As an event photographer who has worked with lots of different stages, I’ve become quite comfortable working in low light environments. ISO 1600 and even ISO 3200 are my friends and I’ve become quite comfortable with them. The best of stages I’ve worked are lit up in a way that lets a me shoot at 1/250th at f/4.0 or even f/5.6 at ISO 1600. That’s nirvana. On the other hand, sometimes I walk into an event where even the most capable hardware can’t really save the day. Even my D700s can be left gasping for photons to work with to produce a compelling image.

The 2009 Tools of Change for Publishing Conference this last week in New York was such an event. When I walked in on Tuesday morning and checked out the stage lighting, I was greeted with a single hot spot on the podium that was barely suitable for working with. Right there, I could eek out an exposure of 1/100th at f/2.8 at ISO 1600 or ISO 2000. The rest of the stage was an uneven hodgepodge of light that varied down from there by three stops or so. The middle of the stage was a land where even ISO 3200 wouldn’t save me. Even where there were enough photons, they weren’t the kind that would make for good photos. Yes, I’ve got the ability to work at ISO 6400 with the D700s, but I don’t really like to go that far for images that will be used later in print.

The solution is to light up the stage with my own lights in a way that looks like normal stage lighting and which doesn’t seem to bother speakers (much). I set up two Nikon SB-900s on stands up in the balcony and used my trusty Pocket Wizards to trigger them. To illustrate the setup (well, one of the setups I used), I took this photograph from behind the stage during Tim O’Reilly’s keynote. From here, you can see the house lights setup on simple T-bars on the balcony as well as my strobes.

Note how I’ve tucked my lights near the lights that are already up. This helps stealth away the flashes a bit for both the speakers and the audience. Sure, flashes are going off, but when the source is already coming from a bright area, it does tend to reduce their impact. The thing that was most interesting to me as I annotated this image was how much more light my stage right SB-900 was generating at 1/4 power than the three house light fixtures that were sitting right next to it. Just compare the strength of the shadows to see the difference.

Why did I use 1/4 power? There are actually two reasons. First, I want to be able to have a decent recycle time if I need to burst a sequence of shots. The second is that I’ve found that if I go to 1/2 power or above, speakers tend to notice the flashes going off a lot more. Even though I’ve got a job to do, I don’t want to distract the speakers any more than I have to. So, when I add my own light, I tend to only push enough to get to a decent exposure at ISO 1600 and leverage the rest of the available light as best I can. If I had more strobe units with me, I’d drop them down to 1/8 power or less to accomplish the results I want while further improving recycle time.

The bias of the lights towards stage right in this particular setup was intentional as well. During the breakout sessions, this room was divided in two and the setup allowed me to work shots in the north side of the ballroom with my lights. You can just see the centerline air wall track to the left of my strobe in the photograph above. Also, the strong bias to stage right let me play with contrast back and forth. For example, here are two shots of Cory Doctorow taken from opposite sides:

    

As you can see, from stage left, I could get a nice sliver of light on a speaker. From stage right, I could get a more frontally lit view of the speakers. I couldn’t easily run up to the balcony and change my power levels to get different looks during a session, but at least I could shift my shooting position to do so.

I should note that I did shift up my lighting arrangement a couple of times during the event between blocks of speakers. For the most part, I used the lighting setup shown above. At one point, however, I had a light set up to stage left to work with some rim lighting effects, such as with these photos of Sara Lloyd and Jason Fried.

    

In an ideal world—or at least an ideal kit, as in an ideal world the stage lighting would always be sufficient—I’d have a few more lights setup from a few more angles and be able to control their output from my shooting position. Pocket Wizards are great, but they only transmit sync and can’t carry Nikon CLS signaling (or the Canon equivalent) which relies on line-of-sight pre flashes. I need to get my mitts on a set of Radio Poppers in the near future and see what they let me do with CLS over radio. (Psst, hey Radio Popper guys! If you see this and want to see how your new gear works in a big-room multi-strobe setup, I’d love to do a test drive. Drop me a line! I’ll have more setups like this to do this year and am looking for solutions that scale up to 6 or 8 strobes in 3 groups.)

All in all, I’m pretty happy with being able to light up an event like this. It’s not as pretty as some of the fully lit stages I’ve worked on with sophisticated layered lighting, but it does do the trick in a pinch. To see the results from this lighting setup, you can check out the full set of photographs from TOC 2009 on my Zenfolio site.