This post is about the difficult environments I sometimes have to work in. Those who want to read more about Viktoria Modesta may want to check out my earlier article instead. A member of the audience has also posted a video - you can see my hand and hair encroaching on the bottom left of the frame!
Shoreditch House may be an exquisitely designed private members club catering to the beautiful and the fashionable, but photographically it is a nightmare.
Being the headline act, Viktoria Modesta was on last that evening, hitting the stage around 11pm. Two hours earlier I had arrived to discover a lounge area already packed with people and cameras. Sometimes one has to be selfish, so I elbowed my way to the front and claimed the right edge of the sofa nearest the stage. Other photographers buzzed around me waiting for their chance to swoop in and steal my prime spot. They never got the chance. For two whole hours I jealously guarded my position, ignoring those who tried to peer over my shoulders. I was thirsty, I wanted the toilet. But I had a job to do, I wasn't going to ruin my chances by acquiescing.
The stage was lit by two old fresnels from either side, like those seen on the sets of old Hollywood films. The illumination was so dim that the whole room was practically black to my camera. I had no option but to rely on flash. This introduced many tricky problems of its own. First, the flash was mounted on my camera - the resulting light would be harsh, relatively flat and the source of ugly shadows. Secondly the ceiling was very low and painted white - the light would wash everywhere.
Many people would probably give up at this point and write off the evening. But there were three things I could do. One, bounce the flash of the ceiling directly above my head. I experimented with different bounce angles and found straight-up to be the most flattering. I was effectively using the white ceiling as a gigantic bounce board. Secondly, I could exploit the way light naturally falls off with distance. By making sure I was close to my subject the flash unit would not need to throw so much light onto the background. Third, I could use a long lens and carefully aim my camera in a way that would isolate my subject and fill the background with brick wall. I had to avoid that ugly white ceiling at all cost.
Together these constraints narrowed down my options significantly. In fact, there was only one angle and one position I could shoot from. I just had to hope that Viktoria would stand in the right position and alternate either side of the microphone stand. Fortunately she did, and I managed to get some adequate photos of her performance. Not perfect, but they were the best I could do given the difficult circumstances.
I have thought a lot about what I could do to improve my chances in similar situations. The first is to take the flash off camera and properly light the scene with key, fill and back sources. This can be tricky in a public environment, but if the flash units are discrete enough it can work. One can even gel the lights to create additional contrast between foreground and background. Secondly I should use a proper long zoom lens, say 70-200mm. At the moment my longest lens is a 135mm prime.
So usually, given the resources, one can wrestle back a certain amount of control. However there can be no denying that some environments are fundamentally more difficult to shoot in, and all one can do is try their very best. Even then, it may not be enough.