Cameras - Nikon I was introduced to photography by the novelist Len Deighton who took part in an advertising campaign for the Olympus OM-1 back in 1972. (Yes, I really am that old, but I still have bags of energy left). In the end though I started out on my great adventure with a second-hand Nikon F and a battered 50mm f1.4 Nikkor. It was the biggest investment I had ever made, and took me a long time to pay off the loan. I don’t regret it though and I have enjoyed every day of my photography since then, always preferring to be out shooting rather than hidden away in the darkroom. I still have that camera today, sitting proudly on the shelf in my lightroom. Next up was a pair of Nikon F2s which I switched to for my main work in the mid to late seventies. This was mainly sport, (semi-professionally) since that was my main interest at the time. I learned how to follow focus a 400 f3.5 on a running footballer, which is not an easy task! These days if you can manage to wave a camera in the general direction of the action, you’re on the front cover of Sports Illustrated. Back in the day I considered myself lucky to get a couple of good frames from a roll of 36 exposures. My gear stayed the same for a number of years, because unlike these days when we’re chasing the latest spec, the old film cameras generally did the job just as well as any new ones that came along. If you wanted better resolution you used slower film, assuming your glass was up to the task. When the F3 came along (what a beauty that high eyepoint viewfinder was!) I traded in the F2s but stuck with the same lenses - 16, 20, 28, 50, 105 and 180. By that time I no longer needed the longer focal lengths as I had moved away from sport.
The footplate crew of 60009 ‘Union of South Africa’. North York Moors Railway
Tony McPhee - Groundhogs
Cameras - Fuji I was a loyal Nikon user all the way up to the D3, but a serious back injury forced me to reconsider what I carried around, so I dipped my toe in the ‘Fuji waters’ with the diminutive X10. Weeks later I had to buy another for my wife who kept borrowing it. I took it on a Las Vegas holiday soon afterwards and was delighted with the freedom it bestowed, so I embarked along the ‘more serious’ Fuji road with a pair of XE-1s, an 18mm f2.0 and a 35mm f1.4 which has always been my favourite lens. Later I traded the XEs for a pair of XT-1s and additional primes which have served me well all over the world. When the XPro-2 appeared on the scene I switched over to that as my main camera body and on the whole life was good! I was so happy! And then Fuji announced their bombshell. In the theatre I work mainly with primes, generally at full aperture, so when the Fuji XH-1 was announced with in body image stabilisation I just HAD to have it! Suddenly my life changed again. My prime lenses were all stabilised and I could use ridiculous hand-held exposures such as 90mm @ f2, 1/15th sec and end up with a sharp image! Of course I’m not always working towards a scene that’s frozen in time, but frequently attempting to convey a sense of dynamism by shooting lowish shutter speeds (1/8th, 1/15th, 1/30th etc.,) knowing they’ll result in subject movement in the final image. This technique has a relatively high failure rate, but as in sport there is almost always a point of inflection where the subject becomes temporarily ‘still’ enough to yield a focused image. For me this kind of movement is what gives a picture that ‘wow’ factor and it doesn’t need the latest technology to achieve it. These days I use a pair of Fuji XH-1s for theatre and dance and an XT-3 in the street, all with battery grips. For lenses I use the 16, 23, 35, (all f1.4), the 56 f1.2 and the 90 f2 Fujinons which are all superb.
Workflow I’m perfectly happy with the JPEGs which come straight out of the camera and into Lightroom 6.0, (please don’t get me started on Adobe licensing strategy) but I’m currently switching over to Exposure X5), which is where I use the star ratings to gradually triage (or should that be quintage?) the images. Once graded 1-5 I throw away the zero and one ratings on the basis that with fives and fours available why would you ever look for something worse?! Along with the occasional deletion of the star images (if I have plenty of the better ones) this keeps storage requirements down and helps with later re-reviews and searches. I always shoot in colour (Velvia simulation) even though my end target is a monochrome image with the look and feel of Kodak Tri-X. This is usually achieved by a simple monochrome conversion followed by a half or full stop increase in exposure followed by a boost in contrast and presence and usually pushing the blacks down too, to deepen the shadows. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s what I’m accustomed to! In the old days I used to shoot Tri-X which is why I look for that same high-contrast push-processed feel in my contemporary monochrome work. For me, a monochrome image has a timeless feel to it. When you put a collection of mono prints together on a gallery wall they seem to bind together by a kind of grayscale sympathy that sometimes makes colour hangings look a bit of a mess.
Theatre In professional theatre there is rarely chance to shoot a production ‘live’ since audiences are prohibited from taking their own photographs and would quite rightly be aggrieved if they saw someone else doing so. For that reason, production photos are usually taken during a dress rehearsal when all the lighting and costumes are as they would be in a normal performance. Another opportunity is to shoot during early rehearsals, which are usually conducted in a dedicated room that’s usually well lit. Beware though the dreaded fluorescents which cause banding and ugly colour shifts. Another downside is that actors are in normal dress and the light will be flat - nowhere near as dramatic as that seen during the actual show or dress rehearsal. That’s why I prefer to shoot full dress rehearsals, even though the dramatic lighting often makes things a lot more difficult. Stage lighting can and does change rapidly, and actors moving from lit to unlit areas of the stage present you with a lot of unpredictable targets. If you attend early rehearsals though you’ll know just where and when the actors will be, and you’ll be ready for the peak of the ‘action’ just as you might prepare to capture a racing car clipping the apex. Actors are accustomed to being watched and filmed but as a matter of respect I try not to intrude audibly, visually and especially not physically whilst they are working! I use the electronic shutter where possible to avoid distraction, wear dark clothing and move around as quietly as possible, attempting to stay out of sightlines. My metering is set to follow the focus point and because the actors are frequently lit against a dark background I’ll begin with -1 stop on exposure compensation and adjust as required. If necessary I’ll adjust ISO too, generally aiming to keep to ISO 400 or less, reluctantly creeping up to ISO 3200 if necessary. On occasions where I’ve been granted permission to shoot backstage during the performance it was not unusual to have to resort to ISO 12800 under some very challenging conditions. The lighting backstage is very low, especially near the stage entry points where the audience might otherwise see the stage crew. This is why they (and photographers!) dress all in black, frequently with matching gloves and Ninja masks! As mentioned earlier, I use mainly primes, the most popular being the 35mm f1.4 and the 90mm f2.0, with the 56mm f1.2 not far behind. I could occasionally use a 200mm f2.0 but I work close-in for the most part so a long lens isn’t a priority, particularly when I need to sell my car to buy one!
Backstage during a performance of ‘The 39 Steps’ - Stephen Joseph Theatre
Henry V - The Tobacco Factory - for me, it’s the movement that makes this work
© Mark Lamb 2002-2020 - Last updated 14 November 2020