Fun With Speedlights

 (Bill Ferris)

Artistic Director, Erica Kragness, leads the Troubadours and Madrigal Singers in a performance of “Before the Marvel of This Night” during the Children’s Chorale of Flagstaff 2013 holiday concert. Photographed with a Nikon D600 and Tamron 70-200mm lens at 95mm, f/5.6, 1/200-second exposure and ISO 1000. (Bill Ferris)

There are times in life when, regardless of how crazy an idea may seem, you just have to give it a try. I recently experienced just such a moment and was quite amazed–and pleased–by the outcome.

My son sings with Children’s Chorale of Flagstaff, a professional-style choir for youth from 1st through 12th grade. He started as a nine-year-old singing with the Pine Tones. For the last two years, he’s been singing in Dolce Cantando and has aspirations to perform with the Troubadours, a young men’s choir. Children’s Chorale performs a holiday concert each December at the historic Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel. Locals refer to this striking Gothic structure simply as, Church of the Nativity.

The week leading up to the big night, Matthew attended three rehearsals. It was during the first of these that the artistic director asked me if I would photograph the Friday performance. I eagerly accepted the invitation. Church of the Nativity is an amazing photographic subject in its own right. The opportunity to photograph the choirs performing in their formal attire in such a classic setting was simply too good to pass up.

 (Bill Ferris)

Led by Jordan Rakita, the combined choirs of Children’s Chorale of Flagstaff perform “Santa Claus Boogie.” Photographed with a Nikon D600, Tamron 70-200 lens at 122mm, f/5.6, 1/200-second exposure at ISO 1000. (Bill Ferris)

I used the next day to develop a strategy for the shoot. I had photographed previous concerts in this venue with my Nikon D90 and the biggest challenge had been the low level of ambient light in the sanctuary. Although the D600 has much better high ISO performance, my preference was to add enough light to allow the use of more reasonable ISO’s with good depth of field and a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. Unfortunately, my lighting options were limited to an on-camera flash and two Nikon SB-700 speedlights.

So, on the night of the final dress rehearsal, I brought my camera equipment to scout the venue and work out the lighting strategy. With only two speedlights, I began exploring options for setting up the flashes near the front of the chapel. I found elevated positions along the walls about eight rows from the front where I could set up the SB-700’s, one on each side of the chapel. I used a Vello Freewave Fusion transmitter mounted on the D600 and two Freewave Fusion receivers to trigger the speedlights. The choir looked great in my test shots. But there was a major issue: with the speedlights positioned near the choir, the majority of the chapel was too dark to register in the exposures. I would have to go sans speedlights and boost the ISO to capture wide angle shots.

This weighed on me all through the next day until I settled on an idea. As crazy as it may sound, I decided to see if I could fill the house with light using the SB-700’s. I mean, what could it hurt? If my plan didn’t work, I had a strategy for lighting the choir and then boosting the ISO to capture wide angle images. But if it did work…

 (Bill Ferris)

The combined choirs of Children’s Chorale of Flagtaff peform “Night of Silence,” the traditional closing song of their annual holiday concert. (Bill Ferris)

The day of the concert, I arrived more than two-hours before the performance to test my crazy idea. There is a small balcony at the rear of the chapel. I walked up the narrow flight of stairs carrying my kit. I set up the two SB-700’s on light stands, one on each side of the balcony. They were set at full power and aimed to fire across the sanctuary toward opposite corners. I began taking test exposures and, much to my surprise, the two speedlights did an adequate job of filling the chapel with light. I did have to boost the ISO a bit (ranging between 800 and 1600, depending on lens focal length and aperture) but even at the highest ISO used, it was well within the D600’s wheelhouse for low light performance.

In my excitement at having found a way to light this beautiful church, I overlooked one critical element: people. All during the afternoon, I had been alone in that small balcony. But when the doors were opened to allow the gathering crowd to enter, a flood of parents, family and chorale supporters made their way up to my perch to find seating for the show. My biggest worry was that someone would accidentally move or knock over one of the speedlights. Or, while I was down on the floor gettingĀ  shots of small groups and individual choir members, someone would take my position at the center of the balcony rail. But I needn’t have been concerned. All went well.

 (Bill Ferris)

The Troubadours of Children’s Chorale of Flagstaff. (Bill Ferris)

Of the approximately 275 exposures I took that night, 61 were of sufficient quality to place in an online gallery from which parents and other chorale supporters have been invited to purchase prints as remembrances of a fantastic evening of holiday song and cheer. A portion of the proceeds will go to support Children’s Chorale. As for the remainder…well, I might add a couple of speedlights to my arsenal for the May concert. The front of the chapel was a skosh dark in some exposures.

Have a Glorious Holiday season and … get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | December 2013

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