Last Sunday (November 2) the Canadian Opera Company brought me in to make photos of the audience space in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, from about 5 stories above the proscenium on a catwalk and in the corner of the fifth ring. The thought was that on that particular day, since the performance was completely sold out, we’d be able to get some great images of the space occupied to capacity. As it turned out, while we had a full house, not everyone was seated when we were able to make our images. It took several hours of Photoshop tweaking to put virtual bums in seats, clear the aisles, and remove jackets hanging from railings. You can see the results below by moving the centre slider from left to right for before and after versions of the images.

Making the Photos

There’s one chance and less than a minute to get the images in this scenarios, so here things I did to make sure the shoot went off without a hitch.

  • I made an advance visit to the site. I went in 2 days beforehand to meet the tech person I’d be working with, get the lay of the land and make some test images. This gave me a chance to review the images with the client to ensure we were both on the same page. It allowed me to test various settings using a remote control, rented fisheye lens and camera clamp to come up with the best possible result. This was a good thing, as when I looked at the images on the large screen I could see some issues with image sharpness that I was able to resolve before the final shoot. Finally, test images let us decide which image was our priority, and strategize timing for each image as a result. We decided to do the 5th ring image before the start of the performance, and the overhead one at the conclusion of the first intermission.
  • I wore dark clothes. The goal is to be unobtrusive and quiet so as not to detract from the performance once it starts. At one point, the thought was that I would stay on the catwalk after shooting the overhead shot for the duration of the first act (about 1/2 hour) and then exit at the intermission. That changed when we decided to shoot from the 5th ring first. It was easier to get the shot from the catwalk during the intermission, as people returned to their seats earlier and we had about 5 seconds to make our move once the lights went down.
  • On the day of the event, I shot the empty venue. This made it easier to empty aisles in the final image as well as replacing the handing jackets on the rails in the 4th ring. Because we shot the second image (below) during the intermission, we couldn’t do this, and it made for more work when cleaning the image up in Photoshop. In hindsight I would have set up my tripod and clamp in both of the desired positions before the audience arrived. I could have shot the empty space from both angles in the exact same position as the full house.
  • I removed all my unneeded gear, bags, etc. We had to exit very quickly as the house went dark. It was much easier to do this when all I had to carry was the camera and tripod. It also meant nothing was left behind.
  • I made as many photos as possible before the lights went down. I did this in consideration of and respect for Murphy’s law. There’s no going back if there’s a problem.

It took quite a bit of work to finish the photos. I was able to balance lighting and sharpen the images in Lightroom, my tool of choice, very quickly. However, putting those virtual bums in seats, clearing the aisles and removing garments from rails could only be done in Photoshop and took much longer. Here’s what I considered in terms of workflow as I worked on the images:

  • I used layers. Lots of them. I ended up using a layer for each part of the venue – ground floor, first ring, second ring, boxes, aisles, etc. That way, if there was a problem with one area, it was easier to delete or move than if I’d done all the edits on one layer.
  • It’s much easier and quicker to simply paint people into seats using the cloning tool than it is to copy and paste them individually.I was able to paint the clones in (on their own layers) around railings, seat backs and arm rests much more quickly. I could then clean things up with the eraser tool without affecting the underlying base image.
  • Where copying groups of people, I flipped them horizontally to reverse their seating sequence. It may make the cloning less obvious. For larger groups, consider cloning from different smaller groups in the audience, to mix it up a bit.
  • I avoided cloning people with distinctive clothing. Bright colours and stripes, people standing or gesturing struck me as a little too obvious when duplicated. Sticking with muted colours worked much better. If you must, try changing the colour of shirts/blouses and/or erasing stripes to differentiate them.
  • It’s easier (and cleaner) to cut and past blank space from one of those shots of an empty venue than it is to clone the floor over people. Made me happy I’d taken those original photos of the empty space,
  • Where elements (like stairs) repeat in a space, I copied and pasted one of the duplicates that wasn’t cluttered over the affected one in a separate layer and erased the parts I didn’t need. I did this to deal with the garments hanging over (and obscuring) rails. The perspective might shift  a bit, but that can be corrected with the transform tool.
  • I saved the file frequently. You don’t want to have to do this twice, believe me.

I think the end results worked out well. As the cover for a programme, people will probably only take a quick look, and it’s unlikely they’ll notice any Photoshoppery.  Up until now, most of the photos I’d seen were of the empty space, and I think you’ll agree that a full house “sells” it more effectively.