18 Mar 2008

Photographing live gigs - part 2

I arrived at the theatre early, well before the start of the show so that I could check out shooting positions and angles. The stage had very limited access to the wings and as the best shots are often taken from the side of the stage, this would make things quite difficult.

The only way to get into this position would be from the front of the stage, so the band had to be happy for me to move up there between songs. Access to the back of the stage, where I could shoot from behind the band, was easy and I checked out all my routes from one position to another while all the house lights were on. I had put a small torch in my pocket so that I would not be stumbling around in the dark when I went back stage during the performance – it would be very dark there then.

I even managed to gain access to a small lighting gantry above the audience from where I could use a telephoto lens for frontal close-ups of the band. During the show, I dodged from one position to the next, and often back again.

As I was on the move and adapting to the different light conditions and positions of the performers, I left my bulky camera bag safely locked in a dressing room and operated with two camera bodies and two lenses.

With the stage lights constantly changing intensity direction and colours, you may find it useful to use the Aperture Value (AV) exposure mode. Remember, this is more correctly called the Aperture Priority (AP) mode. Just set a wide aperture and let the camera decide on the shutter speed. However, I prefer to use the basic M (Manual) mode whenever possible, so that I can change the exposure myself as the lights change. It is also more reliable if shooting directly into bright stage spots – a situation that can confuse any automatic metering mode.

I set my ISO to 800 with the certain knowledge that I would need the fastest shutter speed possible to stop any action. This would result is some loss of quality, but that was a price worth paying.

Most of the shots were taken at between 1/60sec and 1/125sec at f2.8 or f4. Of course these shutter speeds are pretty slow for stopping action, and there were some failures when I pressed the button as the subjects moved, so it was important to take lots of pictures so that these could be discarded. The camera’s LCD illuminator is invaluable when checking settings in the dark in the dark.

You will never win completely when the stage lights are changing from bright blue to deep red. I simply set AWB (Auto White Balance) and let it happen. Any adjustments I made later in Photoshop.

The most useful lens proved to be the 17-35mm f2.8. With this I could get really close from the side of the stage and include the stage lighting in the shot for dramatic effect. For the long shots from the lighting gantry I used a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom. I don’t often bother with lens hoods, but in these conditions, with lights shining into the lens at an angle, I made sure I had a hood fitted to avoid flare

Top photograph
Doug Carroll may not be as famous as Mark Knopler, but he is one of the most gifted guitar players in the UK. I wanted to get a picture that really summed up his total immersion in his music when he played solo. I liked his natural pose with the spotlights shining down on him through the stage smoke. Stage lighting is mostly from front and back of the performers, so if you are photographing a band from the wings you will not be shooting directly into the light

Lower photograph
From the lighting gantry just above the audience I was able to use a telephoto lens and get reasonable close-up shots of the band. The light behind Mary was flashing on and off and changing colour so there was an element of luck involved in getting a good facial expression with the right light backlight

Earplugs are essential for photographers working directly in front of a powerful sound system. It’s LOUD. Over the years, I've covered dozens of rock bands' live gigs - from the Rolling Stone’s, Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury. I hate to admit this, but I've covered The Beatles as well – and my hearing has never been the same.

If you want to know more about Doug, Mary and the The Mary Barclay Band - or buy their music - go to...

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