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Friday Slide Show: Graduation Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

13 June 2014

When we mentioned we were going to a high school graduation last weekend, we didn't mention our graduate was giving the valedictory address. That called for a little extra effort on our part, even though we were sure the parents would be capturing it on video.

Behind Every Grad. There's a little support. Click the image to start the show.

We used the same little Olympus digital recorder that caught the wedding vows of our wedding video, but we switched it to Lecture mode to pick up the amplified audio. That worked great.

We didn't bring a camera with video capability because we wanted to shoot with a long lens on our dSLR. We figured nobody else would haul a big rig to the show and we were right. We saw plenty of smartphones, tablets and long zooms but not many dSLRs except the two pros shooting the event.

We were sitting in the right-hand section of the auditorium about half way back. Excellent seats, in fact. With a direct line of sight to the podium where Caitlin would be speaking and the right angle to see her face when she got her diploma, coming from stage left. And the Eleanor Roosevelt award for excellence in Social Studies, too.


So how do you set up your camera to capture a graduation in theatrical lighting? We had 45 minutes before the event started to find out. And we put them to use.

Setup. A test exposure during the principal's address.

Don't read this as a recipe for theatrical lighting, though. Think of it as a thought process. A way to optimize your exposure settings for a difficult venue.

Difficult indeed. We've screwed this up a number of ways over the years. But this time we got it right.

As we sat there, we realized the stage lighting was not yet fully up. But it was bright enough (if "bright" is the right word) to do some tests.

We decided to shoot in Manual mode, probably the smartest thing we did all day. The stage lighting wasn't going to change. So once we had our exposure settings -- ISO, shutter speed, aperture -- all we would have to worry about would be timing.

First we picked an ISO we could live with. ISO 400 was not going to be fast enough for a slow telephoto aperture and ISO 1600 was going to be more noise than we wanted from our Nikon D300. But ISO 800 was just right.

Next we considered the shutter speed. Sure, our lens was image stabilized and could deliver a sharp shot at 1/8 second handheld -- if the subject isn't moving. We wouldn't have to freeze motion. The blurred hand waving in the air would be fine. But we didn't want a blurred face just because someone looked up from their text. So we settled on 1/60 of second after testing 1/30 second.

That left aperture to deliver enough light at ISO 800, which meant around f5.6.


We made two other camera adjustments that were worth the trouble.

The first was to enable Continuous shooting mode. We usually shoot in Single shot mode. Every press of the Shutter button gives you one shot no matter how long you hold it down. But to hedge our timing, we wanted to hold the button and take a few shots in a row.

We were too far away to actually see someone blink in our viewfinder or anticipate a smile, so shooting three or four frames at a time would increase the odds of getting just the right moment.

The second adjustment was to use manual focus. Automatic focus is a boon and relieves us of one task at least so we can concentrate on the action. But at this distance and in the dark, it was hunting too much. So we manually set focus a bit behind the podium and onto the speaker's face. And left it there.

For the walk across the stage, we went back to autofocus, though. One less thing to do.


We shot Raw because we're shooting everything Raw this year. Lightroom makes that feasible in a way that wasn't feasible a few years ago when we would shoot Raw+JPEG and pass the JPEGs along, while working on a few precious Raw captures at our leisure.

Now we can efficiently batch edit the Raws, which gives us more flexibility. And for a once-in-a-lifetime event like this, flexibility is a big plus.

But JPEG certainly works no less well than it ever did, so don't feel obliged, especially if shooting Raw adds to your workflow.

Formal Portraits. A one second exposure to catch the photographer's flash.


As each name was read out, the graduate would walk from stage left to center stage, shake the president's hand and get the empty diploma with the other as the main photographer took the shot with a bounce flash.

Then each grad would walk to the right corner of the stage, pose against a black backdrop and have a fast formal portrait taken with flash.

That happened fast but sometimes the photographer would reposition the grad (they didn't all hit their mark). So we weren't sure when the flash would go off.

We tried getting that shot by simply opening the shutter and letting the distant flash make the exposure. That worked (we got the grad's face exposed by the strobe) but it wasn't pretty (too much ambient light).

In our practice shots we had to leave the shutter open too long using either one second or bulb mode to make sure it was open when the flash fired. And we really didn't have enough time to dial in the shutter speed after the handshake and before the flash went off, which just a couple of seconds.

But it's an idea that might work better for you.


Shooting outside was a different setup entirely. We returned the ISO to something sweet like ISO 200, switched to Aperture Priority mode, picked a sharp aperture and let the shutter adjust. We did that (mostly) in the auditorium as the graduates were leaving.

Those are the fun shots. The grads and their friends pose and in between poses you snag a candid or two. A beloved teacher comes by and you snap that one, too.

We even caught a few shots of the parents and friends taking photos. Nothing makes you feel more like a star than your own paparazzi.

You certainly won't be the only shooter these days. And you may not even be the primary one. Often the most important camera to the subject is the one being held by a classmate or close friend.

So many of our posed shots were taken in a group of two or three photographers. And sometimes, when we weren't in the group but off to the side, we took a shot of the posed group even though they were looking somewhere else and not into our lens. Just a different perspective. And one we like quite a bit, actually.


We've just started editing the 120 images we took. We'll put full resolution JPEGs online for the grad and her friends and family to download. And we may even make a photobook of them for her grandmother.

These days there's no end to the fun.

As we processed the images in our slide show above, we really didn't feel any penalty for shooting Raw and appreciated the latitude it gave us in optimizing the JPEGs. We simply had Lightroom apply its auto adjustment to the images and tweaked from there.

We thought we'd have to hand off a few of these to DxO Optics Pro for noise reduction but Lightroom did a good job at that, too.

The most fun, of course, is cropping. Our crop of the full stage is a panorama. And there's no reason we have to stick to the full frame composition we captured with the camera. A tighter crop for the stage shots (as the slide show demonstrates) improves the composition.

We watched much of the event through our viewfinder simply because we could see more that way than we could with our unaided eye. It was like a telescope. And in editing, we can crop even tighter to see even more than we did at the time.

Talk about fun.


Caitlin ran cross country and she began her talk with something her coach Mr. Rodgers had told the team and that she had never forgotten. The race isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. But at the end of every race, even a marathon, you kick.

She proclaimed the Class of 2014 "a class of kickers." And if she's any indication, they are indeed. It seems to us that the only way you can catch them is with a camera!

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