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the yellowstone of the gels | by 1600 Squirrels
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the yellowstone of the gels


Camera left, ~8-9m: Speedlite 430EX II w/ Rosco Cinelux #44 Medium Rose

Camera right, ~6-7m: Speedlite 430EX II w/ Rosco Cinelux #375 Cerulean Blue

Each triggered w/FlexTT5 + MiniTT1 on camera w/AC3 ZoneController in manual.


Into the Valley of the Gels


In The Moment It Clicks, Joe McNally refers to what his colleague Greg Heisler called "The Valley of the Gels"—a Twilight Zone you enter when forced to light your way out of an unpromising environment. As I learned recently, this is not a place you want to be in unless you know exactly what you're doing.


What follows are some highlights from my second "paid" shoot (the first being my cousin's wedding) at a show put on by the instructors, students, and performers at Trapeze Arts, a school for, well, trapeze arts (think "circus") in West Oakland. I was second shooter to pfeyh, who's been shooting these shows for years.


This particular show featured their younger performers and students. I was amazed at these teenagers' athleticism and grace—but then, some of them have been doing this since they were five. Beyond the invaluable learning opportunity this presented me, I am grateful to pfeyh and the coordinator of the show, Janene Davis, for giving me the opportunity to just sit and watch (albeit, through the viewfinder).


On a technical level, the show featured near darkness, punctuated by red spotlights, combined with a large space (similar in size to a circus tent) that essentially eliminated the possibility of bounced flash—at least, from the little speedlights I had available. Thankfully, I had a chance to set up flashes beforehand.


Normally I take things one step at a time when learning new aspects of photography, but this shoot forced me to jump in with both feet. I wanted to retain some of the feel of the stage lighting, and therefore placed the main speedlights next to the floodlights, and, at least at first, tried to match their gels as well. Unfortunately, the show designers ultimately chose almost exclusively red light, which is the worst possible torture you can inflict on a Canon sensor, and did little to show off their elaborate costumes, so I had to make my own way through the Valley of the Gels. Having never shot an athletic event closeup, or used the ZoneController on the move, or even seen a modern trapeze act before the rehearsal, I made plenty of mistakes (e.g., Cerulean Blue) but also got some frames I really like.


I attribute a large portion of any success to the equipment.


I used the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II almost exclusively and it was just fantastic, nailing shot after shot in near darkness with point-and-shoot simplicity. The only times I put it down was when I was simply too close to the action (I hadn't anticipated being close enough to touch the performers), and even then I would've done better to stick with the 5DII+70-200II rather than switch to the 450D+24-105 as I did.


Three 430EX IIs were powerful enough to light the roughly 15m-wide by 7m-high by 5m-deep performance area, even with gels that cut two stops of light on my two main lights. In fact, there was too much light—in that too much fell on the background—but I couldn't think of a way to employ three speedlights to light the whole performance area without lighting the background as well. I was cutting it close on power: barely two stops above the red stage lights, while trying to stay at least one stop below full power to minimize recycle times. While I was tripped up by slow recycle times occasionally, I count only around two dozen black frames out of ~370 total. And over 320 pops on a single set of batteries each (with juice to spare) is better than I expected.


Finally, for the very first time, the PocketWizards worked without a hitch. The ZoneController was a gem—everything it was hyped to be—and I'm only beginning to learn what it can do.


Anyway, that's enough tech talk for now. Get ready to enter the Forty-Mile-Wide Caldera of the Gels—and Flickr pink and blue at that.

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Taken on March 5, 2011