Monday, November 16, 2009


Aubine, San Francisco, November 2009.

During the last few weeks, I've had the greatest pleasure photographing actors at work on a new production of Jonathan Larsen's musical Rent, which will open in San Francisco in January 2010.

The experience has been fun so far. The actors are as photogenic as they are talented. But it has also been very frustrating for someone like me who is accustomed to working with natural light to take pictures under the glare of fluorescent bulbs. The actors' schedules preclude rehearsing during the day; photographs are taken at night inside a dance studio. Which is all well and good for a studio photographer, which I am sadly not.

This shortcoming had me reaching for my Nikon SB-600 Flash, a perplexing instrument, and making panicked visits to To my technically-addled brain, strobe lighting is akin to rocket science: it is beyond my ken.

These rehearsal pictures and portraits were all taken with the aperture wide open, without a flash, at night. The ratio of blurry throwaway to usable image was naturally very high. But the ones that did work, I loved. Not for any technical merit, of which there is none, but for the actors themselves.

Reportorial photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Antonin Kratochvil were not fond of photographing actors, but were compelled to do so on assignment. Kratochvil hated the trappings and entourage of actors; Cartier-Bresson felt they were incapable of honest gestures. I love actors. I love the way they use their bodies and faces as instruments for performance. Time and again, I have said on this blog that the street is a stage awaiting actors to appear. Now that I'm finally working with real actors, the pressure to do good work unnerves me. And as much as my mind resists the inscrutable science of strobe lighting, I am determined to conquer it before this assignment is done.

Consider Aubine Wise, a Bay Area actress and singer. She has the demeanor of a true performer: mercurial, chameleon-like, as changeable as her many hair styles. She plays Joanna in Rent, a stuck-up, primly suited lesbian, who is as different a character as one can get from this vivacious vixen of an actress. She is a photographer's dream subject.

I am keeping a photo diary for this assignment. It's the kind of blog used for marketing, but I've tried to slip in a few honest observations about the process of creating something good out of limited resources. Fortunately, the show has gifted actors and singers in abundance. The pleasure of working with these actors outweighs the frustration of not being able to make images the way I know best. If I could only set these talents loose on the street, in real light, it would get my juices flowing. In the meantime, I am stuck with ugly fluorescent light and strobes, if I can figure out how to use them in time, to capture the fine hewn faces of these wonderfully gifted actors.


  1. using flash is something that im not comfortable to do too. but from my experience shooting a wedding and a graduation party where i was the second shooter, the other guy told me to use the wall, ceilings to bounce the light from the flash. you can also bounce it to the wall behind you if the ceiling is too high. might be a good idea to have a light diffuser too. if fhte lighting is mainly flourescent lights , might as well use a gray card and set a custom white balance. this will lessen you time post processing your pictures. other option is probably shoot in raw and correct the white balance in camera raw and batch process the rest

  2. Hi Rem - I'm looking at the ITTL system, maybe 2-3 strobes that I can use together as commanders and slave. Looking at the Nikon SB-900 or the Wetz 58 AF-1. My supplier is checking if they will work with the Leica M8. Right now, the Nikon SB-600 seems to work, but I'm not sure if it actually syncs or just fires at will. Tonight I will be forced to use the SB-600 for the cast group shot. I'll just bounce it off everything, and, alleluia, good luck.


  3. Flash or no flash, these pictures are good, some of then great. Congratulations on the assignment!

  4. It depends upon the you are using. Wonderful photos. Really like them.