Lighting the Way

December 9, 2011 

There's no shortage of difficult situations to cover in this job. While there are some in the news biz who get a rise out of covering tragic situations because of the possible contest implications, but most of us are happy to avoid the sadness whenever possible. And though critics often clamor for more positive stories, dodging negative news would be a huge disservice to our readers.

The unbelievable rash of student deaths at Richland High School meant I had back-to-back candlelight vigils last weekend. While they are nowhere near as tough to cover as funerals, vigils include some technical difficulties with the delicate somberness.

Friday's gathering was in honor of Sierra Murray, the 16-year-old who died on Oct. 28 after getting hit by a car. They had a nice portrait of her set up, so I shot a basic scene-setter as a car passed by,

before milling around to meet people and get them used to my snaps:

I started with a little flash use early on to work in the darkness, but kept slow shutter speeds to keep the photos more natural-looking. That was a big failure on this snap of Jewlian Ward lighting candles for paper lanterns while Tori Amis and Becky Grimes hug near a display of flowers:

I had turned and zoomed my flash away from the close bouquet, but apparently not enough, as you can see by their blasted hard lighting. I also did a bad job of lining up the layers, but when you're shooting hand-held shots at 1/6 sec., you have to commit a little more to your framing.

(Non-shooters can check out this introduction to shutter speeds for a better idea of what that number means.)

That's evidenced in this photo of Sierra's father, Terry, as he briefly paused to look at photos of his late daughter:

It's also shot at 1/6 sec., and while did a better job of balancing the flash with ambient light, there's a fair amount of camera shake.

I ditched the flash as the vigil officially started and was disappointed to find out they weren't going to light the candles until the time of the accident, which meant the darkness continued. I didn't want to interfere with the scene, popping off blinding flashes as people prayed and remembered a life tragically cut short, and instead used a different technique to combat the photo shakes.

Instead of shooting one photo at a time, I rattled off bursts of two to four frames since holding down the shutter generates a lot less motion than that initial squeeze. I was also looking for peak moments of stillness since even small movements by the subject means a lot of blur at 1/6 sec, like when Sierra's grandmother Kris told the crowd how much her dog Bear loved Sierra too:

I had to slow down even more as I clicked my way to a photo of Sierra's pastor, Randy Barnes, as he led a prayer, seen here at 1/5 sec:

I liked including the row of photos, but the unlit candle wasn't helping a dark situation. Some warm candlelight on that mourner's face would have made this one a candidate for the paper, but I worked into the crowd near Sierra's best friend Becky, center, to try and get an appropriately candlelit vigil shot:

The warm glow allowed for a 1/20th sec. shutter speed — still quite slow, but a lot easier to work with. I like the arrangement of candles dotting the frame and the quiet mood, but it's missing the stronger emotion or moment that would give the photo an extra boost.

I think it's a fair representation of what the vigil was like, however, since it wasn't a massive outpouring of tears and grief.

Saturday's gathering to remember Austin Katayama while promoting suicide awareness had a similar feel. Most people shared fond humorous memories of the 18-year-old who committed suicide on Oct. 15. Jackie Templeton, Austin's aunt and an organizer of the vigil, laughed as the circle of 50 remembered the fun times with Austin:

The large circle created more challenges in showing the group, however, and pulling back for the wide scene-setter only kinda worked because of the dramatic tree-limb shadow nearby:

As they gathered to light their candles within the shadow, I was photographically excited since I'd have some funky light to work with, but then somebody suggested that they move into total darkness. Having that streetlight would have been a big help in focusing as Jackie moved through the circle to light the candles, but I half lucked out with this frame of Robert, Dyana and 5-year-old Brandon Fleming:

They are close family friends, and Dyana was there for Austin's birth. I like the intimate composition and warm tones, but that funky splash of lens flare on Dyana's face nixed it for the page.

I switched to the darkslayer, our 85/1.2, to find some general crowd vigil shots. Properly exposing for people's faces meant their hands were totally blown out as they cupped to keep the flames from getting blown out:

And working in tight while exposing for the candle draped just about everything else in darkness:

I went with this shot of Rochelle Otte, right, Gabe Cordle-Beck and Kendell Templeton since Otte and Templeton were both Austin's cousins and Otte runs the R.I.P. Austin Katayama Facebook Page:

I like the flare in this shot, as the 85/1.2 creates some rainbow halos from direct sources of light and it has a stronger moment than the photo from Sierra's vigil did.

As always, it's hard to balance capturing some strong, storytelling emotion without exacerbating somebody's grief, and the technical challenges of shooting in near darkness make that delicate task even more difficult. Here's hoping I was able to walk that line.

Read about Sierra's vigil and the student lobbying efforts.

Read about Austin's vigil.

And for your walk online...

The "45 Most Powerful Images of 2011" have been making the rounds on my Facebook news feed. There's some great stuff in there, to be sure, but I'm scratching my head about including Harold Camping talking shot, Amy Winehouse's vigil and the generic shot of some Middle Easterners (the caption doesn't even say which country) mugging for the camera with a sign that says "Facebook" on it. They're all among the biggest stories of the year, but the photos presented are far from powerful. I'm hoping the Big Picture does better when they edit their 2011 collection.

Lee Jeffries has a very striking collection of homeless portraits. The dramatically toned black and white images have that haunting timeless quality that pulls you in.

Thanks to my brother Ian for another neater skeeter time-lapse, Rob Whitworth's creative look at traffic in Ho Chi Minh City that uses 10,000 photos.

And be careful what you shoot in D.C. It's not just bullets that will land you in jail with new street photography regulations.

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