The Photo Shoot From Hell (Pt. 1 of 2): “Hell Hath No Fuji”

Murphy’s Law says, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
A “Comedy Of Errors” is an event or series of events made ridiculous by the number of errors that were made throughout.
“Ain’t my night…” (Eddie Murphy as Reggie Hammond, “48 Hours”)

Pick one. Any one. How about a tragic combination of all three? That was me last Saturday. I remember when a fellow photographer told me that I wasn’t a true photographer until I’d had a nasty spill (fall) during a shoot. It later happened at a waterfall, resulting in bruised ribs, a torn ligament, a mild concussion and damaged shoulder. Yeah, I’m a Photographer now!

A few years later, ANOTHER photographer told me I wasn’t a true photographer until I had the “shoot from hell”, where something disastrous, if not everything, seemed to go wrong.

Ok, I’m gonna need you photographers to stop talking to me!!!

Saturday, Labor Day Weekend 2020 – Columbus, Ohio

I had been hired by an old friend to shoot his daughter’s wedding. The venue for the wedding ceremony provided the photographer, but did not cover the reception. It was a small gathering of 50, thanks to COVID-19 and state mandated social distancing guidelines. Since it was just a reception, I didn’t need to concern myself with getting “the shots”, which must be perfect with no do-overs (ring placement, kiss, lighting of the unity candle, etc.). It was mostly candid shots of the attendees, eating, video recordings of well-wishes (my suggestion). If anything, easier versions of “the shot” consisted of the bride and groom’s entrance, the toast, the first dance, father-daughter/mother-son dances, the cake slicing and shoving into faces, garter, then finally the bouquet toss. Honestly, nothing frightening, especially since I had several of these under my belt. Being the solo photographer, I still felt comfortable, unlike my first time (you can read that story here).

Since so much vile (censored) happened, let me get right to it, ok?

I visited the downtown location 3 days prior to get a lay of the land, particularly for lighting, layout, size and ceiling color/design (in case I chose or needed to bounce light from it). Other than dim lighting, which I expected, there were no real concerns beyond the small stage area which impeded my ability to shoot the cutting of the cake without blocking the audience’s view. I took a few photos so I could continue my pre-planning at home.

I’d already requested that the client pay in advance, as well as another customer, which they gladly agreed to do. With business taking a hard hit from the pandemic, I really had little to work with at the moment. I used the money to purchase new lighting equipment which included a Parabolic Beauty Dish (for outdoor lighting in large settings – just in case), a prime wider angle lens (requiring me to trade in two lenses to supplement the cost of it) another pneumatic stool and backdrop for headshots. After that, my balance was pretty much ground zero after paying bills.

I got in my practice with the new lens and lighting equipment which included a family photo shoot for the other client which seemed to work well. I had no reason to worry when the day of the shoot arrived.

I got a good night’s sleep and kept hydrated and adequately fed throughout the day. The only problem I encountered was learning that the three months of sedentary activity (writing, book reading, movie binging, etc.) resulted in some minor dimensional changes in my bodily makeup. To be more specific, only one pair of dress slacks fit comfortably. Ok, so I’m wearing gray pants instead of black, which is fine for my black shirt. Note to self: Buy slacks with elastic band, eat more salad, run after more than just the ice cream truck (remember that story?). I packed a backup black, silky T-Shirt in case I got sweaty or it got too hot, but I wouldn’t switch until after people had seen that I did at least show up dressed appropriately. Hey, if they can change clothes, so can I.

I conducted a second inventory check then spent the day watching YouTube videos of wedding reception photography just to stay sharp and pick up any additional pointers like light settings and positioning. While watching the final video, I conducted a THIRD inventory check. I chose not to pre-load my car just so I could talk my way through my inventory (again) while loading. My mind was All Event.

My handy assistant Kevin (Son #2) and I drove down with ample time for the setup. However, halfway down the interstate, the gas warning light came on. Not only did she not put gas in the car after riding around for two hours, she didn’t tell me! Note to self: Curse her out when I get home (well, I don’t curse at my family, but you know). Figuring I had enough gas to make it there and refuel after, I drove straight to the event. Metered parking was still enforced on Saturdays and I had to find a spot on the opposite side of the building downtown. Great, now I have to walk all the way around this big-ass building. After fighting with the meter for 10 solid minutes, it finally took my debit card. Lord knows I didn’t want to pay for the parking garage, another block over. I set my parking time, we grabbed our equipment and then walked through the alley and along the side to the front entrance.

Halfway along the sidewalk I realized that I left my mask in the car. DAMN YOU, COVID-19!

We got back to the minivan (yes, I’m a soccer/football/baseball dad, even though that ended over 15 years ago) and I set the items on the back seat floor as I reached for my mask and that’s when my back went out. Damn pre-existing injury, obesity and aging… I stood there, frozen in place for 5-10 minutes while my son carefully rubbed my back until I could move with minimal pain.

Ok, let’s try this again. Rewind.

I walked around with my son, with the equipment, up the stairs, to the elevator, down the hall and into the ballroom, shirt saturated with perspiration and 45 steps shy of smelling like hot butt. I introduced myself to the host, D.J. and serving staff before requesting two chairs for my son and I so we wouldn’t make contact with the chairs for the guests (that COVID thing again). I then assembled the softbox (the beauty dish was too bright for the event) and attached the diffuser (the white sheet that softens the flash).

It didn’t fit.

Wait. How? There’s no way it can’t fit. I’ve used it for multiple shoots. That’s when I noticed that I’d brought the diffuser from the wrong softbox. But that’s impossible! I NEVER interchange them!!! Realizing that I could not use the softbox without the diffuser, I removed it altogether and raised the flash up high with the intention of lighting from a distance at a much lower intensity. I’m going to have to make some serious adjustments to my lighting. There’s a little time left.

After conducting my light test I went through a series of lighting scenarios, using my son as a test subject in various sections of the room, particularly at the entrance, where I needed to capture the guests walking in, first and foremost. I put my secondary flash on another stand and all was set. My camera was programmed, as was the auxiliary lighting. The first guest walked in. FLASH!

Underexposed, severly.

What the HELL?!?!? I JUST took pictures with the same settings of Kevin in the same spot!!! I quickly glanced at my camera, then took a second picture. Even worse. I made some quick adjustments and tried again. Not much better.

The beauty of modern day digital cameras is that if you don’t know how to shoot in manual (which I do), you can switch to “automatic mode” and it will interpret the scene and adjust for you. No time to fight it. Switch to Auto. I switched to automatic. let’s go. FLASH!

The picture was completely washed out. Bright as HELL!

I looked at the camera’s settings and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure it out. I made some rush adjustments, but couldn’t get it right. It was as if my camera intentionally abandoned everything I told it OR for some reason, just wasn’t able to communicate effectively. I eventually surmised that putting my camera in “auto” would definitely not be good for my settings on the flashes.

I put the camera back in manual and made some quick adjustments to brighten my exposures as the attendees continued to roll in, like the baby in the stroller, followed by the little toddler that bolted in from behind like Dash, the young speedster from Disney’s “The Incredibles”. Looking back on it now, it would have been simplest to just turn off the flash at the high post and work with just one. Any other day I would have figured it out, but this was Hell Night, where pain and anxiety ruled the moment.

Yeah, I was functioning in a perpetual state of mental and physical anguish.

I continued shooting in that mode as the people strolled in with the understanding that whatever change I make to one photo in editing, I can do to all. Once everyone was in, I continued shooting and adjusting to hopefully get the settings right for the remainder of the night, or most of it.

It wasn’t long before prayer was offered up and everyone bowed their heads. I quickly darted behind the DJ to get one shot of the person praying and then I heard the sound… KSSSSHHHHHHHWHOOMP.

Wonder what that was? Click here for Part 2: “Things Fall Apart”.

And they literally do…


  1. LOL All the more reason for you to tune in TONIGHT! If you’re an email follower, you’ll get instant notification once it posts…

    Thanks for reading! See you soon…


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