The Nightmare Shoot

I had one of those days a few days ago. The ones that make you wonder if it was just a series of bad luck events or you’re just a terrible photographer, either way it was a learning experience.

A week ago I was asked to photograph a company offsite. They wanted candid group shots and some portraits so my immediate question was “what kind of lighting will there be”, of course this kind of question usually gets a confused response when asking non-photographers so I just asked to see pictures of the building and the room we’ll be in.

I was immediately a little concerned when I saw the pictures of a historic style building, no windows or natural light sources but instead a series of very low wattage light bulbs around the room giving off a sort of candle lit effect. I considered using two small soft boxes with light bulbs that I had from a previous job but that was going to be cumbersome since I wasn’t sure I could get everyone into one spot at a time, I also doubted they would be powerful enough to light everyone (36 people). 

The Room - Shot With Flash

The Room – Shot With Flash

I instead opted to go with using two flash guns and two shoot through umbrellas.  I already owned the flashes but had to buy some cheap umbrellas. I also needed some wireless flash triggers and not wanting to fork out for an expensive set of Pocket Wizards I instead picked up some Cowboy Studios for about $30.

I should point out now that I don’t typically do this kind of work. I’ve shot some portraits and group shots before but I’m certainly no expert on studio style lighting. I typically shoot street and landscape and make use of natural light sources so when it comes to making your own light and trying to make people look good, I get a little nervous.

The gear arrives and I immediately set it up in the office.  The umbrellas work well and the flash triggers seem to work fine except for the fact one of my Sony flashes does not work with the trigger.  I discover that the center pin on the Sony multi interface hot shoe sits about 2mm further forward than a standard Canon or Nikon hot shoe and so the pins don’t make a connection.  There’s only 2 days until the shoot so I immediately order an adapter with express shipping fearing that I may be forced to shoot a group of 36 people in a dark room with a single flash gun. 

The next day I’m informed that they also want to film the entire day and that I’m tasked with this too. I don’t film much at all so this also makes me a little nervous.  Knowing that we will be in a large hall style room, it’s surely going to have an echo and I don’t own an appropriate microphone for the job. I had previously filmed an interview using a Sony wireless lav mic which worked ok, although this would mean I’m going to have to mic up every person who stands up to speak.  It’s all I’ve got so it will have to do, but I know thats probably going to be a problem. 

The Day Arrives – Problems Begin 

The day comes and I arrive at the venue with all my gear.  The adapter for my Sony flash arrives and it’s the wrong one, so I’m already down to 1 flash gun before we’ve started.  I consider mixing flash with soft box as it’s going to be better than nothing but from previous experience I know that getting a group of people to stand where you want for a period of time is difficult.  I usually just grab some junior staff members and make them stand in place while I setup and test. 

I set up the video and immediately have problems with placement. The center of the room is crowded and there is no place for a tripod, there are people seated to the edges of the room and so I have to setup the tripod right on the edge of the room and use a 16-35mm lens to capture the speaker and the screen above him.  

Next problem, the room is dark and the screen is bright. No prizes for guessing why that doesn’t work. I can either expose for the speaker and blow out the screen or expose for the screen and black out the speaker.  I decide to expose for the speaker and the slides can be handed out later. 

The Dim Lighting

The Dim Lighting

Next issue, nobody wants to wear the microphone so instead they place it on a table about 2 meters away. I worry the microphone is just blocking out the speakers voice now as it’s intended to cancel out background noise and only pick up the voice of the person it’s attached to. 

I check on the camera a few times over the next 15 minutes, it seems to be recording fine, I check the audio and decide to try another setting. I switch the audio setting on the wireless audio receiver the little plastic switch snaps clean off. The receiver is now broken in a permanent “off” state. I’m shocked at how flimsy the little switch is considering it’s an authentic Sony bit of hardware but I have no time to think because I’m now missing parts of the talk. I remove the receiver and now I’m recording the audio using the onboard microphone from the camera, in a large hall style room that echoes, from about 10 meters away… to the side of the room.  I almost decide all is lost at this point and just go back to my seat.    

An hour later I check back and the battery is almost flat and I realize it has stopped recording for some time. I curse the terrible Sony battery life, swap it out and start recording again.  This happens a few more times before I realize that the A7RII will record video in blocks of 30 minutes (1080p) before cutting out.  Thats my own fault for not knowing but now my super wide, under exposed, horrible sounding video is missing large chunks of the actual talks.   Real professional stuff here guys

We break for coffee at around 11am. I check the recording and cringe a little as I wonder how much I can recover in post.  My boss walks past and I ask him when they want to do the group photos because I will need time to set it up.  He looks at me a little strange and says “Ah, we’re doing it right now, we’ve only got a few minutes”.  A room full of people are about to stand in front of my camera and I still don’t know how I’m going to capture it with any level of decent quality.  

I tell him I need 20 minutes and immediately start setting up, the room is dark and I have one flash and one under powered soft box. The ambient lighting is very warm and I have a feeling it is not going to mix well with the cold lighting from the flash and soft box so I step out side and notice a large tree and cloud cover quickly approaching.   

That’s it, we’re going outside.

I move all my gear outside and start setting up, about 5 minutes into it people start filing out side and the bosses say we’re doing the shoot now.  I’m still not ready,  the wind picks up and blows over my umbrella several times.  Everyone is now standing in position waiting and I’m still trying to dial everything in.  Mysteriously, my wireless triggers stop working and I spend a frantic minute or two trying to figure out why, removing and refitting them while everyone watches, but I get no where.  People are getting restless so I give up. So now I’m down to no flashes and no soft boxes (we’re out side).  I tell my self that the magic of RAW files will allow me to recover and repair any issues with the photos. I’m confident my post processing skills will rescue me. 

Cloud cover has set in and now it starts to lightly rain, the clouds have provided a natural diffuser and the harsh sun that was there previously is now a light grey, I figure I’ve got about 10 minutes until the clouds clear and everyone is covered in harsh shadow from the sun.  It’s now or never.   I frame the shot, grab my wireless shutter release and prepare to shoot.  

Seriously, what else can go wrong here?

Click click click” .. The wireless release does not work and again I’m fumbling trying to figure out why.  I’m using the remote that came with my camera grip and it’s not until later that I realize there is a little switch that needs to be flipped for it to work on the body of the grip.  I had tested this earlier but must of flipped it off in the bag.  

People are getting wet and frustrated now (as am I).  Seriously, what else can go wrong here?

I set the camera to 10 sec timer and start shooting (I also need to be in the photos)  I get in about 3 photos before I realize the battery is very low.  I quickly swap out the battery while the next group of people get in position.  I fire off more photos.  

After about 15 minutes we’re done and I can start packing up.  The photos are not amazing, there is a slight green cast from the trees and they are a little flat, but I can recover the highlights, drop the green channel and boost the shadows later. I’m pretty sure I can fix this in post. 

It wasn’t until that night I got home that I realize that at that point when I switched batteries after only the first 2 or 3 photos that my camera had reset the settings and not remembered the exposure configuration.   Instead of ISO100 it was on auto and shot at ISO500, instead of f/11 it shot at  f/5.6 and worst of all, instead of RAW it shot them all in JPEG.  I had swapped the battery quickly and just kept shooting.  My own fault again for not rechecking, but very annoying none the less. 

Man, what a day.  It’s about now that I have a new found respect for wedding photographers. 


So, how did it turn out?

Without a doubt the cloud cover saved my ass by providing some even lighting and In the end, I was able to recover the worst parts of the photos. Luckily the first 2 photos (in RAW) we’re the two most important ones that included the whole team.  The others turned out ok too, I was just not able to massage the image as much as I would of liked.  

The video being the product of a comical amount of screw ups ended up being semi usable and I was able to recover some of the shadow and audio using just iMovie, which was surprising.  Modern day sensors hey?

Im pretty annoyed about the microphone receiver breaking but the onboard microphone luckily did enough of a job to capture the talk. I was able to compress out most of the background noise in post later, but there was still a very audible drop in quality at around 30 minutes when I switched it to the onboard mic.

The pictures from the Sony A7RII are always excellent, so I was able to bring them to life pretty easily. The RAW files are generally amazing to work with and you can recover photos you would normally throw out with minimal work.  The video from the camera is quite good too but the battery life drains so fast I don’t know who would really use this camera as a serious videography tool unless you could plug into constant power source or kept half a dozen batteries on hand. 

I was pleasantly surprised by how cheaply some of this studio gear can be picked up,  it’s just a shame I didn’t end up using most of it.  I’m still not sure why the wireless triggers didn’t work at the pivotal moment, but they seem to work fine now they’re in my living room. 

A combination of in-experience with this type of photography and gear failure made this day one to remember.  It’s a reminder that sometimes over complicating things can just cause more problems than it’s worth.  In the end, with all my umbrellas,  soft boxes, flashes and stands I ended up using only my camera and a tripod with a 24-70 f/4 and still got a decent result. 

The Final Product

Gear Used In This Article