Last year, I was lucky enough to have not one, not two, but three opportunities to have an all-access pass to photograph the amazing Dolly Parton. Using a friend of a friend connection, I simply asked if there was any chance that I could come to her opening show in Knoxville, Tennessee. I never thought I would get a “yes” considering how much of a legend she is, but I did- I had complete access to the arena and could go anywhere I wanted with the exception of Dolly's bus which not many people are allowed on. Over the next few months, I went around the southeast to shoot her shows and all the excitement that follows her around.
Making friends with her security team was the first step to gaining trust and access, so a lot of time was spent capturing a real behind the scenes look at how the team prepares an arena for a show for such a legend. Once Dolly comes out, it's all eyes on her. Sometimes she'll do a "meet and great" where she will shake hands and say hello to VIPs, or fan club members. But most of the time, she likes to go from the safety of her lavish tour bus straight to the stage with no interruptions. So most of the pictures I shot of her backstage, include her moving swiftly through ugly cinder block hallways, with low florescent lighting, safely amongst her security team.
One of my favorite pictures of Dolly is her about to go out on stage with her white, crystal encrusted fiddle against her chin ready to play to all her fans (top photo). It's a nice dark silhouette, showing a little bit of sparkle. That moment spoke to me. I'm standing 7 feet away from a living legend that I grew up listening to. She is about to be seen by thousands of her biggest fans, and she is calm, cool, collected, and silent (as was I). The band starts playing and the curtain busts open and she struts out on stage playing the fiddle while basically skipping to the beat of the music. Being a photographer, I can relate to musicians, we are all artists trying to better our craft. So being a relatively young photographer in the earlier stages of my career, standing next to someone who has basically reached the pinnacle of her craft, was pretty special for me.
Now for the stuff photographers like... For this shoot, I walked around with my 70-200mm 2.8 VRII lens on my Nikon D3S and kept a 35mm 2.0 attached to my Nikon D700 hanging from my shoulder for the first half of the show. Having the zoom lens attached allowed me to be just about anywhere in the venue and get the shot I wanted. Shooting from the side of the stage and down in the seats gave me the best viewing angles. I used the 35mm for wider crowd shots and backstage pictures. After the intermission, I took the D700 and a Nikon 14-24mm 2.8 with a Manfrotto Magic Arm and attached it high up to the huge video wall behind the stage. I used a Pocket Wizard remote trigger and cord to fire off wide angle shots of Dolly facing the crowd. Every time the house lights came on to light the crowd and her hands went up, I would push the little button on my Pocket Wizard in my shirt pocket, hoping for a magic shot.
As for setting and lighting, the stage and band aren't lit very brightly, but Dolly on the other hand has three spotlights on her at all times. So getting a shot of the band and Dolly was nearly impossible with a digital camera. Most of the time, I stayed on a setting that would get me nice, crisp shot of Dolly. With the three lights being so bright, I was able to keep my ISO down around 1000 or lower, and shoot at shutter speeds near 200th of a second to keep my shots sharp, to catch rhinestones and tassels bouncing through the air. I prefer a shallower depth of field so I usually shoot at 2.8 or lower.
I don't do much editing with Photoshop or Lightroom, with the exception of the recovery tool in Adobe Camera RAW. With all the bright lights and sparkles, I had to use that slider to keep the highlight from being blown out. And a little fill light allowed me to show some of the band or audience.
Bio: Curtis Baker is an Atlanta native and has been photographing for about five years. “I have spent that time shooting everyday, learning, and researching photography and photographers. I started as most do, photographing dogs, babies, and just about anything. Now I am a Fashion, Beauty, Commercial, and Unit Stills (movie set) Photographer. I am happily married and have a wonderful 2 year old daughter. When I'm not shooting, I'm riding my bike or hiking with my daughter and dog, (and thinking about shooting)."