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culture

TIFF Survival Guide: Getting Celebrities on Camera

You're not a paparazzo, but you want some decent photos of famous people to liven up your Facebook wall. Here's how to get them.

A red carpet crowd at TIFF 2011.

To capture the magic and misdeeds of TIFF, photographers on the red carpet and paparazzi in the streets arm themselves with some of the most expensive and advanced camera equipment available. But for celebrity-stalking success, precision (read: expensive) lenses, high-powered flashes, and fast memory cards aren’t the only requirements. Knowledge, a dose of serendipity, and good timing are often more important than the fancy gear. In other words, it’s entirely possible to get great shots at TIFF without spending a bundle on a new camera. Here’s how to do it.


Stock Up


No matter what kind of camera you have, you won’t get results if your gear doesn’t work, or if it lets you down. Any veteran shooter will tell you the same thing: always charge your batteries (and this includes the ones in your smartphone) before you head out. Carry spares of everything, especially memory cards. If you don’t have spares, buy them. Memory cards in particular are getting cheaper, and the new ones write faster and allow for way more storage than was possible for the same price last year.

If you’re in the market for something new, don’t buy the hype. Do you really need a 25-megapixel camera when you’re only posting your shots to Instagram or printing 4″ x 6″ images? Ten megapixels is plenty for cropping, refining, online sharing, and basic printing. In many cases, a budget-friendly camera from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, or Panasonic will do the job. Often, but not always, it’s the camera lens—the glass—that makes the picture look so dynamic, not the electronics.

For fancy, modern, on-the-fly posting, consider getting an Eye-Fi SD card to beam shots directly to your smartphone or tablet. Or get an Android-enabled camphone. The latest from Samsung offers incredible quality, and it can post images directly to the web.


But I Want to Use My Smartphone


Phone cameras have improved dramatically over the years—though they haven’t taken the place of professional DSLR cameras in the field. If you’re only posting to Instagram, making Vines, or putting together other social content, there’s a bevy of great apps (such as Camera+) that will help you push your device to its limits.


Shoot Faster


Point-and-shoot and smartphone cameras often won’t capture a shot until a second or two after the shutter button is pressed. This can be annoying, and it can lead to blurry photos.

Rather than dismiss your laggy camera, get to know it. Press and hold the shutter half way down to allow it to focus, so that when the moment arrives, its ready when you press the button fully down. Most cameras and some smartphone apps have a feature called “burst,” which allows you to bang off a string of shots just by holding down the shutter. Hold still and combine the burst with a fast memory card (Class 10 SD cards are best) and you might find your camera shooting three to ten frames in a second, enabling you to catch not only your favourite actor walking past, but quite possibly a fun facial expression you’d never otherwise grab in one snap.


Get the Balance Right


More often than not, you probably use your camera’s automatic white balance mode, because it does all the complicated picture-taking stuff for you. Sometimes you get a really great shot, and sometimes you get a crappy, discoloured one. That’s most likely poor exposure, or otherwise the computer inside your camera can’t figure out what kind of light it’s looking at. Look at the lights around you—are they incandescent or are they fluorescent? Ambient or LED? Is there bright sun overhead, or is it cloudy? Changing the camera’s white balance to match the environment around you will yield better results. Are you using your flash? Switch the white balance to the lightning bolt. You can also turn on your live video and adjust the white balance manually. You’ll be able to see the difference with every change of the numbers. Numbers below 3500 kelvin will result in a blue-tinged scene, while going above 3500 generally warms up the picture with orange tones. Take some test photos when you arrive on the scene. You’ve got shots to spare—adjust accordingly. Of course, colour imbalances can be fixed on the computer or with an app.


The Amazing Flash


The flash can be your friend, or it can be your nemesis. If the flash goes off and the celebrity you’re shooting is too close, you’ll be left with a big, washed-out picture. It’s also a battery hog, and it can slow your camera down as it recharges. So learn some flash control: most cameras allow you to turn down the flash’s output, which will also save battery power. Camera stores also sell diffusers that you can clip onto your camera—they can soften the blow of the flash considerably. Or try a radical concept: no flash. Roy Thompson Hall red carpets have a ton of light during the day and early evening. Other red carpets—like the one at Ryerson during Midnight Madness—definitely require a flash, because the ambient light is miserably dark. Most modern point-and-shoot digital cameras allow you to ratchet up their ability to catch light, at only a small sacrifice to image quality. Experiment with higher ISO numbers—try 800 or more on cameras from late 2012. If you’re daring, go manual. Try setting your camera to f/8 and keep your shutter between ISO 125 and 200 with a flash set to between 1/16 and 1/64.


Keep It Together


If you’re toting a small point-and-shoot, then a small case or a strap around your wrist is all you need. If you’re lugging a DSLR, take a small bag. Don’t overdo it with a bunch of different lenses—stick to just a few and keep them handy in a sling case, like the Lowepro 202 AW. Want to step it up a notch? DSLR shooters might consider having a good, long, fast lens (like a 70–200mm f/2.8) for waist-to-top shots, and a medium telephoto (24–70mm f/2.8) for full-body shots. They’ll work remarkably well in low-light situations. You can rent them for a day or a week at Vistek or FilmPlus. Newer pro lenses, like the 200–400mm, are a dream for carpet work, but are insanely expensive to purchase and rent. In fact, most travelling photojournalists at TIFF typically say they leave all their studio glass at home and use cheaper, inferior lenses on purpose, because the jostling can ruin gear over time.


Stake Out Your Spot


When you arrive at your red carpet destination of choice—say Roy Thomson Hall or the Winter Garden—run a few test shots from your vantage point so you know in advance what you’ll get. That way, you can make adjustments before the celebs start arriving. Packing along a small step stool will get you above the crowd—especially if you didn’t get there early enough to score a prime position along the guardrail. Oh, and one last tip: most celebs exit through the back door of the theatre. (Hunting at the Elgin? Try Victoria Avenue.)


Learn More


If you want even more tips, check out this Lifehacker post on how to the get the best out of your digital point-and-shoot. Read it once. Read it five times. Basically, learn to break away from automatic modes. Grab the manual. Read and experiment over the next few days. Learn burst, metering, ISO, white balance, and flash control (depending on what features you have, of course). Even your mobile phone has features that can be useful. Experiment!

In case you find that your shots aren’t just the way you want them, phone apps or computer-based solutions such as Google’s Picasa will allow you to correct and tweak the white balance, get rid of red eye, and make some exposure adjustments. But beware: nothing will correct out-of-focus or horribly overexposed shots.


Want more TIFF coverage? Torontoist‘s film festival hub is right over here.

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