And Away We Go

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I had the distinct pleasure and honor to shoot Pearl Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Terrence McNally’s And Away We Go on Sunday.  There were actually many pleasures involved – first, this was the first run post-tech, so I was in the first audience to see this performed, ever.  Second, Mr. McNally was there and I got to chat with him briefly about the show and finally, I got to shoot side by side with Sara Krulwich, the renowned New York Times’ theater photographer.  While this does mean no NY Times credit for me this show, it was great to talk with her a bit and see that our equipment list and processes (at least the shooting part) aren’t all that different.

The challenge shooting this show is apparent the moment you walk into the space.  The set.  The set is a character unto itself and it is a very demanding character.  The stage is completely open to the walls, as it was for Henry IV, Part 1.  But it is supposed to be the back stage of one of several (any?) theaters.  One where collected props, costumes, marketing materials and actor detritus have collected over decades and created a warren chaotic to an outsider, but intimate and welcoming to any theatre-folk.  It’s a lot to take in.  You want to examine each piece.  Create the backstories, consider the symbolism.  Luckily since there’s no curtain (a recurring theme), the audience will be able to take it in before the actors take to the stage.

But as a photographer… The set was more of a consideration than usual.  How much do I include?  When might it overwhelm the actors and when does it support them?  Our human eye is made for following motion, so live it wasn’t such an issue.  But looking through the lens and freezing moments, the actors lose their upper hand.  And there’s a gorgeous verticality and scale, as you can see, with the lighting.  But to include the sculpture of the lighting dwarfs the actress or actor, which is cool from an overall composition aesthetic, but my style favors tighter shots on actors – seeing their bodies and faces, the tools they have that convey their art in a photograph.  That was all but lost in that scale.

So balance was needed.  Compromises were made.  It is a wonderful show.  Anyone who is of the theatre or who just truly enjoys theatre will adore this love letter, with its in jokes and themes.  Just be sure to go early and take in that set!

Posted in Pearl Theatre Company, Shows

This Round’s on Us: Halloween

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This post is late in coming.  I’ve been up to my ears playing Falstaff in The Baited Bear Players’ production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Believe me, I tried to figure out how to shoot the show while I was in it.  The best I could do was some shots from a rehearsal and some from the wings.  But that is another post!

Despite it all, photo gigs will come!  Once again, I’m thrilled to be shooting for the Nylon Fusion Theatre Company.  This was another in their This Round’s on Us 10 minute play festival series.  This time the theme was, appropriately, Halloween.  It really is a pleasure working repeatedly with a company and getting to know their people and their style.  While each show is different, there is a certain common energy to their productions, which I hope I am capturing on my sensor.  I certainly see it!

As with the last iteration, TROU: Independence, TROU: Halloween was in the Gene Frankel theatre, which the Nylon Fusion people use to its utmost – they fill that place to the rafters!  I took my now customary spot on the corner of the L they create with their seating and got to work.

While “Halloween” led to a few darker plays, thematically, despite my worries, they were generally bright, technically.  Shooting went well throughout, with no technical challenges.  For each shoot, I try to learn and grow.  This time, it was about the nature of the show and how I cover it, shot-wise.  During a traditional, long-form play, I shoot several shots per scene, depending on the action of the scene.  Two people at a table talking will get fewer shots than a fight scene, obviously.  But for eleven ten minute plays?  I feel like I’m shooting more than I normally would for those “quieter” pieces, because I don’t want them to get short-changed at the end of the culling and editing process.  Then during the culling process I’m trying to keep things even, so I’m maybe a little harder on the more “active” plays, really focusing on the best of the best so they don’t overwhelm the gallery.

Ultimately, they did a great job.  If my hardest job is to be spoiled for choice?  I’ll take it!

Next up is the Pearl Theatre Company’s production of And Away We Go!  So happy to be shooting for them again.  And rumor has it, I’ll be dealing with a VERY interesting challenge for Nylon Fusion’s next show (or duet of shows) coming in 2014!  Stay tuned!

Posted in Nylon Fusion, Shows

Arms and the Man

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Two Shaws in a row!  My friends Sal and Miriam Brienik’s company, Standard Bear Productions is presenting Shaw’s Arms and the Man at the Secret Theatre in Queens.  Yet again a Shaw play I’ve never gotten around to reading or seeing.  These photography gigs are definitely making me a more well rounded theatre person!

It’s tough when a show is technically coming in just under the wire.  This was the final dress and due to challenges beyond their control, they were short a costume or two, which meant I had to consider the shots I was taking to try to keep the anachronistic street clothes out of the shot.  I was mostly blessed with good lighting — except for the first scene in Raina’s bedroom — but even then, for the most part, I was able to keep my exposure triangle at reasonable levels.

Standard Bear also asked me to help them out with some staged photos for them a couple weeks prior to the dress for marketing and for use in the show, itself.  That was my first foray into portraiture (aside from some headshots for family) and I was reminded that it is really SO much a different beast.  I need to invest in some off-camera light gear and start practicing with it.  Shooting a show is wonderful because there is someone who has considered the lighting for you and made it pretty.  But in situations like this, it’s up to you and available light off-stage is a very different and unruly beast.  Time to start controlling it with my own light!

Posted in Shows

You Never Can Tell

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I’m so glad to be rolling in Pearl Theatre Company’s big 30th season with them, shooting You Never Can Tell, directed by David Staller and co-produced with Gingold Theatrical Group!  I must admit, I’m a bad theatre person – I don’t really know Shaw that well.  The closest I’ve been is My Fair Lady.  This show shared some common themes with Pearl’s 29th season closer, This Side of Neverland, by J. M. Barrie (specifically, the second piece, The Twelve Pound Look).  They were both of an era and dealt with women coming into their own, having cast aside their men.  But while Barrie was very sympathetic to his emancipated women, Shaw was a little less so.  Mrs. Clandon, the proto-feminist, seems unsure of the conviction of her choices by play’s end and her daughter/protégé Gloria seems “doomed” to be ensnared by love and lover and to be married.

The shoot itself went without a hitch – The Pearl stage is so spacious and well lit, that there are really no technical challenges, so long as you’re able to keep on top of your exposure triangle as the lighting shifts.  I kept the ISO at 5000 to 6400 and was able to keep my aperture at around f8 throughout, giving me a nice manageable depth of field.  They gave me the run of the first three rows, which was wonderful – though I favored center and house right for most of the evening.

One challenge I’m dealing with, aesthetically, is how to handle the wide shots when the whole cast is spread across a rather wide stage.  Unlike Luft Gangster, where it was a challenge to get the whole playing space in the frame (because the house was so small, I was shooting from the actors’ laps), I can capture the whole space, but the actors get lost in the vastness of the space (i.e., the composition isn’t very compelling).

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In fact, in reviewing the shots I delivered, none of the “top shots” are particularly wide.  Some of the “second tier” shots are, but they’re more about the scenery than the actors.   If everyone’s on the same plane and downstage, I can shoot from extreme right or left, but on a stage like Pearl’s, they can have significant upstage depth and most directors hate a bunch of actors downstage on a board, unless you’re doing A Chorus Line!  I’m thinking that wide angle lens I’m convincing myself to purchase may come in handy here, as well.  That way I could shoot from as close to the stage as possible (larger actors) and still have the whole stage in frame.  Of course, then there’s the danger of some barrel distortion, but these are the trade-offs that get made!

Posted in Pearl Theatre Company, Shows

Luft Gangster

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Luft Gangster marks my third shoot with Nylon Fusion Theatre Company and besides being excellent returning clients, their work is really top notch.

Luft Gangster is the harrowing story of survival of a young airman, shot down behind enemy lines and captured during World War II.  It’s all the more engaging knowing that the play was created from interviews the playwright did with his cousin — this is his story.

For the first time with Nylon, I actually got to come in and shoot their final dress, not an audience attended show!  It was really a necessity, because the theater they are in (the Dorothy Strelsin space at Abingdon Theatre Company) is really to small to do otherwise.  The space is so small that I shot the whole thing on my 24mm – 70mm/2.8 and much of it at the wide end.  This meant that I got to explore some wide angle and low angle shots to play with perspective a bit.

 

Posted in Shows

This Round’s On Us: Independence

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My new friends at Nylon Fusion Theatre Company (Marina/Mata Hari) brought be me back to shoot the latest iteration of their quarterly Ten Minute Play Festival This Round’s On Us with the theme Independence.  There were ten plays split into two sets, with comedian Jason Andors acting as MC.

As with Marina/Mata Hari, I was shooting with audience in the seats, lining two adjacent sides of the stage.  I snagged a chair right at the corner of the stage, which gave me pretty good angles on the action.  For eight of the ten plays, I had nice, bright lights, but one was EXTREMELY dark — amusingly, it was by the same playwright as the almost as dark Mata Hari and also starred Tatyana Kot, who had played the eponymous role.  This time, I had to crank the ISO up to 25600, was still at f2.8 and 1/80 and still had to push the exposure in Lightroom to be able to see anything.  I bet you can pick out the shot in the gallery above. Definitely a LOT of noise, but I’m glad I was able to get something for them (in the end, there were a handful of useable shots from that play).

I also did a bit of streamlining on my camera for this shoot.  I set up my custom menu to add quick access to white balance, so I can quickly set it for the room, which meant I didn’t have to adjust white balance during editing.

So thanks again to Nylon Fusion!  They do great work.  Their next play is coming in August: Luft Gangster, directed by the hardest working man in NY theatre, Austin Pendleton.  Check it out!

Oh, then there was this.  Just had to share it.

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Posted in Shows

I Know Kung Fu!

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New York City is amazing.  You never know what you’ll come across.  I got a call from Stacey on Thursday morning: “There’s a kung fu panda thing happening at Grand Central at 1:30 today!”  That’s about all the info she had.  I looked it up on-line and found very little more.  But it sounded interesting and it was near my office.  So I grabbed my camera and headed over.  What it turned out to be was an event by the Beijing Tourism Committee promoting their new 72-hour visa-free program.  Following far too much dry talk from Chinese dignitaries and the MCs introducing all the dignitaries and selling Beijing, the good stuff started.

I was a bit wary, because it started with a bunch of people in full body panda costumes using “bamboo” staves and nunchucks.  But then it moved into a series of exhibitions by students of the Beijing Sports and Exercise School.  Some of it was familiar from the Shaolin work that my teacher, Fight Master Mike Chin, would show us — Long fist and staff.  I think one of the more amazing sections was a demonstration of Biàn Liǎn or Face-Changing, where the performer came on stage with an elaborate mask and costume.  During his dance, he would change the mask faster than you could perceive.  Amazing!

Posted in NYC Events

Back to my roots

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When I was a kid, my dad was an avid photographer.  So much so, that he would develop and print his own film and we almost had a darkroom in the house.  Dad would take me to the rent-a-darkroom and let me help.  Eventually, I started developing and printing my own B&W photos.

A few weeks ago I decided to pull out my old film bodies and remember what it’s like to shoot without instant feedback.  Scary!  I have two bodies: a Minolta X-570 that I loaded with Ilford Delta 400 (B&W) and my first Canon — an EOS Elan 7E, loaded with Kodak Porta 160 (color).   Oh, did I mention you have to finish a roll before you get to see any of them?  Crazy!

I finished my first roll of B&W first and just got it back from B&H.  I forgot how nice grain is.  Real black & white film grain.  Now I need to finish roll two and some of the color rolls!

Next up: find a rent-a-darkroom here in NYC!

Posted in Street Shots

Marina & Mata Hari

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Marina and Mata Hari are a pair of one acts by playwright Don Nigro.  The one woman Marina is an appropriately poetic and tragic exploration of Russian poetess Marina Tsvetaeva followed by the two person Mata Hari, in which the accused spy and prostitute is visited in prison by her abusive husband on the day of her execution.

The show was presented as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity at the Robert Moss Theater, which, if you are as old as I, you’ll remember as the Musical Theater Works Studio 1.  The shows are gorgeous, well directed by Ivette Dumeng and both of the eponymous roles are strongly performed by Tatyana Kot, with Curtis James Nielsen playing MacLeod, Mata Hari’s husband.

This shoot was a last minute affair and full of interesting challenges.  I was contacted Friday night to come in and shoot the Saturday matinee, which also happened to be their opening performance!  Usually I shoot final dress rehearsals, because there’s no paying audience and therefore the ability to move around without annoying anyone too much.  Not so this time.  I wound up in the house left corner of the last row.  I have to give massive props to Canon for their silent mode.  It was really a shoot saver here.  I’m much more confident that when I do need to shoot when the audience is present, I can do so without being disruptive.

My next challenge came in the second half, during Mata Hari.  While Marina was not brightly lit, as you can see the actress has pale skin and is wearing an ivory slip – exposure was not a problem.  I was able to keep my ISO at about 5000, aperture in the 3.5 to 5 range and the shutter speeds in the 100s to 200s.  I had to coax some details out of the shadows when processing, but nothing too challenging.  Mata Hari, on the other hand… Mata Hari takes place in her prison cell.  Dark and dank.  Costumes were black and navy (until the very end).  I was changing settings like a mad man!  I pushed the ISO up and up and pulled shutter speed down, praying that the image stabilization on my 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II would save me.  But it was still too close to the edge.  I was scared to do it, but I eventually wound up at ISO 10,000.  Again, Canon saved the day!  The ISO 10K shots on my 5D Mark III were all totally usable.  There was some speckling on the black curtain in the background, but I ran luminance noise reduction over them and they cleared right up!

Last, but not least, I recently decided to try Lightroom 5 out and this was the first major shoot I ran through its workflow.  I’ve been a Bridge + Photoshop guy for years, but I know a lot of people who adore Lr.  Gotta say, I’m hooked already.  I’ve got some definite learning to do, but the workflow is much smoother and I was able to stay in Lr for nearly everything (and had I done some more research and setup, I probably could have never left).  If only for the massive time savings I had just in flagging and rating shots, it’s worth the move.

So, in conclusion, while the gear doesn’t make the photographer, the gear can get you through some challenging scenarios!  5D Mark III silent mode and high ISO + the image stabilization of the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens made all the difference on this shoot.  Thanks, Canon!

[Update] Since my initial pass through my shots Photoshop CC was released.  I decided to run a couple of the keeper shots I had taken at low shutter speeds (1/60 or lower) through their new Shake Reduction filter just for fun.  These were shots that were a little soft, but certainly not out of focus.  Wow.  Wow does not actually begin to describe it.  They went from a little soft to tack sharp.

That’s kind of amazing.  It takes a while to render (until I get my Darth Mac Pro…), so you wouldn’t want to have to run a whole shoot through it, but for the ones that really matter, what a tool!  So Adobe, for Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CC‘s Shake Reduction tool, you get kudos, too!

Posted in Shows

Sing for Hope 2013 Pianos Gala

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Remember back in March when my amazing artist friend Jessi got us all plastered?  Well, tonight there was a gala unveiling the 88 pianos that had been decorated by artists and which will be distributed around the 5 boroughs June 1 – 16 for people to enjoy.  After that, they will be donated to various schools, healthcare facilities and community organizations along with visits from Sing for Hope artists to bring the joy of music to those who might not get the opportunity to experience live performance.

The location was a gutted floor of the old New York Times building.  Just a raw space, but with 88 pianos, lots of uplights on walls and columns and a few well spaced spots on some of the pianos, it felt like a trendy loft!

There was a wide variety of inspiration for the pianos. Most were painted, but some were adorned with feathers, tile work, an octopus or vinyl grass.  Each one had its secrets and its stories.  I’m sure that they will thrill those who come across them during their stay out in the city and certainly those who have the pleasure of receiving one at their school or center.

I tried a couple new things out today.  I tried shooting auto ISO.  I’m not sure… I did like the fact that it managed the ISO for me — and the lighting was so varied, I would have been going nuts riding all three variables (ISO, aperture and shutter speed).  However, I did notice that I wasn’t always happy with how “perfect” it tried to make the scene — it was hard to shoot under or over “well exposed” without the camera fighting me.  So I did, in fact, go back to manual about half way through the night.  I may try it on a theatre shoot in the near future.  It did work well at getting me in the zone ISO-wise.

The other new(ish) exploration was my flash.  Obviously, I never shoot with a flash when I shoot a show and this has turned me into a bit of an ambient light snob.  But this room was very dark in many places and to get the detail of the pianos without too much noise, I broke out my old Speedlite 430 EX II.  The batteries even worked, I was impressed!  I’ve been doing a lot of reading and B&H video watching about flashes lately, so I had some things to try.  I was shooting on camera, but kept the flash angled up or even behind me to cut down on harshness.  I’m not comfortable with it yet, but I’m definitely going to rope S. into a flash aided headshot session soon.

Posted in NYC Events