A few days ago I talked about what may be the ultimate haunted house made for an elementary school fundraiser. It was created for a one time, 4 hour-long, autumn festival at my son’s elementary school. The haunted house team asked me if I could shoot candid photos of the kids inside the house, as they get frightened by the wicked witch.
The project is more complicated that you might think but I took it as a challenge and to help a worthy cause. I thought about this for a month or so. I asked several knowledgeable photographers and the hardware guys over at Precision Camera. They all seemed sympathetic and wished me luck but they were clearly relieved that they weren’t on the hook to come up with a working system. So I decided to design a system myself. Well, I pulled it off and wanted to describe how I did it, just in case you might want to do something similar. There are certainly things that could be improved and I’ll talk about them at the end.
I had two large challenges. First, how do I take good photographs in a dark area with a good (frightened) expression on the kid’s faces. Next, how do I quickly transfer these photographs 20 feet away to be previewed and printed. I also wanted to do this as inexpensively as possible and ideally, not buy any new equipment. After all, spending money on gear with reduce profits for the school.
Taking the Picture
It turned out that I had all the gear I needed to take the pictures. I didn’t want to use my newest and most expensive equipment since there was a risk of it being damaged in a dark room with scared and running kids.
Next to the last room, in the witch’s castle, we cut an opening into an interior wall. The camera was setup on the other side and shot through the opening. The haunted house had a Wizard of Oz theme and we planned to have a costumed wicked witch pop up and scare the kids as their photo was snapped. What was difficult was anticipating how the kids would react. Remember, this was a temporary setup that would be used for only 4 hours. We didn’t have much time to test and tweak the design.
I used my old Olympus E-PL1 and it was perfect. It was an old camera that I rarely used and I had two bodies, just in case one broke. I wanted to use an inexpensive kit lens but the 28mm equivalent was not wide enough for the room. I had to use the Panasonic 14mm with the wide-angle adapter instead, which gave me a decent 22mm perspective. You can still get inexpensive, refurbished Olympus cameras for less than $200 at Cameta Camera (you have to check frequently since they go in and out of stock). And if you design the room properly with more depth, the standard kit lens might work for you too.
The E-P1 is not a fast focusing camera but this didn’t matter. I shot everything in manual mode. The camera was set for manual focusing so the shutter fired immediately. The exposure and the flash system was also setup manually. You don’t have to use an Olympus, of course. Any camera that has a hot shoe, and can be preset for manual flash and manual exposure should work. However, many inexpensive point and shoots probably won’t fit the bill. They typically don’t have hot shoes as well as manual settings. Certainly DSLRs will work, as well as many of the mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras.
I had 2 budget flashes that provided light. I set them to manual both at 1/32 power. This allowed the flashes to recycle immediately and save battery power. I triggered them using budget and reliable Cactus V5 transceivers. You need one transceiver per flash and you need to put one on the camera’s hot shoe. I wanted to use another flash to soften the shadows on the walls but the third unit I had powered down in energy saver mode after 5 minutes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t disable that function. I made due with 2 flashes.
I set the camera to ISO 400, f5.6 at 1/125 per second in manual exposure mode. The micro 4/3 sensor on the Olympus has a greater depth of field than a DSLR, so I got away with f5.6. On a DSLR, I would use a smaller aperture (larger f number). I had the camera on a tripod and I used gaffer’s tape to attach it to the wall. The setup was easy enough for child to use. All they needed to do was push the shutter button at the right time.
Here is what the Olympus E-PL1 shot with the two radio triggered flashes. This is what the Witch’s Castle looked like just after it was setup. As you will see below, it was in sad shape 4 hours later.
Transferring the Photograph
The Eye-Fi card has two modes, direct mode from camera to computing device or through an existing Wifi network. This turned out to be the most complicated part of the whole system. I wanted to ideally use direct mode but the range was limited, perhaps to 10 feet and that’s not going through walls. If I had a typical photo booth where the photo was taken only a few feet away from the computer, direct mode should work fine. In my case, I needed to go through several walls and a good distance away so I would need to use the network mode.
At home, on my Wifi network, everything worked great. Transfer speeds were decent and the photos flowed effortlessly from camera to computer. However, at school, it was a nightmare. I wasn’t able to use the school’s WiFi network probably because they had certain network ports blocked and restricted. I improvised by using an old Apple Airport Express Wifi router. I effectively made a wireless LAN (local area network) at home and brought it to the school to get the setup working.
Setting up the wireless LAN was also tough. I’ll spare you the details but here is what I did. To setup the Apple Airport Express and the Eye-FI card you need an active internet connection. I temporarily connected my Airport Express to the cable modem and got everything configured first. Then I disconnected from the internet. This workaround allowed me to have a self-sufficient wireless LAN, not connected to the internet. When I got to the school, I powered everything on and it worked… mostly. I’ll go into the challenges later.
Preview and Printing
The Epson XP-800 is discontinued so it might become hard to find. It was replaced by the XP-810. While I prefer the older Artisan line, the printer did a solid job and printed high quality photos quickly.
We had a table setup outside and across a walkway from the haunted house. I had my MacBook Pro and an Epson printer that I bought for the occasion. The photos were sent wirelessly from inside the haunted house to the computer. Customers can preview their picture in iPhoto and I would print the 4×6 photo on the spot, if they decided to buy.
I considered bringing my Epson Artisan 810 that I used at home. This all-in-one printer has been very reliable and it prints great looking photos. Unfortunately, it was a little bulky and I no longer had its box. I decided to buy a separate printer for the project that I would pay for. Epson just discontinued that Artisan line and I bought an XP-800 instead, which was also on clearance and was the closest to the older Artisan printers. The XP-800 improves the black text printing over the Artisan but for almost everything else, I prefer the older printer. The image quality is close but the XP-800 has a bunch of annoying features that, while appear fancy, just gets in the way. For this project though, it worked fine.
Note: The Olympus natively shoots in a 3 x 4 aspect ratio like many point and shoots. I set the camera to a 2 x 3 ratio, which is typically used on DSLRs, so that when printed on a 4″ x 6″ paper, I wouldn’t need to crop the image.
The Olympus E-PL1 worked like a charm. It was more than fast enough and the people were in focus. The setup was easy enough and automated for a kid to take a picture reliably.
The low-cost flashes and the flash triggers never missed a beat. I shot about 350 photos and there was never a misfire and to my surprise, we didn’t run out of battery power. I did bring extra AA and AAA batteries.
I did change batteries once on the Olympus, which was expected since the WiFi transfer used additional power. I had 4 fully charged camera batteries so I was prepared.
The printer worked well and printed a 4 x 6 fast in less than 20 seconds.
When the Wifi was speedy, the entire process worked well.
In the dry run, before the kids started, everything worked great. The biggest challenge and the weakest link was the WiFi photo transfer. Sometimes it worked quickly and other times, it would grind to a halt. Definitely not the behavior I saw during testing. The only thing I can figure out is that there must have been signal interference. The haunted house had several computers and other electronics within close proximity of the Apple Airport Express.
Because of the lack of time and to be expedient, I ended up placing the flash units at waist level on tables in front of the camera. For a 2 -3 person group, the flash exposure worked great, for the most part. If I had a large group come though, I sometimes got more shadows than I liked. Depending on how people stood in the room, people at the head of the line would partially block the light for the people at the end.
What I would change
The Apple Airport Express I used was an older model so I would consider getting a more modern Wifi router and units with big antennas. I’m not sure if that would have fixed the problem but it would certainly be worth a try. I did discover in testing that the WiFi performance was the fastest when the Wifi router was closest to the Eye-FI card.
While I reduced the quality of the JPEGs to shrink the file size, (the file was about 2MB), when I had the performance problems, I should have also decreased the JPEG resolution. It doesn’t take much to print a 4″ x 6″ so a much smaller file, at a lower resolution, would have transfered faster.
I would mount the flashes higher up on the walls to reduce shadows.
I would have a barricade to keep a minimum distance from the camera setup to the place where people would walk through. This would ensure a more consistent flash exposure.
Finally, I would work with the designers to create a larger room that is closed off on both sides so we have a self enclosed area to capture the people. This will reduce the speed of people passing through.
Given the constraints in time, equipment and testing, I think the project went well. The haunted house and the photography was new to everyone so we were all learning on the fly and improvising.
I hope you found this setup interesting and perhaps this writeup will give you some ideas, if you are ever asked to do something similar.
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