Sunday, July 25, 2010

Concert shooting advice

Drummer Dooley

This post comes in response to a request for advice from a friend I'll call Mr X.

Hi CC, I’d like some advice if you have any.

I’m reviewing a XXX concert here in London in a fortnight and they need photos. Any advice for concert shooting? My lens can only get down to f4.5 and built in flash only. It’s not ideal gear but it’s what I have to work with so any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated.

Mr X.

Hi Mr X,
My first advice is more about the shoot than the shooting.  Do all your homework first.  Scout the venue beforehand, make absolutely sure everyone you need knows what you're doing and talk to as many of them as possible:  Promoter, band, manager, venue owner, sound guy, lighting guy, security, and any other media.  Make sure they're going to play ball with your plan.  It's easy for a venue manager to miss briefing security properly, resulting in you missing out on access.  I once nearly had my arm broken by George Thoroughood's bouncer for trying to talk to him without an appointment - and I was part of the warmup act!  Talking to everyone also gives you a chance to ask more questions, sus out the best vantage points etc.  Pro concert shooters are often limited to shooting just the first 3 songs, and flash photography can also be an issue.  You need to be on top of all this.

Now lets talk pictures.  The pictures you get could just be the difference between a) getting a gig for Rolling Stone or b) stacking shelves for the rest of your life.  For the band, it could be the difference between c) Looking like hardworking professional musicians riding a rocket to the top or d) a bunch of drugged-out crims who just 'found' a van full of musical instruments.  Everyone wants you to make the best pictures you can.

OK, to the hardware.  I'm not a gear snob.  I think you can make good pictures with just about any camera if you have a little know-how, but you are up against a number of limitations with what you have.  I just don't think an f4.5 lens is going to be up to the job in concert lighting without really cranking your ISO up well past 1600.  On-board flash, even on a high-end DSLR is kind of impotent in a concert setting.

If that is really your only option for a camera, my best advice is to hunt flickr and local camera groups for someone keen with all the gear who will do the shots for free. There'll be dozens leaping at the chance. I think you'll get your best result that way, and you'll be free to concentrate on your review. Much lower stress levels, and you'll make a good future contact.

If the picture credit is important to you, (and why wouldn't it be?) I suggest you borrow or hire gear that's going to guarantee you some good shots with the greatest of ease, and the easiest way is to get a camera with a fast lens that will make good pictures with the ambient lighting. It should be easy to find reasonable camera hire in London. Sounds like you could get away with a prosumer DSLR and fast lens to do low light non-flash stuff  I recommend something like the Canon 450 D and the cheap 50mm f/1.8II lens.  The 450 only has an ISO of 1600, but with steady hands, you'll be able to get some good pictures - of course if you can get a better camera and faster lens for a good deal, take them.  These are examples of what the 450D and 50mm 1.8II can do:

Jack Hiku


If flash is permissible, then I'd include a strong dedicated flash to give some variety to the shots.  Whatever you decide to use, make sure you know the gear and are ready to use it.

If you decide to stick with what you've got, you've got some challenges to overcome, but that's not to say you won't get some useful shots.  Get out to some pub gigs and practice until you can get consistently good stuff.  Without knowing more about your setup, here's what you might find:

Live setting: Stage lights, moving performers. Flash off.  You crank up your light sensitivity (ISO) as far as it goes - maybe 1600, possibly 6400.  You probably know that's going to risk some noise in your images, but that's not the biggest worry.  I reckon your shutter speed is going to be so slow that you'll get a lot of blur, both from camera shake and the moving performers. You might shoot at slow speed from a tripod, in which case you'll get a nice sharp stage and light rig but blurry performers. And it's not easy to wrangle a tripod in the mosh pit. Not ideal.  But there's a glimmer of good news.  If your writing is good, blurry impressionistic shots might get by, but I don't recommend it.


OK, now lest see what your options are with flash activated - if they let you use flash.  On board camera flash usually has an effective range of 3-5m. Is that going to be enough? Everything out of range will be dark, except maybe for the lights. That lighting will be fairly unflattering too, possibly including redeye.  You'll get stuff looking like party snaps. 

Your other option is to use your flash and drag the shutter. 
The Boogieman IMG_1337.jpg
Shutter drag example

I don't know what your camera calls this setting, it might be night portrait or slow sync.  Or you could put your camera into manual mode, set your aperture and exposure for the ambient light and use the flash as well, you'll get the same effect.  The camera will attempt to get the best exposure for the ambient light, giving you a long shutter speed and blurry images, but it will also fire the flash, lighting and freezing the subject. The result will be a trippy looking combination of sharp subject overlaying subject and background blur. This can work OK for rock shooting.  In this mode you'll get something useful. Again, experiment with the technique first. Actually rotate the camera or zoom with your feet during the exposure to make some blurred light trails and you'll come up with some good creative stuff.  As you can see, you risk the drugged-out crim look with this technique. This may please some bands.


We haven't even talked about how to use a dedicated flash if you decided to go that way, or coverage - what to shoot, but this could turn into a very long discussion.  If you've access to the band, try to get some shots of them before or after the gig too, and if I'd try to tell the story of the gig by shooting offstage stuff too: punters, lighting and sound, setup, soundcheck.  That's where a good dedicated shooter can come in handy while you concentrate on the journalism.



Best of luck Mr X, and I look forward to seeing your review.

Have you got a favourite band or concert shooting tip?  Don't be shy to share it with us.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

More Photouring

Viv and the Big Sky

I'd like to think my clients Viv and Margaret learned a lot on my latest photour into the wintry Maniototo, but I've a sneaking suspicion I learned more.  They're both very accomplished photogs and got some terrific images on our big day out, which I'm hoping to post a few examples of some day soon.

Margaret en Photour

I was reluctant to snap away myself, wanting to be of most service to my guests, but they insisted that while we were in such stunning surrounds, I get some shots for myself, so I took up Viv's offer of playing with her Canon G10, as well as my own Canon DSLR's.  Here's one I liked:

Fire and Ice

That's solid ice, thick enough to support my weight all the way across.  What did I learn of value from the trip?  Too much for one blog entry, but I'll share two biggies:  Kathmandu duck down vests and fleece fingerless gloves that convert into mittens. 

What's your favourite bit of photography wardrobe?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Breaking the rules

I like rules. Miss C needs them. She's only six and so there's a lot of stuff she hasn't quite got a handle on yet, so until she's ready she likes the rule about always holding Mum or Dad's hand when crossing a road. She's playing it safe, and I'm glad.  Of course, she's going to grow out of that rule pretty soon, and it's the same with photography.

We've got rules like the rule of thirds, the one about keeping your horizon horizontal, and keeping the eyes in sharp focus. No-one is going to be punished if you break these rules, they're more like guidelines - ways to play it safe, and there are times when its good to stop playing safe, to break the rules and come up with something special. Like this:

Angel of the Alps

Having made wildlife films, I know critters that are running away aren't nearly as interesting as oncoming critters. I know eyes and faces are the most interesting part of an animal or human being. So chasing Keas the other day, I really wanted an oncoming shot. I wanted to capture the brilliant flash of orange under their wings, the curved beak, and eyes sharply in focus.

Unfortunately they wouldn't play ball. But I shot away anyhow, trying to get what I wanted and learning what I could from each attempt. Looking at the shots later I knew I hadn't got what I set out to capture, but I still liked one or two. The spread of wings, the brilliant colours, the sense of motion, even a bit of mystery and character. Shots of birds' backs, and they still worked for me. I'm not saying they're award winners, but they work on some levels. Over on Flickr, the award-winning wildlife photog Craig McKenzie said (rightly) that normally he'd dismiss a shot like this, but the colour really worked for him. He didn't know Keas had the red flash on the back - it's normally covered by their wings.


Sometimes its okay to break those rules.

Have you taken shots you liked that broke the rules?  Tell me about it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Walking the Tightrope

Right now I'm in Wanaka on my annual family ski vacation. Unfortunately, this early in the season, the snow up at Treble Cone is less than deep. So I took the time to go on a photo walk by the lakefront the other day. Conditions were dull, so I was out challenging myself to work with it. To be honest, I was struggling and in the cold conditions, was close to quitting several times.  I was just seeing cliche landscape stuff.

Wanaka Shoreline


But I stuck with it. The sky cleared, the sun started to set, and I ran into this guy practicing his tightrope walking by the lake. He was trying to get some shots of himself in action, so I offered to shoot some frames for him, and he let me take some for myself. I got some cool golden hour silhouettes.

Give 'em enough tighrope

It was a reminder of two important things. The first is that making a connection with people always pays off when you're making pictures. The second is that sometimes you need to work it, and sometimes you need to relax and let a picture reveal itself to you, stick it out and wait for the right things to come together.  Sometimes you need to walk that tightrope.

In other news, it looks like I'm going to be doing one of the celebrity walks on the Hump Ridge Track next year. My experience of the track this year was brilliant and I'm really looking forward to leading another group of photographers to see what new pictures we can make there. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 2, 2010

St Bathans Blues

The final destination on my quick Maniototo reconnaisance was St Bathans.  It's a beautiful little town, nestled in hills riddled with old gold tailings and a 68 metre deep lake that used to be a 120 metre high hill.  It's beautiful in winter, especially late in the day when the golden sun is on the snow, but at this time of year it doesn't get a lot of direct sunlight.  Still, it's worth bringing people to, for the mix of old buildings and the blue lake. This late in the day, with snow around, just about everything looks blue.

St Bathans

The blue lake isn't named for this shot, where the low afternoon light makes the snow look blue, but the colour of the water which is affected by the minerals in the surrounding hills. Nowadays it tends to be a bit green though, due to runoff and algal growth. I just had time for a couple of quick snaps and a quick chat at the pub about getting hot lunches for my clients, so like everything on this recce, these shots only hint at what can be done here.

The Blue Lake

To Falls Dam

With about 40 minutes before the sun hit the hills, I turned back on the road toward Ranfurly. The late afternoon light and snow combined with the clear sky for great landscape opportunities. The challenge is finding some engaging foreground.



The Wedderburn railway shed is another Grahame Sydney painting icon. It was only restored in the last few years, after being removed, but the painting's popularity and the growing tourist numbers attracted by the rail trail encouraged the locals to rebuild it. It sits at the intersection of some long straight roads that typify the region - and also make it a favourite haunt of motorcycle enthusiasts.

The Straight

The last of the sun's rays made for a quick silhouette of some cattle, and a shot of the hills above Ranfurly painted pink. Again, this was a wind-down-the-window -and-snap picture, so it's a bit soft and grainy but it shows the potential of the place.

Above Ranfurly

Two hours drive in the dark via Palmerston and I was home. Initial Maniototo winter reconnaissance complete and much intel gained.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Hoar Frost

Maniototo Hoar Frost 2

Central Otago hoar frosts can be spectacular, and being the coldest spot in New Zealand, the Ida Valley is the place to find them.  Sometimes the valley floor is fogged in for days and the cold conditions just encourage the frost to grow and grow, coating everything and turning the landscape into a strange infrared picture where the vegetation is white.

Hoar frost fence

Maniototo Hoar Frost 1

We weren't quite at spectacular as I drove down into the valley the other day, but it was okay.  Again, this being a reconnaissance mission, I was more about documenting potential photo ops than making great pictures. 

Maniototo Hoar Frost 3

One thing I didn't get a shot of was the several marsh harriers I saw perched on fenceposts by the road.  I'd love to get some decent raptor shots one day.

Ida Valley Snow 1

Ida Valley Snow 2

Further down the valley the fog lifted and snow appeared.  It's here in the Maniototo that the artist Grahame Sydney has made his own.  In his book, he's called it a timeless land.  I take the other view, that the works of time are on constant display, that time permeates everything - the long geological time that built and eroded these ranges, and the short day time that creates the changing light and shade.

Not Mr Sydney

It's hard not to look for opportunities to replicate Sydney's work.

Looking for Graham Sydney

It's pretty easy to evoke his style here, since much of his Maniototo stuff hangs on the low raking light and folds of the hills.

After Grahame Sydney

Still, I don't just want to replicate his vision of this place I must struggle to find my own.

Snow Blind

Learning about the Manitoto

I think I'm learning to see this place my way.  One thing I'm not thrilled about is the quality of these uploads.  I'm exporting directly from Lightroom 3 to Flickr.  Shots on Flickr often look dull to me, and I don't like the pixelation in these.  Must go under the hood and tweak the settings.  What's the point of a watermark if the images aren't good enough to steal in the first place?

Winter feed near St Bathans

Finally, the blue skies broke through. There was about an hour and a half of sun left and I made my way to my final destination: St Bathans and the Blue Lake.  More on that soon.