Tribute at the Rep

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Last week, I photographed my first show at Rochester Repertory Theatre, their production of Tribute. It’s a 1970s period drama or comedy or tweener as the director, Bill Schnell, calls it.

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The Rep tends to put on a variety of shows, many lesser known (at least, to me!), with one big musical each spring. They’ve been around a long time – next season is their 32nd – and provide another local outlet for actors, directors, and theatre-goers.

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I’ve seen quite a few shows there, and Lynne has acted on their stage. Their facility is small and can be challenging for the creative staff. But the size can work both ways as the Rep’s shows tend to be much more intimate than at other theatres.

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Going into the shoot, I was thinking about how to photograph a show in their space. In many ways, it’s not too different from other theatre shoots for me. I generally work pretty close to the action anyway.

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One goal I had was to convey the story and not the size. Regardless of the facility, a good show should draw you into the story. The actors, the lighting, the sound, all help to do this. Once we distill it down to a two-dimensional photograph, though, the other senses are missing. We have to try to capture the emotion in the photo.

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Doing so is always my goal, but here I additionally wanted any limitations in the physical setting to be irrelevant and unnoticeable.

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I’m pretty happy with the results. I did take a few wide shots which someone will look upon and think, yep – that’s the Rep’s stage. But I feel a few of those shots are important for the documentation aspect of the photographs.

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Technically, this is a pretty straightforward show lighting-wise. Box set, reasonably good and balanced lights. There were some bright spots like in the first photo above, a couple scenes with “nighttime” lighting, and a couple places where the contrast from bright to dim required some dancing on my part.

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We attended the show last night, so I had a chance to pay closer attention. It’s a great story, touching and funny both. And it’s well played.

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This was opening weekend – there are two more weekends of shows, so you can still see it yourself. It’s a great way to spend an evening – watching real live people perform right in front of you. (Just turn off your electronics – cell phones ringing are annoying!)

Thanks to Bill for asking me to shoot the show! It was a blast.

100 Theatre Shoots – 9 to 5: The Musical

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On Saturday, I photographed the final dress rehearsal for Summerset Theatre’s 9 to 5: The Musical over in Austin, MN. It’s a musical stage version of the movie with music and lyrics by Dolly Parton – who, of course, wrote the title tune and starred in the movie along with Jane Fonda and Lilly Tomlin.

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It’s pretty light fare and fun, and Dolly’s songs are great. It’s easy to forget how prolific and good she’s been as a songwriter. It also carries a lot of the movie’s 1980s sensibilities.

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This show had some additional significance to me. This was my one-hundredth theatre shoot! My first show to photograph was Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys back in 2005 at Rochester Civic Theatre. I reached fifty shows in 2011, so the second fifty has been a bit faster.

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We used to shoot all the RCT shows staged with a special call for the actors. There are some advantages, and it can be helpful for fast-paced action or very low light – I’d sometimes ask the stage manager to bump the lights for a particular scene.

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But, as I branched out  to other theatres, I started shooting the shows live, and I’ve grown to enjoy shooting that way. Technology has helped, as my camera is much more tolerant of low light than the model I used for my first show.

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I’m now doing the same at the Civic, and I believe the actors (and director and stage manager and crew) appreciate not having to spend this extra time.

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Summerset Theatre puts on three shows in the summer. 9 to 5 is their first for this season (my fourth season photographing their shows). While it’s a musical with lots of singing and dancing, the lighting and sets are appropriate to the story and not like Cabaret or Les Mis. So, the photography was technically more similar to non-musicals.

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I tried to capture the fun moments and expressions that help show the comedy.

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There are some more tender moments rounding out the show, as well.

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This show runs through Saturday, so you still have time to see it. I also have to mention the top-notch pit orchestra – lots of talent there as well as on-stage!

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Next up at Summerset is The 39 Steps. RCT’s artistic director, Greg Miller, will be on stage for that show, so we’re hoping to gather some of our Rochester theatre peeps and caravan over to see it. That plays July 7 through 11. Then they end their season with A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum. That will be my second time shooting that musical! It runs July 28 through August 1. More info is on Summerset’s website.

I’ll be shooting my first show at the Rep next week – number 101. Should be fun!

See you at the theatre!

On Golden Pond

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The current show at Rochester Civic Theatre is the play On Golden Pond running a couple more weekends. But the run is sold out!

I vaguely remember the 1981 movie mostly because of the high-profile casting of Katharine Hepburn with Henry Fonda and his real-life daughter Jane. With the focus on the father-daughter relationship, I remember that casting being especially interesting.

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The story takes place at a summer cottage on Golden Pond, a small lake in northern New England. That may make the story relevant here in Minnesota where there’s a similar tradition. And, while shooting the rehearsal, it made me think of the lake in Michigan where Lynne’s grandparents had a cottage, and where she’d spend her summers. The lake was a big part of their lives.

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There’s a single set for the show – the inside of the cabin and a lakeside porch. The style reminded me of Neil Simon shows. I tend to think of them as day-in-the-life stories. You’re witnessing a day or a series of days in the life of some ordinary people during which they experience something and grow. That they are ordinary lets the audience relate to them.

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The lighting for the show was what I’d expect for this kind of show. Not a lot of dramatic gel’d lights, pretty consistent and well lit. That helps the technicality of photographing the show and allows me to focus on composition and story-telling.

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There’s lots of good interaction and interesting blocking to work with. And the actors are all top-notch, so I had a lot of great emotion and expressions to capture.

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I also enjoyed the use of color between the set and the costumes. The warmth of the wooden-walled cabin made a great backdrop for many of the shots. And who doesn’t like a bright yellow poncho?

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There were a couple shots I considered putting here in the blog, but I decided they might serve as visual spoilers to someone unfamiliar with the show. So, I left them out!

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Hopefully, you’re one of those who bought a ticket – as I mentioned, it’s now sold out. This is the final show of the 2014-2015 season at RCT, but next season looks great with eight shows. It will be a pretty full schedule. There’s also construction that will be happening giving RCT a new box theatre which should provide a great venue for a wide variety of performances.

I’m looking forward to next season. Meanwhile, Summerset Theatre in Austin will be starting their summer season of three shows soon. Good times!

Lightroom CC / 6 and the HDR Feature

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I have been using Adobe’s Lightroom program for managing my photo library and processing my RAW files since the original beta version in 2006. It’s sort of the center of the universe for my post-processing work on my images. Over the years, I’ve seen it be vastly improved, especially the editing features.

Adobe just released their newest version – or versions. There are two now, Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC, both of which are nearly the same for now. There were not a ton of new features in this release. One of the new features is HDR – short for High Dynamic Range. This is a method for handling situations with a larger range of light intensity than our cameras can handle. It’s a form of what’s sometimes called computational photography – using software algorithms to operate on the image data.

HDR gained popularity a few years ago. It became something of a fad as many new things do – suddenly everyone doing it – in part because it can produce rather extraordinary images. And, extraordinary doesn’t actually mean good. Grungy detail and eye-splitting saturated colors became sort of the rage producing what some call the “HDR look.”

However, it does solve something of a problem we sometimes face. It’s often used by architectural photographers and others. The approach is basically to take a set of photos, each at a different exposure, then let the software combine those into one image. Photographers have been doing this manually using masking in Photoshop for years. HDR software can simplify the process and apply it more globally.

Now, we can do this right in Lightroom. One big difference between Lightroom’s feature and dedicated HDR software (or even the rather rudimentary capability in Photoshop) is the lack of options. The idea, it seems, is you produce the merged photo then adjust it in Lightroom’s develop module like any other photo.

I’ve been playing with it, comparing it to Photomatix – my go-to HDR program – and seeing what it can and can’t do. How might I use it?

The photo above is one of a series of seven exposures I took inside a beautiful theatre in Red Wing. It’s a decent exposure, and you can see the wide range of brightness from the stage lights to the dimly lit seats. I shot these hand-held, so the lightest exposure of the seven was at a slow shutter speed and has quite a lot of motion blur. So, I’m going to exclude it. The next-brightest image has a lot of good detail in the shadows, so I think it’s just fine using the six remaining photos.

(Be sure to click on the images to see them larger. Sometimes the in-line smaller size will look a little blurry or otherwise not great!)

Lightroom's HDR result

This is the result from Lightroom’s merge HDR. It produces a DNG file similar to a RAW file. Adobe says it’s 16-bit, and the develop module exposure setting can adjust from -10 EV (or stops) to +10 EV. Out of the box, it seems quite dark. As I experiment with the settings, I find that the shadows slider – one I generally find less than useful except in certain circumstances – works amazingly well here. And I had to just try it to figure that out. The highlights slider – which I use a lot – has less impact than I’m used to. Anyway, after adjusting it a while, I ended up with the next image.

Lightroom HDR with Adjustments

Comparing this to the original single file, it’s actually quite similar. The overall tone is nearly the same, but you can see we’ve opened up the shadow areas quite a bit. I’m sure I could vary the look quite a bit using the sliders more.

Now, to make it interesting, I take this adjusted image and see what Photomatix will do with it. Although Photomatix is designed for merging and blending several photos, it can apply its methods to a single image as well. I started with the settings I’ve used for indoor (church and theatre) images before, then adjusted them to taste.

Photomatix Processed LR HDR

You can see that Photomatix approaches the detail and shadows differently and produces a different look. Shadows in particular are opened up quite a bit more. The shadow contrast is different, too. I then took this result into OnOne’s Perfect Effects to apply slightly more mid-tone contrast and a tiny bit of glow. Then, I did some finishing touches in the Lightroom develop module, partly to reduce the saturation a bit and pull more focus onto the stage. (Uniform brightness and detail can be the killer of HDR photos as they lose a place for the eye to go.)

LR HDR + Photomatix + Perfect Effects + LR

Some of these changes are subtle, especially at this size. But subtle changes can make or break a photograph.

Using Just Photomatix on the Six Images

For comparison, the image above is made using the same six photos directly merged by Photomatix. I did some minor tweaks in Lightroom to produce this final image. One final version now…

Single Photo Adjusted in Lightroom

This one is made using just the single exposure we started with up top. I adjusted it in Lightroom, mainly adding contrast and bring out the shadows. It’s not a bad rendering, but I like having a bit more detail available in such situations. Look at the paneling below the stage to see some of the difference.

Conclusions? Well, the Lightroom HDR feature is workable. Adjusting its results in the develop module works okay, especially regarding the ability of the shadow slider to bring out shadow detail. I think I’d like having the option to produce a larger 32-bit file. Speed wasn’t bad. Not great either. Since there’s really very few options, it can be run “headless” where it doesn’t even ask about the settings and completes in the background, letting you continue to fiddle with other things in Lightroom.

Note that I did not turn on the “Auto tone” setting. This seems to be exactly the same as hitting the Auto button in the Basic settings. I don’t like it there, and I didn’t like it for HDR either.

Using Photomatix as a filter or one or more other filters – or other similar approaches using Photoshop – can produce an interesting and quite usable final image.

This test used an image with nothing moving. When things move, they can be in different positions from one image to the next. Then, the software has to figure out what to do. It creates what are called ghosts, spooky looking double or triple or more exposure sorts of areas where the moving thing appears more than once. Thus, the method to reduce these is called de-ghosting or ghost removal. There is a setting for this in Lightroom’s HDR – it’s the only one with more than just on/off.

Typically, you might see this show up as leaves blowing gently in the breeze. I sometimes take HDR series of scenes including people. People are bigger than leaves and can move quite a bit, especially for interior shots where light is dim and exposures are long. Photomatix does a fair job handling ghosts in general and people in particular. People are still a problem, but it gives me a reasonable starting point from which I can use Photoshop to fix things up. Lightroom? I’m not sure what it is doing. In one test, it didn’t even notice all the moving people. It found ceiling fans and decided to stop them (using the shortest exposure). And the people were a mess. It gave me noisy poorly rendered areas about three times the area of the slightly moving person with bad color. I would have a lot of work to do to recover. None of the provided options would improve things. So, for now, if there’s movement and especially humans in the shot, Lightroom’s HDR is a non-starter for me.

So, there you have it – one little study of this new HDR feature built into Lightroom (as well as its sister program, Adobe Camera Raw). I’d say there are possibilities there. I may play with it more in the future. We’ll see where Adobe takes this.

Classic Brass Benefit Concert

Spasmodic Dysphonia Benefit

On Sunday, I attended and photographed Classic Brass playing a benefit concert for Spasmodic Dysphonia at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. SD is a voice disorder, and there’s more info here.

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Classic Brass is a local brass quintet. They play regularly in the area. Warren Bandel, one of the two trumpet players in the group, is a regular member of the pit orchestra for Rochester Civic Theatre’s musicals. He’s been playing during the musicals for many years (since he was in high school, I believe!). He’s usually responsible for those wailing high notes.

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They played a range of music including a couple numbers accompanied by the church pipe organ played by Harold Vetter just filling the building with amazing sound.

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I’ve been a fan of horns since I was a kid. I still have a stack of Herb Alpert’s LPs somewhere. During my high school band years, I (along with many of our band members) developed a taste for what was then called Jazz-Rock. Bands in that era were Blood, Sweat and Tears (leaning more toward the jazz side) and Chicago (leaning more to the rock side). A short-lived group was headed by uber-trumpeter Bill Chase, named Chase for him. They had a concert at a local high school following a day of trumpet workshops which I think a couple of our band trumpeters attended. If you haven’t heard Bill Chase play – and you like amazing trumpet work – it’s worth looking him up. He and his group sadly died in a plane crash not long after I saw them.

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I thoroughly enjoyed the concert Sunday. Most of the photos I took were before intermission. After intermission, I sat down and mostly just listened!

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We have some truly amazing talent here in our relatively small neck of the woods.

Our First Cruise and the Olympus OM-D E-M10

Stateroom on Enchantment of the Seas

We just returned from our first cruise, a short four night adventure from Florida to the Bahamas. Our ship was Enchantment of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean vessel. We didn’t know what to expect, but it was fun and a different experience from other vacations we’ve taken.

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Being in the latter half of March, we found ourselves on board with many college students on spring break. So, there was that! And, I do believe many had opted for the drink package add-on. But the ship is large enough to find respite in various places.

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It’s sort of a mix of land-based tourist sites. There’s a casino which is not open all the time and is relatively small. There are pools, indoor and outdoor. There’s a rock climbing wall and some sort of bungee bouncing thing. There are shows, live music, karaoke, lounges. And our stateroom, though small, was remarkably quiet.

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We had two ports of call, Coco Cay – owned by the cruise line – and Nassau. At the former, we were tendered to shore in boats that I estimated could hold about 250 people or more. At Nassau, we docked which is certainly more convenient.

Magenta Skies

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you may have seen my post a couple years ago about using the Canon SL1 on a vacation (it’s here). I’ve been on something of a long quest for a travel camera – something that will be easy to cart around when photography is secondary but good enough to allow me to take the photos my head sees.

Cruise Show

The SL1 is a fine little camera. It’s a Canon, so it’s also familiar. Although the ergonomics are different from the higher level cameras (no wheel on the back, for example), it makes sense to me, the menus are pretty similar, and I know what Canon calls various features. One thing it lacks that newer cameras provide is a Wifi connection.

Coco Cay

So, I’ve been looking at other options. The top contenders were Fuji, Sony, and the micro-four-thirds cameras of Olympus and Panasonic. One criterion was cost – I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on a “fun” camera. Cost and some other factors ruled out the Fuji. Sony’s A6000 looks like a pretty good contender. I had a chance to hold one and play with it a bit. It feels good in my hands, and the reviews of the focus system are very positive. I was a little annoyed that it doesn’t have a touch screen.

Tender Back to Ship

On the SL1, the touch screen implementation is terrific. The Q screen showing most of the major settings lets you touch and change them, and the playback mode for reviewing your shots works just like we’re used to with our phones.

Storm Clouds at Sea

One other factor that entered into my thinking was the format. The Sony and the Fujis (and the SL1) are all APS size. While this allows for smaller lenses for the same field of view than my full-frame 5DIII, they are only moderately smaller. The micro-four-thirds cameras, on the other hand, work with much smaller lenses. The field of view is half – so you double the focal length to get the corresponding 35mm lens (e.g. 25mm is equivalent to a 50mm lens) – and the circle the lens needs to cover is so small, the lens can be quite small and light. That was an attractive quality.

Little Towel Guy

I ended up settling on the Olympus OM-D E-M10. And, indeed, it’s small. Very small. There are little bumps and things to help you grip the camera, but it still feels maybe a bit too small. It’s hard to hold it correctly with my left hand, for instance (palm up, thumb to the left). But it is light and very capable. It has a touch screen, although it is disappointingly much less useful than Canon’s implementation. It has Wifi, although it’s quirky and I’m still not quite sure why it only shows me some of my photos for downloading to my phone.

All the photos here were taken with the Olympus. For a tiny sensor, its low light capability is pretty decent with tolerable noise. I figured out how to set it to back-button focus. Sort of – changing focus modes seems to revert the focus to the shutter button. I also purchased the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 lens. This lens worked very well, is nice and sharp, and focuses quickly. It’s one of Sigma’s new Art series of lenses.

In Port in Nassau

Things I like:

I often want to shoot a series of bracketed photos for HDR especially inside buildings. The Olympus can do this, but it also has an HDR mode. I was about to dismiss that, since I want to process my HDR photos myself where I have full control. But in the HDR menu, there are options to just take bracketed shots and the camera automatically shoots them in continuous mode. So, you set it to take five shots, for instance, and when you press the shutter, you just hold it down and it takes five shots and stops.

There are two good dials to adjust exposure. There’s no fumbling for another button to override a single dial. This is actually a big deal for me and partly what sold me on this camera.

The size and weight is pretty good. The camera is pretty solid feeling, so it’s not uber-light. Mine weighs 14.3 oz without a lens.

The tilt screen is nice. Fully articulated (with a selfie mode!) would be great, but the tilting is useful.

Cake Decorating Contest

Things I don’t like:

The Wifi quirkiness. I figured out that it won’t just process and transfer a RAW file. I always shoot RAW. But it does have RAW processing built-in, and I was able to do that to produce a JPEG that did appear on my phone’s download list. But when I did another photo, it did not appear. Huh? Then another day, I processed a third shot. That appeared on the list but neither of the first two. I swear, those JPG files are still there on the card! I may try shooting RAW+JPEG and see what that does. You can also control the camera from the phone app which seems to work fine. The manual is pretty slim about all of this.

The sometimes-touch screen. It’s sort of a touch screen and sort of not. If I can use it to change settings, I haven’t discovered how. In playback mode, it lets you move around a zoomed image, but there’s no pinch-to-zoom. Instead, there’s a zoom bar you can slide your finger up and down.

The electronic viewfinder. The EVF has some nice features, but it has more negatives than positives for me. The most prominent of those for a vacation is: it is totally useless when wearing polarizing sunglasses. Completely useless. With my glasses, I had a large black cross from the top to the bottom, left side to right side. I had to push my glasses aside to use it, which meant I also lost my correction (prescription glasses). I will sometimes pull up my camera to look at a scene even before I power it on. None of that with an EVF. When I’d take a shot, I’d see a review pop into the viewfinder. That can be nice, but mostly it’s distracting. I can probably turn that feature off.

Battery. Battery life is poor, but that seems to be pretty common among all the current crop of small cameras. I’ve also grown fond of the smart battery technology in my 5DIII. When it says I have 50% remaining, I’ve learned that really honestly means 50% remaining. Here, I’m back to the “it’s full” to “it’s about to run out” sort of display.

Depth-of-field. Small sensor means f/2.8 is more like f/5.6. So, even my “fast” Sigma lens doesn’t provide a very shallow area of focus. I knew that going in, and I figured for the most part, the types of photos I’d be taking with it wouldn’t really require shallow focus. Still, sometimes… And, I have to think more about it, where it’s more second nature for me with the larger camera.

It’s all about trade-offs, I guess. Having a light and capable camera is so much easier to cope with when vacationing. With the light lenses, I’ll be able to pack a couple or three and still have a lightweight kit. By the way, I bought a Thinktank Mirrorless Mover shoulder bag for the Olympus, and it worked great.

Centrum Seating Area

There you are – some shots from our cruise vacation and probably more than you wanted to know about my review of the OM-D E-M10. I definitely need to explore its settings some more and spend some time with the Wifi to understand that better!

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