– Yes, you can shoot. I’ve talked with (… ) and we can go with it. But we already have an official photographer, so you will just shoot the backstage. This year we want to focus in Heaven, and it will be nice to offer the actors an image as a souvenir.
“Els Pastorets” (“The Little Shepherds”) is a a traditional theatre play performed all along Catalonia by amateurs during Christmas days. It comes from the medieval religious dramas, and major theatre writers have created their versions through centuries. It tells the story of the days prior to Jesus’ birth through the funny adventures of two young shepherds, dealing with demons, angels, Heaven, Hell, temptations, redemption and all this stuff, ending with a happy end with moral purposes.
Despite this traditional, not-very-exciting appearance, in Granollers, my city, the play is taken as an excuse for theater amateurs to participate, have fun and do something great. More than 80 volunteers, hard working and essaying during three months, end up in a very modern, creative and dynamic performance: this year it includes video games and parallel universes, Brazilian wild batukada, teen family conflicts in a soap opera style… it’s not exaggerated to say that it’s a true event that pulls out the creative and artistic forces of all the aficionados. So much, that it gets the support of private associations and even the City Hall, which offers its official Auditorium (a modern 800 people hall) for free – it gets crowded for three days with people of all ages. My wife and children have been acting and singing the last 3 years, and I know Imma, the president, organizer and “alma mater” of the project.
So, when I saw the posters on the walls and in shop windows announcing Pastorets 2018 with my photograph in full size being printed on them, I went straight to her:
– Imma, do you know who shot this?
– … well, we took it from the Facebook group…
– I did. I shot it hidden among the public last year. I sent you all the imagery.
– … hmmm… really?—Hard to remember. I thought it was shot by (…).
– I want to shoot the play this year. Do you think it is possible?
– (Silence) … we will tell you…
Spoiler: this article is motivational, aimed at amateurs. It speaks about the pleasure of getting results in difficult conditions and how to get them and boost your passion. Do not expect master techniques, nor out-of-this-world-images, it deals with the human side: the joy of a simple aficionado overcoming his limits and getting images unthinkable some years ago. Almost all images shot at ISO 6400.
I don’t blame her for being reluctant. I am the typical odd guy in the local photography group who shoots strange things that only a few people understand and no one likes. So when I was allowed to shoot the backstage and the socialites, I took it personally. Personally. Definitely, they were going to have the best images ever.
– Hmmm… Imma, just the backstage? I’ll be there. I can back the main photographer, get the images he won’t get. You will assure a nice report (crossing fingers…).
– You are right. Very helpful, thanks. You will cover the general scenes, framing all the stage, and you won’t interfere with the technicians, the actors and the musicians. You will go to the upper far seats, to the left, and be careful to hide when the white light of the spinning focus comes near you. You must always remain unnoticed. And important: DO coordinate with the official photographer.
– but, Imma…
Dim light, limited ISO. Far distance. Indistinguishable faces. Messy scenes with a lot of people. I had just sold my D500 with the 70 – 200 f2.8 totem. I was getting the recipe for disaster: boring and low quality shots. And you know, I’m just an amateur, a simple enthusiast. I am not a pro, I have no special gear, tricks or resources. Given the circumstances, I ought to have quit, right..?
Well… never. NEVER IN MY LIFE.
– What, Rubért?
– Nothing. You will get it.
This was the plan: I would accelerate the purchase of an X-T3 and rent a telephoto zoom. I would practice hard to get used to fast, dim focusing with the new gear. For the backstage report, I would practice flash with my beloved X-Pro2/35 mm f 1.4 plus a Godox unit (I have little experience with flash). On the first day I would shoot backstage and socialites as demanded, and also the general, far away scenes, but the second day I would get a seat ticket on my own, hide again among audience praying no one complains, and shoot discretely closer images of faces, drama and key scenes.
But I must say, I was very sceptical. In the past, when shooting indoor sports with the D500 and the 70-200 2.8, I was always going up to 6400 ISO wide open, and it was not strange to reach 20.000 ISO for frozen action. Those extreme files processed with Lightroom ended up with just usable images, if so. Frustrating work, and now it came back again: I would need minimum 1/250 shutter speed with that long reach in X-Trans files at 6400 ISO… so I knew that every extra step of light would be gold, lenses would be crucial.
So I found myself in a dilemma: the excellent 90 mm f2 would provide aperture and quality, but not the 200mm reach; the 55-140 f 2.8 would provide quality and reach, but with the 1.4 teleconverter, it would lose one stop of light; and the 55 – 200 mm would provide the reach needed, but decreasing aperture to f4.8 at the long end… Finally, this was the final option, as it was the only possibility to hire, but I was reluctant, as I knew it is good at the centre, but I would need definition at the corners too. So I covered the play with the X-T3/55-200mm and the backstage with X-Pro2/35mm f1.4/Godox V860II… and many worries.
And, you know? Everything worked as planned.
Surprisingly, it was a smooth, easy-going work. I enjoyed a lot covering the event, even when far upstairs shooting at the long end, or when hiding in the audience praying for no one to complain. But when at home, I opened LR, I was still feeling nervous and disappointed. 90% of the shots were 6400 ISO, with mixed hues, crowded backgrounds, microblur… Firstly, I thought about using CaptureOne Express+Photoshop combo, but I am not yet skilled enough, so I went directly into LR fearing details and “worms”. I culled, rated and framed. Profile was set to ASTIA as starting point. I applied specific, careful sharpening and noise reduction. Colour management was very demanding: lighting changed strongly countless times, I could not remember common colour patterns, nor I could shoot a grey card, so, fine tuning colour temperature was difficult, and in some cases I had to adjust individual channels. I ended trying to create atmosphere from scratch (smooth blues and whites for Heaven, highly saturated reds and greens for Hell and drama…) and giving up the quest for real colour. I worked busy backgrounds with radial filters, it matched well with stage lighting (strong thanks to Mr. Van den Eynde and his tutorials…). And finally I classified and tagged scenes and people in order to set a consistent report, in which everyone could have their souvenir image. Then I delivered.
You know, these are not great photos. And with such ISO, I hope no one asks me a for file to print. But people got enthusiastic about them, and congratulations came up quickly. I guessed that they simply did not expect such images, they were just grateful and being polite. But you know? My mind began to change. The work was there. And not so bad… then, a week later, what really surprised me, and the reason I think it’s nice to share this experience with FujiLovers, is that I heard comments from some of the photographic community around me saying “well, this is really a pro quality”. Not for a contest, but a standard work that a pro would not be ashamed of. Full-time professionals with full frame gear. I thought… really? Can a simple amateur with APS-C Fuji gear deliver pro quality images?
Hmm… I’m sure that this could have been done better. Probably I could improve my technique very much. Probably I missed some basic shooting discipline. Probably my post processing is too naive. But I’m not a pro, and it will be hard for me to reach that level, so when I see these images and I consider where I come from and where I can go now… well, I feel terribly satisfied and confident. Not so many years ago, this would have been a disaster, but now I’m really proud of this work. And I’m sure that if I can get this, anyone can too. Set your project, get the right gear, shoot and enjoy… no excuses!
Next year, I will try to coordinate with the official photographer 🙂