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Zero Light Photography.

Marius Janse van Rensburg and Bazil Raubach are two of the photographers who covered the all drama productions of this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. We were able to interview Marius in person and consult Bazil through the wonders of modern technology.

PiX: That sounds like a wonderful assignment, how long have you guys been photographing the National Arts Festival? Bazil: I have been personally shooting for the Festival for the last couple of years as an official festival photographer. We supply images for the media office for use in press releases, their blog sites, newspapers and magazine usage. This is my sixth, as a Festival photographer.

Marius: This was my first year. We covered all the productions ranging from comedy, dance to Shakespeare, drama and music.

PiX: Why do you call it Zero Light Photography?

Marius: Well, we attended the live performances and had to make use of the stage lighting and we could not add any light ourselves. Some plays were strongly lit but mostly the lighting was weak; Bazil coined the expression ‘zero light photography» to describe what we were doing. LED stage lights are a particular problem with digital sensors.

PiX: Describe the typical day for the photographers at the festival.

Marius: The first shows start around 9 a.m. and we would start photographing then. Each of us would cover five to seven shows a day with the last shows ending around 10:30 p.m. Generally, there was no time for lunch and we would meet for supper after the last show, after which, we would process the images and download them onto a flash drive.

There would be time for a few hours of sleep, and at breakfast between, 6 and 7 a.m., we would discuss and plan the day ahead. After breakfast, we would deliver the previous day’s images to the media centre and then it would be time for the first shows of the day!

PiX: That sounds hectic. Describe how you would photograph a show; are there unwritten rules?

Marius: Oh yes, it is very important that the photographers do not distract the actors or the audience — you could not even look at your histogram or images on the back of your camera as the light would disturb people. We obviously could not use tripods all the time because they would get in the way of the audience and so, had to make do with monopods. I also carried a cushion, as I would sit on the ground near the stage; it was also useful for holding the camera still. You would shoot from where you were sitting, not being allowed to move around much during a production.

Bazil: Learn the rules and make little or no noise. You must never upset the paying theatre goers or actors and you must arrive early. Speak to the director and stage manager and find out what they will allow. Wear dark clothes and remain inconspicuous. Of course, never use a flash! You have to be completely familiar with your equipment; and read your manual. You will be working in near zero light and things happen very fast. If you don’t instinctively know what to do when you have to change settings on your equipment you will be lost before you start.

Flexibility and initiative are among the tools required to be successful in these situations. Not to mention bloody-mindedness, tenacity, having a thick skin, understanding light and how it falls, and much like fishing, you can’t get every fish in the barrel.

PiX: What equipment did you guys use?

Marius: We both shoot with Nikon; I use the D600 and D7000. Both have excellent performance at high ISO allowing for higher shutter speeds, which we needed, especially for dance. The cameras have relatively quiet shutter action and this was useful so as not to disturb the actors and audience. I used a variety of lenses including 35mm f1.8 and a 50mm F1.8 fixed focal length lenses as well as 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lenses. I found my 70-200mm the most useful as I like to tell the story through the emotion shown by the actors. The most difficult part of any performance for an actor is portraying and living in the moment. To capture that passion would be my ultimate goal and in a way that honours the actor’s performance. The longer focal lengths allowed me to zoom in and capture those peak moments.

Bazil: Nikon D2Xs, D300s, D90 and any lens faster than f2.8. The 50mm f1.4 and 35mm f1.8 are always in my bag. I use Nikon largely because of the Sony sensor and quiet shutter action. Noise in sensitive parts of the performance can upset people on both sides of the stage, and a huge amount of judgement is required. Sometimes you have to lose shots in order to respect actors and patrons. I have personally been using Nikon for almost 30 years and find my cameras an extension of my eye and hands. I also have a Leica M4 film camera with a 35mm f2 Summicron and a 50mm f2, which I have used on occasion.

PiX: What ISO range did you shoot in, and could you use tripods?

Bazil: Depending on the circumstances anything from 500 — 2400 ISO with shutter speeds as low as 1 /14 or as high as 1 /500. In these situations, lights change so fast that it is wise to see a show more than once to understand the light and anticipate the action. We shot handheld, occasionally with a tripod and, of course, a monopod. I have shot at handheld 1/15 sec and had usable images.

Marius: My favourite starting point was ISO 1600. Where necessary, and because I have faith in the high ISO capabilities of my equipment, I have shot up to ISO 6400. The key for me was to get properly exposed sharp images at all times.

PiX: Do you have any tips for anyone wanting to get involved in this genre of photography?

Marius: Apart from always getting the necessary permissions and introducing yourself to the director of the show, as photographer, shoot as you would shoot with film. You need to be able to shoot ‘blind’ in more ways than one. Firstly, learn your camera’s controls and non-menu shortcuts. We’ve all been at the movies where somebody texted on their cellphone and know how disturbing that can be. Imagine now how distracting that could be to the audience at a ballet or intense drama performance ! You should be able to change everything on your camera, from ISO to shutter speed to white balance without having to use the menu system.

Secondly, do not use live view or view your images after you’ve taken them where the audience can be disturbed by the light from your LCD screen. The same principle applies as in the first tip. Thirdly, be aware of the noise your camera makes and try to shoot when the music is loud or when an actor is speaking loudly.

In short, shoot as you are shooting with film and you have one roll available for the show, while bearing in mind that you need to be as quiet as possible.

PiX: Thanks for the informative chat, guys !