Photographing in clubs
Hey guys! Sorry about the long silence. Been a little busy with my other blog and re-organizing my chaotic flat.
In that latest entry on ZXC there’s a collection of concert photos from different gigs in Helsinki, and I thought it might be appropriate to put down a few words on photographing bands in a club situation. Once again, I’ll do this one in English. And once again: I am no expert and the REAL photographers probably laugh at these posts. I just know that I would have loved to stumble upon a blog that took me through the basic problems with band photography when I started out. These are a few thoughts and tips from a happy amateur, that’s all. I hope somone finds something of value here.
Shooting in the kind of small clubs that a small-time photographer like I do, there is a constant enemy, that has to be turned into an ally: light. Lighting at clubs simply isn’t designed with the photographer in mind. The truth is that most club owners don’t know shit about concert lighting. You might argue that the light is designed to make the band look cool to the audience, but the simple fact is that when the camera loves the light, then naked eye also tends to do the same. Hell, we photographer’s can’t change the light, so we will just have to make the best of what is on the plate.
There are three main problems that you encounter, either on their own, or in the worst case all three combined; backlight, dim light and tinted light.
A certain amount of backlight can be cool, but some clubs just have lights precisely above and behind the band, which creates a problem as soon as you have a singer that likes to stand on the monitors or a guitarist that plays solos close to the audience. Some clubs even have lights that are only pointed at the guys at the back of the stage – an arrangement that never ceases to amaze me. YK Klubi is one of those places, I tried to shoot The Wha’s there at one point, but immediately kindly asked the wardrobe to take care of my camera.
Dim light is – well, dim light. Sometimes the club just hasn’t invested in enough lights, other times they just don’t know how to use them. Good old Factory had that problem, Lepakkomies and Darkside Club are other examples of places where it’s very hard too shoot, although Leppis has upgraded their lighting somewhat lately.
In my opinion the trickiest problem to solve is tinted, or coloured, lights, simply because there’s not much you can do about it. This was a problem a last encountered when joining Bob Malmström and I Lied on tour in Estonia. Club owners tend to love to bathe the bands in red light, which is nice in a way, but when you have nothing but red light, that’s what your pictures will look like: red, red, red, red. No shades, hightlights or any other colours. Just red.
I started photographing bands with a Canon EOS 400D with ISO 1600 and a pretty crappy kit-lens with a maximum aperture of 3.5-5.6 (which means the more you zoom, the darker your image gets). This was a problem especially when the venue was very dark. Nevertheless, I got a few shots that I’m really proud of, just because they are a bit different from what you usually see when it comes to concert photos.
This takes us to problem 1: Backlight. When faced with backlight you tend to lose the facial features of the band members, since the light is directed from the back. If you’re lucky, the lights are in the ceiling. Then you just have to wait for the singer or other band member to step back, they will eventually do it, just have patience. The other solution is to try and find a spot somewhere along the sidelines if the stage or even behind the stage, if that is possible. Mind you NEVER EVER go onstage without talking with the band beforehand. That will cut your career as a rock photographer short. Anyway, just be sure to mind the other photographers, the audience and of course, the band. The point is: move around, find the spots where the light hits the band in a nice way. The other solution is possible only if you have a good camera + lens. That is to pull up both ISO, aperture and pull down the shutter speed. Start with aperture – it’s much better to have and aperture of 1.8 than an ISO speed of 6400. High ISO speeds in dark surrondings tend to make for very noisy pictures. Always try and keep the ISO as low as possible. Now with backlight this is not always the best solution, since you will blow out the background when trying to get a good picture of the band’s faces. The third, and often very dramatic, solution is to just go along with the light and shoot silhouettes. This can be very effective, but you seldom want a whole picture set with just those kinds of images. The best way is probably to experiment a bit and try to do a bit of all the above mentioned.
Problem 2: Dim light. In a way very similar problems as backlight. The advantage with backlight is that there IS good light, it is just misdirected. But sometimes the light is well directed and might even look fine to the naked eye, then when you try and shoot it, you end up with a kind of blackish-grayish-brownish slush. An often stated rule of photograpy is that a good picture has a bit of bright light and a bit of black, and some shades in between. When shooting in colour, you want your colours to be bright. The first aid to dim light is very simple: switch your camera setting to black-and-white. That will allow you to shoot very dark images without getting the annoying faded brownish colours and it will remove a lot of potential colour noise. When working out the camera settings, I find that the first thing I do is to use as big an aperture as possible. If you have just bought a camera, you will most likely have a lens that has an aperture of about 3,5-5.6. I highly recommend buying a static 50 mm lens with a max aperture of 1.8. The Canon version you can get for 99 euros, and the Nikon version is just a little bit more expensive, around 130 euros. There are 1.4 versions of the lenses too, but they cost a little more. You’d get close to 300 euros.
This lens will save you in almost any light. It takes a bit of training to get used to the static 50 mm focal length, and in small crowded clubs they are a bit tricky to use. Personally I find that I end up with a lot of head shots that all look pretty much the same, so it takes a bit of creative thinking to make the images interesting. Another problem is that it can be difficult to get sharp photos with such a large aperture – almost impossible to shoot a moving musician with manual focus and when using automatic focus the camera often decides to focus on the wall behind the stage rather than on the band. But if you can live with going through a few pics that are out of focus, this will give you some really nice shots with great colours even in a rather dim light. After opening up the lens as much as possible, I pull down the shutter speed, mostly to about 80. At that speed you never need to worry about motion blur. And not until then I start to pull up the ISO speed. I leave the ISO speed last because a high ISO will most likely render your pictures a lot of noise. A lot of photographers are a bit effy about even going above 800, I am personally happy with 1600, since I like my pictures to have a slightly rugged feel anyway. If I have to go above 3200 to get a decent shot, I’d rather not shoot at all. And even if your pictures are slightly under-exposed, don’t worry, there’s always the magic of Photoshop (or Gimp, which I use). But as mentioned earlier, when shooting in really dark conditions, if you still need to tweak the contrast with Photoshop to get decent light, I highly recommend B/W-settings.
The third and in my opinion most annoying problem is tinted light. It is great when used sparsely and combined with white light, but a lot of clubs use only coloured lights. If two or more colours are used, you can often get a few nice and very psychedelic pictures with the help of a little photoshopping, but if there’s only one single colour you’re screwed. In my experience the only salvation here is to shoot in black-and-white. The problem is that the camera doesn’t pick up the other colours in the shot in the same way as the eye does. Even though you might SEE that the singer is wearing a blue shirt in red light, the camera won’t, since it operates with light. If you’re lucky, the shirt will turn purple in the shot, but most likely it will become deep rep. A single coloured light will make the shots flat and boring. You won’t get any whites, since there is no white light.
But when using B/W-settings, you might actually be able to turn the brightest parts of the image into white in Photoshop. Of course, you CAN shoot in colour and then convert to grayscale in Photoshop, but there are two issues here. One: If you know you’re gonna convert the pics into grayscale, you’ll save some work and time shooting in B/W. Two: When shooting in B/W it’s a lot easier to see how the shots will turn out once you’re going to edit them. And shooting in dark, tinted light calls for a bit of different thinking and different settings than shooting in colour. You’re operating with contrasts, rather than with colours.
I personally find that it is mostly a lot more fun to work in difficult lighting than in perfect conditions, since you have to think a bit more about what you’re doing. You have to keep moving about, stay alert and really look for the angles that will work and it’s such a great feeling when you are able to catch that one exact moment when the frontman steps right into that one single ray of light shining on the stage.
Wow, that was a long post. Sorry for all the rambling.