Helpful Hummingbird

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Photo Log / Photography / Wildlife

Sunday, April 29, 2018. It was an overcast Sunday morning. The echium were in bloom and the hummingbirds were ecstatic about the easy pickins. The low clouds softened the light enough to reduce contrast while still letting the colors glow. A perfect time to try out my new 200-500mm lens.

One particular breakfasting bird was darting from flower to flower on an echium branch that was set before a deep shadow cast by a nearby oak. Ahhhh . . . she was moving too fast for me to follow, frame, and focus. Click. Missed. Click. Missed. Again and again. I was tiring from hand-holding seven pounds of camera and lens (I’d already been muscling this optical beast for 45 minutes) and was just about to give up when she disappeared.

A moment later I heard a buzz behind me. I turned and there she was, hovering just above head height about six feet away. Watching me.

We locked onto each other and held our gaze long enough to be in sync before she flew a wide, slow circle back to her echium stalk and held her position against the dark background long enough for me to compose and focus. One. Two. Three. Four. Five shots. Then she turned toward me as if to say, “Got it?” I whispered, “Thank you,” and she resumed her floral buffet. Here’s the best of the five.

(Nikon D500, Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR zoom.)

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Happy Hunting Harrier

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Photo Log / Photography / Wildlife

Thanksgiving morning. November 22, 2018. On the first morning of clear air after the smoke from the recent Northern California fire washed away in very welcome rain, my wife and I took a walk by the marshes at the south end of the San Francisco Bay. As we discussed our immediately upcoming Thanksgiving chef duties, I tracked this Northern Harrier hunting for her own Thanksgiving meal. This series was shot over the course of about seven seconds. Harrier ended up happy. Photographer too. (Nikon D500, Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR zoom.)

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Performance Photography

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Performance Photography / Photo Log / Photography

Recently my wife and I went to see Cirque du Soleil’s Volta in San Francisco. Cirque du Soleil has become an annual tradition for us and every year they manage to jump over the bar they raised for themselves the previous year.

Somewhat surprisingly they allow (non-flash) photography from the audience. They won’t allow a full DSLR, but a good pocket camera like a Sony RX100 or a Canon G7 X Mark II will pass muster. The past two years, we’ve gotten what I consider the best seats in the house: exactly center stage, first or second row in the second section—a perfect vantage point for photography.

All that said, I went to enjoy the show. That was my main mission. Nonetheless, there were some shots I just couldn’t resist—like this one:

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Yes, this amazing dancer/aerialist was suspended by her hair. I had no idea this was even possible. Turns out it’s a rare specialty and has been for a long time. It takes years of practice and training and the results are astonishing. This dancer’s name is Danila Bim.Look her up. And if you can, go see Volta.

What Makes a Great Performance Shot?

Going through the Volta shots got me to thinking more broadly about what makes a great performance shot. I’ve been reading what other performance photographers have said in various blogs and the advice they give is all technical: it’s all about lenses and focal lengths and apertures, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity. All good, necessary stuff—but I think all this technical advice misses an important mark:

A performance photographer must develop the ability to see the performance as it is happening and capture the fleeting moments of the show as they occur.

For many years I’ve been doing performance photography for a theater group in the Greater Sacramento area called El Dorado Musical Theatre (known locally as EDMT) and all that practice has resulted in my isolating three factors that are vital in photographically communicating the essence of any show:

Feature the characters as characters. The actors and directors work hard to bring their characters to life and their aliveness brings vitality to the show. If the photographs themselves do not capture and radiate life, then all the rest is for naught.

Show the motion as motion. Any theater—but especially musical theater—is dynamic. Actors move, dance, interact. Action must explode from the images.

Display the spectacle as spectacle. A big part of the magic of theater is the sets, the lighting, costumes, makeup, special effects, and the dance formations. All of this is to make the audience go, “wow!” So should the viewer.

It comes down to one basic thing: show the show.

Again, here’s the one point that all the advice I’ve read seems to have overlooked: in order to show the show, the performance photographer must—above all—be in the moment and watchthe show as it’s happening. All of photos below were shot during the only dress rehearsal for each show, the afternoon and evening before opening night. I only had one crack at it. I had to get it right the first time, because there really was no second chance.

One more thing: Each image has to stand on its own as a great photo. The whole purpose of professional performance photography is to promote the show and the theater company so that people will want to buy tickets. If the image doesn’t instantly grab the viewer, what’s the point?

Show the Whole Show

These three shots—all from 42ndStreet—exemplify much of what I’m talking about. They each have all three factors—Character, Motion, and Spectacle—to varying degrees.

This shot happened in the first few seconds of the show. As the curtain rises, a dance number is in progress and forty dancin’ feet are doin’ their stuff. The curtain goes up to waist-high and then pauses for a few seconds so all you can see are those talented, active feet tapping away. And right then, that’s all you need to know. This is show business!

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Toward the end of the show there is a big production number. It is all about motion and spectacle. There are scores of opportunities for great shots, but some are better than others. Here’s where character, motion, and spectacle all came together in a perfect composition. This dip lasted about one second. Then they danced on.

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Before this happy ending, there’s a point in the story where it seems like total disaster is inevitable. All will be lost. A total bust. The main character stands all alone on the stage in utter frustration and despair. He is standing in the spotlight, not in triumph, but defeat: What. The. Hell? Then the spotlight fades and he’s gone.

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Character

Any show is about characters. Characters are people. They’re alive. They have feelings. They interact with others. Characters tell the story and carry the audience with them through all the action and emotion and spectacle that provide the payoff in any production.

The guy screaming into the phone is a relatively minor character in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He’s a Junior Junior Deputy Assistant Nobody who wants desperately to be an Executive Somebody—but he’s really only there by the dubious graces of nepotism—and things are going very badly for him.

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Not all characters are people. Here’s a scarecrow in search of a brain. But of course, we know he already has the biggest brain in all of Oz. It shows here—along with top-notch costuming and makeup.

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On the other hand, Thoroughly Modern Milly has a brain. She also has a heart—and it has just been broken. After being jilted, she runs to her door and begins to close it as the lights are already starting to fade. I had less than a second to catch this crushed expression before the stage went dark.

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On the brighter side, a triumphant Peter Pan has just vanquished the evil Captain Hook. Character and Spectacle—and amazing color abound in a composition that flaunts Peter’s position as King of the Mountain. It also flaunts the theater company’s exceptional production values.

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In A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Past gives Scrooge a history lesson. The book is illuminating—but as we know, it’s going to take two more ghostly visits for the old grouch to completely get his redemption. Still, it’s apparent that the lesson is starting to make an impact:

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Motion and Spectacle

These photos still feature characters and motion, but the emphasis shifts to the Wow factor.

What’s Singin’ in the Rain without some rain to sing in?

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Later in the same performance is a dance number that gives the main character a unique perspective—for a split second. Knowing the characters and knowing that this number comes at a key point in the story, all I had to do is watch for a moment that I knew would arrive.

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Beauty and the Beast. Spoiler alert: Beast gets girl. Or is it girl gets beast? Whatever—they both seem happy. Here’s where character, costume, makeup, motion, and set design all merge into a spectacle shot in a classic composition. Watch the dance and follow until the dip lines up with all the diagonals in the set for one whole second and there’s the shot.

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And speaking of sets, this was the opening scene in The Music Man. Spectacular. But still, the set alone is only a set. It’s a matter of watching and waiting till all the characters are in a perfect position for the picture to tell its own story.

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Finally, here’s Peter Pan taking a flying bow. Character, Motion, and Spectacle—and how. (I’m not above removing the cables for dramatic effect.)

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Nuts and Bolts

Here’s the technical stuff, for those who are interested. For all this talk on other web sites about lenses and focal lengths and apertures, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity, my technical advice might come as a bit of a disappointment. The EDMT photos were shot with Canon and Nikon DSLRs. The earliest with a Canon 7D and the later ones with Nikon D750 and D500 bodies. Lenses were all wide-to-telephoto zooms. Purists will scoff at my lens choice as sub-par and very unprofessional. They’ll tell you that zooms such as these are fraught with optical compromises. And they’re right. On the other hand, their flexibility allows me to cover an entire fast-moving show with one body/lens combo and I don’t miss shots while fumbling with multiple cameras and lenses. I consider that a good tradeoff.

Another reason I don’t miss shots is that I mostly shoot aperture-preferred auto—usually one stop down from wide open—with ISO sensitivity set to auto. Some motion shots are done shutter-preferred at slow shutter speeds, down to about 1/15 sec to get the swirl and blur. I switch back-and-forth between spot and matrix metering depending on the scene. Auto ISO means that I frequently get up into scary-high-oh-my-God-that’s-noisy ISO numbers, like 12,500. But the Nikons handle high ISOs quite well—and in post processing, DxO PhotoLab Elite’s Prime noise reduction does a remarkable job killing noise without damaging detail.

All this allows me to put 95% of my attention on watching the performance as it happens so I can catch the magic and life and show the show.

Sundown in Smoke

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Photo Log / Photography

Had today been a normal day, the sun would have set exactly mid-span of the Golden Gate Bridge as viewed from the North Berkeley Hills. Today was not a normal day. Today—because of the fire that destroyed most of city of Paradise—Northern California has the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality in the entire world. Still, as I said in an email to family members, we’re all alive and our homes are intact.

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Sun sets through the smoke from the Camp fire in Northern California. This photograph was taken from the North Berkeley Hills. ©2018 Michael Scandling

A Simple Line

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Inspiration / Photography

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March 7, 1982. Point Lobos, California coast. My wife and I were out for a glorious day of photography back in the day when you could still get into the Point Lobos preserve on a Sunday without tripping over sixteen other people in as many square feet. (I’m reminded of something Yogi Berra supposedly said about a restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”)

I went back to the car to change film and while taking a quiet moment I noticed the reflection of the door frame in the side-view mirror. I opened the lens all the way to f/1.8, focused on the glint of sun on the chrome trim, and on the last exposure of the roll I made my first deliberately abstract photo.

You see the image above. It is what it is, but that’s not the point.

What struck me immediately was the sharp line against amorphous color. Just enough form for definition—an anchor—but not too much. The rest of the image contrasts by lack of definition. It’s easy to overthink this and get all yin/yang and form-and-void about it. Or you can just enjoy it. I chose the latter.

This is close to the ultimate:

Moving Forward

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Photography

My fine art photography website, amagaphoto.com, has been growing for a while and will be open for business soon. Check it out and you’ll see that it’s long on images and short on words. I’m of a mind that individual works should speak for themselves — any commentary I might make would limit your own view. You have a right to see, or not, what you want.

Yet I — as a photographer, artist, and individual — still want a voice and a place to show my other photography. So here I am.

Artist’s Statements

I’m not a fan of artist’s statements. Most of the ones I’ve read tend to be formulaic and impenetrable. If they are intended to illuminate, the light is all too often dim and casts ambiguous shadows. On the other hand, I won’t deny myself an occasional philosophical signpost.

Simplicity

The About page on my site says it well enough: I like simplicity. I always have. This is reflected in my taste in just about everything.

In my teens, I lusted after the 1965 Lotus Elan. It was small, light, and fast. And it was very simple in both styling and mechanical design. Lotus ElanIts creator, Colin Chapman, was famous for a statement that was at once a philosophy and a strict direction to his engineers: “simplicate and add lightness.” The statement was borrowed from its originator, William Bushnell Stout, who designed the airplane that eventually became the Ford Tri-Motor in 1925. Frustrated with his engineers’ unrelenting drive to complicate designs and add weight — which you definitely don’t want to do with an airplane — Ford_Trimotor_Crophe admonished them to do the opposite: simplicate and add lightness. I loved it. But that only nourished a seed that had been planted five years earlier.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to advertising. Already on the alert for clever ads, a defining moment came in 1960 as I turned a page in the New Yorker to see the Volkswagen “Lemon” ad. Two things struck me simultaneously: the utter simplicity of the layout and copy, and the irony of VW calling its own product a lemon. To make such an impact with one black and white photo and a few words of copy blew my nine-year-old mind and put my feet on the path to simplicity in expression.

Classic Chinese and Japanese ink drawings, Picasso’s line drawings (and John Lennon’s too), JMW Turner’s later works, Monet, Georgia O’Keefe, Mark Rothko, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and on. . .

. . . and on.