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Steve Edge at the Arnolfini - what I learned shooting a talk

A particularly challenging shoot last Wednesday. An animated, flamboyant figure with an enviable mop of blond hair, wearing bright clothes and glasses, under the spotlight in a dark auditorium. No flash allowed. And I had to remain in my seat.

This was the set-up when Steve Edge from Edge Design did his fabulous talk for the West of England Design Forum at the Arnolfini in Bristol.

10 things I’ve learned:

  1. Nothing beats a fast lens. My Canon EF50mm f/1.4 USM allowed a shutter speed of 1/160 or 1/100 at f1/6, which helped me get sharp pictures even when Steve was moving. My 100mm lens doesn't go further than f2.8, but was needed to get close enough, even if it meant that the shutter speed went down to 1/100.
  2. Find the highest ISO setting your camera can cope with before it introduces digital noise and set it as the maximum when you leave the ISO on Auto. (Find out before the shoot.) I set it to 3200 - and I needed it.
  3. A tripod seemed like a good idea to help prevent camera shake, but it just got in the way. I didn't have a lot of space where I was sitting and I also had to lean forward to look through the viewfinder, which was probably annoying for the people sitting behind me. Abandoned this after the first 10 minutes.
  4. Depth of field is extremely tricky. With the lens wide open you can't afford to focus on anything but the eyes. And in a group picture this means you have to have a straight line between your subjects without any depth. Steve grabbed Bristol Mayor George Ferguson and WEDF chair Emma Collins for a quick group shot after this talk and this failed because Emma was about half a step forward and therefore out of focus (not the shot below by the way - that was intentional).
  5. Exposure modes. Yes, I could have shot everything in Manual, but I'm not quick enough with that yet. I had the choice between Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority. Using Aperture Priority, where you set the aperture value and the camera determines the shutter speed, doesn't make any sense to use in low light settings. You'll be maxed out on aperture anyway. You'd want to try and push the shutter speed to freeze movements as much as you can, so switch to Shutter Priority and work against the maximum aperture and ISO settings. I got away with between 1/100 and 1/160 this way.
  6. White balance. I left this on AUTO. The lights were very orange, so I could have set the WB to Tungsten to compensate, but I opted to see how the pictures would come out and correct anything that needed correcting in post. It would look strange to make it completely neutral anyway because of where the pictures were taken.
  7. Autofocus. I almost always use autofocus (AF). My 5D Mark II has got a really sophisticated AF system and I've ever only had to use manual focus where I was shooting against the sun for example. None of that there that day. I set it to AI Servo, so it would follow Steve as long as I half pressed the shutter button.
  8. Metering Mode. Four choices here. Evaluative (full scene divided in multiple segments), Partial (a smaller area around the point of metering, Centre-weighted (what it says on the tin) and Spot, which literally takes a small spot and calculates everything based on that. Because the lighting was constant I went for Partial as it just dealt with Steve and the edges were taken less into account. I still had challenges with the spotlight on Steve's blond hair, the glasses and the colours of his clothing, but was able to correct most of this in post.
  9. Post. I always shoot in RAW, but I was particularly glad I did in this instance. As I mentioned in the intro, the lighting and Steve’s attire offered some extreme conditions. I work with Adobe Camera RAW and presets based on VSCO film packs. This particular one is based on Kodak Portra 160 VC, offering vivid colours and a fine grain. I then tweaked white balance, highlights, whites and shadows to get the right overall harmony I was after. I had avoided excessive noise, so no extra correction needed.
  10. Direction of the light. With this little light you have to make sure it is on the subject, not behind it, unless you go for a silhouette shot. I tried taking some pictures when Steve was walking around talking to people in the auditorium before the event, but most turned out bad because of the lack of ambient light.

All in all I’m happy with the result. And I realised that I couldn’t have done this a year ago, before I started to really learn how to do stuff, so I’ve made progress :) With three months left in my year of becoming a better photographer this was a very useful exercise.

With Bristol mayor George Ferguson

With Bristol mayor George Ferguson

The full set was published on Pixillion’s Flickr page.