Archive for the ‘Venues’ Category

Venue: Velvet Lounge

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Evangelista 1

More than any other venue in the DC area, I have a love-hate relationship with the Velvet Lounge. This place, just a block from the U Street metro, books some of the most interesting and off-the-wall stuff of any venue in the city, from avant-rock to free jazz to metal to completely out in left field stuff like the harp/tap-dance duo I saw there last December (below). If a vibrant, underground, forward-looking group is playing DC, chances are good they’re playing at the Velvet Lounge. And cheap! Door prices are often $8 or even less.

Lily Neill 14

So what’s the downside? First and foremost, this is the worst place in DC when it comes to set times. Doors often open at 9, set times are often delayed, and there are often four or more bands on the bill. If I’m interested in a headlining band playing at Velvet Lounge, I never expect to leave before midnight and I’m braced to be there until 2am. I find this unnecessary and annoying and it has numerous times dissuaded me from seeing a show I’d otherwise have been very interested in.

The second problem is a photography-related one: the lighting sucks, horribly. It’s all static cans, which is normal for a tiny club like this, but invariably they are turned down to impossibly dim levels, and worse, the two front lights are mostly blocked by ceiling-mounted speakers. (There’s been talk about fixing this latter issue, but the last time I went nothing had changed.) So: static, incredibly dim, deeply colored backlighting is more or less what you get. Have a chat with the dude in the back and maybe you can get him to keep the lighting at a reasonable level, but it’s still bad quality light. This is the kind of place that you bust out the f/1.4 primes and even then expect to get shutter speeds around 1/50 at ISO 3200. Capturing fast action is basically impossible without flash.

Pacific Before Tiger 3

That said, some positives: being such a small club (the upstairs part where the stage is holds probably 50-60 people at capacity – and that’s after they knocked out a back wall to create more space), the stage is at floor level, no one cares if you take photos regardless of whether or not you have a pass, and usually no one cares if you use flash. At most of the shows I’ve been to, crowds were modest, and even with the tiny size fo the venue there was plenty of room to move around. Of course, being such a small club with a floor level stage has a flip side – it’s easier to be distracting moving around taking photos, especially when using flash.

All things considered, Velvet Lounge is perhaps my least favorite place in DC to take photos, even if they do tend to book the most interesting stuff. Go there for the cutting-edge music, not for any great photo opportunities.

Venue: DC9

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

Marnie Stern 01

DC9, on the edge of the U Street district where the 9:30 Club, Black Cat, Velvet Lounge, Twins Jazz, Bohemian Caverns and more are all also located, is a small venue housed on the second floor of a bar (much like The Red and the Black and the aforementioned Velvet Lounge). The performance space, just a block or two from the U Street/Cardozo green line metro stop, probably has a capacity of 150 or so. The stage is basically at floor level, but unique because it’s set in a corner of the room, so the audience wraps around the stage on two sides, offering a nice variety of angles for photographers.

DC9 books a wide variety of shows, from indie-rock to metal to DJ’ed dance parties. For the conventional shows I’ve been to, the venue can get pretty crowded, but it’s usually pretty easy to move around and get different angles despite the fact that, obviously, there’s no pit. There is no photo policy; I’ve never been at a show where any limits on any kind of photography were advertised or enforced. I’ve even blasted away with flash at a crowded Marnie Stern show (trying as hard as possible not to be annoying, of course), and that was no problem.

Rachael Sage 13

Per the above photo, there is usually a spot of good lighting in the middle of the DC9 stage. If the primary performer sets up there, you’re golden – ISO 1600 with a fast prime is very doable except for the most active of bands. However, the stage lighting tends to be very patchy and dim outside of that one good spot. Performers on the side are tough to get and drummers, who tend to set up in the corner, are almost impossible (being both much further away from the edge of the stage and almost completely un-lit). Getting the drummer in the below shot required ISO 6400, f/1.8, 1/80, with the exposure pushed almost another full stop in post, and a black & white conversion to cope with extreme noise.

Per usual for a venue this size, the lighting is completely static – no fancy light shows here. But although the lighting is static and dim, there’s usually a nice mix of warm colors, cool colors and white light. At DC9 I usually end up shooting with my 50/1.8 at ISO 1600-3200 depending on the shutter speed I’m looking for, using my 17-55/2.8 sparingly for wider shots at higher ISO when I can afford to use a slower shutter speed. As I said, flash is also an option, which of course opens up an entirely different range of lenses that it’s possible to use. You can get close enough to the performers here that a fisheye or extreme wide-angle is a real option.

Salome 6

There are a bunch of venues around this size in DC, and DC9 is probably my favorite one to shoot in. They’re on the good end of the “static and dim” lighting spectrum, and the placement of the stage in the corner is really nice for moving around and getting lots of different looks. Just make sure you bring some fast lenses, a good strobe or a camera capable of extreme high ISO work.

Venue: Jaxx

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Virgin Black 10

Jaxx, just outside the beltway in Springfield, VA, is one of my favorite venues to shoot in. This is a little (capacity 500-550) metal club tucked into a corner of a strip mall, an intimate place where European metal bands – often those used to playing huge arenas and open-air festivals on the continent – regularly make their DC-area stops. It is not metro-accessible, but parking is generally plentiful, and it’s a 15 to 20-minute drive from DC with normal traffic. The club layout has a floor area immediately in front of the stage, with raised areas on the remaining three sides, each side with its own bar (at most shows, though, only 1 or 2 of the bars are open). There is limited seating in those raised areas – my hunch is that these areas are intended for parents who come to chaperone their kids, as many shows at Jaxx are all-ages with a fair proportion of high schoolers in attendance.

For photographers, the floor area is where it’s at, of course. The stage is extremely low – just a foot or two – and separated from the audience only by a metal railing. Jaxx has no pit, so getting to the club early is an absolute must for most shows. Being in the first row as opposed to the second or third is a big deal at a venue like this, not just for the unimpeded sight lines but also because being able to brace against the railing is a HUGE help when you’re in the middle of a raging mosh pit. Showing up well before doors open is advisable for popular shows and especially for sold-out shows (really, a good rule of thumb at any no-pit club). The club gets pretty packed in up front even at shows that aren’t anywhere near capacity, so I recommend going light with the gear – avoid having a camera bag, and just carry your body with a lens mounted, and maybe a small prime in your pocket.

Lighting varies wildly. Jaxx has a full-scale lighting rig, and at many shows it is put to great use:

Dark Dissolve 08

At others, though, especially for opening bands, the lighting techs get lazy and flash some backlights on and off while keeping one or two red-gelled front spots on for the whole show. Obviously, this is no good for photography. And as a general rule, the backlights tend to dominate, with frontlighting not nearly as strong as it could be. Still, for a venue of its size, I’d say Jaxx definitely has above-average lighting, particularly for big-name bands, many of whom bring their own stuff to add to the fun – strobes, floor lights, fog machines and so on. My exposures tend to fluctuate wildly at this venue as a result; sometimes I’m at ISO 800 and f/2.8 and getting good shutter speeds, other times I have to go to ISO 3200 and use my 50/1.8 to get anything good.

Policy-wise, Jaxx has this very helpful statement on their website:

Whether or not cameras of any type are allowed is up to the artist performing. In general there is usually no audio recording or video recording allowed at all. Most artists will allow small digitals or disposable cameras. Flash photography is usually frowned upon, however, all of this can differ from show to show. Professional SLR cameras are usually prohibited. Ask a member of the staff and they will find out for you. There are usually no such restrictions on local shows.

In my experience, bringing an SLR without a photo pass, or written permission from a band representative, publicist or tour manager, is indeed a dicey proposition. I have actually succeeded in shooting a few shows without a pass, using my D70 and 50/1.8, after clearing it with the bands, but anytime I bring in my much larger D300 and 17-55/2.8, the person at the door will say something like, “I hope you have an email or something saying you can have that thing here.” So, long story short: if you want to shoot with a DSLR, get a photo pass or permission beforehand. The good news is, once you’re in, you’re in – I’ve never had any problems shooting whole sets at Jaxx, as no one mentions or enforces any kind of three-song rule.

Unexpect 16

Unexpect 09

Ultimately, I love shooting at Jaxx because, even when the lighting isn’t great, it allows for incredible intimacy with very enthusiastic and active bands (as in the first of the two photos above, in which the bassist literally jumped onto the railing separating stage from audience, right in front of me – that’s a full-frame shot at 17mm). Metal is my favorite genre to shoot just because the bands are so energetic, and Jaxx provides a near-ideal space to capture their antics. Just get there early!

Venue: Iota Club & Cafe

Monday, October 6th, 2008

Plastic People of the Universe 09

I’m going to do a little mini-series of posts about venues I’ve photographed in. By necessity these will almost entirely be venues in the Washington, DC area. Hopefully these will be useful for some folks interested in taking live music photos around here! For each entry I’ll try to touch on several points: venue description, including location, accessibility, and types of bands booked; photo policies; stage and lighting setup; and physical shooting conditions (pit or no pit and so on).

First on the list, and only because I the most recent show I shot was there, is Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington, VA. Iota is just a couple blocks from the Clarendon metro stop, and street parking is not too hard to find close by. This is a neat little venue with a small stage and general-admission audience area adjoining a small restaurant; I’d guess the capacity to be around 150. A few stools at the two bars are the only seats in the music venue part of the club. The artists they book tend to be indie-pop and folk type stuff, heavy on local groups, but I’ve also seen free jazz group The Vandermark 5 there, so I suppose there are no hard-and-fast rules.

I didn’t even notice it the first time I went, but Iota does have a sign on the door saying “No Photography.” Obviously, if you have a photo pass in advance this rule doesn’t apply to you. Even if you don’t, it may not – I asked at the door once if I could shoot a show to which I had no pass, and the guy taking my money told me that if I cleared it with the band and the manager I’d be okay. I cleared it with the band and never found the manager, and no one ever bothered me. Another time, I cleared it with the band and, even though I overheard the bartender telling someone “absolutely no photography in the building,” no one stopped me when I started shooting – and various fans in the audiences popped off with their point & shoots (with flash) without anyone ever being told to stop. So, my impression is that the “no photography” policy is generally pretty loose – but at the very least I’d always get artist permission before shooting, which is a good rule to follow anyway.

Plastic People of the Universe 02

The stage at Iota is low, maybe 2-3 feet, with minimal lighting – just a couple floods in front. These floods are augmented by a network of Christmas lights strung up above the stage (see the headline photo), which is pretty attractive but so distinctive that you can immediately tell if a photo was taken here. After shooting a few shows here you’ll be desperately looking for ways to either get the Christmas lights out of your shots or do something creative with them. The light is totally static; I’ve never seen a show there with dynamic lights, but the good news is that what light there is is generally clean and white – no overuse of red-gelled floods here. In general, Iota’s lighting will call for fast primes and high ISOs – the most recent show I shot there (The Plastic People of the Universe, pictured in both photos above) saw me use my 50/1.8 almost exclusively, at ISO 3200, f/2 and shutter speeds between 1/50 and 1/80.

Iota’s a small club, so naturally there’s no pit. I’ve never been to a packed show there, so I’ve always been able to move freely around the front and one side of the stage. Because of the low stage, it’s easy to feel like you’re getting in the way of folks as you move around, so usually I just do the first few songs up front and then move off to the side and take photos sparingly for the rest of the set.

Haale #14

All in all, I really like Iota as an intimate music venue, but it’s not my favorite place to shoot due to the dim, static lighting and those Christmas lights that look pretty at first but get old fast when they’re in every single shot you take. Still, as far as venues this size go, the lighting is better than most (ie, compared to places like the Velvet Lounge or DC9), by virtue of it being clean and white.