Archive for June, 2008

Challenges of Ultimate photography

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Boston Invitational 028

(The photo above is full-frame, no cropping.)

Went to an Ultimate tournament this past weekend and took a bunch of photos. My team did rather poorly, but according to what’s in my camera at least we looked good doing it.

Boston Invitational 089

I’ve done very little sports photography aside from Ultimate – none seriously – but it seems to me like the challenges must be fairly unique. In Ultimate, cutters have a lot of freedom to move wherever they want around the field. Some teams use regimented offenses in which cutters run relatively defined routes, but other (read: most) teams are premised largely on improvisation, following basic rules like a starting formation and the simple idea of “run where your defender isn’t” (or “take what they give you”).

With the top teams it’s actually a little easier to predict the action because space develops on the field in a systematic way and you know most of the throwers will make the right choices and throw to the open cutters. Nevertheless, the real action happens in a split-split-second, that moment when the disc is in the air and just before it reaches the outstretched (hopefully) arms of the receiver. That’s the most visually exciting moment in Ultimate for me at least – especially when there is a defender in the vicinity vying to get to the disc first.

Boston Invitational 034

It’s gotten to the point where I sometimes forget, for entire tournaments, to take “safe” shots of people throwing around the mark – easy photos to take because the subjects are stationary but still often have good facial expressions. Instead, I survey the situation downfield, pick which receiver I think is going to receive the disc, and, if there is a defender nearby, ready the camera to fire a burst of 3-4 frames starting the instant before the catch (or D block). Using this technique I’ve gotten pretty good at catching shots of contested catches. The challenge is positioning – how to be in the right place enough of the time such that I can get faces in the frame instead of just people’s backs.

I’ve found that positioning myself just behind the thrower as they look downfield is most ideal, because then I can get faces as receivers cut in towards the disc. This does make getting shots of receivers of big hucks a little more challenging – at least in terms of being close enough to get anything near a full-frame photo. (Time to get a 400mm or longer lens!) But the tradeoff is worth it for me. Even with this kind of positioning, though, it’s hit-or-miss – this photo is great (if maybe not quite tight enough) but would be even better if the defender’s arm wasn’t partially obscuring his face:

Boston Invitational 115

I’m sure every sport has its similar challenges, but the only one I can think of that I would imagine would be even more difficult than Ultimate is hockey – fast-paced and free-form, with the additional problems of dim lighting and tough venues for photographers (it’s nice that roaming up and down the sidelines of Ultimate fields is not a problem at all).

Check out my full sets from the tournament here and here.

Backpacking and photography: some resources

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Day 175: Rock Creek Park 4

As alluded to in this earlier post, I plan to write a series of posts on the art and challenge of combining lightweight backpacking with SLR photography. But while I brainstorm, I figured I’d put together a list of pertinent links on this very topic. Surprisingly, there isn’t all that much out there that’s any good, but here’s what I’ve come up with:

And a couple discussion forums with knowledgeable folks:

I’ll be back with more; but if anyone knows of any other good sites or articles dedicated to the unique challenge of lugging heavy SLR gear on a backcountry trip, please post them in the comments. Thanks!

Stoner rock in a church

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

La Otracina 8

La Otracina is a psychedelic/space-rock group from Brooklyn that played a show a few blocks from my house last Friday night, at a church/community center known as “La Casa.” It’s a fitting name for the space as this turned out to be pretty much a glorified house show, with very much a living-room feel. (The band brought their own PA because there wasn’t one onsite, and they brought their own lights as well, as the only house lights were plain incandescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling fan.)

While I am familiar with this band based solely on their recent release on Holy Mountain, Tonal Ellipse of the One, it appears that the band’s lineup has changed considerably since that recording, with new members on both bass and guitar; and their style has changed noticeably as well. Tonal Ellipse of the One is all long, sprawling, improv-heavy space rock; what the band played at this show (and what is present on their tour CD-R, The Risk of Gravitation), is more straightforward stoner-rock. It still rocked and there was definitely plenty of heavy instrumental psychedelic bliss, but there were also some vocal-heavy tunes with more traditional song structures.

Day 172: La Otracina 9

For a house show that got basically zero local publicity (none that I saw, and I live a couple blocks from the venue and read all the local listings religiously), the crowd was actually pretty decent. There were a few titters when Adam, the drummer, very earnestly introduced one song as “Crystal Wizards of the Cosmic Weird,” but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Also, if I recall correctly, that song kicked ass, with a straightforward vocal intro leading into one of the wilder jams they did all evening. All in all, a pretty excellent show; I enjoy La Otracina‘s long-form spacey instrumental explorations more than their vocal tunes, but there was enough of the former to keep me happy.

Photography was challenging since, as mentioned, the band brought their own lights and the main light on the guitarist and bassist was your basic red-gelled flood. So, lots of black & white conversions for me. I managed to isolate the performers in some shots so you can’t tell they’re basically playing in a living room, but in others I didn’t try, and I actually kind of like the look, what with the long shadows on the walls and ceiling. Depending on my lens choice, I was at ISO 1600-3200 and generally keeping shutter speeds above 1/100.

La Otracina 3

Full set (10 photos) at Flickr.

That was brutal

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Zs 2

On Tuesday night, I went to the Velvet Lounge to see a pretty great quadruple bill of avant/experimental-minded groups: New York-based Zs, who have been one of my favorite avant-rock groups for a couple years now; DC’s Caution Curves, El Paso’s zeuhl-heads Corima; and DC’s FFFFs.


FFFFs opened things up, at a typically (for Velvet Lounge) late hour of around 10pm. This is a solo act of a dude named Sean Peoples (pictured above); when I saw him last year opening for Zs, he played very calm, pretty ambient stuff – which is also what’s found on the one recording I have of his, Tree Epic. This time around, though, things were very different; Sean crouched behind his laptop for his brief set and bombarded the audience with some thumping beats and a much more aggressive brand of electronic music. The ambient stuff is more up my alley, I have to say, but perhaps this more bombastic material was more in line with the bands to come.

Corima 6

Corima were one of the reasons I was excited about the show; any band that lists Magma and Koenjihyakkei as prime influences has my attention. Additionally, I was forwarded an email about them from one of the bands that they had played with earlier on their tour, in which the words “fucking amazing” appeared prominently. And, to be sure, these guys were all fucking amazing musicians. They are a very young trio – drums, keys, and bass – whose music is almost a straight-up homage to the aforementioned zeuhl bands. Seriously, it was like if Ruins or Koenjihyakkei wrote 20-minute-long songs. It was the most bombastic, over-the-top performance I’ve seen since… well, Dream Theater, but let’s not go there.

If that glib descriptions sounds exhausting, well, that’s what it was. Corima definitely had some awesome, jaw-dropping moments – the lightning-fast, dissonant keyboard solos in particular tickled my aural pleasure centers, and drummer Sergio Sanchez did a pretty credible Yoshida/Vander act – but the compositions were so long and disjointed that they lost me within minutes. They played three pieces and by the end I was fried. Really, really enjoyed parts of the set, and I hope they tighten up their writing – this is a group with pretty huge potential. Did I mention the musicianship was pretty jaw-dropping?

Caution Curves 2

Now, if Corima were wild and exhausting, at least I had all the right reference points to understand what they were trying to do. When The Caution Curves came on, it was immediately clear to me that this wasn’t the case for this band. They are a duo, one member on drums and percussion, the other on laptop and reeds, and both are vocalists. But not vocalists in any traditional sense; rather, their voices were used in a kind of babbling, speaking-in-tongues style, or just to make random noises. The overall feeling was one of total discombobulation. There isn’t much out there these days that makes me think, am I really listening to music or just noise? But this did, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m not sure I enjoyed the set, but it was provocative to say the least.

Day 169: Zs 3

And then it was finally time for the headliners. Zs lost a member recently and are down to a trio of guitar, sax and drums, with the drummer also triggering some electronics that are new since I last saw them. Ben, the guitarist, responded in the affirmative when I asked him if their material had changed substantially as a result, saying, “I think you’ll like it.”

The band ended up playing a single lengthy piece. Zs have always made some of the most bracingly ugly music I’ve ever heard, and that certainly hadn’t changed. The saxophonist spent most of the composition blowing long, extremely high notes, and if there was melody there it was stretched out over such a long period of time that it was imperceptible to me. The piece was fairly slow-moving and deliberate, with thematic and rhythmic changes coming at unpredictable intervals, using generous amounts of repetition as a compositional element. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something I’d be able to digest without having a recording of it and settling in with it for some time – it lacked the visceral thrill of some of the older, fast-paced, Discipline-era-King-Crimson-on-steroids (sorry, that’s overly glib) stuff.

Photographically, it was a nightmare. The Velvet Lounge, while my favorite local venue in terms of the acts that they book, is one of my least favorite places to photograph. The lights are always static and generally dim (and most problematically, the front spotlights are blocked by big speakers mounted from the ceiling). Tonight was worse than it’s ever been, with the lights turned lower than I’ve ever seen them. I probably should have gone back and asked the guy controlling the lights to turn them up a little, but, er, I didn’t. In any case, my resulting settings looked like this: ISO HI 1.0 (6400), f/1.8, 1/40 to 1/80 second. Ouch. Definitely pushing the limits of my D300 there.

Needless to say, these are not my best photos ever, and the noise is distracting in some of them. That’s what I get for liking all this obscure music, I suppose; it’s not like I’m ever likely to get the chance to shoot Zs with a huge light show or anything. These are the challenges that come with the territory.

Full set at Flickr, of course.


Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Progressive Nation 44

(Photo unrelated.) I’m a bit of a techno-geek, but I’ve never been an early adopter. Cell phones, laptops, Facebook, Flickr, the whole “Web 2.0” thing – I’m never in the first wave, always the second or third. Or later, in this case. I’ve just joined Myspace – figured that since I’m doing more and more of the live music photography thing, it could be a useful tool.

So… visit me at Myspace here.

Fond farewell to Artomatic

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Day 137: Art appreciation

Yesterday was the end of the line for Artomatic 2008. Artomatic is an irregular (once every 1-2 years) phenomenon in which anyone can pay a fee, volunteer a few hours, and have their artwork on public display. This year, over 1,000 artists participated, and the whole thing took place in an absolutely enormous 12-story building. I displayed some of my photography there (pictured above; all the pieces are from this year except one piece from 2004), sold a few pieces, but mostly just really enjoyed the fleeting community that was created over the course of a month and a half, using a brand-new unfinished office building in the middle of a debatably up-and-coming DC neighborhood. Artomatic was an awesome space that housed not only visual art of all media, but also had two music performance spaces, a dance performance stage, a poetry/spoken word stage, a film room, an art education center, a bar, comfortable lounges on almost every floor, and a friendly, everyone-is-welcome kind of atmosphere.

The nature of this everyone-is-welcome kind of thing, on the artists’ side, invariably means that most of the art on display is mediocre not to my taste. But that’s not the point. It’s not the quality (or even the quantity) that’s the attraction; it’s the ethos. It’s not a community art show in the sense that it’s a chance for members of a community to show off their art; it’s a community art show in the sense that it invites everyone to show off their art and then creates a dynamic community on the fly. It’s easy for art critics to take potshots at it, and I certainly didn’t necessarily like most of, or even much of, what was on display, but the cultural space that was created, even if just for a month and a half, was so cool that I’m thankful I was part of it.


Worth mentioning is the building, which had a completed central section (stairwells, elevators, bathrooms, etc), but was otherwise completely unfinished, such that each floor was just open space. Every single wall consisted of floor-to-ceiling windows, and with no walls or cubicles to obstruct the views (though the artist partitions did to some extent), the feeling, especially on the higher floors, was like being in a sort of panopticon. There were no tall buildings nearby, so the views were spectacular in places. This was a random shot I took through the window of the eighth floor during one of my evening volunteer shifts:

National Cathedral Lights

And the big windows made for easy, dramatic people shots too:

Day 118: Alone at Artomatic

Anyway, this past weekend, I volunteered on both Saturday and Sunday, spending most of my five hours in the office (above) on Saturday and behind the bar on the 11th floor on Sunday. It was a great way to say goodbye, getting to see all the final events and deal with the rush of last-minute visitors. Though my shift ended at 5 on Sunday, I hung around for a while, helping out at the bar for an extra hour and a half or so, then chilled out in one of the lounges reading. I also caught some of the final evening’s musical performances. The Artomatic stages are colorful affairs that would have been great for photography, except the lighting was very static and I never felt comfortable crouching in front of the stages with my camera. So I never got any great shots of any concerts at Artomatic, but at least the backgrounds added a lot of visual interest:

Day 167: Closing night

So, goodbye to Artomatic; the structure will probably be turned into a lifeless office building soon, but I’ll always have a soft spot for it. Looking forward to the next one!

Rooftop jazz

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Wildbirds and Peacedrums 11

Nordic Jazz 08 was a classy affair held on the roof of the House of Sweden in Washington, DC, last Thursday and Friday. The House of Sweden is a beautifully modernist structure right on the Potomac River, between the Kennedy Center and the Georgetown waterfront; an idyllic location for a concert, as long as the volume levels are loud enough to drown out the planes flying overhead on landing patterns for National Airport further down the river. I was only able to attend Thursday evening, which featured two bands whose music could be considered “jazz” only in a fringe manner: Wildbirds and Peacedrums and Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil.

The former played first, treating the debatably attentive audience to a brief set of highly rhythmic, swooping, dramatic folk. The band consisted only of a vocalist and a drummer, with the vocalist doubling on kalimba, percussion and some interesting kind of stringed instrument played in the same manner that a pianist might pluck strings inside a grand piano (pictured below). I’d seen offhand comparisons to Björk, but I’m way out of my element here in terms of finding comparisons or a way to describe this stuff. Suffice to say that it was surprisingly captivating, and I’d recommend a visit to their Myspace page for a listen. (That’s the ultimate reviewer cop-out right there.)

Wildbirds and Peacedrums 10

Second was Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil, with whom I am familiar through their album Yggdrasil. That album features the considerable vocal talents of Eivør Palsdóttír, but sadly she was not in attendance at this show (and in fact I have no idea if her collaboration with this band on that album was simply a one-shot deal). This was, then, with one notable exception a purely instrumental journey. What this band played – 1982’s eight-movement, album-length piece Ravnating – could hardly be termed jazz; in fact, I’d imagine it has more in common with modern classical composition. Each movement had a unique feel, often led by a different instrument, but always evoking imagery of the oceans and the sky (the field recordings of bird calls towards the end obviously had something to do with this). Given the context of this show, I was pleasantly surprised to find some considerable edge to the composition in places, with a splintered guitar melody in the second or third movement providing some real teeth. For the most part, though, this piece ebbed and flowed peacefully, with long stretches of minimalist quietude punctuated by beautiful melodies elaborated on the lead instruments (sax, flute, guitar, occasionally Blak’s piano). After this lengthy, subtle piece, which succeeded in losing the attention of a dismaying portion of the audience, Blak’s band launched into some more accessible, folk-oriented songs that were enjoyable but somewhat less provocative. The one exception was an interpretation of what sounded like some sort of Native American tune, in which Blak sang with a surprisingly soulful lilt.

Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil 2

Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil 8

I thoroughly enjoyed myself at this show, purchased a copy of Ravnating, and wish I purchased a copy of Wildbirds and Peacedrums‘ latest recording. The setting was beautiful and the weather perfect, although my sense is that at least half the audience was there for the scene as much as the music; everyone was snappily dressed (cocktail dresses and button-down shirts all around; this is Georgetown after all) and a substantial portion of people were hanging out far from the stage, talking throughout the performances. Thankfully, they were separated enough from the more attentive, seated audience that they were not generally too distracting.

Photographically, not much about this was ideal. The stage was full of clutter, making it difficult (even with a long lens) to isolate performers in a simple, compelling image. The light was great for Wildbirds and Peacedrums, illuminated as they were in the warm tones of the setting sun. For Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil it was a completely different story; the sun was down and the stage was lit solely by a few white spotlights that provided splotchy lighting: brightest on the drummer, who was so far back that I couldn’t get a clean shot of him anyway, dim on Blak and the reedist, and almost nonexistent on the bassist and guitarist. For a setting like this I certainly wouldn’t expect fancy lighting, but this was very challenging indeed. I got some usable shots but nothing particularly compelling.

Nordic Jazz 08 - after

As always, a full selection of photos are contained in a photoset over at Flickr.

Let’s hop in the time machine

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

Anyone remember when digital SLRs looked like this?

For my birthday, my brother got me a copy of Jon Sievert’s book Concert Photography, which obviously is about concert photography. This book was published in 1997, but until you get to the chapters on gear, it all seems pretty relevant even 11 years later. However, those chapters on gear are fun. Especially the one page that discusses digital cameras. Check this out:

[The] Canon EOS DCS-3… can capture and store up to 12 digital images with a resolution of 1,268 x 1,012 pixels in four seconds. It also costs $16,000 – without a lens.

The Nikon/Kodak DCS 400 series camera pictured above is even better: ISO range 100-400, 2.5x sensor crop factor (!!!), 2 fps with a 5-image buffer, 1,524 x 1,012 pixel images. It’s a couple years earlier than the DCS-3 described in the Concert Photography book. Check out Rob Galbraith’s tribute to the DCS 400 successor, the venerable NC2000, for an awesomely fun read.

Sweating for a good photo of the day

Monday, June 9th, 2008

Day 161: Pray it's malignant

I think this photo is better viewed large.

I regularly read Strobist but have not really tried many of the off-camera lighting techniques described there. Part of it is the fact that I lack the basic equipment – namely a light stand and umbrella – even though I have two flash units. Sometimes, though, I’m inspired to overcome my lack of gear and give something a try, as with my photo-of-the-day shot today.

The framing could be better – I ran out of patience, which is the real reason I don’t do much studio-style work. I just had my 50/1.8 mounted on the camera and didn’t feel like switching lenses. Still, I like the effect. This was just done with a single bare flash camera right, along with the on-camera pop-up flash in my D300. Both were set to manual at 1/32 power.

I have no idea what inspired me to try this tonight, especially since it meant putting on way too much clothing for the 100-degree heat today.

“You’re all very strange people”

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Nels Cline Singers 15

That was Nels Cline’s introductory statement before his trio, the Nels Cline Singers, launched into the first of two blistering sets at The Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia on Friday, June 6. East Coast appearances by Cryptogramophone groups are few and far between, so even though Charlottesville is a bit of a hike from DC, I made the trek down through three and a half hours of rush hour hell.

I’ve seen Cline a few times with Wilco, where his guitar work is always the highlight of the show for me; and I also saw him last year in a solo/duo show with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. But this show may have been my favorite of any of the above. The Singers are a trio of Cline, Devin Hoff on bass, and Scott Amendola on drums (note to Scott: please bring your own eponymous band to the East Coast!). What they play is fairly indescribable; like much of the stuff that Cryptogramophone puts out, it’s easiest to lazily call it “jazz,” but while there are certainly elements of jazz and improv, there are also substantial nods to rock and noise and blues.

Nels Cline Singers 16

Many of the group’s pieces are long-form structured compositions with plenty of space for raucous improv in the middle. The first set that the trio played seemed to draw from their more abstract material, stuff that would build extremely quietly before exploding into unpredictable, manic noise from all corners. The second set, by contrast, was relatively accessible: they opened with two pieces from Cline’s (excellent) tribute to Andrew Hill, New Monastery – if I recall, these were “Dedication” and “Reconciliation.” I was hoping for the aggressively noisy “Compulsion,” but the lyrical melodicism of the two selections they played instead was a welcome change from the more “out” material from the first set. Following this were a couple of pieces that were almost straight-up rock, except with a generous helping of Cline’s trademark excursions into pure noise.

Random aside: oddly, some of my favorite moments of this show, as well as the solo/duo show last year, were when Cline wildly strummed or picked his guitar, then frantically reached over to twiddle some switches – which clicked audibly in the spaces between sheets of abrasive sound, like the electronic musician’s analogue to fingers squeaking along a fretboard.

The final piece of the show was “Something About David H.” from The Giant Pin, which is probably my favorite of the three Nels Cline Singers recordings. It summed up the evening nicely, beginning and ending with quiet ambience and Cline’s delicate, sensitive picking, bookending a thrilling middle section that could have been taken straight from a breakdown in a metalcore song. All in all, this was exactly the kind of stuff that gets my heart pumping, and I think it was easily among the best of the 30 or so shows I’ve seen so far this year.

Nels Cline Singers 5

The Paramount Theater was somewhat of an odd place for an avant-jazzish band like this to play: it’s a cavernous but still fairly intimate space, capacity almost 3000, all seated. The sound was pristine – really, just absolutely phenomenal; the tone of Cline’s guitar and Hoff’s electric upright bass were amazing. Cline seemed openly bemused by the fact that he was playing in such a venue (I wonder if he knew that two days later, none other than Kenny G was scheduled to play there) – not that he doesn’t have experience with huge venues given that he’s been touring with Wilco for several years now, but the fact that he was playing this music in a big theater was no doubt a novelty.

Not surprisingly, the venue wasn’t anywhere close to capacity. Cline joked towards the end of the first set, “We have another set coming up – please don’t leave because then this place would really be empty.” A number of folks walked out during the first set, even in the middle of songs – I have to wonder if these were folks expecting Wilco minus Jeff Tweedy or something. I try not to judge by looks alone, but the frat-boy looking dudes with disgruntled expressions on their faces as they quietly left in the middle of a song probably didn’t get what they came for.

As the trio closed out the show, Cline said something like, “Thank you for having us here; it’s bizarre and strange and wonderful.” Indeed it was.

Nels Cline Singers 13

Photographically, the Paramount was a joy to shoot in; my only regret is that I didn’t have a wide-angle zoom with me (gotta get that 17-55/2.8 so I don’t have to keep renting it). The light wasn’t fantastic – strong blue backlighting with weaker blue frontlighting and a hint of red mixed in, such that the musicians tended to be haloed without enough light illuminating their faces. But the space was excellent; I was free to move all around the theater. The front row of seats was left empty (as at DAR Constitution Hall for the Progressive Nation show) so despite the lack of a real photo pit, I had free reign along the front of the stage, which was raised 4-5 feet above floor level. I could also move out to the wings and shoot from the sides. Because I was the only photographer and the theater was probably something like 15% full, I never felt like I was in anyone’s way.

Because the stage was large and the musicians planted themselves fairly far back on it, I mostly used my 80-200/2.8 (this is becoming a recurring theme – that telephoto is fast becoming my most-used lens for concert photography in any medium- to large-sized venue). The light was just a bit too dim, though; I was at ISO 3200, wide open and shooting at speeds ranging from 1/125 to 1/200, supporting the lens on the edge of the stage to minimize camera shake. And I was still underexposing by a stop or so (adding an extra couple steps to my post-processing workflow and bringing out a bit of noise in the images as well). I did have some success shooting with my 50/1.8 from the front of the stage as well, at ISO 2000 or so and without the underexposure.

Because the musicians were all pretty static – no jumping around or posturing, though they certainly had some great facial expressions – I really wished I had a wide-angle zoom to get some more dynamic shots, especially since I could literally lean over the edge of the stage to get as close as possible. I’m going to have to make some extra cash to get myself that 17-55 soon. Still, I’d consider this a pretty successful shoot all things considered.

Nels Cline Singers 20

Big thanks to Ben Levin, who helped get me set up with permission to photograph this show. The venue staff were also extremely helpful and accommodating. The usual three songs, no flash rule applied, but I think I actually just did two songs because their pieces are so damn long. Also thanks to Todd Tweedy, who tried to set me up with an interview with the band after the show, but that idea was nixed because they had some pretty grueling-sounding travel plans involving a very early morning flight the next day out of Richmond (over an hour from Charlottesville).

As always, more photos can be found at the full Flickr photoset.