Shot during the 2016 Old Spanish Days Fiesta - La Fiesta Pequeña - on the steps of the Old Santa Barbara Mission - of the Spirit of Fiesta Alexis Simentales during her main performance.
Photography is always about choices... you have several variables that you can control (camera controls) which give you creative/artistic leeway in how you present the subject of your photo. Besides the obvious variables such as the frame you choose and when you choose to press the shutter release - you can control where your main point of focus is - if your subject is frozen in time or blurred to give the illusion of movement - and you can choose how much of your subject is in focus including their surroundings.
For her performance on the steps of the Old Mission in Santa Barbara - I knew that I'd be dealing with a fairly difficult shooting situation. This was my 3rd straight year of covering this event - so I went into this performance knowing exactly what to expect. I knew that Alexis was going to dance Flamenco and use a white intricately woven shawl while wearing a pure white lace dress; the dress and color is traditional for the Spirit of Fiesta. I also knew that the lighting would be bright/hot spot lights with large gaps of shady areas - colored lights (yuck!) and the occasional HMI light (which will phase and shift everything green while appearing to make everything look like it has stripes). I also knew that I wanted to capture EVERY detail of her dress and freeze her shawl in time - letting you see every thread. To do so I'd need a very fast shutter speed - 1/2500th of a second or greater.
The first consideration was the lens I chose. I went with the Nikon 300mm f/2.8D AF-S II lens using Nikon's Silent Wave Motor focus system. It's a VERY fast to focus lens. The 300mm prime focal length allowed me to get close to my subject while standing 50-60ft away from her in the wings - off to the side of the stage where non-broadcast media were placed... this performance is televised live each year so the local TV station has several camera crews working in and around the stage. I have to set up behind their work lines - which puts me pretty far away from the action. The fast f/2.8 aperture means that I was able to open the lens up all the way to let as much light in as possible. This allows me to go with a higher shutter speed at a lower ISO. DOF is NOT an issue at this distance with a full-frame (FX is Nikon's designation for Full Frame) sensor camera. Because typically a 300mm lens at f/2.8 would provide inches of focus depth for a close subject - you have to be careful picking a super-telephoto lens with a fast aperture if shooting close objects. But at the distance I was placed from my subject - I had about 3 feet of focus depth. The further away you are from your subject - the more depth of focus you have around them before focus drops off.
The NEXT important decision I made was to limit the ISO range of my camera to nothing greater than 6400 ISO. At 6400 with noise reduction - grain is manageable and sharp detail achievable. I then chose a shutter speed that would create a ONE FULL STOP UNDEREXPOSURE. This - in these lighting conditions - ended up being 1/3200th of a second. 1/3200th of a second was the perfect shutter speed to freeze the movement of her shawl in time and allow the image to display the intricate hand-woven design.
I chose to under expose the image because bright white fabric will blow-out in bright lighting and detail will be lost that I feel is important to the story being told in the image.
By under exposing I ensured that all of the beautiful hand-laid lace work in her dress and every fiber of her shawl would be clearly visible. The Nikon D4s has the best latitude of any DSLR I've ever used. Latitude is the ability to see detail in both the darkest and lightest areas of a frame - the difference between these points being measured in f-stops. Move latitude beyond the tolerances of your camera (or film stock if you are old school and using film) - and you either loose detail in your shadows or in your highlights (or both if you've completely messed your exposure calculations up). I didn't really care too much about the details in the dark mountainside behind her - for visual contrast and establishing the composition of the frame I actually preferred the background to be black or very dark (there is some twilight blue sky visible in some of the photos) - what mattered most to me was keeping the detail in the highlights.
Which brings me to the crux of finding the solution to the variables I face and bridging those variables to accomplish the end result I had set out to accomplish - you need to understand your camera, lens(es), and their limitations. You need to understand exposure and how to calculate an equivalent exposure - that if x shutter speed with y ISO and z aperture gives you the exposure you desire - what happens if you need to change your shutter speed? How do you adjust the other variables to get you the same exposure output as you originally desired? There's a lot of math in photography. It's not at all a bad thing. But I often tell young photographers starting out that it's not the gear you have that makes you a pro - it's knowing how to use the gear you have to get the shot you need (or have been hired to get) every time by making smart choices. Shooting 500 photos and hoping one will be what you need is NOT professional. Shooting 10 photos and all 10 of them being what you need - that's what a pro does. Go out there and take a bunch of photos and figure out what works and doesn't work for you! KNOW up front what you want to capture and then plan for it. That way if you nail it - you KNOW that you nailed it. It wasn't luck or random chance. It was planned for and accomplished. Like with anything in life - once you know the rules and know how something is done - then you can start adjusting things to better fit your personal way of doing things. But if you don't understand the ins and out of what your are doing - how do you know if you've made the best choices to accomplish your goals?
I have over 25 years of experience as a photo journalist & professional photographer. I have a bachelor's degree in film production & cinematography. I am a Nikon Professional Photographer and use Nikon cameras, lenses, and accessories exclusively.