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Low light awards night

November 10, 2015

I recently shot the annual awards for Interserve – a FTSE 250 company – at London’s Science Museum.

Interserve awards 2015

A recce of the venue showed that the light was going to be challenging – the client wanted a group shot of the 40 award winners in the Flight room, which has a high black ceiling and low-hanging, shiny silver aircraft.

Normally I would light a group of this size with at least 4 studio lights, but having so many stands in an area where people were moving around and drinking sounded like an accident waiting to happen.

So I asked the client to switch the shoot to the Imax theatre where the awards were being presented. This had the advantage of keeping the winners in one place, rather than having to round them up in a huge dark hall full of exhibits not to mention a bar.

I had a decision to make: set up studio lights to get optimum lighting, or rely on the house spotlights. A meter reading showed I could get 1/125 of a sec at f4, ISO 400 on the stage to a depth of 3 metres if the lighting engineer turned everything up. Standing back a good 10m would give me enough depth of field if I arranged the 40 people in 3 rows across the 11m stage.

Lights would give me f11 at ISO 200 and also freeze movement. But then there would be the delay in setting them up and testing them while 40 people were hanging around on stage waiting to head for the party.

I went for the easy option. Sometimes I think you have to sacrifice some picture quality to make life easier for everyone, but I’m still not convinced it was the right decision.

At the party I wanted to convey a warm, relaxed busy atmosphere with the framing, with wider shots to capture the unique character of the venue.

Using a flash would have killed off all the ambient lighting behind the subjects, making it look like they were in a dark cave (you can see this on one shot I took with a speedlight on the stage – the two guys with shaven heads.)

I mainly shot at ISO 3200 – 6400 with 50mm and 35mm prime lenses. I tried to keep the shutter speed up to 1/125 to avoid blur, but this meant a very shallow depth of field at f1.4.

It was hard to see the results on the LED display, and I knew that accurate focusing was going to be tight at such a wide-open aperture, but I think the shots were acceptable given the lighting situation.

I used Sam Lee’s backstage shots at the Bafta awards as inspiration (see earlier blog), but while she manually focused with a rangefinder Leica, I mainly relied on my Canon 5D mark III’s autofocus.

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