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The YWCA Shoot

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(From the March 2002 Susquehanna Valley Shutterbugs Newsletter)

When a Wide Angle Lens

Isn’t Wide Enough

by Wayne Palmer

Every now and then a job comes along that presents an interesting challenge. Recently artist Marguerite Bierman hired me to photograph the final stages of the newly renovated and restored rotunda ceiling at YWCA. Marguerite had been commissioned to remove the layers of dreary old paint and bring new life through a bold sherbert feminine palette selected by Norman Wengert. It was a 5-month project for her. The Octoagonal ceiling is Robert Adam Neoclassical inspired. It has relief plaster design with symetcially placed griffins, floral motifs and swagsThe image would be used for the cover of the rededication-opening program and for other possible uses.

When I went to visit the sight I envisioned being able to plop a camera in the center of the room and take a shot. I was not prepared for the dimensions. The ceiling measured over 30 feet wide. You photographers reading this may think that simply using a wide-angle lens would do it. But the other dimension, which makes this an interesting story, is the height. The ceiling is only 12 feet high. Not even a 20mm lens while lying on the floor would capture anywhere close to the entire ceiling.

I thought of using my Noblex panoramic camera, which has a 146-degree angle of capture. It could take in the 30 foot width, but not the height while resting on the floor. Three shots pieced together might get the entire ceiling, but if you understand how a Noblex works, it takes in a curved view which flattens out when printed. That can lead to distortion at the ends of the image that would make piecing them together improbable.

With either camera, illuminating the ceiling would be difficult. You had the gloss of the paint mixed with gold and silver inlays, each posing reflection difficulties. Flash is not possible with a Noblex and as previously mentioned, the 20mm on a 35mm would not take in the ceiling..

So I conceded that accomplishing this in one shot was not feasible and multiple shots reassembled in the computer was the answer. To expedite matters, I would shoot digital. Knowing that you were going to piece together multiple shots,you would have to shoot with a normal lens so you would not have problems with converging lines from edge to edge of the images.

I hired Brent Shirk to come in and assist me. We took along two Photoflex light boxes with extra diffusers, tripods, Nikon 990, video monitor and cabling to work totally AC. Even with the tripod on its lowest setting, it proved not to be low enough. Brent suggested using a video tripod dolly and I transferred the head from a photo tripod. This got the camera about 6 inches from the floor. Mounting the monitor to the dolly made it easy to reposition the camera and see what you were shooting.

As the ceiling had a repeating pattern to it, we decided that shooting only a of it would be enough. By copying the finished section and replicating it, we could give the appearance of a full ceiling. We decided to shoot in a grid pattern moving from the center of the room and working towards the wall. Brent had the honors of shooting as it allowed me to take some shots of what was involved. Many shots later, we completed the section, packed up and headed out. At the computer, the pieces of the puzzle started gong together as planned, but as more pieces were added, the pattern stopped lining up.

We went back and shot the ceiling again. This time we shot in a wedge pattern working from the center of the room and only shooting an eighth of the ceiling, as that would provide enough of a pattern to complete the ceiling. We took along a computer to roughly assemble the ceiling on site, making sure it would work. Brent and I shuffled back and forth filmcards as I pieced things together. 18 images and a 200 MB, file later we were sure we had enough information to do the job. After roughing out the file, I turned my whiz-kid high school student, Andy Peterson, loose on the project. Many hours later we had a full image.

The restored chandelier that is in the center of the ceiling was not in place at the time of the shoot. So we were hired again to go back and take a few final shots of it that we pieced into the previous image.

Below is the room in all its glory.

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Picture of the artist - Marguerite Bierman

Copyright   - 2002 Palmer Multimedia Imaging.