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QA: Lighting a 1,300-Person Group Shot [Magnum Opus]

Reader Albert Yee asks, via Twitter:

Ever shoot a group of 1,300 before? Trying to wrap my head around a possible assignment: Teachers and staff in a basketball arena.

1,300? 1,300. Hmm.

Lighting 1,300 people indoors is a Herculean task, no matter how you slice it. Can you do it? Do you wanna do it? How would you charge for it? Lotsa questions.

Let's jump in.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an epically long read. Basically a brain dump of everything that would go through my head if faced with this assignment. I wouldn't even start it if you are over 45 years old. Might not have the time left.

The Easy Way Out

The slick move for this would be to go available light. And if it is a decent, modern arena, it is lit for sports. Which might be just fine for your group shot. Say it is lit to 1/500 at f/2.8 at ISO 1600. We'd just trade shutter speed for f/stop and ISO. Let's say you want f/11 for nice depth of field. And ISO 400 for a balance of quality and speed.

That'd be an eighth of a second at f/11. Maybe better to go 1/15 at f/8. On a tripod this is totally doable. Just let people know they need to stand still. Remember, they are far away and tiny in the frame, so modest movement won't show. And shooting from up very high in the bleachers would put the gym lights just about the right angle of approach for a group portrait.

Rent a Nikon D800. And maybe a 45mm Tilt-Shift to put the plane of focus across the crowd. (That's what the tilt is for. They don't make those lenses for Laforet's fake minatures.) That'd buy you some aperture/shutter/ISO/whatever you wanted to spend it on.

But you'll need some serious pixels. Your D200 is not going to cut this. It would be nice if each person got more than one pixel.

Go to the gym and bring a good tripod, a cable release and an assistant. Shoot RAW. See if you can work it out.

Seriously, Dave, available light?

Yes. Do not go looking for trouble. Because that is what is waiting for you if you try to light this. But you look like just the kind of guy who is looking for trouble...

Did I say lighting this would be a Herculean task? Let's go with Spartan instead. Because any lighting rig will be a spartan approach to lighting 1,300 people. You'll be cheating every variable. This is a big task, and something you obviously have not done before. Hell, I haven't done it before.

Step one: Channel a little Gerard Butler and psyche yourself up. You'll need it, because rather than battling Persians you are going up against the laws of physics. And physics is undefeated.

Step two: Hit the calculator.

No, not to figure out your vast fee. Yet. That comes later and maybe this big crowd can work for you there. Our first stop is a quick visit to the square root button. Quick, what's the square root of 1,300?

So that quickly tells you that you are looking at about 36 rows of about 36 people. Not tiny by any means, but probably better looking than that vague mass of humanity visual that was that was keeping you awake at night. But it's still a butt-load of people.

So, 36 x 36. Or 18 x 72. Or whatever ratio you choose, driven by shape. The ideal shape will be more sophisticated than that. But we'll talk about the shape in a minute.

Next you'll need some height. Which means you'll need to make sure the bleachers will be extended if they have any chance of being retracted when you show up. (Again, dunno your arena situation for sure.)

You cannot snap your fingers and make that happen. But someone in your group of 1,300 staff and faculty can. Figure out who that is, and make sure they will have the bleachers set up, and have the arena/gym ready for you and your assistant two hours before the shoot.

(Here, I am assuming you have already run through a lighting scout to see if this is actually possible.)

Two hours on the day of the shoot is the minimum amount time you'll want to pre-light it. If they say it is not available, then tell them you are not available. If they want their art-teacher-who-has-a-REALLY-nice-camera to shoot this, that's fine. But if they want a professional quality photo, you need to have access be there early to light it.

And again, I would go earlier on a different day and do a run-through pre-light to see if you have enough light to pull it off. Because this may require some serious light rental — as in possibly trunkful of Profoto 2400s.

Besides, this demonstrated preplanning will help to connote that your hefty fee is not just about you parachuting in and snapping a button.

Next place I am going is to my trusty pad of quarter-inch graph paper. I am going to plot out a shape that looks not unlike a shot put field, or a radar sweep:

Conveniently, each square on the graph paper can be mapped out to represent a person. A typical sheet of quarter-inch graph paper contains 1290 squares. That's right at our magic number of 1,300. And holy crap that is a lot of people. Did I mention that. Getting real concrete now, isn't it.

I have an idea. Why don't we back out.

No? Okay.

I'd lay it out on two sheets as shown. This is a rough estimate, but the idea is that you wanna include about half of the squares on two sheets of paper. This will give you the person-unit dimensions of the space you'll need.

Why this shape? It's like a section of an arc. A radar sweep, if you will. It'll look better than a rectangle from your camera position. Each row is equidistant across the row. But more important, it will elegantly control the distance between the closest row and the furthest row. Meaning, it will get you the most bang for your depth-of-field buck.

You could do a rectangle. Or a square. Or a fan (spread sides, but no arc on the front and back lines.) Whatever. Just a thought. But you'll need more depth of field to handle it.

Now you have your shape and your unit dimensions. Figure out how much linear space you need for each person. Physically line some friends up and measure them. Now you have a graphed shape that you can scale and project out on the gym floor.

Do the math and weep. Reconsider going available light, shooting RAW and spending an afternoon in post. I would.

Because that scale projection is what you'll have to solve to see the space needed to herd all of these people prettily. You'll plot it out in real life and gaff-tape the corners of the sweep in the gym. And gaff a few dotted lines of the sides and the front and back arc. Now everyone will know where to go. Um, I'd bring a few rolls of gaff. Easy to Photoshop out.

But also, having these real-life dimensions will help you plot distances that you can plug into a guide number calculator and see how much bang you are gonna need, after adding in the lights' estimated offset distance from the group.

This might scare the crap out of you. Be ready for that. You might need way more power than you (or I) think. Did I mention available light as an option?

Camera Position

Obviously, you'll want to be up in the bleachers. You need the height. I'd frame it shooting from a little ways up the bleachers at mid court, with the group symmetrical on the center court line.

You're not all the way up because while you want to be visible to everyone, you also to leave more height available for your key light. Plus, and this is very important, you'll be balancing your lighting distance very carefully.

More distance gives you more evenness, but robs you of illuminating power. That's your balance, which you'll find out as you go to set your key light. In fact, you could just pre-test that light because the others (fill and rim) have a little wiggle room.

On a full-frame camera, I'd be looking to shoot this on a 50mm or a 35mm. Or that Tilt-Shift 45mm.

Remember, the 45TS could put your plane of focus right across everyone's faces and in theory make them all sharp even wide open. Still, I'd go to 5.6 minimum.

But either way, the lens choice will drive the camera distance decision. Wider than that and you'll make the front folks too prominent vs. the back folks. Longer than that and you will invite depth of field issues. Just a hunch.

Wait, Depth of Field Issues?

Yes. And let's talk about them.

Here is your ideal: You can light everyone to, say, f/11 at ISO 200.

But that's not gonna happen unless you have a small thermonuclear device for a key light. So you have to decide which kid to throw under the bus: f/stop, or ISO?

Gear Pack

The absolute bare minimum that MIGHT make it work (but probably not) is:

1. A good (FF 35mm) camera and a sharp 50 and 35 to go on it. D800 and 45TS being pretty ideal here.

2. Four Paul Buff Einstein e640s or equivalent. (Actually, make it five.) That's a sketchy minimum. More power would be better. If you can source only one Big Gun, like a Profoto 2400, you'll want that as your key light and support it with e640s, maybe. Also, you could gang 640s for the key. That's the 5th flash I am suggesting. Getting ugly fast here.

3. Stands and standard reflectors for each. Or maybe 11" high-output reflectors as seen below.

4. A 30-degree grid or two for feathering control. But they eat light. Oh crap.

5. Power for the e640s (VMLs or long AC cords and known locations of power outlets.)

6. A remote or a short sync cord. Both is safer.

7. Two assistants.

Backup: Extra Einsteins, extra VML batteries, extra camera with a mid-range zoom lens. (If not needed for emergency, the added lights would allow you to double-gang your key and gain power where you'll most need it.)

Mind you, this is cutting every corner. Paul Buff has an expected output calculator to help you get the GNs with various reflectors.

A GN calculator (if you don't like math) tells you an e640 in an 8.5" high-output reflector (GN 234) at ISO 800 will get you f/5.6 at 118.2 feet. Switch to a 11" high-output long-throw reflector and you get GN 394. So you can expect f/8 at 139 feet at ISO 800.

That sounds better (still marginal though) and it is at the expense of beam width. They only have a 28-degree beam spread. That's basically your 30-degree grid right there, but through beam concentration instead of robbing light. But that might work for you as you feather the light off of the closer people anyway. The issue might be the width of the beam left to right.

Frontal Attack: First, the Key

Stick your key light up and high camera right (or left, but I'd go right) higher than you in the bleachers as shown:

Remember your distance--balance compromise. If you have to, move it in. And be a little afraid.

Crank it to full power and set your camera to ISO 200 at f/11 at your sync speed. (Hey, you can dream.) Have your assistant get in the back row, far corner on the opposite side as your light. Aim right at him with your light on full power and with a 30-degree grid (not critical, but this may really help as you'll see in a minute.)

Can you expose him way over there at f/11? If so, winner, winner chicken dinner.

But you won't. And the very dark frame you'll be looking at will illustrate the gulf between what you have and what you really needed.

You'll likely miss this mark by three or four stops (or more) of light as a shortfall. For each f/stop you miss by, you have to compromise on your ideal of ISO 200, F/11. Here is your priority list for deviating from the ideal of f/11 at ISO 200:

• First stop loss: I'd go to 400 ISO. No brainer.

• Second stop loss: Probably drop to f/8. Your camera-to-subject distance will hold your DOF here, I think. But control the depth of your layout to help this if you anticipate a problem.

• Third stop: Tough call. I'd probably go to ISO 800 depending on the camera.

• Fourth stop: Go to f/5.6

• Fifth stop: You should have brought more light. Start quietly crying.

Okay, so you've lit your guy on the far corner. as well as you can You are shooting right from the key light position here. No need to move back to your final shooting position. So it'll be quick.

Now move your guy (or use the second guy) to the near corner. Pop a frame. The exposure will be a little hot. Feather the light (aim it) up, above the head of near-corner guy, until he looks good, too. A grid will rob you of power, but allow you more control on the feather. Everything is a compromise. Best judgement. The 11" HOR might be just the trick here.

Now go back to the back corner and make sure you can still hold an exposure on him. Your key light, and working exposure are now set. Turn that light off for now.

Next, let's set the fill. Go to your shooting position and place your second e640 (or whatever) to be right next to the camera, same height, on the opposite side as your key. This will make sure that whatever the camera can see will not be in deep shadow from the key.

Follow the same procedure as above, except open your camera up a stop and a half. This is fill, remember.

Guy in middle of back row. Adjust power. Move him to back corner. Check exposure. Other corner. Check. Front row: check and feather the light up until he is lit well at the new fill aperture.

Now move him and check your back row again from this position. This is much quicker than it sounds. Next, I'd turn on my key and go back to my full working aperture and quick test the key and fill together. Now your frontal lighting is all set.

(Incidentally, I would probably sync-cord to my nearby fill light and slave everything else for this shoot.)

The Rear Guard

Rims, AKA separation lights, are pretty important here and are what will make the group shot pop and look very crisp.

Obviously, you'll want to be set up on bleachers in back, on the corners but not too far back for light-robbing reasons. Show an assistant (if s/he doesn't know already) how to power the light up and down, and how to aim it. You'll aim each light at the opposite side of the front row to start.

Same process as above. You are at camera, testing and chimping. They are aiming, adjusting power if necessary. Grid may be very helpful here, but will cost you light. Test with a person at various corners, etc.

When you shoot the group shot, you can use your two assistants to stand in front of your camera at either side and block your rims from flaring.

But good news is, you are now pre-lit. Camera goes on tripod and is locked down. Have someone stand in center one third of the way back and focus on them for best hyper-focal position for optimal depth of field for the whole group. You may want to tape the focus.

Now move them to the various front and back corners. Are they still sharp? Good. If not, you may need to sacrifice ISO for depth of field. Sorry.

One last thing: The unlit areas of the court might look a little black-ish. Open up your shutter until the unlit areas of the court look subdued but good. If the ambient light color is whacked, subdue it a little more. It'll be fine. Remember, tripod for sharpness and frame-to-frame consistency.

Now that you have tested the crap out of your setup, stop worrying about it. Trust your prep work. You'll need to put it out of your mind for the important part still to come.

You're Not There Yet

So that's all bare minimum. You are buying a sh*t-ton of planning and worry and stress. And renting some big guns. Either charge them out the wazoo, or walk away. Happily.

Figure in your rental, all of your pre-planning time. My pre-planning time (J/K I'm free for you LOLZ). The important thing is make all of this worry well worth your while or don't do it. Let some other idiot get burned.

One thought: You could leverage the value of giving an 8x10 (too small to see yourself) or an 11x14 (better) to all 1,300 people ($3,900.). 11x14s are $3 a pop, but they convey more value and add-on margin. You could design a nice commemoration message in the margin very easily in PS, etc.

For instance, for $10k you could do everything, rentals, assistants and an 11x14 for each person and net $4-$5k. Leverage your base. Maybe you include a big-ass print for some public display. Just spitballing here.

But the more I planned this out, the tighter the ol' aperture got. If you get my drift. So quote them a price at which you would happily do it.

But honestly, I would get in there and quietly test the tripod/D800/45TS and see. If available light won't work, I'd just tell them to light this whole gym for a 1,300 group shot would be akin to Sports Illustrated lighting an arena. Which it is.

Tell them to figure $15-$20k and see what happens. Basically, you want to scare them at least as badly as they are scaring you.

Now, let's say they agree…

Let Them Come.

The Big Day is here. You are prepped, set and tested. Now Xerxes and his army are filing into your gym. And yes, it is your gym right now. Never lose sight of that. You need to be in control. Loud. Friendly. Confident. Running the show.

Rent a megaphone or get mic'd to the gym's PA. Seriously, this is 1,300 people.

Bring them in to the feed lot you have taped off on the floor. Sort them by height:

"If the person in front of you is taller than you are, switch places. I want all my shawtees up front!" Have fun with it. And own them. You gotta.

Next, make them all aware of the light and the camera. No people hiding behind others.

"Make sure your entire face can see the camera. I want your whole face. Not just your forehead."

Everyone needs to hear this.

"Also, this light over there (point to the key). Make sure you can see both it and me with your whole face."

Quick-scan the room to make sure you have no problems.

Important: You are locked on a tripod. So if you need to swap out a bad face on an important person, it'll be easy in Photoshop.

Kill the General First

Here is my best piece of advice for a large group shot: Mess with the big boss to get everyone else loose.

I have done it several times, including while shooting for Fortune 500 companies. Heck, I did it my first week out of college as an newspaper intern, shooting a 200-person employee group shot that included the newspaper's publisher right down front.

(Wow. 200 seemed like a big group. 1,300? You sure you want to do this?)

I just went to him beforehand, introduced myself as his new intern, and asked if I could mess with him a little during the shoot to keep everyone else loose during the group photo.

Shoot a few safe frames first, just to burn them and get people (and you) into the flow. Then uncork something like, "Where's Bob Smith?" (Or whoever the Big Cheese is.) They'll be down front, of course, and raise their hand.

"Oh, sorry — I didn't even recognize you. Wow! It's great to see you back in men's clothing!" (Or whatever you can come up with. Keep it clean but a bit scandalous.)

He knows it's coming, but everyone else doesn't. And assuming your finger is on the button, you'll get a great moment. Let it develop for half a second and then grab it, because you'll only get one chance due to flash recycle times.

Have fun with them. Be in total control. Roll a little. Work a running patter about the universal lie of "just one more picture."

Check back often to the "Can every body see both me and that (key) light with their whole face? Thank you!" Be quick. Find people trying to hide from you in the back and call them out.

Remember, you have tested and locked down everything. So the actual photography part is a five-minute party of unexpected fun. At the end, make sure you get something looking at least a little sedate, just in case. (Wait, wait — "Just one more picture!")

It's All Important

The lighting, camera, prep work — all critical. But nail that stuff down and then put it aside.

Because when the rubber hits the road, the psychology and rhythm and fun are also critical. And you only want to be concentrating on one worry at a time.

Win them over. Give them an excuse to have some fun. Be fast. Shoot lots of frames. Be finished before you lose them. (Because you won't get them back.)

And then wrap it up: "Thank you all very much. Now get out of my gym."

Between You and Me

I'd test it for available light. I suspect it could work out just great. Lighting is gonna give you a world of hurt and worry. Think long and hard about accepting this if you have to light 1,300 people.


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