Pulling Out a Rabbit

April 28, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

The Santa Margarita Catholic High School Dance Team performed a variation of its 2012 hip hop routine at a Dia del Nino celebration in San Juan Capistrano today.  This routine features nineteen of the team members, and they knew the stage was going to be very small, so they re-choreographed the dance to make it more compact.  The stage was also about three feet high, and some of the girls were worried about falling off.

When we got there, I took a look at the performance space, which was under a heavy duty, white tent at midday with bright sun all around.  Not good for photography.  The dynamic range of exposure was between five and six stops from inside the tent to the back wall, which was bathed in light.  The only optic on the planet that can handle dynamic range of this extent is the human eye; certainly no camera can.  Faced with this circumstance, a photographer has three choices: (1) curse fate and pack it in; (2) fight back and compete with the sun by blasting the interior with flash (thereby preserving the exposure of the outside environment); or (3) give up all hope of saving the background and expose for the interior of the tent.

My initial reaction, unfortunately, was the first alternative. How the heck am I gonna get anything out of this?  But then I recalled the wise counsel of legendary photographer Jay Maisel: "Always carry a camera; it's tough to shoot a picture without one."  So, that took Option 1 off the table and sent me back to the challenge at hand.

Shooting dance, especially fast moving routines like this, is not conducive to flash photography, so I never use it.  First off, using a flash is very disruptive for the dancers.  Here, in this environment, I would have had to bring every photon I could deliver to cut down the dynamic range.  Even blasting that much light into the tent ceiling (which is the only way it could be done without blinding the dancers), would have been disruptive to the audience, and potentially dangerous for the dancers.

So really, there was only one viable alternative, which was to expose for the conditions inside the tent.  Here, it's 1/320 at f/5.6 at ISO 800.  Doing so caused the back wall to completely blow out, but it also did two good things for me. First, it enabled me to completely freeze the dancers, something I rarely can accomplish in dimly lit gymnasiums where they usually compete.  Second, the drastic overexposure of the outside conditions actually brought in some of the ambient exterior light, giving most of the dancers an appealing rim light to their arms and legs.  That's not something you could achieve if the dynamic range weren't so drastic.

So, all in all, I'd consider this a qualified success, kinda like pulling a rabbit out of a very dark hat.


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