Mike Panic: My worst day as a photographer

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For nearly ten years I've been taking photographs, capturing moments and creating art with a multitude of cameras.  I've had an interest in photographyp for over twenty years, but it wasn't until 2000 when I started to pursue it more aggressively, actively learning and trying to improve, and breaching past the advanced amateur or hobbyist phase and move more into being a professional.  While the first few years were a lot of trial and error and cost a small fortune with film (pre-digital age for me), it was by far the worst day for me as a photographer.

July 11, 2008 was going to be an amazing day.  I had been invited to Manhattan for a birthday party to end all birthday parties for a friend, along with a few other people celebrating their birthdays.  The party would be held in a private loft, above a nightclub that was used to check IDs and verify age before special admittance was allowed upstairs.  1800 square feet of living space had been completely cleared out with the exception of a kitchen table to hold alcohol and a custom built DJ stand holding 4 turntables and a huge LCD TV on it.  Any movie you've ever seen that had an unreal house party scene in it pales in comparison.

The party was sponsored by a major beer company and had a high profile DJ spinning music all night; attendees were the it crowd of the Lower East Side and surrounding areas.  I asked my friend if it would be OK to bring my camera to document the night, and she told me it was more than OK, they wanted someone there to help document the mayhem that would ensue. It was also a great place to meet new people and contacts within several different industries.

A few weeks prior I acquired a Canon 5d camera from someone who barely had it a month and was switching systems.  This party would be the perfect place to test out the camera and having a full frame sensor for a small indoor event would be amazing.  So, after going through some normal test shots with it and familiarizing myself with the layout, as some things were changed over my aging 10d, I packed my gear on the 11th of July and head to New York City.

A few hours later we got to the party and a few shots in, my heart sank.  My camera wasn't functioning properly, and I couldn't figure out why.  I was going bonkers.  Not only was I missing shots, I felt like I was letting my friend and her friends down.  I checked and double checked the settings.  For this type of photography I typically shoot in aperture priority mode at 1/3rd of a second, rear curtain sync custom function ON in the camera and the flash on E-TTL mode, ISO around 200-320.  The end result is a look I've become somewhat known for, but it allows for light streaking and movement of the background while the rear curtain flash sync stops the person pretty much perfectly and exposes really well.  That wasn't happening for me.

Instead, the exposures were going on for several seconds and the flash was way off sync.  I didn't know what to do, baffled and completely flustered, clearly there was something I must have missed, but rechecking all my settings indicated nothing looked out of place.  Photos were coming out like this:

Cool effect, but not what I was after.  My only option was to go to full manual control and wing it.  The rest of the night was amazingly memorable, it actually ended up in Urb Magazine's top house party of 2008.  Sadly, most of the photos from the night were junk and had to be tossed into the recycle can.

While this wasn't a paid gig, rather a fun photo documentary adventure and the expectations from the photos were just, to be there and capture the moment, I let myself down.  The problem was an odd-ball custom function the previous owner of my camera had set, that I never bothered to check prior to shooting.  That stuff is essential photo 101, and it made me feel really stupid.  It was the worst day for me because I let myself down, and while we are always our own worst critics, it was sadly true here.

About Author

is a professional photographer. See his site at Mike Panic Photography.

Oh, the horror. One of my early gigs was an awards dinner – lord only knows why I said yes to it, but I had a cheap flash gun that didn’t work with my 5D and the results were random to say the least. The feedback wasn’t good. I vowed after that never again, I stick to portraits now (and to be fair, I know my equipment a lot better, too…)

Oh no, I’m sorry about that. What a nightmare. I’m glad that you were able to find out what the cause was.

Can you tell me what the oddball custom function was that the previous owner had it set to? Thank you so much!

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