A Night With The Orchestra – Punta Gorda, Florida

It’s great having a “niche” so people know that you specialize in just one aspect of photography. I feel that this works great if you are living in a metropolitan area where the photographer may be competing with many other photographers for business. I don’t live in a big metropolitan city so I have had to learn to do it all, and do it well. Clients these days are looking for more versed photographers in different areas so they can go to one person with all of their photographic needs and save money. This makes it repeat business for the photographer as well. Often times the photographer may be photographing a subject that they never thought of until asked.

Our family has always been involved in photography. My grandfather built himself a darkroom in his house so he could develop his own black and white film. During this time my father was on looking and picked up the interest as well. Fast forward a few decades and I was born. When I was six years old, our family decided to take a “winter vacation” from the cold valleys of upstate New York to see my grandparents in sunny Florida. My father was preparing for the trip by buying a new camera. He bought a Minolta Maxxum 7000 with all the accessories. While he was at the local camera store, the shop owner asked what all he would be photographing. One of the places on the list was Walt Disney World. The shop owner informed him that in some of the attractions that they don’t allow flash photography. It wasn’t long, and my father bought a 50mm f/1.4 lens. This is known as “fast glass”. This lens will open up quite wide so you can get faster shutter speed in low light. He was able to shoot inside of the attractions with no problem without a flash. During his photographic journeys, he never forgot this.

When I decided to get into photography full time, my father said that one of my first lenses should be a 50mm f/1.4. This is also a prime lens so there is no zoom. At first I thought that I wouldn’t use it that much, until I tried it on portraits. I couldn’t get over how sharp the subject was and how creamy the bokah was on the background. I LOVED this lens. So much that I went and bought a 85mm f/1.4. This is the same as the 50mm only it has a longer focal length and much heavier. I also wanted a wide angle version, at the time the fastest lens that Nikon made that was close was a 24mm f/2.8. This came home with me as well.

I got a call from a buddy who works at our local symphony. He asked if I could photograph the show. I agreed, however there was one stipulation, no flash. I told him no problem. Since I was going to have to photograph this show “live”, we didn’t want to tick off any of the audience members that paid good money to see a show and have it look as if a lightening storm what going off, I polished up my fast glass collection.

I got to the venue early and looked at the layout. My friend came over and showed me the ropes on where I could go and when. He had reserved me a space right up front between some of the tables. Also, I was allowed to go up on the stage through a back passage way. I was going to be hidden behind a sheer curtain. Here’s a tip, I was once told of a similar situation, only where the photographer wore white clothes. When they turned on the lights in the stage area, you could see the photographer standing behind the sheer black curtain because of the light bouncing off the white clothes. I make it apparent to wear all black clothes to events. I have never been noticed in situations like this. Black will suck up light where white will reflect it.

As the guests started to find their seats, I settled in my spot at center stage and fitted my camera with my 50mm. I set my camera to manual and choose ISO 1600, 1/500 at f/1.4. I wanted to be sure to get sharp photos so I wanted to keep my shutter speed up. When the Maestro came out wearing a white coat I knew I was going to have to split the difference. I didn’t want to blow out the coat, however I wanted to be able to see his face. I increased my shutter speed to 1/800. This was a good starting place. As they got started I took a few photos and got into the groove. I decided to go on stage to get a few of the entire orchestra playing. I made sure to have my focus point on the Maestro, as he was the lead.

Maestro Frances T. Wada conducting the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra during the 2010 Christmas holiday concert.

During intermission, the Maestro changed his jacket to black. Here was the new challenge, not to have his black clothes blend into the black space that was behind him. When photographing these types of events whether it’s a symphony or rock band, the lighting changes constantly. All a photographer can do is roll with the lighting punches. While Maestro was talking with the audience members there was a big screen behind them where they were showing images while the orchestra played. They had an image that was mostly blue with “Merry Christmas” in white letters behind him while he was talking. I found that this gave me a nice rim light in his hair and jacket. I changed my exposure to 1/500 of a second and let some of that light burn on to the sensor. I got some nice separation due to this light.

Maestro Frances T. Wada addressing the audience during the show. For this photo, I was using my 85mm f/1.4 to get closer to him.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra had a guest singer perform as well. I was lucky; she was wearing black as well. Also, her outfit has some sequins on it, so when the light hit them just right it looked as if her outfit was sparkling with stars. Again, because I was shooting at such a high shutter speed I was able to stop the action. I have seen where other photographers that shoot rock bands where the band members are bouncing all over the place need to be stopped, those photographers will shoot at ISOs like 2000 and 3600. This is where a professional full frame camera that does well with low light will really help you keep the noise down. Some of these cameras include the Nikon D3 and D3X.

I was able to stop the singer as she moved her hands around and I was also able to stop the bows from the violin players behind her.

The end of the concert was winding down and I wanted to get some wide angle shots for the orchestra. I fitted the camera with my 24mm lens and stood back in the middle of the audience members to get a great view. Here’s one last tip, I shoot only RAW. I know that some people make file formats out to be as bad a political discussion, however I do this in case I have a great photo and my exposure is off. This way I will have up to four stops either way to bring it back. Granted, if the white are blown, there is no amount of processing that will bring them back. I have found this to be very useful at times when the photographer has to run and gun.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

If you live in the southwest Florida area, please attend one of their concerts. They play different types of music so there is something for everyone. I have had the great opportunity to meet some of the orchestra members as well as the Maestro himself. They are in the top of their profession, in fact they just got finished touring with Barry Manilow. You can check out their website by clicking here.

I recommend keeping at least one piece of fast glass in your bag at all times. This will help you when the light is not in your favor or if you are going to do a portrait session and you want a beautiful creamed backgrounds. The f/1.4 can be a little expensive; an affordable alternative would be Nikon’s 50mm f/1.8. This retails around $125, and will go a great job as well.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean



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  2. Chocolate Festival at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) – Tampa, Florida - [...] photographed many low light situations such as the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, here’s the link: A Night With The Orchestra…

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