Tony’s Italian Adventure

Roseto V.F.

In August, I left for a two-week solo trip to Italy. Traveling light, I decided to take my travel camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 with a 14-150mm super zoom lens. That’s equivalent to 28-300mm for a full frame camera and shows the value of the micro-four-thirds system for traveling as everything including lenses is much smaller and lighter. But, yes, there were a few times I wished I had the bigger camera.

My Italian travels began with a drive from Roma Fiumicino airport south to the small village of Roseto Valfortore in Puglia, the home town of my grandparents (miei  nonni).

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They left this village in the late 1890s, I believe. I likely have relatives still there, but I really had no idea what to expect or what I would do once there. But, I wanted to see it and walk the streets, and just take it in.

Roseto V.F.

Indeed, the older part of town has what are basically alleys some of which are large enough for one of the small cars common in Italy, but many are not. It’s built atop a hill with the surrounding hills covered in windmills. The roads into town are narrow with very rough patches here and there – narrowing to one small lane in places. And if you follow GPS instructions, you can end up on farming roads that I came to describe as paths.

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Still, the town is pretty, especially the older section, and it exudes quaint European ambiance. The older men sit in the cafe or at a table outside the cafe playing cards. Or sit in chairs outside the Tobacchi (tobacco shop) as you might see in movies.

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The small churches are old and works of art. Everyone knows everyone which was critical for me to find my hotel as it was on one of those alleys and street signs were not great. (No cell service prevented me from trying to call.) And prices were low, €0.80 for espresso, a nice meal could be had for less than €10. Just don’t try to eat in a restaurant after 18:00. “Tardi!” Gelato or a pastry at the cafe can be supper, right?

Leaving Roseto, I drove back to Roma Fiumicino then took a train to the Roma Termini train station and a fast train up to Firenze (Florence). I was going to visit the seaside region of Cinque Terre and wanted to break up the travel. So, two nights in Firenze would do that and give me a day in a city I love. A friend who spent time in Italy earlier this year suggested the winery tour she did and gave me a pointer to their web page: Fun in Tuscany.

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Their site showed several options including a Vespa tour. That sounded terrific, so I signed up before I left home. It turns out I was the only one participating in the Vespa riding, so it was just me and my guide, Antonio (perfect name for me to remember!). Since I ride motorcycles, we took the more challenging but more scenic roads through the wine and olive country. We stopped in San Gimignano for gelato – which was wonderful – and sat on steps in the shade. While I ate, we talked about southern Italy, Italian culture, Italian families, and food, and who knows what else. It was great!

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Eventually, we ended up at Tenuta Torciano winery for a wine tasting and multicourse lunch. I was done riding, so the wine was not a problem. I met up with others who were in the same van I was in leaving Firenze along with another van-full of folks. They were on the regular wine-tasting tour. We caught up with them earlier where they were tasting some wine at another winery – what Antonio described as a “warm-up” tasting. I drank water!

This tasting was more involved and the food was wonderful. After we returned to Firenze, I had drinks with the group at a couple places. They were from all over – New Zealand, Canada, Australia. One couple lives in Chicago but met at UND.

Cinque Terre

The next day I left Firenze. My train was to take me to La Spezia, where I’d take another train to Vernazza, one of the five Cinque Terre towns. After a sizable delay, a woman came through the train telling us “broken!” and sending us to the next platform for a train to Pisa. That train was jam-packed. I stood by the doors for the hour ride to Pisa where I met a couple from London on an extended trip through Europe. In Pisa, I found a train to La Spezia. Didn’t see the famous tower as it’s quite a hike from the train station. In La Spezia, I arrived at nearly the time for my scheduled train to Vernazza to leave. It was still there and I managed to get to the platform before it left, but just barely, and the doors wouldn’t open. But the next train was only a 15 minute wait.

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a set of five small towns built into the steep hills overlooking the sea. Above them are stone terraces with grape vines and occasionally olives or lemon trees. These terraces are hundreds of years old and had to be amazingly difficult to build. They remain a lot of work to farm.

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The towns themselves are beautiful. The buildings are colorful. And old. Churches are ornate, old, and photogenic, although the age is apparent when you’re in close. Getting around is pretty easy. There are trains passing between the towns and spending most of their time traveling through tunnels. In Vernazza, the open part of the station is only about two train cars wide. You generally walk along the platform into and out of the tunnel to board or exit the train.

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There are also trails between the towns, and you see many hikers especially early in the mornings. Some of the trails are closed due to mudslides several years ago. Getting around generally involves a lot of climbing in nearly all the towns. The views are worth the climbs. Some spots are near the trails, and you can look at the hills bordering the towns and usually see hikers on the trails if you look in the right place.

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Each of the five towns has its own personality. All have places to swim, but one has a larger, more traditional beach, Monterosso al Mare. It’s the northern-most of the five and the feel there, to me, was different and more overtly touristy. All have tons of tourists especially in midday. I would head out in the mornings when it was quieter and crowds were minimal.

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One town, Corneglia, is built up on the hill rather than down at the water. The train station, though, is at the same altitude above the sea as in the other towns, so there’s either a rather lengthy climb up or a shuttle. One can take the shuttle up and walk the stairs down, too, which is what I did.

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My room in Vernazza was more like an apartment with a kitchen area and dining table. It made a great home base. The large windows faced the main street, a couple stories up giving me a great view. Getting to the room required climbing several sets of stairs, but in alleys, not withing a building. The entry door looks like you’re walking into the ground floor, but once inside, the window view shows you otherwise.

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One evening, I paid one of the boat operators to take me out at sunset. He took me down the coast so I could take sunset photos of four of the towns. They face mostly to the west, so the late sun illuminated the towns with nice light. There were some clouds over the towns most of the day, but as the sun dropped, the clouds dissipated. I sort of wish they remained to add to the drama of the view, but you get what you get. This is one place my better camera would have been nice. I’m glad I didn’t have the weight to carry around, but…

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I visited all five towns at some point, but then I stuck around Vernazza. I found a great restaurant for breakfasts and dinners away from the crowd and serving better food than the places down by the water. Had a couple of my favorite desserts there (dolci).

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Tuesday is apparently market day, and the street is filled with tents and trucks of fruit, vegetables, fish, and clothing. There was a bit of drizzle that day but not for long.

Cinque Terre

One afternoon, resting and cooling off in my room, I hear what sounded like latin American music coming from the street below. It was a quartet from Chile. They were also visiting Cinque Terre for the first time. They were doing something of a European tour.

These towns, besides the tourist crowds, resembled the quaintness of Roseto. Just feels like a slower pace, many locals going about their daily work.

Milano

From Vernazza, I took trains to Milano – a large city to the north and one some consider  the fashion capital of the world – perhaps along with Paris. It’s an interesting city with some beautiful art, the great Gothic cathedral, Duomo, and home of many great Renaissance artists.

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I was there two years ago, attending the Italian Grand Prix in nearby Monza, and I was there this time again for the Grand Prix. Da Vinci’s Last Supper is in Milan, and I was unable to visit it my first time there. For this trip, I set aside an extra day and made sure I secured a ticket way ahead of time. One small group at a time is let in to see the work for 15 minutes. You go through staging areas to help reduce the humidity that gets into the room containing the fresco painting. Worth the wait, even though it has deteriorated a lot. It is still awesome to see such a work by such an artist. And just sit and look at it, study it.

Italian Grand Prix

The final part of the trip was to again attend Gran Premio d’Italia in Monza. This is the annual Formula 1 race. I discussed it previously in my trip discussion from two years ago. The one thing I did this time which I hadn’t before is attend the pit walk for three-day ticket holders on Thursday before the race. Last time, I flew in on Thursday, so I didn’t want to add that to the travel day and dealing with jetlag.

Italian Grand Prix

On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, you can take a train to the Monza station and then shuttle buses from there to the park (the track is built within a large city park). On Thursday, there’s no shuttle, so you take city buses. I wondered if I’d be able to figure out where to catch the bus and if I’d get the right one. Silly me – there are hundreds of others doing the same thing. Just follow the crowd!

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I took plenty of photos of cars last time. I still took some car photos, mainly to see what the little camera could do (conclusion: no match for the 5DIII), but I focused more on people – workers painting stripes…

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Photographers being loaded into an SUV after the track action was done…

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One of the food vendor guys making a real cappuccino, because this is Italy and you’re going to have good coffee, alright?

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Or the fellow cooking up sausage or hot dogs fresh on a grill, because this is Italy and you’re going to have good food, alright?

I actually kept going back to the food sites and watching and looking at the variety. I have a photo of one with a sign, “Panini Caldi,” in big letters – “hot sandwiches.” There was pizza, too, but even the hot dogs were sliced lengthwise, heated on a grill, and served on good bread. Prices oddly seemed to vary. Birra (beer – almost all Heineken – a sponsor) ranged from €5 to €8 and acqua (water) ranged from one euro to €2.50. Most had it for one euro. Which was good, because it was really hot and humid.

Italian Grand Prix

Friday is a practice day, Saturday is qualifying, then the race is Sunday afternoon. Sprinkled through the Formula 1 activity are other lower class races. There was a Porsche series race with lots of action and a couple pretty bad crashes from which, fortunately, the drivers walked away.

The F1 race is the main event and a spectacle. So, we had the jet flyby (I think the US is the only place that colored smoke isn’t used). There’s a driver parade with all the drivers on a big flat-bed driven around the full length of the track to wave to fans while an on-board reporter and film crew interview them as they slowly drive around.

Italian Grand Prix

Then they line up on the grid, eventually make one parade lap lining up again on the grid, then make a standing start. Which is pretty cool. I had a decent view of the start. After that, I could see the cars leaving the pits right in front of me, and the cars going by on the front straight are passing at something over 200mph. Something of a blur!

After the race, I hurried to the train station, returned to Milano, picked up my bag where I checked it for the day, and bought my ticket back to Roma Termini. That left me some time to grab a bite in the station – and the Milano Centrale station is massive with plenty of shopping and food choices. I then popped into a favorite cafe I found two years ago with the best canolini. Just fabulous. One final canolino before leaving for Rome.

In Roma, I stayed at a more typical (European style) hotel – the first of the trip and by far the most expensive. But I was less than a block from Roma Termini. In the morning, I had breakfast and a cappuccino out of a little multidrink machine – not as good as those at the race track. Then I packed up and headed to Fiumicino to do the whole security-customs thing and fly home.

It was an incredible experience, one I have trouble not talking about at length. That will probably subside as my memories fade a bit. Food was great as I expected. The people were mostly very friendly (less so in Milano which just has that big city feel). Driving was, well, interesting. The tiny(-ish) camera was good for the most part, and I was certainly glad for it’s size and weight. Knowing just a little Italian seems to help you connect to people. Even replying “prego” after a server says “grazie” will get a different reaction than just answering “grazie” back. In the small towns in the evening, a stern look will change to a smile with “buona sera” and a returned “buona sera.”

I kept something of a journal on my iPhone during the trip and used that with my favorite photos to create a photo book. It will help me remember some of the fun details. If you happen to stop by some time and want to see it, just let me know. But it might make me talk endlessly!

Will I return to Italy? If I can swing it, absolutely!

Rock of Ages and What Happened to Summer?

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It seems I’ve been remiss keeping my blog up-to-date! Well, yes, I have been busy this summer. I shot several shows including one up in Red Wing at the beautiful Sheldon Theatre. I also shot my first Bat Mitzvah which was fun and interesting and a learning experience.

Oh, and I just returned last week from a two-week trip to Italy which remains one of my favorite countries. I spent a few days in Roseto Valfortore in the Puglia region (which apparently the English speaking world calls Apulia). I took my small travel camera (the Olympus OM-D EM10 I’ve written about) and still have many photos to cull through. When I do, I am sure I’ll add a new post about the trip. Once I begin talking about it, it’s hard to get me to stop. So be forewarned.

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I returned with a couple days to try adjusting to the time change before shooting Rock of Ages at the Civic. This is one of those lets use all this cool music and wrap a plot around it kind of shows. None of the seriousness of Fiddler or Cabaret. What it has is fun music and almost as much energy as a four year old!

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While other shows will sometimes have the band on stage, here they’re a more integral part of the show. That’s apparent right from the start when the guitarists are downstage center at the beginning of the show. As soon as I saw this and began shooting, my reaction was, “this is like shooting a concert!” That realization flipped a switch, and I then shot the show mostly as though it was a concert. Quite differently from my normal show photography mode.

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Where I’m normally a stickler for straight, level photos, here I was shooting all sorts of angles. Instead of lots of long-lens shots, I was shooting much of it wide angle, in-your-face.

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Among other things, this meant I really needed to move around a lot, running  from one side to the other. That things happen quickly increasing the necessity of moving.

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So it was different. And different can be good. In this case, it was a ton of fun to photograph.

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Like most musicals, there were cool costumes and lighting. Unlike most musicals, the costumes included a lot of long hair – the music is from the 1980s hair metal era – and the lighting was often supplemented with smoke.

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It all added together to make for some interesting photos.

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There were the typical challenges, though, like bright spots and some LED lights down front that have to be dealt with. Mostly, those are things I have worked out. I could spend my time thinking how to shoot a particular scene and where to position myself.

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There were a handful of photos that struck me as good black and white candidates. With the vivid colors, it sometimes takes something of a leap of faith to throw that away and go monochromatic. But a photo will sometimes speak to me and push me over that hurdle to give it a try.

All-in-all, it was a great way to get back into the routine after my vacation. There are three more weekends of shows. If you like live rock music and like when it pulls you in and you feel you are a part of the experience, you have to go! Oh – and I saw it as an audience member on opening night. I don’t think I’ve ever been to another show in which everyone in the audience was on their feet before the curtain calls began. So, yeah, it’s like that.

More to come. Time to work on my Italy photos now…

Mary Poppins at RCT

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Mary Poppins is the spring musical this season at Rochester Civic Theatre. It opened on April 1, so the third weekend of four begins tonight. As I’ve been doing, I shot the show during the final dress rehearsal before Preview night.

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The stage musical version of Mary Poppins is similar to the movie, but there are a fair number of changes and new songs. It’s a pretty technical show to put on with lots of set pieces moving on and off and a good bit of stage magic to pull off.

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It’s a pretty long show as many musicals are, but the talent on stage is amazing, and the time just flies.

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Like many musicals, there are some great colors, both costumes and lighting, which make for some fun photos. I do like that!

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There’s also an abundance of choreography and several big numbers. Photographing those, it’s a balancing act of trying to capture the whole stage to convey a sense of the grandeur of the number and grabbing closer shots, usually of the main characters.

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Smallish web photos miss some of the impact of the wider shots, but I think they still work.

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One scene in the stage show not in the movie is the toys coming to life. The lighting through that is great, it’s visually very cool. It’s also the scary scene for some of the audience!

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Shooting this sort of show does demand a lot from your equipment and your experience – both shooting and in post. It was a real mix of fairly dark scenes and brightly lit scenes with spots thrown in for good measure.

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Sometimes, you get everything right and that’s a good feeling.

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And sometimes, especially at the end of big numbers, the director has blocked everyone into a group that creates a terrific photographic composition. So, you have to be ready for those, because you really don’t want to miss such amazing shots.

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In March, I helped backstage at Children’s Dance Theatre’s production of The Mermaid. I was one of four people working the flying wires – some of the mermaids “flew” under the sea. I hadn’t crewed a show for quite a while, and I forgot how much fun it is.

A call went out looking for help for Mary Poppins – it requires quite a number of folks helping backstage – and I decided to volunteer to crew some of the performances.

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That gave me the opportunity to take some behind-the-scenes pics.

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You have to be careful, of course. First, if you’re part of the crew, you have a job. So, you can only pull out the camera when you’re between things. For many scenes, I didn’t shoot a single frame.

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Then, you have to honor the sight-lines – the areas where you can be and not be seen by the audience. Sometimes, that means you don’t have a good shot of the on-stage happenings at all. But, there are other photos waiting for you if you look.

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These big musical productions at RCT have been earning a reputation for their quality. This combined with the popularity of certain titles have resulted in sell-outs. For this show, the entire run was sold out before opening night. A shame for many would-be attendees or folks who loved the show and want to see it again, but great for the theatre and the community for providing such support for the arts.

Two more weekends of performances – I hope you have your ticket!

RCT’s Almost, Maine

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This past week, I photographed Rochester Civic Theatre’s latest production, Almost, Maine. It’s a show made up of eight stories happening during one evening in the not-quite-town called Almost, Maine.

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A ninth, somewhat shorter story bookmarks the others.

Greg, the director, likens it to the film, Love Actually. Its setting in Maine, in winter, with the northern lights showing up in the background of the outdoor scenes, speaks pretty well to a Minnesota audience.

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Friday, we attended opening night. It’s always interesting to find out what I missed of the dialog and story while I was shooting the show. Like some of the references to the same places and some of the same people from one story to the next.

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There were some scenes taking place indoors, and for those the lighting was a bit more intense. But the outdoor scenes were pretty dimly lit as usual for such nighttime scenes. There is plenty of physical comedy, too, so that was a challenge of this show.

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Nearly all the stories involve just two people. That provides a lot of freedom for how I frame up the subjects to tell a story.

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On the other hand, that also means their interactions and reactions won’t be amplified by other folks around them. So, I think the photos are somewhat more intimate.

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The aurora background was pretty cool, and it did come across in several of my photos. The lighting overall was great.

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Even though it provides a challenge technically for shooting the show, I love the look of the “nighttime” scenes. There’s a moodiness to them that adds atmosphere to the shots. Many non-musicals have none of that or only one or two such scenes. Here, there’s an abundance.

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There’s also a mood portrayed by the sparse set. I’m often amazed how we humans can interpret the few lines of stick figures or make creatures from clouds. A few walls and a door and we know what we’re looking at. And we can then focus on the actors and their story instead of the set. We seem to accept it readily in theatre. Probably not so much in film.

The show is running for only two more weekends. It’s a terrific show, and you can feel the enthusiasm and fun the cast is having. It’s contagious. What better way to spend a cold Minnesota winter evening?

Plainview’s Beauty and the Beast

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Shooting at a variety of local theatres, I get to see lots of different venues and production capabilities. Some have large stages, some can reconfigure the stage, some are small and intimate.

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I’ve been shooting the one annual musical production of Plainview Community Theater for a few years. Previously, they’ve had their shows in the Jon Hassler Theater. It was used for professional productions since 1999 or so, and PCT was able to stage their shows there. While not a sophisticated theater, it did have good seating and was setup with a full complement of stage lighting.

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Alas, the building was sold and is no longer available to PCT. Instead, they used the sanctuary of the church across the street from the old Hassler. It’s much smaller with pews for seats and no lighting. But the group made do, constructing a stage and bringing in lights on large stands. Scene changes used minimal pieces that could be easily brought in and out or reconfigured as needed.

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The lights provided less ambience than might be expected at a musical, but in some ways made photography easier. They were good and bright, there were some hot and cold spots, but they really weren’t able to do a lot of gels.

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It’s all really an amazing community effort to make a big musical happen. I’m always struck by the community spirit I witness at these shows. They are big, they have a big cast, everyone seems to be so thrilled to be in or working on the show. And they fill all the seats they can make available.

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I view it as the poster child for community theatre. An amazing outlet for a small town filled with folks who love putting on a show. I heard there was some discussion of trying to gain support for adding a suitable auditorium to their high school which could certainly bring their productions up to another level. I hope they can manage that – their community sure deserves it.

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Once again, the show this year, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, was a hit with their audience. And while the lighting was limited, they sure had their share of fun and colorful costumes, so the photos can highlight that.

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A large black drape covered much of the front of the sanctuary. I tried to keep that behind the players for the most part, and black works well to showcase the colors and actors.

I haven’t heard what show they will tackle next year, but I’m sure it will be fun. I wonder where it be staged…

I have a couple theatre shoots coming soon, one this month and another early December. Should be a blast!

Riverland’s Into the Woods

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Earlier this month, I shot the first show of the fall semester at Riverland, Into the Woods. It’s a Sondheim musical that’s a sort of mash-up of several fairy tails into one story. It was made into a movie last year which was my first experience with the story.

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I find I really enjoy Sondheim. Music and lyrics are engaging and fun. The Riverland folks did a great job with it. I’d have loved to sit through it as a regular audience member, but I didn’t make it back to the show after shooting the final rehearsal.

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Photographing the show was fun, though. The set – the woods – was done well and lighting was a treat which is always great for me. Lots of colorful costumes rounded out the look, giving me tons to work with.

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To shoot a show like this, it helps to have some good technical capabilities – a camera that can cope with lower light levels is a real plus.

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That’s probably the biggest technical factor I need for shooting theatre. The 5D MkIII is up to the task, but I do sometimes look longingly at the spec for Sony’s cameras and Nikon’s using Sony sensors. But I love the ergonomics of the Canon and how it fits me.

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Rumors have the Mk IV coming “soon” which will perhaps improve in the low light arena. Meanwhile, there’s really no complaining for what this hardware can do. Sometimes I recall where we were in film days, and there’s no comparison. You work with what you have, but I’d never be getting this kind of quality if I was limited to film.

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It’s sometimes fun to go back and shoot “analog,” develop it using smelly chemicals, waiting to see how you did until the processing is complete. It forces a discipline that’s a useful exercise and produces a look that is just a bit different. It can be emulated in digital, but it’s still somehow a little different.

When push comes to shove, though, I’d never want to give up the expansive world digital opens for us as artists.

I have another show to blog about soon, but I’m also looking forward to the next Riverland show I’ll be shooting in November.

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