A couple tasting and comparing notes at the New York Winter Wine Festival.
A couple tasting and comparing notes at the New York Winter Wine Festival.

I photograph corporate, non-profit and other events, and most of them are pretty basic flash-on-camera. The choice is often my clients’, rather than mine: they’re used to seeing smiley people lit from the front, and whatever context they’re in is beside the point. (Let’s face it, most “function rooms” have a sameness to them.) But sometimes I get a chance to stretch things, and the New York Winter Wine Festival proved to be one of those.

The wine festival was at the Best Buy theater in Times Square, in a room that was, how can I put it kindly, oddly, and dimly, lit for a wine festival. (If you wanted to check the color of the legs on the cabernet just poured, you’d have been hard pressed to do it.) There was some overhead lighting, more or less tungsten, some of which was gelled yellow. Yup. Yellow. There were a couple of tables tucked into corners, with clamp lights placed down low, and behind the action. (The look of old Boris Karloff movies.) There were a couple of bar areas with gelled lights. There was also a stage with stage lighting when the band, Four80East, was playing.

A woman makes notes of her tasting.
A woman makes notes of her tasting.

I knew the general setup ahead of time, knew it was pretty dark in there, knew that if I used a flash it would pretty much look like hell. So I threw all caution to the wind and went for available light darkness. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Lest anyone think I was using one of the latest and greatest DSLR’s with a high ISO of 12,000,000 or so (OK, I made that number up) I wasn’t: an original 5D. And I was shooting at ISO 1600. Two points: first, fast glass. I was shooting with a 35mm f/2 and a 50mm f/1.4. I’ve got zooms, and use them, believe me, but I thought they’d be an impediment here: they’re bulky and at f/2.8 they’re slow. Second: I was using manual exposure. I know, I know, they put that auto stuff in the cameras just for times like this. But if I used auto whatever, the camera was going to look at the scene, make some decisions based on what its engineers thought was a good plan, and expose accordingly. Take 2 frames of the same subject from slightly different angles, and guess what? Your exposures are going to be different. And given the contrast range, the highlights would probably be blown out. So I figured if I got an exposure that worked for the particular scene I was photographing, I’d be free to move around to different angles and get consistent exposures.

Pouring a sample of Marquis de la Tour.
Pouring a sample of Marquis de la Tour.

And the plan worked. A couple of notes. I decided consciously to compose so the highlighted areas made the photo, and let the shadows disappear into blackness. (I did manage to open some of them up in Lightroom.) This can take some moving around to get better angles. I shot quite a bit in the rows immediately in front of the stage, counting on reflected light from the stage to brighten things up. This worked pretty well. Second, I contented myself with shallow depth of field. This worked better sometimes than at others, and it would have been nice to have had more DOF at times. Ah, well. Third, in the areas with gelled lights, I didn’t try to color-correct at all. I did initially get a good white balance from the overheads and stuck with that. (I expect some people would rather have not looked quite so yellow, but, hey, that’s how they looked.)

More photos of the New York Winter Wine Festival here.

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