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.