How I did it: Theater Portrait

Success in photography requires mastery of many disciplines. The most basic thing you must be master of is your equipment. I don’t mean just knowing how or when to switch to manual mode, but mastering every aspect of every piece of gear you own. 

During a college photo shoot at a noticed the theater professor watching the rehearsal in the back of the auditorium. What first struck me was the lights in the ceiling, then the spotlights aimed at the stage. The image I captured burned into my mind’s eye from the moment I saw the scene. I had to make his portrait. 

I got his attention and cooperation the old fashion way, with compliments. “Do you know how much you look like Mel Gibson?” (this was before Mel imploded). He loved it. After that, he was butter in my hand. I also detailed how I previsualized the picture. Again, he loved it. 

Technically it could have been a simple picture to make – sit in front of the professor, wide-angle lens, high ISO, wide aperture and expose. But that’s not what was in my mind. I wanted those spotlights as starbursts. For that, I needed either a star filter or small aperture. I never carry star filters, so I had only one option. But what f-stop did I need? 

Because I test every piece of gear I own, I knew f/11 on my Canon 15mm fisheye would give me exactly what I wanted. Positioning the lens perfectly level would be necessary to counter the fisheye effect. Also, placing the professor exactly center would mitigate the distortion inherent with that lens. But, because the camera I was using had a 1.3x crop factor, the effective focal length was 19.5mm, diminishing the full fisheye effect. I selected this body over the full-frame Canon 5D because the crop factor would work in my favor with the 15mm lens. 

Shooting this scene at f/11 posed some additional challenges. I wanted to keep the ISO low to maximize quality so the exposure would be somewhat lengthy. During a break in the rehearsal, I explained what I wanted to the professor and asked him just to do what he had been doing, but don’t move. I mounted my Canon 1D Mark II fitted with the 15mm lens onto a tripod and carefully composed the image. Exposure was determined by a handheld meter in an incident mode based on the light falling on his face. At my predetermined f-stop (11) with an ISO of 400, my exposure was 1.3 seconds. The resulting picture was what I had seen in my mind’s eye.

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