At Fanboy Expo as Guest...and Event Photographer?

by Tom Nguyen in ,


Last weekend I was in Knoxville for their Fanboy Expo pop culture celebration. This was their second show, the first one being back in October 2012 when I was one of the invited comic book artist guests.  

For this second show appearance, however, things would prove interesting as I would be pulling double-duty: not only was I invited back as a guest artist who would greet fans and sign autographs, but I was also asked to be the official show photographer.

As the Fanboy Expo photographer, my main duty was to do the scheduled photo ops throughout the weekend with their celebrity guests.  How this works is that there will be certain times where fans will have the opportunity to take a professional picture with the celebrity.  For instance, WWE Hall of Famer Jerry "The King" Lawler was the show's first photo op at 1:45pm on Friday.  Fans would line up in my area (where I set up the lighting--read on for more details), and have their money ready to pay for the photo and chance to meet the celebrity.  I, with the help of my lovely assistant Tanya, would then print out the photos on-site so that the fans can take it home with them to show off to their friends.

When I got to the two-level venue, my job was to quickly scout/assess the area I was assigned to, and then set up the lighting equipment.  Since the show opened at noon Friday, and Jerry Lawler's photo op was scheduled at 1:45, I actually didn't have a lot of time to set up considering I had to drop off artwork and display prints at my own guest artist table.  

After dropping off my junk and scurrying upstairs, I was met with a long narrow space in an industrial setting.  Greeting me at my assigned corner were also two equipment bags full of surprises and two continuous light softboxes on the ground, left there by one of the show organizers in case I needed them (I had brought my own lighting equipment as well). 

 

The black duffel bag and backpack on the right are actually mine, containing my own gear.

The black duffel bag and backpack on the right are actually mine, containing my own gear.

Inside the one blue bag was a 3-backdrop system (white, black, and green colors), and inside the skinny black bag other were some tripods.  So it was reasonably expected of me to figure out and use the show's equipment.  To make matters a little more complicated, a brand new printer was dropped off in my area--brand new in unopened box--and I had to figure out how to put it together and establish a workflow for printing with the photo ops.  At this point I had only one hour left until the first op, and I simply cannot ask for extra time or make any celebrity guest wait on me.  As a professional photographer, when you're on location, you're expected to be a problem solver and just make things happen in case an unexpected problem comes up.

At first I took a look inside the backdrop bag.  For a moment I thought I could use one of the backdrops, perhaps even the green one for greenscreen/Photoshop purposes later if I wanted.  Then I tried to mess with its support legs to try and figure out how it is supposed to be assembled.  With the clock ticking and after being perplexed at how to put this huge thing together, I gave up and opted to work with the environment as the backdrop.  I felt that there were significant advantages to this decision:  

1. The deep industrial look of the building provided a great opportunity to give a more cinematic vibe to the photos

2.  Having a background gives me something to blur.  This helps gives depth and adds to the cinematic effect; it also helps to make the photo appear more unique and "professional" to the average layperson.  And let's face it--overused or not, clients love blurry backgrounds for portraits.

3. No set-up or breaking down, and no chance of people knocking it over or getting any backdrop cloth dirty.

 

The vast scene in front of me...plus a focus test shot with a light stand as my model!  Now, how to make this area look interesting?

The vast scene in front of me...plus a focus test shot with a light stand as my model!  Now, how to make this area look interesting?

I immediately knew the lighting for the look I wanted to convey: At least a key light off-camera, maybe a fill, and rim lighting in the back (both sides).  So here I quickly roughed out my light stand layout.

I immediately knew the lighting for the look I wanted to convey: At least a key light off-camera, maybe a fill, and rim lighting in the back (both sides).  So here I quickly roughed out my light stand layout.

Then I fiddled with the two continuous light softboxes, thinking that if I used them, then I wouldn't have to worry about using my Cybersync radio triggers, sync speeds, recycling issues, mis- or non-firing issues, etc.  I got the softbox lights to work, but they each had different color temperatures, and I'd have to jack up my ISO a bit to get a nice, bright exposure, not to mention I wasn't too thrilled with the background color for the shots.  Also, I was restricted to the lights' power cord lengths, and there wasn't enough slack from the wall outlet to one of the lights had I wanted to do a classic key light/fill light setup.  I just didn't want to risk anyone potentially tripping over the cord.

 

Continuous lighting, Key Light on left and Fill Light on right?

Continuous lighting, Key Light on left and Fill Light on right?

I eventually decided against using the provided lights, and used my own setup (hey, I brought them anyways, might as well use them!).

From my vantage point, the main light will be my trusty speedlight in a shoot-through umbrella, camera-left.

From my vantage point, the main light will be my trusty speedlight in a shoot-through umbrella, camera-left.

A different view from behind where the subject would be.  I used only one softbox (continuous light) for fill at low power; the other is up for show to make it look more high-production than it really was :P

A different view from behind where the subject would be.  I used only one softbox (continuous light) for fill at low power; the other is up for show to make it look more high-production than it really was :P

And here is a diagram of my lighting and settings used: 

The subjects would be instructed to stand between the middle two light stands as a guide. I didn't have gaff tape on me (lesson for next time); besides, more light stands = illusion of more production value :)

The subjects would be instructed to stand between the middle two light stands as a guide. I didn't have gaff tape on me (lesson for next time); besides, more light stands = illusion of more production value :)

I will explain in more detail why I chose these settings and the reason for the CTO gel on the main light in a moment.  

For my gear, my camera was the Olympus OMD-EM5 (with battery grip attached for show hehe) with the Olympus E-PL5 as backup in case I needed it.  Not that I worried; the OMD was generally the photo op camera while the E-PL5 became my point-n-shoot/reportage camera to capture various scenes over the weekend.   

Because I wanted the low depth-of-field background separation, I had a few choices on me:
-Panasonic-Leica 25mm f/1.4 (50mm equivalent view in 35mm terms)
-m.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 (90mm equivalent)
-m.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 (150mm equivalent)

I eventually settled on the 45mm lens for the distance/area I was restricted to--it was just right in that I wasn't too close nor too far from the subject.  As an aside, I still feel this is a must-have "budget prime" lens for any micro-4/3rds shooter.  It's relatively inexpensive, sharp, and tiny!!!!!  I always carry it in my pocket when I'm out and about, no joke.

As I'm on the road a fair bit and do a lot of location-shooting, I'm a huge proponent of strobist techniques.  Sure I have worked with real strobes before, and they would sure look fancier for a photo opportunity like this, but then I'd have to deal with figuring out how to bring them with me or if I had to rent them, etc.  This is where speedlights shine.  So what am I packing?  

-Olympus FL50R--awesome power and build; I dropped it on concrete twice with the batteries flying out and everything, and it still works like a champ.  It better, I paid dearly for it!  I'd pick up another 1 or 2 of these if they weren't so expensive (see Yongnuo next)!
-2 Yongnuo YN560s-- for pure manual, it's best bang-for-the-buck.  So cheap that they're practically expendable.  Powerful with quick recycle times, too.  Best part?  Quad sync!!
-1 Yongnuo YN460 II and 1 Vivitar 285HV-- for cheap backup.
That's it!  Of course I had tons of extra rechargeable batteries on me (for the lights and the cameras) just in case, but never needed to rely on any of them.  Good to know.

 

 

Left: E-PL5 with the Panasonic 45-200mm zoom for grab shots far away from me.  Right: the OMD with battery grip, 45mm prime, and Cybersync transmitter.

Left: E-PL5 with the Panasonic 45-200mm zoom for grab shots far away from me.  Right: the OMD with battery grip, 45mm prime, and Cybersync transmitter.

For a funny moment I even entertained doing a makeshift boom for an overhead light; it did not work LOL

For a funny moment I even entertained doing a makeshift boom for an overhead light; it did not work LOL

Oh, yes...test shots!  Now that the lighting was fairly set up, I just had to fine-tune the angles and settings with the clock ticking away.   

Wanting to give a dramatic look, my strategy was to first dim the background as much as I could in-camera.  This meant maxing out the camera's sync speed at 1/250th second, and using the lowest native ISO (which is 200 on my camera).  With the time ticking and no test model around, I was freaking out and had to use my ugly self:

My first try was with the E-PL5 using the handy flip screen thing with the 14mm wide angle pancake lens. 1/200 second, ISO 200, aperture f/2.5

My first try was with the E-PL5 using the handy flip screen thing with the 14mm wide angle pancake lens.
1/200 second, ISO 200, aperture f/2.5

At this time I thought maybe I should try to use the camera that will actually be put in use (the OMD with the 45mm).  The background darkness was about right; I needed to jack up more power on the key light (obviously) and turn on the rear lights.  I also wanted to add a blue tint to the scene (because it will look awesome-r than what is seen), so I lowered the color temperature in the camera (the incandescent "light bulb" symbol).  Oh yeah, since I won't even be able to get my whole face in the shot with the 45mm prime, I activated the handy face/eye recognition in the OMD (worked like a charm--left it on the entire weekend):

 

Next test: left on auto color temperature, rear rim lights turned on.

Next test: left on auto color temperature, rear rim lights turned on.

Color temperature now lowered to create blue tint.  1/250 second, ISO 200, 45mm f/2.0

Color temperature now lowered to create blue tint. 
1/250 second, ISO 200, 45mm f/2.0

Now since turning down the color temperature in the camera tints everything to a blue-ish cast, I had to gel my main light (the one hitting the subject) with a CTO (orange) to bring the skin tones back towards neutral.  That's also why I chose to use the warm-colored softbox (remember, the other was cool-colored) for fill light--to help with matching the neutralization on the other side of the subject.  Using the cool softbox light would result in a clashing of skin tone colors--not good!  I didn't care about the rear edge-lights, however.  They can keep their white-bluish tone.

Remember what I said about the brand new printer that was still in the box? Well gracious show volunteer Kary walked by and I grabbed him to help me set it up and to get it working with my laptop.  Remember, these paying customers expect to get their photo with the celebrity printed on the spot!   

I also made Kary quickly stand in for a test shot.  To illustrate color temp stuff, here is with white balance on Auto. 

I also made Kary quickly stand in for a test shot.  To illustrate color temp stuff, here is with white balance on Auto. 

And here is Kary looking cooler with the near final white balance changes.  This is straight out of camera.

And here is Kary looking cooler with the near final white balance changes.  This is straight out of camera.

Initally, there was a touch of flare on the right hand side (as you can see), but seeing as how the light stand was against the wall, I couldn't back it out any further.  I didn't mind this small amount of flare (some may think it adds to the photo, but whatever), and didn't have the time to rig a flag nor did I have the space to move my entire setup over to the left.  Eventually I did flag it the next day, however.  I also found the right side rim lighting a touch too hot, so I turned the power down one more stop on the rear right speedlight.

The line is getting long and crazy; the shooting area was just to the right of the frame.  The pressure is on!

The line is getting long and crazy; the shooting area was just to the right of the frame.  The pressure is on!

With minutes left before my first photo op with Jerry Lawler, Kary miraculously got the printer configured to my laptop, and we got his test prints to work.  He had to go tend to other things during the show, so stepping in to be my assistant would be the lovely Tanya:   

The lovely Miss Tanya, last-minute straight-out-of-camera test shot.  1/250th second, ISO 200, 45mm, aperture f/2.0

The lovely Miss Tanya, last-minute straight-out-of-camera test shot.  1/250th second, ISO 200, 45mm, aperture f/2.0

Jerry Lawler got to my photo area on time, and I quickly went over where I needed him to stand and how I'm going to shoot him with each fan: 2 shots for insurance with a "3, 2, click" countdown.  He was very nice, and I bet you guys didn't know that he is also a published comic book artist as well!  In fact, we both worked on the WWE Heroes comic book series! 

So how did the shoots turn out?  You can see the results in my portfolio, but here are a few more with fans:

 

WWE's Jerry "The King" Lawler with fan.

WWE's Jerry "The King" Lawler with fan.

Fan with Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man

Fan with Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man

Fan with actor Josh Stewart, but oops!  The main light wasn't turned on in this test shot. 

Fan with actor Josh Stewart, but oops!  The main light wasn't turned on in this test shot. 

Just for fun, I played with the RAW file to see how much I could get away with lifting the shadows.  Not too bad eh?  Lifting it this much starts to muck with the colors, though. Still, very impressed with the OMD sensor.

Just for fun, I played with the RAW file to see how much I could get away with lifting the shadows.  Not too bad eh?  Lifting it this much starts to muck with the colors, though. Still, very impressed with the OMD sensor.

Fans could get their prints right away after the shoot so that the celebs could autograph them. 

Fans could get their prints right away after the shoot so that the celebs could autograph them. 

All in all, I was very pleased and the fans were very complimentary with their product.  The most common compliment was in regards to how they did not expect the photos to turn out looking so "professional" from a bystander's point of view.  Again, it's all in the lighting and lens.  Even some of the show organizers admitted concern (after the fact) about me not using the provided backdrops, but their apprehension ceased as soon as they saw the results.  In this situation, you just had to play it cool and confidently, and rely on past experience.  After all, they wouldn't just hire me for nothing, would they?  ;)  I'd like to thank Dave and Adam for giving me this great opportunity and experience, and of course for having me back as a guest artist for the show.  I actually spent more time taking photos than I did signing and sketching art at my own table--a first! 

Being to many comic book/pop culture conventions over my career, I see many, many photo ops with event photographers.  The results often (not always) look the same: boring plain backdrop photos that look like friggin' flat, high school portraits.  I wanted to give the fans something different, and used the venue atmosphere to my advantage. I also wanted to give the show organizer something different and to trust my decisions. I think it worked out well--I've been asked to do the next Fanboy Expo event in Tampa this August!  There will be more celebrities there, and I will have fun playing double-duty once more.