Archive for November, 2008

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.

Amanda Palmer: awesome (and photo-friendly)

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Amanda Palmer 27

The Dresden Dolls are apparently one of the most photographer-friendly bands around, with no restrictions on cameras of any kind, so it made sense that Amanda Palmer – who is half of that band – would be similarly welcoming for photogs. Sure enough, I got my photo pass – less than five hours before doors – and showed up at the venue, and was told that not only could I wander all over the place including in front of the barricade, but I could also shoot the whole set. Hooray! I saw several fans wielding DSLRs, a rarity these days at the 9:30 (it seems like “no pro photo” is the usual rule), although I was the only credentialed photog and thus the only one allowed in the pit.

Each of three bands that performed were fantastic visual bands, from the cabaret duo Vermillion Lies‘ costumes and puppets to the energetic rock of The Builders and the Butchers, but Palmer took it to a whole new level, as she was accompanied by a troupe of Australian performance artists, the Danger Ensemble. Even when these dancers were offstage, Palmer is an incredibly expressive musician, although my main regret from the show is that I don’t have that one Perfect Shot of her pounding away at the keyboard – the best I have is the below and this one, which unfortunately is zoomed in too tight on her face (and suffers from too little frontlighting anyway).

Amanda Palmer 08

The lighting for the opening bands was tough, but for Palmer is was incredibly bright. As usual I was using my Nikon D300, but my go-to lens, the 17-55/2.8, is still in the shop for repairs (no word yet from Nikon on it). So I was mostly using my 18-70/3.5-4.5 kit lens, which is not normally anywhere near fast enough for concert photography. But the lighting was good enough that I was able to shoot at ISO 800 with this thing and still get shutter speeds around 1/125. I also busted out the 80-200/2.8 for some closeups and some shots from the balcony, like the one below which could have been 100x better if I’d composed it properly.

Amanda Palmer 24

All in all shooting conditions were pretty damn great – good light, photo pit, awesome action onstage (and offstage! – the Danger Ensemble did a couple things in the middle of the crowd and standing on the bar), free run of the whole venue. The only thing was, whenever I am allowed to shoot in a pit through an entire set, I always feel the need to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. When I only have three songs, I have no problems running up and down the pit and standing at full height even if I’m blocking a few views – after all, I’m only up there for three songs. But for a whole set? I feel like that’s annoying. So I tended to stay low, and as a result some of my shots are more upangled than I’d like. I should probably get over that a little bit and stand tall when I see a really good photo op, and stay low the rest of the time.

Sometimes the angle works out okay, as in the shot below, although I wish I’d moved to my right a little to tighten up the composition:

Amanda Palmer 32

Anyway. The full set is here, but I’ll leave off with a few more just because I like this set so damn much. The last shot is from the end of the show, when Palmer and the Danger Ensemble were lip-synching to Rihanna‘s “Umbrella” and pouring champagne all over umbrellas held up onstage (I had to move out of the way rather quickly to avoid getting wet!).

Amanda Palmer 41

Amanda Palmer 42

Election Night 2008: the U Street scene

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

U Street Obama celebration

At this point, you’ve probably already read all about it: Washington, DC’s U Street area became a massive block party forty years later after Barack Obama was announced the next president of the United States. You’ve probably forgotten about it by now – unless you were lucky enough to be there, or at one of the similar spontaneous celebrations that took place in cities across the country. I was one of those lucky folks: I went down to U Street with a couple friends after leaving my office at 8:30 (I was working on an election-related report and had to be up and working again at 6:30 the next morning!) and scarfing down a quick dinner. What ensued was, and I say this with little hyperbole, one of the most inspiring few hours of my life. And I say this with the benefit of two weeks’ hindsight and as a skeptic not totally convinced that Obama will really live up to his mantra of “change.”

U Street Obama celebration

What was so inspiring? That a politician could, in a very real way, inspire so many people. That an election result could lead to a spontaneous outpouring of joy as much as, say, a professional sports team winning a national championship. Most of all, that so many people of all walks of life could celebrate together, really together, un-self-consciously and with no regard for their differences. The intersection of 14th and U Streets was Ground Zero of the city’s worst race riots in 1968, but on this night, total strangers were high-fiving each other, chatting animatedly, dancing together, hugging one another, and just generally sharing in a feeling of positive solidarity that seemed to transcend all barriers of race, class, age, gender, etc etc.

I’ve never seen anything like it: for me the word “solidarity” has always been in the context of opposition: solidarity among oppressed peoples fighting for their rights and livelihoods; jail solidarity among arrested demonstrators; that sort of thing. This night saw an unprecedented (in my experience) solidarity that defined itself positively instead of in opposition. Apparently the scene at the White House was different, with an equally joyous crowd that was chanting taunts at the outgoing president; but on U Street, I literally never heard Bush’s name mentioned all night (and I was there from 10pm until 3am). This was a night for Obama and for a real shared feeling that things could really get better. I’ll never forget it.

Luckily, even if I do manage to forget it, I have the photos to remind me.

U Street Obama celebration

Photographically, the night was obviously a treasure trove. Happy people always make for good photographs, to say nothing of crowds of thousands of them. With my 17-55/2.8 busted, I used my 12-24/4 exclusively, which was a more appropriate lens for the job anyway. Pretty much every shot I took was wide-angle, getting close up to people and capturing a bit of the environment as well. I used my SB-600 on almost every shot, mostly off-camera using CLS infrared triggering (which looked like this – that’s me in the blue jacket). I used manual exposure but set the flash to TTL – the action was just too fast for me to be fiddling with manual flash outputs. I was a little nervous about this because I have little experience with TTL off-camera flash, but whatever the little chips are doing in Nikon’s flash exposure system, they did a hell of a job and I got great flash exposures very consistently. The only issue I had was a period when the CLS system wasn’t reliably triggering the flash – not sure what the deal was but the problem went away after maybe 15 minutes of going on the fritz. User error perhaps, but I still haven’t figured out what went wrong. Makes me want to get a cheap off-camera flash cord.

U Street

Anyway, no new photos, but I just wanted to post one final thing about that night and showcase a few more of my favorite shots. (And make room for my next post, about an absolutely fantastic show I shot last night.) Full set of the U Street photos, again, is here.

Four years

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

Almost four years ago, at George W. Bush’s second inauguration, Washington DC looked like this:

Last night, after Barack Obama was announced as President-Elect, Washington DC looked like this:

U Street

Let’s do that again. Four years ago:

Last night:

U Street

One more time. Bush inauguration:

Obama’s election win:

U Street

Granted, DC is something like 95% Democrat, and its three electoral votes are the only ones in the entire country that have never gone to any party but the Democrats. Still, there was something special about the atmosphere last night. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. More photos here (with many more to come, I was out until 3:30am last night and so didn’t exactly have time to process all my shots) and I’ll have another post about it later.

My Nikon repair odyssey begins!

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

Day 224: Off to Beijing!

So last Friday after the Watain show, the most horrifying thing of the night happened when my 17-55/2.8 lens detached itself from my D300, fell about three feet and bounced off the concrete sidewalk with a sickening crunch. I paused, said something understated like “that sucks” as my housemate was like “oooooh dude,” picked up the lens, and discovered that the electrical contacts at the lens mount had been bashed into the lens by the impact. Whoops.

This is actually the second time this has happened to me – years ago, probably sometime around 2002, I had a motor-driven Nikon FG with 300/4.5 AIS lens attached slung over my shoulder on a monopod. The camera came detached from the monopod somehow and dropped five feet onto the sidewalk landing lens-down, shattering my filter (thank god I had a filter on) and bashing the filter threads in irreparably. I still have that lens with the bashed filter threads – haven’t bothered to get it fixed because it’s still perfectly usable.

Anyway, back to the present day. After a little testing of the 17-55 I determined that everything miraculously seemed to still work – the bayonet mount itself was undamaged and (biiiig sigh of relief) the glass looked fine – except for the autofocus. Yeah, well, that’s an important thing considering I can’t manual focus for shit through a DSLR viewfinder, nor do I have much desire to. So, I took the thing into Penn Camera this morning, and dropped it off for repair. Here’s the deal: $25 nonrefundable shipping/estimate fee, 4-6 weeks turnaround time. Penn Camera basically ships it off to Nikon for me, something I could have done myself, but it’s easier for me to drop it off with them than it is to pack the damn thing and call Nikon service myself (and $25 minus the shipping costs I would have paid anyway is worth the convenience for me).

Penn Camera has a nifty little book that lists prices for repairs. Under Nikon, they categorize lenses based on focal length and zoom range – an 18-200 zoom, for instance, is shown as generally costing $150-$200 to repair. My 17-55 falls into the category of “professional zoom lens over $600” next to which, instead of a price range, the ominous words “estimate required” are printed. (Or something like that.) Ouch. I’m bracing for anything in the $300-500 range, which makes me sad. Well, I got the lens, used from KEH, for something like $400 less than list price, so at least there’s that.

Anyway, I’ll be updating this blog as the repair process goes on, since I’ve read plenty of stories about Nikon service of both the positive and horrifically negative varieties. Here’s hoping that in 4-6 weeks (preferably 4) I have a perfectly working 17-55 lens back in my possession and I’m not much more than $300 the poorer for it. Mostly, here’s hoping I don’t have to take out an insurance claim to get a new lens.

In the meantime, I recommend that you not drop heavy, expensive lenses onto concrete sidewalks.

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.