Nikon Imaging | Madagascar | Middle East and Africa

Library of Inspiration

The Collaborative Power of Photography - Capturing the RIT Big Shot

Without the addition of light via light painting, this is the "before" image.

Once a year, for the last quarter of a century, Rochester Institute of Technology's photography professors, students and staff have been joined by members of the community, braving the cold Rochester, NY temperatures, occasional raindrops and snowflakes to capture the RIT Big Shot—a photograph of grand proportions.

The RIT Big Shot consists of a community effort in light painting, using—in this case a mix of electronic flashes and flashlights—to illuminate the exterior of a large building or structure during a long exposure of around 30 seconds. The shutter is kept open for a specific amount of time, at a small f/stop which ensures sufficient depth of field, while numerous volunteers illuminate the subject. When the project first began, electronic flashes were used to light the buildings photographed during the Big Shot shoots. Recently, flashlights have become a regular lighting instrument.

RIT professors Dawn Tower DuBois, Bill DuBois, and Michael Peres may be the organizers for each Big Shot, but without the students, alumni, staff and hundreds of volunteers, these large scale photographs would not be realized.

The exposure is accomplished by photographing the architectural subject in the evening, so there is little ambient light. The goal of the Big Shot is to provide the lighting for the photograph to be created.

Bill DuBois and Michael Peres came up with the idea for the Big Shot over two decades ago, "In May 1987 we were debriefing as the school year came to a close," Michael began. "We wanted to come up with a way to teach flash photography to the sophomore class, but in a fun, energy filled, and non-traditional way." A quarter of a century later, not only does the entire RIT photo community get involved but so do hundreds of Rochester locals, all learning about photography at the same time. "It has become so much larger in scope than Bill, Dawn or I ever imagined. It has taken on a life of its own," Peres says.

The RIT Big Shot exists, and has lasted this long, through volunteer efforts alone. Over the years, they've ventured into New York City to photograph the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, to Washington D.C., the Alamo; and as far as Europe—to Croatia, and Stockholm, Sweden to photograph the Royal Palace.

These are large architectural subjects, and so, many volunteers are needed—upwards of 1,000 were on hand for this year's Big Shot photograph of the National Museum of Play at The Strong Museum in Rochester, NY.


From Large Format Film to Nikon 35mm Digital SLRs

With large groups of volunteer "lights" the Big Shot is organized chaos. Team leaders educate their groups of volunteer "Flashers" as they are affectionately called, about light painting; and explain how and where they will be lighting their section of the architectural structure. The team leaders instruct the volunteers to aim their flashes and flashlights high onto the façade of the building, and keep the light constantly moving, so as to avoid hot-spots.

Over time, the RIT Big Shot migrated from film (they'd started with a large format 4x5 film camera, using Polaroid film to gauge exposure) to Nikon digital SLR cameras. The first digital Big Shot was #22. For this year, which is #26, D3X cameras were used.

By the evening of the Big Shot, all logistical issues have been worked out and the only concern left is exposure. Three DSLRs are used, set up (for this year's shot) on the roof of a building across the street from The Strong. The cameras are tethered to 15" Mac laptops. The first of four exposures is taken to determine the exposure they'll use for the final shot. They usually start at f/11, 30 seconds. DuBois explains that it's so much easier now, shooting digitally, "We see where to move people around, or whether we need to extend the exposure. For areas that are too bright, we'll have folks turn off their lights in mid exposure." Within seconds of hearing "Lens Open" to begin the exposure, the crowd will hear "Lens Closed" to end their illumination, and another year's RIT Big Shot has been captured as a photograph.

It was in Canandaigua, NY, when they were photographing the Ontario County Courthouse, that the local newspaper promoted the event, and so about 200-300 members of the local community came out with their light devices. According to DuBois, it was about 50/50 electronic flashes to flashlights. Regardless of device, the concept of light painting is the same—constant movement of the light source(s) over the subject, using the light to paint or build up the exposure on the camera's image sensor. It's the constant movement of the light source(s) during the exposure that gives the image it's softly lit look.

The Strong Museum promoted the Big Shot to its membership as a family oriented event, bringing families out in droves. DuBois says that the ratio this year was 30% electronic flashes to 70% flashlights.


What to Shoot Next

"We've been very blessed, its nothing like what we did 25 years ago," Peres says. "We're now getting ideas [for future Big Shots] from staff, students, alumni as well as photo aficionados."

Choosing a location to photograph however isn't as easy as it may seem. Whether the building is in Rochester, across the country, or around the globe, it needs to fit a certain profile. The first criterion it must meet is that it must offer substantial learning opportunities for the students and other participants. Will it photograph well? Can it be easily lit? Is it a location that is safe for all volunteers involved? Is the cost of travel too restrictive? And, most importantly, will the owner or site manager give them permission to photograph it?

Peres and DuBois explain that the suggestion to do an RIT Big Shot of the USS Intrepid was made a decade before they were actually able to pull it off.

With no budget set aside for the Big Shot projects, it is entirely volunteer driven on the part of the organizers, participants and sponsors.

Each participant then receives a print approximately three weeks after the RIT Big Shot shoot as a memento. Very little retouching is done to the RIT Big Shot image, so the final image/print has the truest representation of the lighting, in color and intensity, created by the participants.

"Over the years we've found that if we gave people a copy of the print they helped make, they'd show it off," says DuBois. Kids proudly point out the area that they helped to light, as well as the adults spreading the word among their family and friends. "One of the most important aspects of the Big Shot is the sharing of teamwork," DuBois adds.

Graduating senior, Rigoberto Perdomo, was a participant in the Big Shot for the past three years, with his involvement growing each year. "As far as being a bystander at the Big Shot, it makes you really feel like it is about more than just you," he says.

It has become a tradition, not only for the RIT photo community but for greater Rochester as well, with people coming out year after year. Rigoberto says: "It is the kind of event that brings families [out] to do something with others and strive for a single goal." He hopes to continue participating in future Big Shots as an alumnus.

DuBois, who is retiring this year, also plans to volunteer long into his retirement. "I love the camaraderie and rush of the huge discothèque of light during the Big Shot [exposure]," he explains.

Rochester's local newspaper, the Democrat & Chronicle covered this past RIT Big Shot as it often does. View the video story they produced here.

The final image, of The Strong, captured on May 5, 2011, at 9:09pm. Temperature was 56 degrees Fahrenheit. Direct digital capture using a Nikon D3X with 14 mm lens. Exposure time: 15 seconds at f/11, ISO 200. All external lighting was provided by hand-held electronic flash units and flashlights operated by approx. 1,003 people.

(l.) The before shot, with ambient light only, and no lightpainting. (r.) The final image, illuminated by over 1,000 volunteers with electronic flashes and flashlights.

© Rigoberto Perdomo