Thursday, January 26, 2017

Back to the Phillips Door: Why Notes Are Important

My friend Rob Frankenberg, the writer and director of The Phillips Door, called me and said, "We'd doing The Phillips Door again in January. We had two actors who couldn't be in it this time, so we have two new actors in the parts."

I had done the cast character shots for Retro Souls Entertainment and Phantom Theater's The Phillips Door back in December (you can view my blog post on it HERE), so I offered to shoot the new cast members the same as I did the others. That way they'd have shots like the rest of the cast and Retro Souls could use them for promotion. There was a rehearsal scheduled for Dare Studios at the end of the week, so I told him to have the titular Phillips Door and the new cast members in costume there that night. I'd swoop in, take the shots as fast as I could, and get out so they could rehearse.

(photo from the first Phillips Door shoot)

 (Aria Cadenza Moon as The Christmas Fairy and Donna Tamraz O'Rourke as a Fate from last year's December production of The Phillips Door)

Even thought the original shoot had been only last month, I needed to refresh my memory on what I did the first time. That's why I take notes of each assignment. I jot down lighting schematics, equipment, and anything I think is pertinent to the shoot to remember in a notebook. I also had written a blog post about the shoot, which came in handy because I had an image mapping out my exact lighting for those original shots.

Even thought I had notes on what I did before, this was going to be a different location than the last shoot. I was using speedlites and a Alien Bees strobe, but ambient light could bleed in and change the overall look of the photo, enough that it wouldn't match the first set if I wasn't careful.

I had that in mind when I set up at Dare Studios before their rehearsal. Rob had the Phillips Door there, propped up against some amps, so I took a few test snaps and compared the back of my camera to the first set that I had on my phone. The original set was shot with a shutter speed of 1/125 sec., but in this new environment had more light, so I decided to up it to 1/200 sec. to make the shots match.

I shot my friend Nicole Oliva first. Nicole is a gifted actress and singer who was taking over the role of the Christmas Fairy from Aria Cadenza Moon. Nicole thrives in these types of roles, so I know she's going to kill it.

Stacy Fox is a friend I've known for a while, and only recently got to see her strut her stuff on the floorboards. She was taking over as one of the Fates from Donna Tamraz O'Rourke. I can't wait to see what she does next in terms of acting.

The only major difference that bothered me was the door. Right after I did the shoot in December the crew of the show put symbols on the door so it wouldn't be plain. If I wanted to I could have used Photoshop to remove the symbols in white, but that was a lot of work and my turnaround on these photos was needed to be quick so they could use them to promote the show.

The photography lesson here is to take notes of your sessions. Sure, I could have backwards engineered what I did the first time, but it was so much easier, and a heck of a lot quicker, to look back at a page of in a notebook.

The January 27th and 28th performances of The Phillips Door at The
AMVETS Building, 660 Hawkins Avenue in Ronkonkoma, New York are on sale now. Support local theater and check it out.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

How I Shot it: The Philips Door

(Luke Vanderputten, menaced by three Fates, Amanda Meyer, Donna Tamraz O'Rourke, and Kat Astrophix )

Long Island has a thriving live entertainment community, be it in big theaters with local talent or small intimate musical performed in the basements of homes for music lovers. Retro Souls' Phantom Theater is one such local group putting on original live plays. This month, they are bringing back The Philips Door, which was first performed in 2015, for a Christmas run on .

Since I'm friends with Rob Frankenberg, the writer and director of Philips Door, I offered my services to take character shots of the actors in full costume and makeup to promote the show, much like I did for the Newsday shoot for the recent Killer Subjects play Retro Souls put on. The catch was the only time we could get all the actors together in full wardrobe and greasepaint was for about 10-15 minutes before a rehearsal after 10pm. That would leave me with very little time to set up, get the job done, and get the heck out so not to be in the way of their rehearsal.

Challenge accepted.

Aria Cadenza Moon as a fairy. 


I'm a firm believer in having a plan in place before I arrive at a shoot. For this shoot, I knew I would have very little time with the actors and I'd have to get my gear on stage and off quickly so they could rehearse. Rehearsal is a sacred time for actors and directors, and I didn't want to be a nuisance for any longer than I had to be.

I remembered from last year's staging of the play that the titular door was on the right side of the stage. Since they were performing it at Tribal Dance's Studio A again, the door would also be right next to a large dance mirror on the studio wall. I had little room for lights, and I had to be aware of the bounce from the mirror. Also, the play is a surreal dream like dark fantasy, with walking dead, demons, and the personification of death. I needed to make it look otherworldly if I was going to pull this off.

I decided on three lights. First was a Canon 430 EXII speedlite with a red gel pointed up at the door, which would be covered by the actor's body. No modifiers. This helped to separate the actors from the background and make the door look ominous.

Next, I wanted a bit of blue in the shot, to give a cooling color to the actors. I decided to put another 430 EXII speedlite in a 60x90 cm square soft box and positioned it on the right side. I wanted a little hardness to the light so I didn't put the diffuser on, but instead put the honey comb grid on to focus the light. I decided I was going to put it with its back against the mirror, and feather it so it didn't hit the door (the grid really helped with that).

My key light would be a 47 inch Godox umbrella octagon softbox, with its honeycomb grid on. Inside was my Alien Bees 800 strobe. I didn't want the key to bleed onto the red background or kill the blue light. I also didn't want a huge bounce coming from the mirror. So I decided to feather this one too, so the edge lit the actors and not kill my other two lights.

A crude drawing of my lighting setup that I had in my head.

The other good thing about using the Godox umbrella softbox is the ease in setting up and breaking down. My old softbox had a speed ring that attached the box to the Alien Bees, and had to be assembled each time you used it by inserting rods into the softbox. This took time and could be unwieldy. The Godox just opens up like any umbrella, and is easy to use. Since I had to be a ninja when setting up and leaving, this was the best choice. Also, using the two speedlites meant I didn't have extra cords to trip over and they could be moved with ease. Each strobe and speedlite would have a Phottix Odin trigger so I could remotely set the lights off from my camera.

That was the plan, but I didn't know what would change once I got there, so I had to be flexible and I was ready to change it if the need arose.

Calixta Starr as DEATH.


I got to the studio early. As Rob and Luke John Vanderputten (who is also the star) put together the set for rehearsal,  and Aidan P. Finnegan put together the audio for the full run through, the actors got into costume and makeup. I went to one side of the room and set up my light stands and lights, so they'd be ready to move into place as soon as I got the okay. I was set up in twenty minutes, and I waited for them to be ready for me.

The Shoot

Once I got the okay, I moved my lights quickly into place and grabbed an actor. Since Philip Martinez, in his undead makeup, was the closest, he got to be my guinea pig. I had set my lights to where I thought they needed to start for the settings I wanted to use ( 1/125th of a second, f/3.2 and ISO 250). The first shot showed me that my key was too powerful, so I brought it way down. The second shot was what I wanted. Perfect.

First shot, the key light is too bright and is killing my blue gel, as well as cutting down my red background gel.

Second shot after dialing down my key light, and it's exactly where I want it.

One by one I grabbed the actors and put them in front of my camera. I told each one, if they didn't fall into it naturally, to get into character. Each one gave me what I wanted and they needed only a minimum of direction. I took a few duo and group shots, and then I was done.

I thanked the cast and crew, pulled my gear to the side and started breaking down while they went ahead with rehearsal.



I left them to rehearse and drove home. As soon as I walked in the door I turned on my computer and backed up the files I had shot. I imported them into Lightroom, and for the most part I didn't have to do anything except bring up the clarity a bit. I outputted them, uploaded them to my site, and sent Robert the link so he had them to post in the morning. I was done by 1am in the morning.

End Thoughts

I'm very thankful that my planning panned out, and I got the eerie feeling that I wanted to in the images. Still, I never stayed married to a particular plan. I was ready to change at a moment's notice if the need came up. If I had walked in there with no plan, I would have wasted time setting up and trying to figure out everything right then and there.

I want to thank Phantom Theater, and the cast and crew of Philips Door for letting me into their rehearsal and letting me photograph them.

Performances on 12/3, 12/4, and 12/10 at Tribal Dance Long Island in Northport New York. Go to for tickets and more information.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Neon Knights at 89 North Oct. 22 2016

I love photographing at local music venues. There's something about the energy and passion of a right-in-your-backyard band playing at a home club that can't be beat. I also have an affection for tribute bands, who put their love of a band or artist on stage for fans.

Neon Knights (The Epic Tribute to Dio) is a band I love to watch, but I hadn't until recently photographed any of their shows. When they played 89 North Music Venue as part of a Club Load event in October I decided to rectify that situation. I contact Micheal Power, the lead singer, and got the band's OK to shoot the show. I'm very glad I did, because it was a wonder set, and I loved the images I was able to snap. As a fan of Dio's career, from Rainbow to Black Sabbath to his own solo work, I got thrill seeing his music performed by a band who clearly have a love of his work. The crowd loved the show, and I think Dio would have approved of this tribute.

Below is a sampling of images from the October 22nd night's show, and the full gallery is located HERE. And don't forget that Neon Knights has a gig at Revolution in Amityville on December 3rd.