Under Pressure

11 of the best photographers in the world. And me. In a dark, windowless basement.

It was during one of the breaks in the middle of DocDay IV – a documentary wedding photography conference in Dublin that I’ve now photographed three times – that Aoife, one half of the videographer team that was filming as I photographed, told me that she’d figured out how to get backstage.

This was welcome news, because I knew during one of the later talks I wanted to be on the stage to capture some audience participation. I set off along the route which, strangely, required you to go downstairs to the basement to then come back upstairs to the stage.

The scout

On that first scout during lunch I stumbled across the “green room” in the basement – a pretty cool location, if a bit dark. And I was drawn to grab the following frame, really just to mull over a way to use that space later in the day.

When I scout locations, I tend to photograph spaces that catch my eye to allow me later visually assess it for compositional opportunities and ponder how I could use it later.

In this case, the mirrors, lights and the symmetry of the scene stood out, and the thought I had initially was “it could be cool to frame someone in one of those mirrors?”.

The follow up thought was “but how would I light it?”. And immediately I was thinking a) bounced flash or b) two off camera flashes, one each side. And that’s as much as I thought about that space after that, as the task of photographing the event took hold for the afternoon.

Skip forward to the end of the conference, and having captured a group shot of the audience and a quick posed (and lit) shot of the speakers on the stage (topics for another day), Kevin – who with his wife Annie organises DocDay- asked me: “Should we pop down to the green room to get a quick shot of everyone?”. He too had seen the space earlier and was drawn to its aesthetic.

What I wanted to say: “You’re joking, right? These are some of the best photographers in the world and I haven’t even begun to properly consider how I’d use that space.”

What I actually said: “Do we have time?”

Kevin (ignoring my vigorous head shaking): “Yeah I think so. Let’s do it.”

What I wanted to say: “Ah you b******!”

My dilemma was this: despite seeing earlier how cool a space it could be for a portrait, I’d had no time really to develop the idea, nor to gather some lighting equipment to give me options, and now I was faced with a group of 11 photographers (and two of their kids) looking at me with that “what do you want me to do?” look that we are all, as photographers, so familiar with.

The thought process

As a wedding photographer, I am used to curve balls. And typically when you’re thrown a curve ball at a wedding, it’s inevitably for a “must get” shot. To be fair, this wasn’t “must get”. No one would mind me later saying that it hadn’t worked out. But in my view the most important skills you can call on in the face of curve balls are not necessarily photographic skills. What saves the day, often, is being able to identify what is in your control and not get distracted by what isn’t in your control by focusing your mind on using the former to minimise the impact of the latter.

As I walked down the stairs to the basement room at DocDay, following the posse of speakers at the end of a conference that was already running late, that’s what I reminded myself of. So as we approached the room, I was considering my options for the photo I wanted to get.

What was in my control? I had a bunch of (friendly) photographers who would cooperate with me in terms of where I needed them to place themselves, and how. They would instinctively understand the challenge of the photo. I had total control over where to place them in the room, and which lens (28mm or 85mm were my options) to photograph them with. I had a flash in my shoulder bag, with a transmitter if I needed to take it off camera. And, perhaps most importantly of all, I had their trust that I knew what I was doing. Even if I wasn’t entirely sure of that.

What was not in my control? I couldn’t control the ambient lighting in the room, nor could I control where it’s coming from. I didn’t really have time to move furniture, or to photograph the speakers in smaller groups.

These are thoughts going through my head as I head to the room. In we walk, and sure enough someone says “where do you want us?”. Well, that’s easy – “spread out along in front of the mirrors”. In terms of the layout of the room, it’s simply the only option for a 13 person portrait. It’s also the frame that I had seen as being something worth trying to photograph earlier in the day, and – I was sure – what Kevin had seen also.

Assessing the light

In an attempt to take the things I could control and fix the things I couldn’t control, I start thinking about the light. Back to my safe space – the checklist of four characteristics, and what they mean for the photo.

Quantity – not a lot, so open up that aperture to f/1.4, which means get the group all roughly along the same focal plane and shoot on the 28mm.

Quality – actually quite soft given the spread and number of light bulbs around those mirrors. Also, what I’d call interesting light, which can itself be an aspect of the quality that’s easy to overlook sometimes.

Colour – tungsten, or near enough to it – warm. Which renders my daylight balanced flash in my shoulder bag a little useless because those two sources won’t mix nicely.

Aside: one other thing about using flash that was immediately obvious – with a black ceiling above me and mirrors in front of me, my only bounce option was off a wall to my right, and because that wall was relatively close to me, it was going to be virtually impossible to get the spread of bounced light even across the group – and I know that because I tried for a handful of frames.

Direction – behind the group. Nice backlight, but not much good as a main light. Unless…? Hmmmm… A-ha… unless…

The execution

“Ok, can you all just look to your left or right and chat with your neighbour?”

Now that backlight has become a very usable side light – and there’s that interesting aspect coming through in the light. And when I look at a photo myself, if I find the light interesting I’m immediately more engaged.

So really, for this photo, making the direction of the light was key, and by orienting the subjects to make that work more effectively, I was able to get a shot that worked.

(This is probably a good time to mention that as I left the room a couple of minutes later, I was not at all convinced I had a usable photo.)

In total I took 32 frames in that basement room, over two minutes. And for all 32 frames the group just chatted. They probably understood (as photographers) what I needed them to do and why. All I need, then, is for there to be one shot where the expressions work, and where everyone looks good.

Here’s the full contact sheet – and as it turns out the shot I used was just a few frames before my last shot. That tends to happen though – you have a sense you’ve got the shot, and then you stop shooting.

It’s somewhat ironic, given I had brought 10 flashes, 7 lightstands, a bunch of gels, grids, lenses and two cameras to shoot DocDay IV, that my favourite (and most commented on) photo of the day would be the one I could probably have captured with my phone.