Shooting an Orchestra’s Portrait


Among the many pro bono projects that my wife Peggy (aka SWMBO) involves me in is shooting the group portrait of the wonderful Riverside Symphonia. It’s a fun gig, and not too taxing, because it’s a long time in between shoots.

The last one I did was about 8 years ago. We were all new to the process then, and they gave me 15 minutes, before the doors opened to the audience, to set up and shoot the picture!

I had each of my three sons assigned to a lightstand with a bare SB 24 (yes, that’s old) and a Pocket Wizard, and I was on a ladder and shot it on 800 color neg film in a Pentax 6×7. The boys got into place, the orchestra stood up.  One quick Polaroid pull, blam, blam, blam, fold up the ladder and here comes the audience! 12 frames, buckets of sweat until the lab delivered the proofs.

But we are in the golden age. The orchestra, no doubt not wanting to watch me nearly have a heart attack again before a performance, agreed to actually dress up for the dress rehearsal the afternoon of opening night.  So that took the awful pressure off, and allowed me to use big AC lights, bounce them into umbrellas, and use a lower ISO.

And since it’s digital, who needs a Polaroid? I enlisted the aid of my old pal Pete Byron, and we set up two Dynalite 500 packs with a single head into an umbrella on each side,and a big Dynalite 1000 with a single head at 1/4 power into a big umbrella next to the 12 foot ladder I was shooting from.

This makes a very flat, open light. But that’s what you need for newspaper reproduction, especially with all the black clothing, chairs, and stands up there.  It does create the dreaded double shadows on the back wall, but not too much you can do about that (unless you’re a good Photoshop jockey, and that ain’t me).  Here’s a look at the setup from the choir loft:


I would have liked to have lost the platform right in front of maestro Mariusz Smolji, but it was bolted down and if he stood on it, he blocked some of the players in the back.

I had to include the backs of the front row of pews to fit in the whole orchestra and because they are warm orangey wood and closer to the lights, they were soooo much brighter than everything else that I draped them in large pieces of black velvet (left over from my annual report days, where we’d use them to darken labs and drop out unwanted background elements in big setups. Sure glad I didn’t throw them out, or have them made into throw pillows or cumberbunds).

The orchestra was very gracious and gave me enough time to shoot a slew of exposures (it’s so hard to get everybody with eyes open and looking good in one frame—and no, I don’t have the chops to take a head from one frame and use it in the other!). I shot it with my D300s (I’m still waiting for my CS5 upgrade, with the version of ACR that can actually convert D7000 nefs) and a 17-35mm Nikkor at 17, ISO 200, 1/8th @ f/6.3.

After we broke down, I stayed around to grab some available light candids of the musicians. Without the strobes, the light was really contrasty and low, but we couldn’t have the popping of the strobes going during the actual rehearsal.

We’re still having major problems trying to embed videos here at Pixiq, so if you can’t play the timelapse below,  see it here on my Vimeo site.


This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Hello Bob,

    I love your blog.

    Can I ask you what was the power on the 500 packs? Another thing, why did you you use on the center a 1000 pack with only 1/4 of power? Wouldn’t be the same to use another 500 pack with 1/2 power?

    Thank you!

    1. Eduardo: The 500s were on full power, and we started with the 1000 at full too, but it was way too hot, and didn’t look right until we got down to 1/4 power, or 250ws.

      Yes, it would have been the same as a 500 at 1/2 power, but I only have two 500 packs and one 1000 pack. We figured we’d need the 1000 for the big fill umbrella since it was farthest away, but we were wrong, so we dialed it down.

      It’s trial and error!

  2. Bob, I learn a lot with yours posts.

    Thank you.

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