Monthly Archives: December 2008
For many years now I’ve had the privilege of working with some extremely talented students at our local high school media program here in Maynard: WAVM. Each year they take on a seemingly impossible task: after months of preparation and fundraising they stage a 40-hour non-stop telethon, broadcasting on both local access television and FM radio. Hundreds of students (backed by dozens of adult volunteers) do this to raise money for a local fund, The Beacon Santa, which distributes the money to families in need throughout the area.
Among other duties at the WAVM telethon I function as the photographer for the event. (Being a bit older and wiser than the staff, I’m only there 30 of the 40 hours — I get some sleep during the quiet hours.) I concentrate on “telethon moments” and “behind the scenes” candid photography.
For the past two years I’ve been using Adobe Lightroom to process the photos and post them to web galleries on the WAVM web site, nearly in real time (about every 4 – 6 hours). I thought it might be interesting for people to read how I approach photographing such an event and the workflow from capture to publishing. (I’ve included a few of my favorite images from this year’s telethon just for fun.)
Three cameras: Canon 40D with 24-70mm at ISO 1600. Canon 1DMk2 with 70-200mm at ISO 1600. Both are set to shoot at full resolution in RAW mode. The Canon 10D with 16-35mm is set to shoot small JPEGs because it is used exclusively for time-lapse movie captures.
The 10D was on a tripod for the time-lapse photography. The other cameras were hand-held. All use available light (stage lighting in the auditorium, typical classroom lighting elsewhere).
The 40 hour telethon is broken down into 30 minute scheduling “chunks”. Typically things change about once per hour on average and rotate between three different studios/stages within the school. After shooting I return to my warren where my MacBook Pro is set up with a firewire card reader and a USB external drive.
The cards are ingested by a custom Automator script I wrote many years ago. It copies everything to a “inbox” folder and renumbers the images to my unique scheme. If something interesting starts happening while this is going on, I pop in some fresh cards and head out while the laptop copies the files.
After ingesting the cards, I import the images into Lightroom. A folder is created for each major segment of the telethon (opening, evening, night, saturday morning, afternoon, etc.). The Lightroom import process moves the files from the common “inbox” into the designated folder. It also copies the files to the external USB drive for backup. Only after this is done are the images erased from the CF cards. (If this were a paying gig, I’d almost certainly not be erasing the cards, but would keep as many of them as possible as a 3rd backup.)
The import process also does two other things: 1) a metadata preset tags each image with copyright and location information; and 2) if the photos are from the studios I have a develop preset with a tuned white balance, clarity, and vibrance.
Just to make matters interesting, I also photograph 300-400 auction items so they can be viewed on the auction web server. The bulk of this is done in the two weeks prior to the telethon, but we get a lot of last-minute donations. I maintain a separate Lightroom catalog for those items as I will simply dispose of the images and catalog after the telethon is over.
For the 2008 telethon I shot 1850 images (not including the 5000 time-lapse captures). 340 were auction items, so about 1500 went into the editing part of the workflow.
When I have some free time I use a 2-stage selection process.
1. In Library mode I walk through each photo and reject any photos that are either technically unacceptable or not something I want to keep. Shooting in the limited available light, even at f/2.8, the shutter speeds drop quickly. Since I am photographing on active, on-air sets I have to do my best to not interfere with the crews or disrupt the programming — so I’m shooting at 200mm a lot more than you’d think. Consequently a fair number of shots will be blurry. With most photos being candid, I reject anything where I inadvertently catch someone doing something embarrassing.
I use the Caps Lock key feather that quickly moves to the next image after rejecting (or any other rating) so this goes very quickly. I then delete the rejected images. If for some reason I thought there was an accident at this phase, the import backup phase would still have all of the shot images.
About 30% of the images are whacked during this stage. So over the course of the entire telethon 1300 images went on to the next stage (usually in groups of a hundred or so).
2. Again in Library mode again traverse the images (with the Caps Lock key on) and my fingers over the P and U keys. (I have to say that when I normally edit at this point, where time is less of a factor, I tend to use the 1-5 star ratings.) My goal is to determine what the selects are as quickly as possible. If I have two shots that are similar (from a burst or whatever) I’ll back up and choose one of them.
I don’t have a target number or percentage in mind, but I’m pretty liberal for this event. A bit over half of the images end up as picks. (1300+ images whittled down to 700+ over the course of the telethon.)
Editing / Grading
Each of the picks now goes through a very fast editing process. I use a combination of the Quick Develop feature to tweak exposure up or down a bit. When I’m doing my regular photography I shoot in Manual mode, but for the telethon I’m changing locations and cameras very quickly and lighting changes drastically from room to room and even hour to hour as daylight through windows turns to night — so it’s aperture priority mode for me. When I’m in the auditorium, which has bright stage lights and a black backdrop I sometimes have to dial in over a full stop of compensation. I can usually get within 2/3rds of a stop of where I want to be and Quick Develop makes it easy to normalize the exposures. I dip into Develop mode from time to time to take care of the occasional need to do fill or recovery.
As I continued to shoot in the auditorium, I noted that a lot of the talent were wearing white T-shirts (against a pitch black backdrop). So I created a develop preset that had a tone curve and exposure compensation that more oft than not brought the image into a reasonable balance.
Because the primary develop preset assumed no daylight in the white balance, I occasionally synched alternate white-balance presets that took care of filtered daylight into the scene.
For the telethon I do almost no cropping — pretty much opposite of what I would do with more time.
I may choose to “unselect” an image that didn’t look good enough upon closer inspection at this stage.
In prior years, when I was fortunate to have a staff assistant who would know people’s names, etc., we would also make a quick pass and caption (most of) the picks. This year nobody stepped forward, so I let the photos speak for themselves. Not as effective, but people enjoy them anyways.
Publication to Web
At about 4-6 hour intervals I would publish a web gallery. I try to keep the gallery around 60 images — this just feels to be a good upper limit for bandwidth consumption, viewing, etc.
I use Lightroom’s Flash gallery feature. The colors were chosen earlier in the week to match the theme the WAVM staff used for their telethon web site. I watermark the images with the joint copyright information.
If the number of picks is much higher than 60 images, I break it into two (or three) parts. I use the color tagging feature for this (the first group is red, next green, etc.) — just drop into Grid mode, select the images and press “6″ (or “7″) and you’re done… The color tag filter is used to constrain which images go into the particular web gallery.
The web gallery is then exported to disk. If I have more than one gallery, Lightroom can do these in parallel. This takes a bit of time, so I may use the time to grab the camera and hunt for new images.
Finally I upload the images via FTP to the web server (I use the great Transmit program) and notify the WAVM web team that there’s a new gallery to add to their index page.
I hope that you can see how Lightroom’s features allowed me to take 1500 raw images, then edit and publish over 700 of them into 12 galleries on the WAVM web site on a continuous basis over the course of the 40 telethon.
The photos from the event are available on the WAVM 2008 Telethon web site.
OK, this is a moderately shameless plug…
A quick reminder that you and your friends are invited to join us at the Maynard Public Library for a reception featuring my little exhibit entitled The Radiance of Nature, Saturday afternoon in Maynard. We’ll have the requisite free food and drink. We’ll also have a slide show running showing other images that are part of the series and a variety of prints for sale – just in time for the holiday shopping season!
So please take a few minutes out of your busy weekend** and drop in for some nice photographs, food, and join us this Saturday.
If you can’t make the reception, please stop by the library anytime they are open for the rest of the year and check out the exhibit in the Roosevelt Room.
** Heck, I have to duck out of my duties at the WAVM Beacon Santa Telethon for this — so I know about packed weekends…