Achieving The Unachievable - Capturing a Group of 34 From 60 Feet Above

Achieving The Unachievable - Capturing a Group of 34 From 60 Feet Above

During an initial meeting with local publication NFocus Magazine, the Editor-In-Chief asked for a unique aesthetic on Louisville's theater and arts community and wanted a massive group shot, but not your traditional group shot. I threw out the idea to shoot actors and their "characters" from directly overhead on a theater floor, as if they were action figures laid out and organized. Two seconds after I uttered the idea, I realized I had no clue how I would pull it all off.

I don't actually own a laptop, so tethering to an iPad or mobile device has been a long process with trial and error. My first experience was with the Eye-Fi Wireless SD Card; a memory card you place in your camera, the card transmits a wireless signal and supposedly you connect to that signal source, your tethered. Except it didn't really work. Even set to low-res JPEG, transfer times were grossly long. Also, conflicting signals would constantly kick the connection. Among the many times I tried to make it work, it actually performed as it should only twice and for a very short period of time. When I saw the CamRanger and all it could do, I was severely skeptical but very excited. What I found was not only a flawless tether and transfer but also a multitude of options and complete control. This was the answer to all my problems. Fellow Fstoppers contributor Mike Kelley recently wrote fantastic review on the CamRanger that I recommend, here.


To my surprise, that initial idea of "actors from above" sparked a chain reaction and was eventually drafted to a reality. With the help from creative director Gunnar Deatherage we formulated a plan and scouted Whitney Hall at the Kentucky Center For Performing Arts. During the scout, I was taken aback by the fact I was walking on the stage of which I had seen a number of touring Broadway shows. The stage was huge and lighting was plentiful. They had a great staff who led us on the few catwalks, some 75 feet over the stage and seating. However, the catwalks were not completely overhead, so after some thought we made arrangements to use a combination of a mechanical lift and boom on the stage floor. I wasn't completely confident that we could make it work, but one thing I did know is that I could fire my camera remotely with ease and could see the results in real-time with the CamRanger system.


The day of the shoot, we arrived early to setup. I began explaining what I wanted in the image with Terry, a staff production and lighting engineer. I described my gear list and we came up with the brilliant idea of rigging my camera to one of the lighting poles which could be lifted directly overhead. I was ecstatic, I just knew we couldn't get high enough to capture the entire group with our original idea. With the help of some gaffers tap, metal rods and a few security lines including the Vulture Equipment Works A4 Camera Strap, we rigged the camera to point straight down. Lastly, I secured the CamRanger to the camera and set my focal length to 35mm as Terry lifted the pole 60 feet above the stage floor.



I switched on the iPad and set the CamRanger to live view. We went to all 4 corners for the frame and marked positions with white gaff tape, this would be where the actors and actresses would lay. As long as they we're inside the "zone", they would be properly framed. Luckily, I didn't have to worry about lighting. I hauled in every piece of lighting equipment I own, but I didn't touch it. The overhead stage lighting packed enough power to light up half a block. Terry brought up the lights to 90% and although it was flat light, it was more the enough to fill and provide a well lit shot. I fired a few test shots with the CamRanger app and everything was displaying as it should, I tweaked a few settings including ISO and shutter then "radioed" over to Gunnar to escort the subjects in. I headed up to the catwalk overhead to get an idea of posing.




As we began situating the group into their positions, we'd have to carefully move people around to make clothing, shape and their character pose work with the next person. Again, we wanted it to resemble a child who had laid out his or her action figures on the ground; not perfect, but organized. Once everyone was set, I traveled back down to the stage floor and began snapping away. You could hear the shutter fire every time I touched the "Capture" button in the CamRanger app. I'm not sure if actors and actresses knew exactly where the camera was rigged, but they were all very patient as I captured a time-consuming number of images. I've learned the hard way, there is always one person in the group that will tend to blink more than others.



I went back to Whitney Hall for a second shoot the following week and struck up a conversation with the production head, Peter Bell. He was the one that suggested shooting from the catwalk and we shared a laugh as he said: "Well, I didn't know you had this fancy technology to shoot from your iPad!" As I shook his hand and walked out, I smiled to myself and a warmth of pride came over me. The image has received a wealth of praise from not only the publication staff, but also many photographers around the world. I don't consider it my best, but I definitely consider it a shining star.

With any type of photograph you may be attempting to capture, there is one tool that can guarantee you're getting the shot right. I've showed the CamRanger to many photographers and every photographer that has used it or has seen me use it in action, has purchased one. With that, a shot that was once quite unachievable without safety lines and an ark full of gear is now very safe, inexpensive and very achievable.

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boring, simple and uninspired. Certainly not deserving of this article. Just a group self by a cast of actors. "Achieving The Unachievable?" Hardly. Anyone could have done this. The photographer could have just as well stood on the rigging platform to take the photo.

Clay Cook's picture

David, I appreciate the feedback. If you read the article, I did mention the initial plans to stand on a mechanical rig, but I still would of never been able to get directly overhead 34 people and would have certainly dealt with distortion. Bottom line, my goal with this article is to inspire others and share my awesome experience with the CamRanger, a product I love. Hopefully my future articles will grant a different opinion from you. Thanks for reading.

David- Really? Has the war photography poisoned you with hate or is this some disillusion of supremacy? Either way, how about some professional courtesy? How about being constructive instead of destructive?
Based on your comment history on this site I'm guessing we'll never see anything but negativity and opinion-based attacks. Come on, man. Be an asset.

Ok guys, I see I've become a bit harsh and jaded. I apologize! I should be more tactful in my criticism. My biggest criticism comes from the constant over stating of topics to make make them bigger than they actually are. I'm not only a professional photographer, I've also been the editor of a magazine and two newspapers so I have a bit of experience in this matter. The problem with sensationalizing a subject is the big letdown the reader has when they actually read the article. That only begs for criticism from the readers, which happens here in this forum quite a bit. As an editor, try to be more up front about the topic and not sensationalize it so much. This portrait of the people is very cool and a creative means was used to shoot the photo, but it was by no means the unachievable made possible as stated in the title. And especially since the writer was also the one who took the photo, it seems a bit self-serving. The editors of this website should just tone down the sensationalism a bit and so the expectations aren't wound up to be let down. Clay, great shot, and good job getting it in a creative way. My original comment came from the sensationalism of the title.

I have to chime in here and agree with David. I'm at the point where I rarely read articles with all of the "... you won't believe what happened next" and other such crap in the titles. It's doing a disservice to the authors as we are getting so desensitized that we don't engage anymore.

Bob Bell's picture

Good on ya Clay, job done and no doubt inspired others to try something similar.

Great shot! :)

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Bob! Really appreciate that!

I think you did a great job and it is far from boring or uninspired - simple yes but sometimes the simple ideas are the best and you still had to pull it off and make it work and you did with aplomb. I really like the end result and you more than fulfilled your brief of shooting a group in an untraditional way - it works, you have a happy client, and that is what counts. Well done :-)

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Daniel, that means a lot! You are very right!

Spencer Lefevre's picture

Great job! Would CamRanger still work with a flash trigger on the hotshoe? I see you had a Pocket Wizard on the hotshoe but didn't see any flashes. So when CamRanger fires the flash/trigger on the hotshoe would also fire?

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks Spencer! The CamRanger controls the camera through Wi-Fi then via USB. But to answer your question, when you tap "Capture" on your iPad or mobile device, the camera shutter will fire along with any flash triggering system you have setup!