Its freezing cold, breath is misting in the air and I’m sweating profusely. On my back is my biggest camera bag, chock full and on my front is another sack full of rope and metal. Behind me is the registry office and I’m meant to be inside it. Halloween revellers pass, glimpsing at us with our painted faces and finding us photographers still as freaks in a melange of wierdness. Time goes on and the other photographers in our team head into position, cameras in hand. I’m not in position, my camera is’nt near my hands and the kit I’m carrying does’nt allow me to make a good backup plan. I’m to be on the third floor, flashes rigged, tripod up and harness on ten minutes ago. Dan and Ania, my last companions have to move soon. The day of packing and checking, the practice shoots and careful organisation are sliding down the drain because someone, somehow got the time wrong. Soon the Samhuinn procession will come down the Royal Mile, surrounded by spectators and I’m going to miss it.
The man with the key appears, sometime after eternity (subjective I suppose) and I’m in. Racing for the wedding chamber on the second floor. I dump my sacks and run through the kit, assembling it as fast as I can. I’m muttering “Do it like you practiced, just faster, same order”. Its pitch black outside so the flashes get rigged first. Three all sliding home onto one light tripod. The tripod and each flash clipped to a rope, the rope clipped to some stout plumbing. Full power, full zoom, the throw from the second floor out to the stage outside St Giles is long and right at the edge of what my kit can do. The time-lapse camera is prepared, the cable release is shorted, meaning that when the camera is switched on, it will motordrive for the entire event. 10s exposure on shutter priority, the light goes from dim to blinding during the performance and that’ll give the camera a chance to cope with the flares. Focus checked, double checked and triple checked. The camera is clipped and placed next to the flashes on the huge windowsills. Last but not least is my two hand-cameras. 5D bolted onto a titanic 500mm F4 from lensforhire.co.uk and a 1D with a 70-200mm for some flexibility. The 500 goes on a borrowed tripod and all the gear is clipped back to the building. I’ve dumped all my insulating layers and in only a long-sleeve t-shirt I’m out on the ledge in the chill October air. The crowd have gathered but the main procession is’nt in place yet. I plan to use the time to dial in my aperture for the flashes, around f/5.6. The pocketwizard on my 1D can’t reach the flashes, just two windows down, its AA batteries are somehow kaput. The TTL1 on my 5D is fine but there is no time to swap. I push the 1D to its highest usable ISO, 1600, crank the lens as wide as it will go and machinegun the procession, trying to pan with my subjects between the slaps of the shutter.
The procession reaches the stage and its game on for my flashes, the 500mm lens ultra-tight on the performers. The 5D can’t focus the big glass at the dim start of the ceremony so I’m manually focusing. Its a BIG focus ring but a nice tight lens so I do ok. Its VERY tight for the fire-dances so I switch to the 70-200mm, VERY time consuming with all the ropes, straps, tripod set about me. The 70-200mm is finally in the tripod and the flashes are doing OK. I’m hoping the time-lapse camera is still shooting but I can’t move to check it, even as the chill begins to settle through my shirt.
Fire dances and swirls, flightless birds are driven off by painted men and the stage goes red. The Red-Men are showstealers, stacking human beings to the beat of battling drums. The pyro guy is on the stage and the flare goes off, I expose a few frames at 1/20th before zapping the shutter to the maximum 1/250th I can squeeze from my strobes. A second flare backlights the performers and the hags are on the stage. Hags tear the hearts out of the red men and the Wild Hunt starts to encroach upon the stage. Somehow I find time to trade ISO for flash power, dropping each flash to half and throwing on a warm layer. Giant insects are battling a tree and I’m switching up for my 500mm for the fight of the kings.
The Kings are huge with recurved legs, I can’t include all of one in the frame. They duel with flaming swords and staves, posing and finally one is set ablaze and they fall. The Cailleach is onstage revealling with shockingly white hair and bloody teeth. She revives one (or both..) and friends and performers begin to mob the stage.
The drummers flank proceedings and the crowd surges in. The dancing begins and slowly dies down, my work is over. The gear goes into the bags and I meet my escort home outside, we work late pulling together an edit for the BBC website and other news outlets before slinking off to the after-party at Three Sisters.