Let’s justify the title of this blog by describing what it’s really like photographing the annual Ana Desetnica International Street Theatre Festival in Ljubljana. People seem interested in how we do it. For various reasons ranging from how we handle the weather, how we handle the crowds and how we catch the right moment. Well the latter isn’t all that difficult, but the rest can be torture. A sweet torture actually. You know that feeling when you’re half dead, but you’re fired up and you want to see more? Something like that.
I’ve been the official photographer since 2011 and I love the team that produces the festival. They’re great. And the performers are awesome and fun, I admit there are some I that I feel strange talking to “off stage” because my mind associates them with their show where they are so hilarious that I cannot imagine them normal. 😀
If I could go back in time, like six days only, I’d say one simple line to my former self: “Don’t count on it.” The truth is no matter how you think it’ll be easier this year or how you’ll get those photos online every evening earlier, it WILL NOT HAPPEN. 😀 And it extends to photography as well. If you think you’ll properly expose that boot exploding the next time it happens, well think again! Don’t count on it. You’ll have to let it go. Move on. Mourn later. 😀
It is really a blessing to have perfect weather for the entire festival, and we didn’t have many disasters over the years, not even at the Ana Mraz, the winter edition of the festival. Well, it did snow so heavily once at the Ana Mraz festival that the tarp roof collapsed onto a performer, but otherwise apart from frostbit photographers’ fingers everything runs smoothly. 😀 Yes, we’re extremists. Performers and a couple of us taking pictures. Ana Mraz happens in December when the temperatures drop well below freezing. I wear like 6 layers of clothing. I extend my lens pouch belt to maximum to get it around my waist. I walk like a sumo wrestler, my hands can’t even fall down along my body. Every move is a strain. And getting up from a sitting position is like dragging two other people with me, hahaha. It’s fun. 😀 Ana Mraz has a fixed location, which means I don’t move much. That of course means the cold has time to creep under those layers of clothing and lovingly embrace my bones. At the final show, my fingers are stiff and since the last show is a fire show, I need to change my memory cards. Not easy when you can’t feel anything. 😀 But yes, shooting on fast continuous for chaotic performances is kind of necessary, so you need to have enough shots left. That last fire show at Ana Mraz is precious. I’m like a lizard coming up on a rock to sunbathe in order to revive itself. 😀
But Ana Desetnica is a totally different extreme. The weather loves it. It comes up with a heat wave more often than not. 35 degrees Celsius and up. I swim in my sweat and feel like I’m running a marathon. The first day is actually easing into it. We start at six p.m., so I can have some relaxing time before plunging into the heat wave, that’s nice, but I soon figure out it’ll completely twist the night-day order. No matter how I plan, there’s just too many photos when there is so much happening. The shows, the audience, interaction, people enjoying the festival, things happening on the sidelines etc. And before I know it, I edited away most of my night, then slept away most of the next day. 😀 And repeat. But yeah, sure – don’t count on it. It’s never just “repeat”. 😀 The festival intensifies. In the number of shows, in the amount of audience, the amount of pictures and usually in temperatures. So the next night, editing takes even longer. On the third day, you hear the first birds waking up and your neighbor who starts work at five get into his car and drive off. The fourth day ends on the fifth morning. 😀
I carry a belt with three pouches attached. No, that’s not three lenses actually. That’s five. 😉 I’m weighted down considerably. I’m guessing it’s like doing this in high pregnancy. 😀 What lens I take with me depends on the concept that we’re trying to deliver. This year, the concept was all about unique imagery AND the mood, the vibe of the festival presented by photos of visitors in their interaction with the festival scenery and happening. But of course, I also needed photos of the shows, so it’s needless to say, I practically had to take the entire arsenal. Shooting from the afternoon well into the night also adds to the weight around my waist, because many shows aren’t well lit (they take place on the street or move along it) so I pack my fast primes as well. Bytheway, that belt is a perfect weight loss monitor. I shrink it to fit really closely, not to slip down as I walk, but after three days it’s barely hanging on my hip joints. 😀
I have a schedule that appears only Flash could handle. Shows tightly knit into a perfect festival day, but for me often too close apart, because I need to get from one location to another. That means I have less time waiting for something to happen, because I need to catch the next show. A lot of times I only have time for the introduction. But I then see the rest on the next day. 😀 I sometimes share my spot at the show with the little kids, more often now with the adults in the first standing rows. 😀 But when the crowds are at their extremes I need to position myself in front of people and hope they’ll understand that I need the shot(s) and that I’m not really comfortable bothering them either. A lot of work this year was done with a 70-200mm lens, trying to get expressions or some obscure framing. I then snake my way out of the crowd, fast pace to the next “stage”, changing lens on the go to a 50mm prime for photos of people using the festival scenery.
The ISO increases with the dying light and it actually gets gradually harder to get a good photo. Performers move! Which is why fast prime lenses are important. Still, I tend to overestimate the shutter speed according to the movement at dusk. 😀
Then comes the fire. Oh joy! 😀 When I first started taking pictures of fire, people were amazed. I don’t know, I guess I was getting something others didn’t. Maybe. Anyway, yes, fire show photography is expressive, exciting, awesome even, and maddeningly difficult. 😀 I sometimes feel I’m as much a fire handler that the guy wielding the torch! Except that he’s actually handling it! Fire is alive. And its every move is technically on very far ends of the scale. In a swing of a torch the brightness of the fire during movement and at the point of tipping changes greatly. The fire is A LOT brighter at the tipping point when of course isn’t catching the wind. But then you have fire balls from throwing sawdust where the difference is like the one between shadow and sunlight, and the many levels of brightness in fire breathing. That’s the most mind boggling. You’re following the show, your ISO is high, your shutter speeds are down to focal length speed, the fire handler is doing something with low intensity fire. Then all of a sudden, he takes a sip. In your mind it’s like Chernobyl disaster, the alarm goes on, technicians scramble around, you know the difference in light will be HUGE, so you try to anticipate (you have a couple of seconds left), you lower the ISO, you increase the shutter speed to what you believe should be enough, you frame it, shoot off in a high speed continuous, and you catch it. Wait for the buffer. Turn on the preview. And usually the first word that comes out of your mouth is “FUCK!”. Not enough, it’s overexposed. You start kicking yourself in the ass and try to get it the next time. But … (you got it!): Don’t count on it! 😀 See, it’s not all up to you and the three variables (shutter, aperture, ISO), it’s also up to the fire handler. If they blow harder, the fire will be brighter… Good luck. 😀
Anyway, every show is different. Sometimes, you don’t need more than 2000 ISO when working with a tele lens. And sometimes you need to go up to 6400 for sharp burning rope photos. But at that ISO and f/4 fire breathing will still be overexposed at 1/4000s. So you need to set the camera back to a little more than what you’d set it to in daylight. (I know, I shot fire breathing in sunlight, too! 😀 ) Fire is a constant challenge. And if you have high demands for yourself like me, you’re good for the rest of your life. It never ends! There’s plenty of fire moves that you’ll screw up. 😀 And keep screwing up. 😀
Try doing all this after an Ironman competition. 😀 After three days of saying hello to the breaking dawn and running around in a giant oven, the body loses more water than you have time to drink, and your brain has shrunk to the size of a walnut. 😀 Thinking is nowhere near the body’s priority list. Your shriveled up liver, half boiled eyeballs and dirt dry brain just want to survive! 😀 But you know what, it’s still great fun! It’s a reunion with photographers I only see at these festivals and performers that seem to sport a different image every time I see them. 😀 And it’s not just new hip glasses either! It’s like babies and stuff. 😀 This year the Ana Desetnica festival celebrated its 20th birthday and it was awesome. The scenery, the vibe, the huge crowds of people, the amazing shows etc. People loved it so much. I still think it’s one of the best fun times you can have in Ljubljana in the summer.