March 12, 2012

Sulaymaniyah International Theatre Festival


Last week, we had the opportunity to enjoy an international theatre festival, where groups from different European countries performed in locations throughout the city of Sulaymaniyah. It was a first for Iraq.

One of the festival sponsors hired me to cover some of the performances, which was a new challenge for me. I haven’t done much work with events, and my only previous experience photographing events was my sister’s wedding (2009) and a Preemptive Love campaign (2010).

The brief from my clients was: to capture as much of the performances as I could during the assigned hours, and to produce pictures to be used for archiving purposes and promoting their sponsorship on their website and social media. Nothing fancy, like magazine or press coverage. I wasn’t given details about the aesthetic they were going for, or a shot list. What that means for a photographer, is that it was basically up to me to be art director on the field. To add a bit more of a challenge, I was contacted only 24 hours before my assignment, so there was not much time to figure things out.
(Tip: When things like this happen to you–little communication or artistic guidelines–do your own research. Try to understand the kind of photography that pros create in events such as this. In my case, I had the benefit of looking to the work of other photographers who had covered similar events in the past.)

This is the gear that I expected to use, and what went well:

  • I prepared two Nikon D700’s, because of their good ISO capabilities. I knew I was going to be working in dark places and shutter speed was going to be an issue. (Note: It so great to use two of the same type of camera on an assignment. I was able to ’sync’ all the menus with the CF card in less than a minute and it’s always great to change the same buttons with no difference in response. In the past I have done assignments with two different bodies and it can become an issue sometimes.)
  • I prepared two main lenses that I used the whole week. A 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 and a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8. The exception was during a presentation inside of a very old and traditional tea house in Sulaymaniyah. There I used a wide angle lens and a 50mm ƒ/1.4.
  • I also had to use a speedlight for a party that was part of the closing ceremony. (Note: A monopod would have helped me a lot, but I did not have one with me.)

Situations I didn’t expect, and were a problem:

  • The first day the 70-200mm lens sucked a lot of juice from my grip, and I didn’t have spare batteries with me. I switched grips with the camera/24-70mm combo and survived the day. Uff. After that I had plenty of spare batteries with me 😉 -For the first performance I tried shooting in Aperture Priority mode. Wrong! My exposures were all over the place and it was difficult to relax and focus on composition. I switched to Manual mode, and was fine again. Once I established the proper ISO and shutter speed I was able to work better and concentrate more on what was happening with the artists.
  • In some presentations, I was restricted from moving around, and I had to remain sitting. The good thing is that I arrived early enough to pick a good spot. Then I used breaks to move to other locations. (Tip: I was paid by the hour, so I was called just in time for performances. That can be a problem for logistics. So you have two options here: they can pay you for extra time to set up before the event, or just go with the flow and do what you can and know that you might not be creating portfolio-quality work.)

Things I learned, photographically speaking:

  1. In performances or events where you cannot ‘pose’ or direct your subjects, it’s all about timing and capturing ‘gestures’ or moments. Every performance has its peaks, and if you can capture those moments you will be successful. It’s very hard if you only have one chance, but achievable.
  2. To capture these moments, you have to ‘lock’ your system (exposure + focus) and then concentrate on what’s happening on the stage. Don’t take your eye from the viewfinder, especially with a long zoom.
  3. If you can move around, don’t do it too much. Pick 2-3 spots, and then try to stay in those locations while the action is happening.
  4. Capture the faces of the actors. There’s nothing like a good gesture to graphically show a moment. Pay attention to hands, body language and expression. They’re very important.
  5. When you are photographing a group of dancers, try to find patterns and symmetry. It looks great when you capture the whole group doing the same thing, making one movement.

A last comment on the assignment: After the first couple performances, I was a bit disappointed with myself. I thought I was making images that were okay, but I wasn’t leaving any ‘mark’ that said that I was the one taking those shots. I know it can be quite difficult in jobs such as this, where you need to cover an event, and you can’t arrange things or interact with your subject. If you relax, slow down, breathe deeply and take all the images that are required by your clients, then there is usually space/time/room for you to experiment, and do your own thing. Enjoy the assignment, don’t let doubts steal the moment. You will find space for your own style. In the end I won’t be using these images for my portfolio but I will enjoy them, with all the incredible people I was shooting, and especially the ones that hired me. Their response to my work is key and they’re quite happy. That’s what is important at the end of the day, because it means my telephone will keep ringing for other jobs.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Feel free to leave me a comment.


Phillipsmrds 17:38 March 12, 2012 Reply
Felicitaciones, Heber. Your work is exraordinary.
Urban 23:42 March 14, 2012 Reply
Great work! Love the pictures and your comments around the assignment. Do some event photography myself and can relate to your experiences. 
-B 20:34 March 15, 2012 Reply
Really informative insights.  Thanks.
Heber Vega 14:23 March 19, 2012 Reply
Thanks for all the comments. Much appreciate it!
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