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.
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.
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.
Full set here.