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The Sugar Plum Fairy at Chatsworth House, by Paul David Drabble

1 December 2017

This image was shot for Chatsworth House. I was contacted by their in-house PR & marketing department in October 2016. They explained that the house is dressed to a different Christmas theme every year and in 2016 it was to be the Nutcracker. The house would be decorated in keeping with the classic Christmas Nutcracker tale and to help bring it all to life there would dancers portraying some of the lead characters like The Sugar Plum Fairy, Clara, The Prince and others.

The press launch was on the 4th of November before opening to the public opening the following day. As Chatsworth pulls in over 100,000 Visitors during the Christmas season I was somewhat excited and a little surprised that the opportunity had come my way to shoot the opening for them.

On the day things didn't quite go to plan for me. Everything seemed fine at first, but I began having problems with intermittent flash - sometimes it would fire, sometimes not, and sometimes it would just kick out a full power flash. Some rooms used as locations had lovely natural lighting, but in others there was a definite need for at least a burst of fill flash to lift the shadows. As I had only one flashgun with me the obvious step was to try my spare body but the problem persisted. I managed to work out that the flash would work pretty reliably if the camera was held to shoot a landscape format image, but it would often fail when composing an upright. At least working that out left me with a few techniques to maximise my success rate - keep the flash gun on one body and shoot mainly landscape with it, and when shooting uprights use available light, try to stick with shorter faster lenses and get closer, push the ISO up, shoot on continuous high speed, to increase the chance of catching a pause in any movement if the shutter speeds are too low to actually freeze it, and shoot in RAW which might help if I needed to try to rescue an image in post.

This shot is one of the earlier ones from the photocall, showing the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Painted Hall against the backdrop of one of the giant Chatsworth House Christmas trees. It was hand-held at the 80mm end of a Nikon 80-200. ISO1600 f4.5 1/40 sec. The ballerina went through three or four different poses for the photographers, holding each pose for a few seconds, a number of times. This was one of those poses. Was I lucky or did I maximise my chances of success with experience and techniques? I like to think the latter but you could argue I should also have been carnying a spare speed-light.

Paul David Drabble is a professional freelance photographer based in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He has been freelance for 20 years and works for an assortment of PR companies, in house PR departments, local and national newspapers, and news agencies. Before going out on his own he worked as a full time staff photographer on two local weekly newspapers, The Rotherham Advertiser and The Barnsley Chronicle. That was back in the final days of all black and white film and through the introduction of colour film, and he made the transition to digital as a freelance photographer.

See more work by Paul David Drabble

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