Photographing American Idol – Punta Gorda, Florida

I want to make sure that if you are looking for the American Idol that you see on TV, you are at the wrong place! Although, this was just like the real thing…I think, since I have never actually seen even one episode of American Idol. I guess I need to get out more.

One of my wife’s hobbies is singing. Her singing instructor puts on her version of American Idol every year. This was the second time that I was able to photograph this event. I don’t know how my wife has the nerves to get up on stage and sing in front of a crowd. I mean I’ll get up in front of a crowd to instruct classes, but singing? There would have to be a lot of alcohol involved before I might be able to carry a tune. So my hats off to her for what she does.

There are three judges that give their comments after each performance, just like the real thing. Most of the times the judges have positive comments but, once in awhile you get a “Simon” comment. I guess that goes with the territory.

Like I said, this is the second time I photographed the event. The first time was a little bit of a challenge. I didn’t want to upset every person by lighting up the whole room, so I used an trusty friend….my 50mm f/1.4. Anyone who has tried to photograph any kind of show knows how misleading stage lighting can be. To our human eye it looks as if there is tons of light. Oh, did I mention that this light also has COLOR? Last year, I shot ISO 1600 at f/1.4 to get a whopping shutter speed of 1/80. Yes, I have a Nikon D300 which to the documentation states that it is supposed to have “superior performance up to ISO 6400”. Ugh, no. I don’t like to get past ISO 400 if I don’t have to. The photos from last year were ok but, I knew we could do better. Well, that changed this year.

I was supposed to go to Fort Myers, Florida who is opening a Olympic museum. This is a pretty big deal. This museum has the rights to use the Olympic rings. As I was told, no one else in the world has the rights to use the official rings. Anyway, I declined the job to photograph my wife’s idol show. Let’s face it, I need a place to sleep! Here’s where it gets good. I got an email from the magazine asking if I was photographing an “Idol Show”. I said I was and they asked me to cover it for them. This changes the whole dynamic. It’s kind of like being a police officer, once they put that uniform and badge on, they have certain powers that they can use…hopefully with responsibility. This is the same deal. Now that I was attending not as a guest but, as the MEDIA, now I can light the room without any flack. Most people like seeing all of the production that goes into taking their photographs. This year was going to be a good “lighting” year for the show. All was well until I walked through the front door…

How I photographed the show…
When I walked through the front door I couldn’t get past the Pocahontas themed background. I asked if that was part of someones piece and I got a “no”. I asked if there would be a way to change the background to a solid color, I got a “no”. Ok, Pocahontas it is! I surveyed the area to see what the best way was to light the performers. I immediately thought of a X pattern. I proceeded to put the light stands together with the flash units. As noted in the diagram, I was using a Nikon SU800 Commander to wirelessly fire the flashes. When I was on the stage positing the flashes, I was making sure that the “eye” would be facing the camera position. The camera was about 40 feet away. I did some fancy spinning of the flash heads with the flash foot and managed to get it pointed in the general direction of the camera. I wanted these to have a rim light effect so I zoomed them out to 105mm. I also set these two on group “B”. Everything is set on stage, time to set the main lights. I set up the flash in the same fashion with spinning the head around so the “eye” would see the commander. I set this flash to group “A” and I also wanted to spread the light a bit so I only zoomed the head to 50mm. I positioned this flash to the left side of the camera. So far so good.

Next, it was time to set up the same outfit for the right side. This flash was also set to group “A”. I got everything in place and did a test shot. No go from the right flash. The “eye” was to far back to see the signal coming from the commander. I tried every angle that I could think of. Anyone who has a SB800, might have ran into this problem. The head swivels 180 degrees in one direction and only 90 degrees in the other. Sorry Nikon, this was a bad design idea. It’s getting close to show time and I need to come up with a solution very fast.

Then it hit me, let’s go for “dramatic side lighting”. Hey, it sounded good at the time! I positioned the flash behind the first one and I knew that I was going to have to throw the light further so I zoomed it out to 105mm. I went back to the camera position and pushed the test button. Everything is now working. I took a couple of test pops and I realized that since the second flash that was zoomed out to 105mm was about 15 feet back from the first flash that I was going to need more power. If I had left it set to group “A”, then they both would have gone up and down in power. The fix? Use the last group available, group “C”. I ended up doubling up on the power of the rear left flash and we were good to go.

The exposures were consistent because I was shooting in manual, both in the camera and flashes. With the SU800 Commander, I was able to change the flash power from the camera’s position during the show. This is a VERY HANDY FEATURE! For some of the contestants that had darker skin or clothing, I had to up the power to the next level to get a proper exposure. Again, this was a matter of pushing a button.

I set the exposure at the camera’s sync speed to make sure that the only light that was going to register was from the flashes. Not to mention that I was also able to shoot at ISO 400 instead of 1600. I ended up using f/5.6 because that is what my lens will open up to at the 200mm end.

At the end of the day…
Here’s what I hoped you got out of this, how to use groups with your flashes. Also, no one really minded all the flashes going off as I looked “professional” because I had a long lens and a name tag on! Here’s one last nugget that I learned again the hard way, the Commander is great for working close. However, in a situation like this, I really needed some PocketWizards. PocketWizards use radio frequency to fire flashes. It doesn’t matter where they are and they will fire, up to 1,600 feet! They just released their new Nikon Flex units. The advantage of this is that you can change the power of the flashes from the camera position. They are pricey but, the first time this happens to you, the cost may be worth saving the frustration. I’ll throw up a post about them once I get a few. Don’t forget that you can click on the thumbnails to make the photo and diagram bigger. Thanks again for stopping by. Please leave a comment if you wish.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


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