The 39 Steps


Last week, Summerset Theatre in Austin put on their second show of the season, The 39 Steps. This is a comedy spoof of the Hitchcock film with only four actors and minimal props and scenery used brilliantly for comedic effect.


Two of the actors, “Clown 1” and “Clown 2,” portray most of the people encountered by the hero, and the lone female cast member plays three roles. Even some of the props get into the act of multiple roles. A door might represent several doors in a single scene.


When I’m shooting, I’m somewhat disengaged from the show – at least the auditory aspects of the show – while I’m working to compose a good photograph. So, I may chuckle now and then during a comedy, but this was way beyond that. It’s just one sight gag after another. There’s this train scene that was hilarious – and it was funny from beginning to end.


Among the cast members was Greg Miller, artistic director at the Rochester Civic Theatre. Greg is a comedy master, so we made sure the RCT regulars knew about the show. Many made it to Austin, and we attended as audience members on Saturday with a large Rochester contingent in the house. All four in the cast were terrific. What a fun show!


Apart from having to occasionally brace myself to keep the camera from shaking while I laughed, most of the show was lit reasonably well. A comedy like this one, filled with tons of physical humor and action, presents some of the same challenges as a musical. So, managing shutter speed and trying to catch action at peaks is most important.


A little motion blur will slip in from time to time. That can be okay. You just try to keep it under control especially where you need a little more depth of field to capture the shot you want.


Then, after loading the photos all into Lightroom, you start to relive some of the moments and laugh out loud again.


Next up at Summerset is their final production for this season, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. RCT did that show several years ago, so this will be my second time shooting it.


There, we have a musical and a comedy, so it will be a fun and demanding shoot.


Next summer, RCT will be ending their eight-show season with The 39 Steps. There are some comedies that lose something in the second (or third) viewing. Others are funny over and over. I’m thinking this show is of the latter variety – to me at least. And the local audience who didn’t make it out to the Summerset production will be in for a treat!

Tribute at the Rep


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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

9to5 1

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.

9to5 2

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.

9to5 3

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.

9to5 4

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.

9to5 5

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.

9to5 6

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.

9to5 7

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.

9to5 8

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

9to5 9

9to5 10

9to5 11

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

9to5 12

9to5 13

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!

9to5 14

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

On Golden Pond 1

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.

On Golden Pond 2

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.

On Golden Pond 3

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.

On Golden Pond 4

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.

On Golden Pond 5

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.

On Golden Pond 6

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?

On Golden Pond 7

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!

On Golden Pond 8

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


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.

Spasmodic Dysphonia Benefit

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.

Spasmodic Dysphonia Benefit

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.

Spasmodic Dysphonia Benefit

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.

Spasmodic Dysphonia Benefit

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

Spasmodic Dysphonia Benefit

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

Return top