I’ve been waiting for the right chance to come along to make my first real post on this blog… And boy has opportunity come a-knocking.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of photographing the Freshman Class of 2020 Orientation at DeSales University; three days of painfully high-decibel activities, five hundred-plus newly liberated and hormone-addled high school graduates, and a general sea of absolute mayhem. Sure the fifteen-hour first day was brutal on my prematurely arthritic shoulder and degenerating medial knee joints… Buy hey, there was free food. And remember, if the food is free, it has no calories!

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Mmm… Free food!

What makes this different from the majority of shoots I do is that I’ve done this one before. Seven times as a matter of fact.

When I was a freshman at DSU in 2009, I had to sit through my own orientation; four days of absolute hell for a painfully introverted, socially anxious high school honors graduate seeing women for the first time in four years, having gone to an all-male private high school. I remember staying only as long as I was required and immediately fleeing back to my dorm room to the comfort of my three best friends, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, while the rest of the freshman engaged in “social activities”… whatever that means.

Soon after, however, the best part of my time at high school returned to me as I was recruited to be the chief photographer for the college yearbook. After two semesters of covering anything and everything happening on campus, a much larger task on a college campus than it was in high school, I was asked by the yearbook adviser to return to DSU early at the end of the summer. Therefore, after a miserable summer of being a slave to my local movie theater (sounds like a fun summer job, right? Ha. No.), I returned to DSU five days post-op for severely impacted wisdom teeth and spent my first Freshman Orientation on what I refer to as the ‘correct’ side of the camera. I basically ate nothing due to the lasting effects from the surgery, while putting in three easily 12+ hour days. Sure it was rough, but as they say, “What doesn’t kill you… usually succeeds in the second attempt”… Oh wait, that’s not the right one, is it?

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Two days post-op. Less of a “I love my mom” shot, more of a “passed out from the pain of four holes in my face” shot.

Fast-forward to the present day. This past freshman class is the seventh that I have had the opportunity to photograph for the school. Now that I have graduated, the school hires me as a contractor. The beauty of having done it seven times is also its curse, that is to say, it’s the exact same thing every year. I have come to know the different speakers and performers on a first-name basis, and I have come to know their routines and performances extremely well. While one might think it can get a little boring seeing the same things year after year, well, you’d be sort of correct. However, it has the effect of allowing me to be in the right place at the right time for some unique shots. For the events that aren’t repeat performances, such as the talent show, singing competition, etc, the focus shifts from composition awareness to technical awareness. Working for many different departments within DeSales as I do, I shoot in the venue in which orientation is held on a very frequent basis. I know to walk in, lock my exposure to 1/100, f/2.8, ISO 1600, and tungsten white balance, and just let the shutter rip. No guesswork, no badly exposed shots, just lock ‘n load. For orientation, however, the venue lights are always deeply dimmed, which adds the complication of needing to add my own light. It then becomes a delicate balancing act between the in-camera exposure settings, the flash power, and the available light depending on whatever settings the lights are at. Oh, and the tungsten flash filter; absolutely critical. I see lots of people struggle to appropriately balance flash power with the available light of the scene they’re shooting. Sometimes it takes a little trial and error to get perfect, but starting at my typical exposure for the room plus the flash usually gets me pretty close. My trusty trick, my secret to success, is…

ALWAYS bounce your flash.

This is really only possible if you’re using a hot-shoe mounted flash. Pop-up flashes are either on or off, and will leave you S.O.L. in this situation. Bouncing flash is basically what it sounds like; using the hot-shoe flash’s adjustability in conjunction with the ceiling (or other surface, but most times it’s the ceiling) to reflect, or ‘bounce’ the light onto your subject, eliminating the flat quality and harsh shadows of a direct flash. The nuts and bolts of how to pull this off take some explaining, so that will be a post for a different day. However, this technique always does the trick for me.

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Almost no available light. See, told ya it works!

Many times, I’ll need to call on a different type of experience than that of the actual principles of composition and exposure to get the shots I need. The ability to get subjects to behave in the right way during a shoot was a little tougher for me to master, but often times, simple prompts and instructions can make the difference between compelling images and snapshots, or cranky and at-ease subjects.

Earlier that week, I was asked to do a group portrait of the incoming group of resident advisers before their inauguration banquet. I had already been at the location for close to an hour doing candids before the ceremony, and had seen a student taking a series of shots of smaller groups, but I had to step in for the whole group photo since she was also an RA. I lined them up underneath the large letters spelling ‘DeSales’ on the building’s exterior. Several students then expressed their dismay at facing into the sun, which the student had already had them doing. A quick mental inventory of the situation told me that where they were was the only prudent place from both an exposure and composition perspective for them to be; rotating them out of the sun would expose them to hideous backlight due to the sun’s low angle in the sky at 7:00 in the evening. The solution was a stupidly simple trick I learned sometime during my freshman year of college… “Close your eyes, and when I count to three, open them again” One… Two… Three… They open their eyes, and I rip off a quick series of shots and send them on their way.

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See, that didn’t hurt too bad, did it? Not as much as having four teeth yanked out of your face anyway…

This year, I tried to think of how I could improve this year’s photos over those of the previous years. In the end, I simply decided not to mess with success. I’ve seen my photos used at all corners of the university, and everybody loves them. While I would happily continue doing DSU’s orientations until I’m an old fart, I must admit that each year it does get harder. It feels weird to pull a Murtaugh and say “I’m too old for this s***” at the age of 25, but every year I get more and more removed from the physical and cultural age of the incoming freshman class. I’m not going to consider hanging it up until I at least hit the decade mark, so until then I guess I’ll just keep swimming, just keep swimming…

 

Break a lens,

-N

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