Boo's Live Music Digital Photos.

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Techniques For Live Music Photography

At the time this tutorial was originally written, I was using the Fujifilm Finepix S602 Zoom camera for my photography and was often asked by other owners how I set it up for taking live music photos. I've since progressed to using the Canon 300D, then 20D digital SLRs and the images on the site are a mixture from all cameras. The tutorial relates specifically to the Fuji and the images here were taken with it, but the principles behind the copy are still sound and can be applied to any camera. Time permitting, I'll write a similar version, more specific to SLRs.

I also have a less formal series of blog style tutorials - often based on forum posts for regularly occuring subjects - including one on getting the best from a compact camera for gig photography. Eventually, all my tutorials will be updated and imported into that format of site.

Digital camera CCDs aren't generally as forgiving as film stock in difficult scenarios and have a bad reputation for not being good at focusing in 'low light' situations. But the benefits of the digital medium, for me, heavily outweigh any such potential disadvantages and most perceived problems can be overcome with technique.

Using available light:

The biggest hurdle to overcome in live music, concert or show photography is the low light level. It is generally the practice to keep house lights very low or none existent and so you at least will be working in almost darkness (so keep a small torch in your camera bag, you'll regret it the moment you drop a battery, if you don't). The stage and performers will be lit with brightly coloured lighting, often very localised and almost always variable and often changing.

In these situations, there are two approaches you could make to live music photography, you can apply additional lighting of your own with the use of flash, or take your chances in trying to capture the natural performance as it is presented to you, this is my preferred method.

There are several problems to overcome with using flash, your most likely hurdle being that of reach, unless you are lucky enough to be located close to the action. Unless you're there in an official capacity, the use of flash can be distracting to the performers and discourteous to them and audience alike. I personally don't like the look of flash photographs in a live music environment, unless it can be carefully controlled, so choose not to use it, so more detail on its use is beyond the scope of this article.

 [Try and capture the performance as the audience saw it.]  My personal approach has always been to try and capture the performance as it was enjoyed by the audience, the gritty, sweaty realism of loud music and the expending of a great deal of energy, often in less than salubrious surroundings, amidst smoke and beer fumes.

The low lighting environment of a live gig presents several problems to be overcome, the most troublesome being exposure and focus. I almost exclusively use the camera under full manual control and all of the tips below are based on this mode.

Determining the required exposure:

Unless the performance is very brightly and expensively lit, not often the case in small, local venues, you will find yourself working at the limits of the camera's capabilities and features. My personal approach, derived purely through practical experience, is to set the ISO of the 602 to 400 to give the maximum exposure at the highest resolution.

The 602 also has the option to shoot at either ISO 800 or 1600 but you are restricted to a maximum resolution of 1MP (1 megapixel, an image 1280 x 960 pixels) at the higher ISOs which may be sufficient for web use, but if you hope to print the results, your output size will be significantly restricted. The higher the ISO number, the greater amount of noise that is introduced into the images.

 [Even at low light and high ISO, careful handling can establish good focus and a smooth image.]   I find the compromise of the higher resolutions available (I always shoot in 6MF) and less noise of the 400 ISO setting as opposed to more stops, but also more noise and less resolution of 800 or 1600 ISO to be a worthwhile choice that has yielded good results, giving the option to crop usable sections from wider shots if you find yourself some distance from the action. Practice in recent times has shown that setting the in-camera sharpening to 'soft' seemingly reduces the effect of noise introduced to images at high ISOs, I have been pleased with the results and am conscious of much less post-photography manipulation being required.

Working at ISO 400 with the 602 will still require you to push the camera to its limits on exposure if you want to work with available light and not introduce flash. I have not yet been able to work at an aperture narrower than f2.8 and always set this as a default when I start setting up. I haven't found lack of depth of field (DOF) in using the wider aperture to be an issue in a stage environment with the angles and focal lengths in operation.

 [Using spot metering rather than multi may give better results on stage.]   To ascertain the shutter speed you might be able to use, you'll need to meter the environment as you set up and do some test shots. The 602 has three metering (photometry) options available. If the stage has large swathes of darkness and the performers are picked out in patches of lightness, spot metering will give better results as the camera meters for the subject in the centre of the viewfinder and doesn't average the light levels by taking in the entire scene. For most of the live music images you see on this site, the shutter speed will have been in the range of 1/15 - to 1/100 at f2.8, most being around 1/30, only crescendo bursts of light allowing the faster speeds. I have reached the stage where I can estimate fairly accurately what the likely suitable exposure will be and set the camera manually.

Steady as you go:

I can hear what you're saying already; I can't possibly hold the camera still at that exposure. The answer is that you probably can't, unless you're especially gifted with stillness and have an exceptionally steady hand. In order to work like this, you will need to support the camera in some way, you will get unacceptable camera shake and movement blur at those exposures without, especially if you apply any form of zoom to your shot. Movement in both the photographer and the subject are major issues to overcome with such slow exposures.

The obvious choice is to use a tripod, but this isn't always possible in a live environment and although I've had successes with a tripod, I also found it restrictive when trying to photograph energetic band members who rarely stay put on the stage and having to unscrew and re-adjust the tripod can become tiresome and often results in missed shots.

 [Even at very low light, a moment of stillness can be captured with patience.] There may be an opportunity to brace yourself or the camera against nearby furniture or structures, but this is unreliable and far from ideal. My personal choice is to use a shoulder pod (Cullmann model 0800) - it is a small adjustable bracket that fixes to the base of the camera just as a tripod head and braces against either shoulder or chest rather like a gun stock. I have found through practice with stance and techniques for breathing and holding the camera, I can get sharp shots at 1/15 second.

The pod provides considerable additional stability to the camera and yet allows complete freedom of movement to follow the action. The only limitations being the additional weight to hold, which over the length of some multi-billed gigs can lead to sore neck and shoulder muscles and the inability to swivel the camera upright quickly to take portrait format shots. The use of the shoulder pod, for me, has revolutionised my live music photo taking and freed me to work more fluently and creatively.

Establishing focus:

The 602 has what I consider to be a rather undeservedly poor reputation for low light focusing. Having never used any of the camera's competitors that have been cited as rather better in this area, I simply can't compare, but again, with the application of technique and with practice, any shortcomings can be overcome.

The 602 at low light, especially in the smoky atmosphere of a live music venue, may experience difficulty in locking focus on the soft lines of human faces and bodies, preferring areas of hard shape and contrast to lock on to. That being the case, help the camera along in this respect. My preferred technique to ensure a sharp image is to decide what I hope to include in the shot and zoom and frame accordingly. If the camera struggles to establish focus where required, indicated by the red 'AF' icon in the LCD/EVF, find an area close to hand at about the same distance from you as the subject, that has hard shapes and preferably straight lines and areas of contrast.

 [At low light, find a bright edge of contrast to establish a focus lock and re-frame your shot.]   Luckily most musicians are surrounded by suitable focusing spots, on guitar arms, mic stands, drum kits, keyboards and foldback monitors. Find a suitable spot and position it centrally in the viewfinder, partially depress the shutter button to establish focus - if it looks good and there are no warnings, keep the shutter release button partially depressed to hold focus lock and reframe your photo to your intended view, wait for your moment with lighting and pose and continue depressing the shutter to take the view. I rarely find this technique fails, as the metallic parts of instruments and microphones provide clear linear bright spots the camera can happily focus on.

We're nearly done:

One of the most important skills for capturing the shots that I do, bearing in mind the incredibly slow exposures and how much musos can move when working, is patience and stillness. We've already discussed eliminating movement blur from the photographer, but your subject is also animated, usually far more so than the one behind the camera. If I see a nice lighting situation or pose developing, I frame the shot (focusing as previously described) and stand still and wait my moment, keeping the shutter release partially depressed to hold focus, then squeeze at the desired moment.

I always have the preview option enabled on the camera as the artist can easily move at the moment you capture the shot, making it worthless - in which case you don't need to keep it and can frame your next view. This tends to eliminate the problem of going home with memory full of blurry shots. I probably trash about half the shots I take before they are even committed to memory and consequently, a significant proportion of what I take home is useable. I spend a great deal of time at gigs with the camera framed and focussed and standing as still as I can, waiting for that killer pose when the singer pauses a moment and is still long enough to ensure a good capture.

As a recent experiment, I set the 602's in camera sharpening mode to 'soft' which is actually no sharpening applied and have found that in live music environments when many shots are plagued with high ISO noise, the soft setting has reduced its appearance appreciably in the finished images.

White balance is another issue that you'll need to address when setting up the camera for the shoot, the coloured stage lighting will give rise to some wonderful results, but it can also prove problematic. I have found with experience that the incandescent/tungsten light WB setting will provide good results on many occasions and is reasonably reliable as a default where setting a custom level proves problematic.

  [Use the musicians hardware to establish focus lock.]  This can be a frustrating process as often the eventual show lights aren't used until the show starts and will lead to a few minutes of feverish activity as you try to set a custom WB at the start of the performance. This is another situation where using the preview mode of the 602 can ascertain if your settings are correct, the just-captured view in the EVF should look close to what your eyes are seeing and you will see if they're not if you enable the preview mode. If you're not happy with the appearance of the shots, you may need to set a custom white balance and details of how to do this are in the manual.

It is worth noting here that if you do as I do and fix an external flash unit to the top of the 602 before the gig, just in case it is required, it can have an impact on the WB setting as you work. If you tell the camera that you're using an external flash, but don't actually switch it on and use it, it immediately restricts the white balance settings available to you as auto or custom. So if you want to keep the flash physically in place, as I do, having found the added bonus of another point of camera stability if you lean your forehead against it, don't enable it in the settings menu until it is actually required.

In summary:

 [Wait for your moment and make sure you have everything ready.] To summarise, you're going to need either a very steady hand or additional support, a high ISO, soft sharpness setting, custom white balance, wide aperture, slow exposure, patience and some practice in ascertaining focus, holding still for your shot and controlling your breathing and squeezing gently at just the right moment!

If you really want the best positions and an unhindered opportunity to work, securing the appropriate permissions in advance will ensure a happier experience for everyone and will ensure that your camera bag doesn't get confiscated to the box office. All of the photos on this site have been taken with permission or under the authority of a press/photo pass.

Happy photography!

I have written several other tutorials on photography and post processing techniques
and these appear in my general photography portfolio.

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