Shooting At Extremes –Photographing Backstage
By Duane Cassone 

I like to push the limits and photography is no exception. From dark sky star trails, to drag racing, to backstage at the ballet. I recently shot a ballet production, and although it was definitely a challenge it resulted in arresting rewards.


 Here, I had the chance to capture special backstage moments as opposed to the typical shots as seen from the audience. I've always been keen on alternative points of view where special access is required to even have the chance at creating an image with a different point of view. Well, here it was!

I have fond memories of my grandmother taking me backstage during plays at a local theater.  I remember the hustle and bustle as performers silently yet expeditiously prepared for their parts. There were the scene changes, coordination, the curtains, and of course – the lights.  What a challenge the lights are to work with. Harsh, random, ever changing in-your-face-lights! Impossible to keep up with, the lights made exposure control a real challenge.


Matrix metering, with function buttons set to override to spot meter on demand, made amazing images possible in these extreme lighting conditions. The High ISO opportunities on my Nikon D800 gave low light with no flash a real viable chance to succeed. I shot with the Nikon 70-200mm 2.8, 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.8, and (believe it or not) 300mm 2.8.

This was truly an exercise of equipment and skills and not nearly as possible without quality lenses, a good camera body, and some sense of how to execute these shots. I also realized the limits of the 4 frames /sec limit on the D800 and quickly envied those other bodies with up to 12 fps.


It’s interesting how the perspective from side stage is so different from the audience view.  Performers are trained to engage the audience, and not the photographer on the sidelines.  The dynamic is different and I had to think about capturing people moments, not show moments.

The largest take-away was how much I had to push my camera to its extreme to capture as many decent images as I did. Hmmm… perhaps it’s time I share my tricks with a course on Extreme Photography! Interested?


*For more images, visit
uane is leading our upcoming Star Trails & Creative Night Photography workshop at Joshua Tree. Click here to check it out. He'll also  be teaching a workshop on Creative Vintage Portraits, and you can read more about that by clicking here.

By Duane Cassone

What is it about those vintage portraits that we find  so alluring? Is it the soft feel, the distant looks, the sentimental inference? I loved those old oval framed photos on my grandmother's dresser -- they seemed to generate a deep interest in the past lives of those I barely knew. I always feel compelled to ask questions like where did she live? What did he do for a living? How old was she?

These classic portraits often portray a simpler time or a far off place; something safe and cozy.

duane cassone

I admire the subtle differences in portraits taken in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as compared to the modern portrait. They were always a little blurry -- the person being photographed rarely looked directly at the camera -- and  it seems like smiling was an uncommon act. All these foibles, and more, make up an alluring era of impression and suggestion we don’t see as much in today’s sharp, high quality, color rich, even black and white or otherwise modern portrait.

One thing that stands out more than anything is the lack of the smile. Why is that? For years I simply thought it had to do with rough times, the general mood of the era, people were sad then, etc. Of course that was naïve, but I learned that it had more to do with early photographic technologies where a “short” exposure meant holding a smile for quite some time (like many seconds or even minutes) which, of course, is sort of out of the question.

vintage portrait

Over time, I would think about that form time to time and as my portraits progressed I eventually adopted a sort of policy on smiling; I wouldn't ask people to do it. I figure getting people to smile, naturally, was not the same as asking them to do it. Often a staged smile looks fake, at least to me, and it is not an accurate assessment of one’s mood, place in life, and it doesn't really speak to that person at that moment.

Furthermore, I don’t think it’s necessary to smile. I find where the person's expression is more natural, in the moment - the result is a deeper look into their emotions, their state, their history.  It’s relaxed… unsolicited, meaningful. Perhaps this is why those older photos, where you had to be pretty relaxed to get a decent, semi-sharp photograph, appeal to me so much. Perhaps they are deeper in meaning and mystery because the circumstances of technology at the time.

Next time you try photographing your subject, try to avoid asking him or her to smile. See what you get, and let me know.

Duane will be teaching a classic portraits workshop on Saturday, October 12, from 9am-12pm. The class will involve a quick tips & techniques session, followed by a photo shoot with a professional model. The session plus shoot are only $90! Click here for more information and to view the other classes in our Alternative Portraits Series.

By Duane Cassone, instructor for our upcoming Star Trails photography trip

star trails

What’s so special about night photography?  I’m drawn to night photography for several reasons, but mostly because I love long exposure times. Long exposures offer us a chance to bring a "special effects" feel to our photos. The camera records and absorbs light over time, something our eyes and brain together aren't programmed to do, and voila! Streaking clouds, misty oceans, taillight trails on the freeway, and, of course, dazzling star trails!

I’d like to point out two important technical aspects of night photography that intrigue me. First, it’s dark, so you really have to learn where all your buttons and features are – much by tactile feel and memory. Working with your camera gear in the dark provides a unique opportunity to spend quality time getting to know it more intimately.

star trails

The second aspect of night photography is understanding the behavior of ISO and the CCD sensor. From manufacturer to model, every camera’s sensor is different and will deliver diverse images from one to the next, especially when taxed with long exposure techniques. I like to say that the photographer has to “get to know the personality of their sensor”. What I’m saying is, with each camera I work with, I realize that exposure times and ISO combinations are different from one to the other. Getting to know the personality of the sensor simply means getting to know what combinations of ISO and exposure times work best with that particular camera in a particular scenario. Night photography is really the art balancing of noise, grain, exposure time, and ISO with the artistic side of composition, light, and scenario. You have to play with it.

star trails

Have fun! Don’t get caught up with exact measurements. Play with ISO, exposure times, light painting and don’t get caught up in the details. Often, when shooting with multiple seconds of exposure time I’m counting out the seconds of exposure out loud. Remember, it’s not always an exact science with night photography long exposures and there’s no harm in close. Close counts in horseshoes, with hand grenades, and also with long exposures.

**For more information about our upcoming workshop, Star Trails: Nocturnal Creativity with Bristlecone Pines, click here.