Archive for the ‘Technique’ Category

Onstage with Jucifer

Friday, July 17th, 2009

Jucifer 16

I shot Jucifer at the Ottobar this week, and had the opportunity to get up close and personal onstage. I had stage access at Maryland Deathfest, but this was different. At MDF, stage access was granted for all photographers by the festival organizers, not the individual bands. None of us really knew how the bands felt about this, so we stayed back, mostly using the access to get crowd and drummer shots. This time around, I spoke with Jucifer’s guitarist/vocalist/amp queen Amber Valentine before the show and got the OK directly from her.

So I suppressed nightmares about stepping on a cable and pulling a mountain of amps down on my head, slapped a 12-24 ultrawide zoom onto my D300, charged up the flash (as I’ve discussed before, Jucifer uses a custom lighting scheme which looks awesome but is almost impossible to shoot well without flash), and took up residence in one corner of the stage for about half the show. Unfortunately the other side of the stage wasn’t really accessible, but I’m not complaining.

Jucifer 14

I like the shots I got – can’t decide between my favorite of the above two – but I do wish I’d tried a wider variety of angles, including some to get the crowd in the shots, and some standing up. Almost all the shots I took were crouched low both to not be totally conspicuous (a lost cause anyway, really, since I was using flash) and to be able to get dramatic angles of Amber as she was thrashing away on her knees. Thing is, those low-angle shots are precisely the kind of shots you can get from the crowd or the photo pit, so I wish I’d tried a few different things. Jucifer always play a pretty short set, so I had less time than I’d ideally like. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch them the next time they come around!

Oh, and also: whenever I use an ultrawide lens, I almost always wish I’d gotten closer. So yeah, that too: I wish I’d gotten closer. I was probably a foot and a half away from Amber at some points, but even closer would have been even better, especially for a shot like this:.

Jucifer 11

So that’s three shots that all kind of look alike. There’s another member of the band, of course. Edgar Livengood, the drummer, is as much a joy to shoot as Amber is, as he plays as emphatically as any drummer I’ve ever seen, eyes closed, with boundless energy that often brings him up onto his feet, arms raised high in the air. Sadly, I wasn’t really able to get onto his side of the stage, but I still managed a couple usable shots of him. Nothing as good as what I got last time though.

Jucifer 04

Finally, I also had my D700 with me, 50/1.4 mounted, and I got a few no-flash shots which, due to the nature of the lighting, are more “artsy” than they are documentary. Here’s my favorite of the bunch:

Jucifer 08

Many thanks to Amber & Edgar for being good sports and for being incredibly nice in general. Full photoset is here.

Tungsten light

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Molly Hagen 2

I don’t work with controlled lighting all that much, so I rarely get to use the photographer’s trick of making dramatic portraits by lighting a subject with warm tones and setting white balance to tungsten, letting the sunlit background go to blue. Sometimes, though, I get the chance to do this by happenstance, as when a musician performs under incandescent lights outside or near a window while there’s still some daylight left. Above, Molly Hagen performs at Artomatic yesterday, a perfect opportunity to shift my white balance and turn the background to deep blues. Actually, the light on Molly was way beyond tungsten; it was a red-gelled incandescent can. I had my white balance at the minimum 2500 Kelvins and it was still too red – oh well.

Here’s another where there wasn’t quite enough sky visible to get quite as dramatic an effect. Also, the photo kind of sucks a bit. Whatever. This is Jan Bang, performing during Nordic Jazz Week with Arve Henriksen, who’s pictured in an earlier post:

Nils Petter Molvaer & Arve Henriksen 04

I really want to do some portraits like this – next time I’m doing a portrait session outside I’m definitely bringing my CTO gels.

Make it look real, or make it look good?

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

My post-processing routine for concert photos involves cropping, curves, noise reduction, and sharpening. Sometimes, if the lights make skin tones go green or some subtle but sickly shade, I’ll correct for that. But I don’t generally go beyond that. Recently, though, I shot a show at Jaxx where the lighting consisted of nothing other than deeply saturated reds and blues. When the band members were lit with all red, I didn’t have many options either at the time or in post-processing, but when they were lit with blue, some serious color balancing was possible after the fact.

Roll your mouse over each image – above, Sweden’s The Haunted, and below, Canada’s The Agonist – to see what they looked like before color correction in Capture NX. (If you’re viewing this in an RSS feed reader, you’ll probably actually have to visit the blog to get this to work.)

I don’t normally like for my concert photos to be so unrepresentative of what I was actually seeing, but those deeply blue images are so unattractive that I’m willing to make exceptions in this case. By bringing down the blue channel and pumping up the red – which, of course, comes with a definite penalty in higher noise levels – I can make skin tones look reasonably decent while also making the background (if it happens to be red fog) much more dramatic. It’s a win-win as long as the original exposure is good enough that the image can handle all this manipulation without become a blizzard of noise.

Lots more photos from that show here, the majority of which were manipulated in this manner to get more pleasing colors.

Music as a Weapon IV

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Disturbed 11

Hard rock/metal arena show in Baltimore. Pit was a fucking zoo, between the dozen photogs and the line of burly security guys keeping the crowdsurfers from bashing their heads into the floor. (You can see how full it was in this video, or this one.) Some of the photographers seemed incredibly unprofessional, but then I have this weird idea about standards of behavior in the photo pit. Basically, I don’t think it’s appropriate to act like a fan in the photo pit. Is that just totally silly? I don’t know. I feel like, it you’re in the pit, you have a job to do, and you’re supposed to be taking the photos, not getting in them. A little headbanging, ok, but fist-bumping a band member seems like it crosses some kind of line. I dunno. At venues with no pit I don’t have the same ideas; in fact, when I shoot at a place like Jaxx I feel out of place if I don’t act like a fan as well as a photog.

Also, a pet peeve: if a show is supposed to be a no-flash show, please please please turn off your autofocus assist lamp. That thing can be as annoying as a flash, since it comes on every time the camera tries to refocus. And for god’s sake turn off the automatic LCD preview (to be fair, I haven’t seen any concert photos in the pit with that on).

Disturbed 10

The gig itself wasn’t the greatest to shoot. Except for Disturbed (who had an awesome stage setup, as above), the lighting tended to be monochromatic, deep color washes, that annoying kind of light where proper exposure gives you ugly, deep shadows and overexposure completely blows out individual channels. Ugh. The biggest problem, though, was the height of the stage. The stage floor was at about neck-height on me, which meant that the monitors were above my head. So most of my shots are unflattering up-angled crap. It threw me off a little more than it should have, I think; my instinctive compositional tricks just don’t really work as well when I’m pointing my camera at a 45 degree angle upwards.

A lot of concert photogs just have a single subject in the frame for most of their shots, keeping things as simple as possible. My style is pretty different: I like to have at least two things going on in my shots. That could be two or more performers, but it doesn’t have to be – it could be a performer and some interesting background lighting, or a performer and the crowd, or a performer and some kind of prop. A lot of the times I achieve this effect by shooting wide, keeping the primary subject on one side of the frame with something else going on elsewhere in the shot. Turns out, with a super high stage, this is a hell of a lot harder to pull off.

Killswitch Engage 09

Also, random minor disappointment: Killswitch Engage has a tall, goofy-looking guitarist (on the right in the photo above) who just goes crazy while performing, literally running back and forth from one side of the stage to the other for the whole set. During the second song something went wrong with his guitar and he left the stage. Then, while the band bantered a bit before the third song, he leaned into the mic and said, “So we’re Killswitch Engage from Massachusetts. And you must be Baltimore. So this funny thing happened – my guitar won’t work. So instead of playing, I’m just going to rage. I’m gonna rage.”

I think he kept muttering “I’m gonna rage” several more times, too, at which point I was planning on doing nothing but following this crazy mofo around with my camera for the third song. But then, the damn techs seemed to get his guitar fixed, and instead of “raging,” he just played. Running back and forth and pretending to kiss his bandmate and doing other crazy stuff, but I was still disappointed. I wanted him to rage.

Lacuna Coil 05

Finally, before shooting the show, I interviewed Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil (above), and the transcript can be read at the City Paper.

More photos here.

Worst concert photography advice ever

Saturday, December 6th, 2008

Broken Social Scene 01


Turn off the AF: Any auto focus mechanism requires a certain amount of minimum light level for it to work effectively. In concerts where the lights often flash, such as rock shows and dance events, this becomes difficult. The camera’s auto focus mechanism simply does not have the capability to focus when the lights are flashing on and off and varying in intensity as well. No camera in today’s market would be able to lock focus in such circumstances. This is why you could get off-focus images in low light conditions. The answer of course lies in switching the focus to Manual Focus. Many compacts apart from DSLRs of course, offer the manual focus feature. To make things even better, use as small an aperture as possible, so the depth of field is greatest. Again, read that as very high ISO levels to start with (out first tip).

I highly recommend any budding concert photographers out there not heed this nonsense (unless you’re using a film SLR or a full-frame DSLR with a custom focusing screen). And that tip to use as small an aperture as possible? Wow.

Although, I suppose it’s valid if you take “as small as possible” to mean “wide open or really close to it.”

I’ve gone to the dark side

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Watain 23

Or, the light side, as the case may be: last Friday, I used a flash for a concert shoot (Watain at Jaxx). I’ve literally never done this before, partly because flash is often against venue or band rules, partly because I think flash at shows is really annoying, partly because I just don’t really know how to use flash that well. But at Friday’s show, two of the opening bands basically performed in total darkness: Book of Black Earth used bright backlights exclusively, while Withered used nothing but four dim red lights sitting on the floor of the stage pointing straight up. For both bands, the house lights were dimmed to almost nothing.

This made available light photography impossible, for obvious reasons. Out came the SB-600, which I’d never brought to a show before but did for this one thanks to the magic of the Internet. I’d read some blog reviews of previous shows on the tour and knew that light was going to be minimal. I proceeded to use the Book of Black Earth and Withered sets to figure out, on the fly, just how the hell to do flash photography of live music without getting that horrible washed-out look that most people get when they nuke a concert with their flash. (Fair warning: technical mumbo-jumbo ensues starting now.)

This basically involved two things: getting the flash off camera, and balancing flash with ambient light (impossible for Withered’s set since there was no ambient light). The first thing was easy – I’ve thus far refused to drop $75 on a stupid off-camera flash cord, but luckily Nikon’s CLS wireless flash system works perfectly well for stuff like this. So: camera in right hand, flash in left, make sure the infrared sensor on the flash is facing the camera, and we’re good to go. Balancing flash and ambient proved to be tricky, though: you know, since the ambient light levels fluctuated like crazy, at least for Watain’s set.

Book of Black Earth 2

Still, for Book of Black Earth and Withered, with no ambient to speak of, the challenge was fairly academic – just getting the settings right. I settled on ISO 200, flash at 1/32 power, shutter speed relatively high since I didn’t need to worry about letting in ambient light. I adjusted aperture depending on flash-to-subject distance; if the musician I was shooting was right up at the mic and in my face, I stopped down to f/5.6; if he was further away, I opened up, all the way to f/2.8 as needed. It probably would have been more ideal to maintain a constant aperture and adjust flash output as necessary, but changing aperture is way more practical, since I can do it with a flick of the index finger, while changing flash output involves many button pushes going through the D300 menu system.

I did do some dragging of the shutter, as in the photo above, but I generally find that technique a little overdone, so I kept it to a minimum. All in all I’m pretty happy with my results, at least for Watain’s set – one thing about using flash is that, although it makes me take far fewer photos (as I’m always conscious of how annoying it is for both the performers and the audience when some photog is blasting away indiscriminately with flash), my hit rate is way, way better. When shooting available light, I’ll often fire off a burst of 4-5 frames at a time to ensure I get at least one sharp image, and that’s just not a concern when using flash.

What was really tough was framing and focusing with one hand in near-total darkness. (This is where that expensive off-camera flash cord would have come in handy – the Nikon SC-29 has an infrared autofocus assist lamp on it.) I’m actually really surprised I didn’t miss the focus more often, and that’s a testament to the D300’s ability to autofocus in incredibly low light.

Watain 03

Another challenge was switching between flash and available light. This involved changing no less than four settings: ISO, white balance, shutter speed and (often) aperture, not to mention clicking open or shut the pop-up flash and taking out or putting away the SB-600. All this made it impossible to switch smoothly or frequently between the two, something I’ll need to figure out in the future, perhaps using the D300’s custom shooting banks? Not sure.

Still, all in all for a first-time flash shoot, I like what I got and I was surprised to really enjoy using flash. It adds a whole new dimension to concert photography and lets me get awesome quality shot – there is so much more latitude when processing ISO 200 images compared to ISO 1600 or 3200 images! One thing I will do in the future: slap a 1/4 CTO warming gel on my flash. It seems bizarre to me that I would ever want to add any red to a concert shoot, but this flash photography thing is a whole different game indeed. I think my photos would look a lot better with a bit more warmth in the flash (and I can’t easily tweak this by changing white balance in post, since that changes the tones of the ambient light as well).

As for the show itself, well, I’ll have something at the City Paper soon. Short version is, Watain sounded great, looked imposing and smelled terrible. They set up the stage like a shrine – candelabras, impaled animal heads, a mic stand covered in what looked like animal skins and dead rats – and came onstage soaked in pig’s blood and smelling like rotting meat. They then proceeded to crush the small audience with inspired performances of songs mostly from their latest album, Sworn to the Dark. Quite an intense night, and very appropriate for Halloween!

In the words of another photographer in the front row with me:

After the show, we had to discuss whether Watain had smeared shit (manure) on themselves. They smelled like they did. I mean they were putrid. It was so great.


Watain 04

Full set here.

What’s in a shot?

Friday, October 10th, 2008

Regionals 073

Last weekend at Regionals, I got a sequence of four photos beginning with the one above that represent what I believe are the best Ultimate Frisbee photos I’ve yet taken. What went into getting those shots?

  1. Positioning. This was shortly after a dead disc, so I had time to move down the sideline and position myself slightly behind the thrower. This is my favored position – it makes it difficult for me to get good shots of deep throws, but I have opportunities for dramatic shots (like this one) of players cutting in towards the thrower.
  2. Knowing the players. The Los player (in white) is one of the team’s main handlers, who touched the disc a lot every time he was on the field. I knew Los would be looking to get him the disc. Similarly, the Truck Stop player is one of that team’s most explosive defenders, and any time the disc is thrown to his man there’s a chance that he’ll make a spectacular play. Knowing all this, I had my lens trained on this matchup even as I surveyed the field to track the play.
  3. Reaction time. Even having my camera trained on this matchup in advance, getting the right moment is always a challenge. I would have loved to have gotten an extra frame before the shot above, but alas. With the dramatic part of this play wrapping up in considerably less than one second, I’m pretty happy with how I did in this respect.
  4. Gear. It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer, or so goes the saying; but for sports photography, the camera matters. My D300 had sufficiently fast autofocus to get the focus right in each of the four frames it shot off in the space of half a second. Also, my 80-200/2.8 lens (stopped down to f/3.5) threw the background out of focus as per this post, and at 200mm got me close enough to get good detail in the faces – what you see above is nearly uncropped (and looks fantastic at full size).
  5. Luck. Always helpful.

More photos from Regionals are here.

Wide apertures for sports photography

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Henlopen 77
mmm… nice creamy background…

There’s a common misconception that, when shooting sports on sunny days, an f/5.6 lens of a given focal length is just as good as an f/2.8 lens of the same focal length. That’s certainly true in terms of exposure, of course; when you can get shutter speeds of 1/1000th or faster even at f/8, who cares, right?

But the real technical issue here, once you can get an adequate shutter speed, is depth of field and subject isolation. Cluttered, relatively in-focus backgrounds are death for good sports photos, traditionally conceived: anything drawing the eye away from the subject is bad. Look at a professional sports photo and invariably you will see a strong subject and a blurred-out, indistinct background, with nothing to distract from the action. Look at an amateur photo – even one capturing good action – and you will often see a distracting background. In my opinion this is one of the main telltales separating the pros from the rest (assuming all is equal regarding composition and exposure).

This is also why, to capture a shot of some action happening all the way across the field, having something like a 400/2.8 lens is way better than using an 80-200/2.8 lens, like the one I use, and cropping the frame down. The longer focal length of the 400mm will result in much shallower depth of field and stronger subject isolation compared to the 200mm cropped down. Since I’m not a pro and I can’t afford to drop $8,500 for a 400/2.8 (or $4,000 for a 300/2.8, for that matter), I have to make do with the latter technique, and that ruins some photos sometimes:

Sectionals 70

This one would have been way better if the players on the sideline had been thrown more out of focus – either if the play had happened closer to me (and thus the sideline had been further from the plane of focus), or if I’d had a longer lens (thus giving a much shallower depth of field).

In general, I’ve taken to stopping down to f/3.5 or f/4 if the light is good, to get enough depth of field to keep two players in focus (and to avoid the problem I’ve had before where the disc and a player’s hands are in focus, but not his or her face), and because, like any lens, the 80-200/2.8 is a bit sharper when stopped down. At these apertures the background is generally out of focus enough to not be distracting, unless, as above, the action is far away from me, in which case I’ll sometimes be quick enough on my feet to open back up to f/2.8 before taking the shot.

To me, in terms of sports photography, subject isolation is the biggest reason to upgrade to a wide-aperture lens… shutter speed is secondary. Granted, I almost exclusively shoot Ultimate Frisbee outdoors during the daytime, when light is plentiful; shutter speed is a real consideration for indoor sports shooters.

The power of post-processing

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

The image above is straight out of the camera. Hover your mouse over the image to see what it looks like after post-processing. (Sorry, if you’re reading this post in a feed reader, you have to visit the actual site for this to work.)

What I saw “in real life” is somewhere between the two: with the settings I use, my D300 tends to capture images that are somewhat low in contrast and “punch.” In Photoshop, I pumped up the contrast and, to a lesser extent, the saturation, taking an incredibly boring photo and turning into something much, much more dramatic. It’s still not a great photo by any means, but it illustrates how simple levels/curves tweaks can go a long way.

Pleasant surprises

Monday, August 4th, 2008

Day 213: Do not pass

They say that photographers are seldom pleasantly surprised when looking through recently developed/downloaded photos. If you know what you’re doing, the idea goes, you know when you’ve gotten a great shot. You might be disappointed when you find out it’s not as great as you first thought (or it’s not as great as it looked on that tiny LCD on the back of your camera), but it seldom works the other way around.

The above photo is the closest I’ve come to an exception to this rule. I had the random idea, looking at my sideview mirror, that it would be cool if I could get the double yellow lines on the road and in the mirror to line up. I was stopped at a light and had a couple seconds, so I craned my camera out the window and tried to get the lines, well, in line. I failed miserably. Oh well.

Then when I looked at the shot after the fact, I realized that the discontinuous lines – including the reflected lines on the body of the car – made for a much more compelling composition anyway. Granted, the photo needed some post-processing (cropping, serious curves tweaking for contrast, and desaturating all the channels except the yellow) to make it what it is, but I’ve come to accept that as normal.

Oh, and the one circumstance that I feel “pleasant surprises” happen: catchflash in concerts. There’s just no predicting when you might catch someone else’s flash, giving you a perfect amount of clean white light to balance out the dim, colored washes. It’s only happened to me a couple times, but one of those times it produced a photo that I use on my business cards.