thoughts:

1) In the room with the band, face the posed people with their backs to the stage, get a -2 stop exposure of that stage, recompose/refocus on the people and use fill flash. That does mean that everyone is in a photo with the stage in the background.
2) Use the Lumiquest as a full bouncer, and hope for the best. I have never used this gadget in a working situation.
3) Someone will say "Bump up the ISO". I have a Canon 600D, and I know I haven't given it a fair shake at 3200, but I don't know how good it is there, never mind at 6400 or 12,800.
4) Buy a ticket and obtain a small lottery win (~$10K), to purchase the best camera for events, along with a hand-held color temperature meter.

Sorry this was so long. It was a wonderful event as far as events go, but it was awful as far as photography goes. I would like o do it again next year, and want to really feel prepared and confident going in. Last night did not very much for my newbie confidence.



  • as far as events with all kinds of lighting I will change it to b&w if I cant correct it, also fast glass and a hi iso camera are your friend.  Maybe two lights on stands????
  • So, to boil it down, you had no lighting modifiers with you except bounce card. All the walls and ceilings were black. Spotlights of many colors and chandeliers all over the place. Right?

    Sometimes in these situations I find the best spot, where I kniw I'm going to get good pix, and hang there. But you can only do that to a point. I usually find that the best thing to do is bump ISO way up and keep the aperture low and use no flash, you do have all those spotlights. Gotta keep shutter speed at a reasonable speed. Or I use flash if I have to but then I use Sto-fen and knock the power way back so light is subtle. Prob with Sto-fen is it will cast bad shadows. I wonder if two lights up high on poles far apart in the room, controlled by radios, would give consistent lighting. Or would that be just two more lights added to the mix?

  • Given what you describe, I would have simply used direct flash pointed at the subject. Ideally, the subjects would be far enough from a background wall so you don't get the American-Apparel-style flash shadow (ha!).

    I would set the camera for as much ambient as you can (highest ISO + lowest shutter + biggest aperture you can deal with), and then add the flash on top of that. Season to taste. Try with and without a Sto-fen style dome diffuser. Maybe a little negative FEC if you can.
  • Thanks, all of you, for the suggestions. I have been looking at the photos in LR, and they are not as bad as I thought, but believe me LR is going to be used a lot more than usual for me.

    Since they were small-group shots (individual to 3-5 people), I had my lens at F2.8, and since posed shots, I could slow the shutter because of no movement. But the candids had to be faster. A lot of the shots looked like the sun was at noon outside. I tried to keep the ISO at 1600, but the 3200 ISO shots are not too bad, actually.

    Setting up lights on stands would have been next to impossible. The only other thing I could think of was having the Speedlite off camera in my hand via a cord, which I also did not have.

    As I think of it, probably stopping people coming in and out of the room with the band at the spot where the lit stage was in the background, or maneuvering to get myself there would have been good, expose for the background and have a bit of fill flash.

    I need to do more testing with this Lumiquest thing. Also, in another post, someone was talking about the FStoppers disk, which seems interesting, but at $50 seems a bit much. Anyone have any experience with either one?

    Thanks - Dave

  • If there were a lot of tables set up and they had white tablecloths could you have bounced off of them at all? Probably not feasible. And even if it were the light might be coming from too low an angle?

  • The vendor "posed" and vendor "candids" came out pretty well, but of course it was like a set-up situation where I could really get a bead on things. I'm not really sure, as I think about it, how I would have maneuvered myself to get people posed near the tablecloths. And yes, probably the light would have been from a strange angle.
  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    Yup, as mentioned above, the best workable option would've been to use direct flash. I hate doing that because it means the photos won't look like my work usually does - but it is a necessary compromise because of the scenario that I was presented with. 

    About your options: 
    "1) In the room with the band, face the posed people with their backs to the stage, get a -2 stop exposure of that stage, recompose/refocus on the people and use fill flash. That does mean that everyone is in a photo with the stage in the background."

    This would've been the best, from what I can figure out from your description. 

    "2) Use the Lumiquest as a full bouncer, and hope for the best. I have never used this gadget in a working situation."

    I bring a rotating flash bracket and a small soft box for my speed light to every event. Juuuust in case. This might be a good habit to acquire anyway. You will regularly find things thrown at you that you didn't expect, or goes outside of the client's brief. Then you have to be prepared anyway. 
  • Neil - Thanks. I now keep the Lumiquest and an 8-inch octagon softbox in my bag. Can you tell me what you have for the small softbox? I have a Fotodiox which has an extra internal diffuser panel. Just curious.


    PS - here are a couple of the processed shots. I use the first two in my samples for clients, but the last two I put in just to show the harsh and dappled light that was in the back function hall.
  • I think your examples are really nice. What's nice is that they are not flashy and the backgrounds are nicely exposed. 

    I had a super tough shoot the other night in a very dark function hall with ceilings so high I could not bounce. It was horrible but I salvaged many of the shots by taking people outside. It was a beautiful evening and they were all inside sipping cocktails and making small talk with colleagues and those photos always suck. They just do. So I suggested to groups of twos and up and we go outside quickly, which mean stepping out large doors about eight feet away. Worked really well, the photos are nice. So I have to remember to think on my own more often instead of doing what the client suggests because they don't understand how bad the light is. 
  • Skip - thanks, and I guess that's why we are all on this blog, to have our photos not look too "flashy", right? I only had a few shots where I used direct flash, as I had short-sightedly had no modifier. I asked folks to move a little, but you really can only ask that once

    Good idea, your thinking quickly, taking people outside at your gig the other night.

    As for the small-talk shots, I guess I'm a bit different and always wait and watch for a great candid. You never know.

  • Well, I am sure your patience pays off, nothing like a great candid. If you have time. Often there isn't time at these parties. But you have to balance because four great candids are better than 100 lousy throw-aways. I've all but given up on candids when they are eating hors d'oeuves and holding drinks and cocktail napkins and talking. Invariably they are making funny expressions due to talking, or they're eating, or someone behind them in the shot looks funny. It's a mine field. So in order to get the people they want and looking decent I ask them just to stop and pose and look at the camera. I ask them to hold the drinks down not because it's alcohol but because the glasses and bottles clutter up the shot. I DO love to get candids at other times at these events, when they are listening to a speaker or looking at art work or otherwise not talking or eating or drinking. If they're speaking at a meeting that's ok and usually works out if I take enough shots. 
  • Your story reminds me of an out of area wedding I shot last week. Walked into church and it was dark. New construction. Cellular shades on aaaalllll the windows, led pot lights whisping moody points of light on the padded seating. Black Black acoustic ceiling. I actually looked up and said, " Hmm, black foamy thing ceiling, neat. Neil would love this one!" 
  • Skip - when I get a gig where there is a sit-down meal involved, I tell the client that I do not photograph people eating a meal, because "I've never seen or taken a photograph of someone eating that's flattering". Also, I rarely/never go for candids of people standing around after going to a buffet if there is a chance they will be eating. But, I've worked for a couple of caterers that want candids of people being served their food, like buffet/carving station or passed appetizers. I'll do that.

  • Right. I'm with you. Never photograph at meal time, whether it's sit down or not. But I seem to do a lot of events like receptions and fundraisers where it's like a cocktail party and they are eating snacks and sipping wine almost the entire time.
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