Archive for February, 2010

Shooting the Black Eyed Peas

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Black Eyed Peas 27

This post is mostly for you photogs who might be shooting the current ginormous Black Eyed Peas arena tour (there might be lots of you out there, this doesn’t seem like a particularly tough pass to get – lots of bloggers etc at the show I covered last night). If you just want to see the photos, go to my Flickr set here. This was a really fun show to shoot, which is good because that’s the only reason I went (I like a few older Black Eyed Peas songs but pretty much nothing since Fergie joined the band… also, her solo album is one of the worst things I’ve ever heard in my life). But the visuals were great, the lighting was amazing, and the production through the roof, so as a photographer I had a lot of fun.

First things first: the stage was set up with a huge catwalk extending into the audience from the middle. Photogs were in the pit for three songs for each band (except really only two and a half for Black Eyed Peas; more on that in a sec), and the pit extended all the way around the catwalk and on both sides of the stage. Nice. The two spots where the stage met the catwalk were generally the most popular spots to shoot from, and photogs at the DC show crowded around there. I found, though, that the stage was so high that shooting from there meant lots of up-the-nose shots, so on several occasions I backed off further down the catwalk and shot with a long lens. That way, the upward angle on my shots wasn’t quite as extreme, and I got cleaner shots without monitors and other stage gear in the frame.

Black Eyed Peas 12

BEP’s first three songs involve a half song’s worth of intro in which the band rise up from beneath the stage, highlighted by bright green spotlights. Getting a clean shot of them at this point is tough. During the first song, they pretty much all stay off the catwalk, except at the DC show Taboo wandered out a bit. Here’s the key: immediately at the end of the first song, I highly recommend moving all the way to the end of the catwalk. If you have two bodies, keep your long lens on one of them and put the widest lens you have on your other body. (My main regret from this show is not switching to my 14-24 at this point, instead leaving the 24-70 on my D700.) Fergie and will.i.am are going to walk down all the way to the end of the catwalk at the start of the second song, with apl.de.ap and Taboo following. If you get to the end of the catwalk before the rest of the photogs following the band get there, you’ll have your pick of a prime shooting spot, and you’ll be able to get nice long shots of them coming down towards you (as above) – shots that no photographers that don’t know what’s going on are going to get.

Black Eyed Peas 19

The group will hang out here for most of the second song. Here’s where your ultrawide comes in handy, because they are gonna be close. On my full-frame camera, 24mm really wasn’t wide enough for what I wanted to do – the above shot is a perfect illustration. It’s fine, but it’s lacking the impact that a wider view would have helped impart. Regardless, this is probably where your highlight photos are going to come from. The catwalk is way lower than the main stage, so the angle that you have to work with are much more appealing. Have fun with it, it’s only a couple of minutes.

The band will head back towards the stage at the end of the second song, and disappear for a while. In their place, some bizarrely costumed dancers will take the stage and catwalk. I shot a couple frames of the dancers (see below) and then used this time to take some crowd shots. This would also be a good time to take that ultrawide lens off of your camera and put your normal lens back on – in the time remaining the group isn’t likely to get close enough to you for you to get any more use out of an ultrawide.

Black Eyed Peas 25

As the third song begins, the visual highlight is clearly Fergie, who reappears before the rest of the group does. She’ll stand in the center of the stage, at the top of the steps down to the catwalk, and do a slow, fluid dance with her arms and upper body. White light on her plus some brilliantly colored fog in the background: here’s another chance to get some portfolio-worthy shots, such as the one I used to headline this post. Your best bet is to shoot this from somewhere along the catwalk, not too close to the stage so you’re not looking at too much of an up-angle, with a long lens. The headline shot is right at 200mm (35mm equivalent), and I was positioned alongside the catwalk maybe ten feet from the stage. Here’s a slightly wider image of what’s going on:

Black Eyed Peas 28

You’ve only got a minute or so at this point. The other members of the group will appear, but once will.i.am (I think it was him) shows up zooming around the air on wires, you’ll be escorted out. During the third song I’d recommend hanging out on the side of the catwalk further from the exit, so you have a few extra moments to grab some crowd shots or extra shots of the stage while walking back around to leave.

And that’s that: two and a half songs worth of brilliant lighting and sparkling costumes. The group doesn’t really pose for photographers the way some groups do, but they don’t need to; the visuals are already striking enough. As for the lighting, this is one show you can shoot without the benefit of fast primes or f/2.8 zooms – I was often at ISO 800, f4, 1/500th. It may have been the brightest show I have ever shot, and it helps that the costume design for the first three songs doesn’t involve all that much black clothing.

As for the opening bands: they’re also fun to shoot, and also very well-lit. They don’t use the catwalk at all, though, so you’ll be shooting upwards a lot. Be aware that Ludacris tends to hold his mic very close to his mouth, so you’ll need good timing and some side angles to get anything but mic-eating shots. Also, Ludacris has a bunch of dancers that jump around a lot, and if you can find the right angle, you can get some cool stuff like this:

Ludacris 08

Two final notes: one, I was pleased to find that there are no restrictive contracts to sign in order to shoot any of the groups. Unfortunately, this seems to be an increasingly rare thing at the big arena/stadium shows. Two, yes – I do a bunch of research before shooting shows that I know are going to be tightly scripted. The Internet (especially YouTube) makes it pretty easy, and it pays off. If you know what’s going to happen next, you have a way better chance of getting the shot you want, not to mention a shot few other photographers will get.

See my full photoset from this show at Flickr.

On Location Portraits: Hotspur, Margot MacDonald Band

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Hotspur

Last Friday night, I shot local powerpop (pop-punk? emo?) group Hotspur at their first-ever headlining gig at the 9:30 Club, as a sort of informal follow-up to a great City Paper cover story on making a living as a musician from a couple years ago, which used the band as a case study. Before the show I did a quick portrait shoot with them in one of the 9:30 Club dressing rooms, above. This is just two unmodified speedlights, one on each side of the camera, nothing more and nothing less. There wasn’t enough space between the band and the background, so my lighting spilled over too much onto the walls. So, I needed to go in and darken the background to make the photo pop a little more, using a simple layer mask in Photoshop. Nothing particularly artistic about this one – I’m finding it pretty challenging to do really creative stuff with small groups in cramped settings.

Margot MacDonald Band

With the Margot MacDonald Band, one of the openers, I tried lighting Margot (with whom I did the wonderful snow photo shoot a couple weeks ago) with soft, warm light (SB-800, shoot-thru umbrella, half cut of CTO) while hitting her band with hard white light (single bare SB-600), and letting some of that white light spill over as rimlight on Margot to give a bit of definition and separation. I think it worked pretty well, except the unmodified speedlight spilled over a bit too much, creating some shadows on Margot’s face that I wish weren’t there. Still, more interesting than the Hotspur portrait I think. I like the hard shadows on the wall.

Cupcakes!

Then we goofed around a bit for a couple other shots, including a few with them posing with the 9:30 Club’s generously provided (and delicious) cupcakes. This one was just a single SB-800 through a shoot-thru umbrella, virtually on-axis. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. Many thanks to both Hotspur and the Margot MacDonald Band for sitting through these photo shoots and being super easy to work with.

And then, of course, I shot the show. Sort of. For some reason, the photo passes at this show were band-specific, which would have been fine except for no one told me that until I was being kicked out of the pit during Margot’s set. After some talking with club staff they did let me shoot from outside the pit despite the “no pro photo” restriction, but I was still pretty miffed. Despite this very strange experience of having basically unfettered backstage access before the show and then not even being allowed in the pit during parts of the show, I still managed to get some shots of the openers, although nothing nearly as interesting as I would have gotten had I been in the pit rather than sniping away with a long lens. Still, No Second Troy in particular had a gorgeous lightshow, as below, and I was able to move around in the crowd a bit to take advantage of some nice back/rimlight effects.

No Second Troy 07

And then Hotspur was up, and it was game on. All of a sudden there were tons of credentialed photogs, none of whom I’d ever seen before in my life, plus a couple dudes shooting video. I suspect most of them were bloggers and friends of the band – nothing wrong with that. But a crowded photo pit combined with my earlier access problems put me in a pretty foul mood. Luckily, Hotspur are pretty tremendous performers. Even though I don’t care for their music, their high-energy set immediately put me in a better state of mind, and I had a great time shooting them. No song restrictions, the pit was wide enough to accommodate all the photogs, and everyone seemed to know the unwritten rules of the pit well enough to stay out of each other’s way. Got some good stuff as a result:

Hotspur 25

Hotspur 21

Here’s the full set, with much, much more, especially in the way of epic Hotspur pics.

The magic of nano-coating (also, photos of old dudes)

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Yes 13

I photographed Yes at the Warner Theatre in DC last night. It was fun. Their setlist included almost exclusively songs that are 30-40 years old or more, but I’m not complaining about that – at least they know what their best work is. It was a little bizarre to watch a group of 60+ year old men grooving earnestly while playing “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” but when they were rocking out to the likes of “Siberian Khatru” and “Heart of the Sunrise,” all was well.

Anyway, the headline photo was shot with the fancypants Nikon 24-70/2.8 AF-S N lens on my D700. That “N” in the lens designation refers to Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coat technology, which supposedly helps mitigate flare and ghosting. You know what? It works. That spotlight in the upper right was shining directly into my camera, yet there’s no lens flare to speak of. There was a minor decrease in contrast that I managed to overcome with a bit of curves tweaking in Photoshop, but that’s it – pretty amazing. In comparison, the very similar shot below was taken with the older generation Nikon 80-200/2.8 AF-S, without the benefit of the nano coating. I get this bizarre flare pattern a lot and it often bothers me. (But it doesn’t bother me enough for me to shell out for a newer version of the 70-200 with the nano coating.)

Yes 12

More photos of the prog-rock elder statesmen here.

LIFE THREATENING BLIZZARD CONDITIONS

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Park Road NW at 18th Street NW

So says the National Weather Service with their all-caps mojo:

…EXTREMELY DANGEROUS WINTER WEATHER CONDITIONS THIS MORNING FOR THE BALTIMORE-WASHINGTON REGION…THE EASTERN PANHANDLE OF WEST VIRGINIA… DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DRIVE THIS MORNING AND EARLY AFTERNOON. LIFE THREATENING BLIZZARD CONDITIONS HAVE DEVELOPED RAPIDLY ACROSS THE BALTIMORE-WASHINGTON REGION THIS MORNING. AT 7:27 AM THIS MORNING…A WIND GUST WAS RECORDED TO 60 MPH AT MANASSAS VIRGINIA. NUMEROUS WIND GUSTS OVER 40 MPH HAVE OBSERVED AROUND THE REGION ALONG WITH WHITE-OUT CONDITIONS.

Adams Morgan After the Nuclear Winter

So, this is what life-threatening blizzard conditions look like. More here.

Promo Shoot: Margot MacDonald

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Margot MacDonald

As mentioned in my previous post, it was snowing hard (historically so) and the temperatures were rather cold last Saturday, so naturally it was a perfect day for a promo shoot outside. I spent a great day shooting with Margot MacDonald, a fast-rising young musician from the DC area. I’d planned on doing a portrait with her and her band at her Friday 9:30 Club show, but that got postponed thanks to the snow, and so we decided to do an impromptu portrait session on Saturday instead. The nice thing about living in a city is that I just walked to our chosen location (in and around Dupont Circle), and Margot hopped in the metro, and getting around was no problem. Definitely not the case for my friends further out in the suburbs, who are helpless until their streets are plowed and by now are going through some serious cabin fever.

Margot brought a number of outfits and was a fantastic subject; what amazes me most is that she somehow doesn’t look cold in any of the photos, even crouching in knee-deep snow wearing a dress. She also just looks like she’s having fun in so many of the shots, which I think is in keeping with her personality and image. Because most of our shoots were in broad daylight, my favorite stuff, such as the headline photo above, tended to be shot with natural light. Snowstorms basically turn the entire world into a giant source of diffuse light – the cloudy sky becomes a huge overhead softbox, and all that already nondirectional light reflects off of the snow and fills in shadows everywhere. It’s about as flattering as natural light can get.

Margot MacDonald

That said, I did gang a couple speedlights together – after putting them in Ziploc bags to protect them from the rapidly falling snow – to overcome the sun in a few shots. For instance, the above shot was in full daylight, but I was able to underexpose the background through a combination of high-speed sync (1/500th) and two SB-600s fired at full power with no modifiers. I put one SB-600 on a light stand as normal, and used a Justin clamp to stick the other one in roughly the same position to avoid divergent shadows as much as possible. In retrospect, I could and should have put them even closer together, as the shadows do look a little wonky. Plus, the light is obviously really hard – this would have been an ideal time to have a more powerful studio strobe with enough excess power that I could have put a softbox or at least a beauty dish on it. But then again, there’s no way I would have been lugging around a battery pack for such a strobe on a day like this.

The speedlights in all these shots were triggered with RadioPoppers, as I don’t trust Nikon’s CLS system to work 100% in broad daylight. Incidentally, I’ve been frustrated by the fiddly mounting system of the RadioPopper PX receivers, so instead of using them yesterday, I just used gaffer tape to stick them to the flashes. That was much more effective than those plastic mounts, and I didn’t have to worry about them falling off at all. I also covered the battery compartment of the RadioPopper transmitter with gaffer tape to seal it from moisture – not sure if that was necessary but it definitely made me feel better.

Margot MacDonald

Later, as the sunlight faded, I was able to get a little more creative with the lighting and save my batteries a bit, as in the above shot. This one was done with an SB-800 and an SB-600 ganged through a shoot-thru umbrella, both at 1/8 power and with full CTO gels, along with an SB-600 with 1/4″ grid spot lighting the background (also at 1/8 power I believe). This shot is obviously a bit too “artsy” to be used as a promo pic, but it’s one of my favorites from the day.

There were some unique challenges with this shoot. Because it was so cold and Margot’s outfits were not exactly warm, we retreated to Starbucks or Soho Tea & Coffee after each shoot to warm up. In other words: condensation city. About halfway through the day my D700 focusing screen fogged up, on some internal surface I couldn’t clean. I actually did one of our shoots – the one from which the below photo comes – shooting almost blind; luckily the condensation didn’t affect the image or the autofocus functionality, but it certainly meant that I couldn’t give Margot any feedback as she was posing – because I couldn’t see her!

Margot MacDonald

Here’s a set of some of my favorites from the day. Check out Margot’s music at Myspace.

Snowstorm through the 35/1.8

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Snow @ 35mm

You may have heard that it snowed a lot on the Eastern seaboard the past couple days. The Washington Post is saying that DC got 25 inches or so, which sounds about right to me – when I stepped outside on Saturday morning, the snow came up to my knees, and there were still several hours of snowfall still to come at that point. On Friday night, I wandered around a bit with a few friends, shooting some typical documentary snow photos using only a Nikon 35/1.8 DX lens. I’ve heard that this lens works well on FX bodies with just a bit of vignetting. All the photos in this set shot with that lens (which is all but the last two) are totally uncropped so you can see how true or untrue that is.

Snow

I like how this lens works on my full-frame D700. Yes, there are limitations: it has to be shot wide open or the vignetting gets much worse, and the further away the focal point, the more pronounced the vignetting is as well. That said, when shot wide open with a close focus, the vignetting actually almost disappears. This isn’t evident in any of the photos in this set because I didn’t get really close to any subjects, unfortunately. Still, in a lot of cases the dark corners actually give kind of a cool, claustrophobic effect. (Not to mention that, in some applications like concert photography, they are often not even noticeable at all.)

Snow @ 35mm

Again, here’s a larger set of photos with this lens, from Friday night.

DCypher, two years later

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

DCypher 090

Two years ago, one of the most challenging things I shot as part of my photo-a-day project was a dance performance by local hip-hop company DCypher. The lighting was dim, the action was fast, and I was using a manual focus Series E 50/1.8 lens, which did not meter on my D70. I was quite happy with what I got. In retrospect, most of what I got was junk. This time around, shooting the same group almost exactly two years later, my camera had an extra zero on the end and I had an array of fast autofocus lenses at my disposal. My results, needless to say, were much better.

DCypher 064

I favored my 24-70/2.8 for the most part, with some usage of the 80-200/2.8 for some tighter shots; I actually think I should have used the latter a bit more. Breaking out the 50/1.4 might not have been a bad idea either, but I never did. Because I needed shutter speeds of at least 1/200, preferably much faster, to stop the very fast motion going on onstage, I was mostly locked in at ISO 6400, dropping down to 3200 in the rare moments that the lighting brightened up enough. (Considering ISO 6400 is two full stops more sensitive than my D70 was capable of, it’s not surprising my photos were better this time.)

DCypher 165

Not much else to say about this; the challenge was purely about nailing the exposure and getting the timing right. Compositionally I didn’t have too many options; I was seated directly in front of the stage and could not move around during the performance. The nice thing about this position – aside from the obvious perk of being close to the action – was that by shooting slightly up at the performers, any jumps or other airborne moves they made were exaggerated by the angle.

Full set here (170 photos), or if that’s completely overwhelming, here’s a smaller set of highlights (34 photos).

On Location Portrait: Those Darlins

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Those Darlins

OK, that’s better. I had the chance to do a quick portrait with Nikki, Jessi and Kelley of Those Darlins before their packed-house show at the Black Cat last night. Unlike my shoot with Epica, we didn’t have to do this one outside in the miserable cold, which made things a gazillion times easier.

All three of these women were incredibly easy to work with; we looked around the club for a while trying to figure where to shoot, and discovered that the Black Cat has two, uh, black cats in its backstage area: one a huge papier-mache tiger (or something like that, I need to bone up on my big cat ID skills) hanging from the ceiling, and one a smaller statue. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us take down the big tiger, so we settled for the statue. This is a simple shot with essentially two key lights and a background light.

At camera left is an umbrella’d SB-800 with a quarter CTO gel at 1/16 power; camera right is an SB-600 at 1/16 power, shot through a lampshade. I seem to have misplaced my other umbrella, so some improvisation was necessary. It worked to soften the light a bit, but not quite as much as I would have liked. The background light is an SB-600 at far camera right, clamped to a chair and shot through a radiator (actually a portable space heater) at 1/8 power. Again, some improvisation just to throw a bit of a pattern on the background and make it a little more interesting than just a plain blue wall. That’s it. I shot off about 30 frames of this one look, and then we were done. And then they proceeded to blow up the backstage with their seriously high-energy, punky version of country music (I took photos of that, too).

Thanks to Nikki, Jessi, Kelley and Kellyn at 2:30 Publicity for working with me on this one.