A few years ago, I managed to start working with one of my favorite groups of musicians, a progressive heavy metal band from Pennsylvania called Shadow Gallery. This has led to me collaborating with them in a number of ways. I did some publicity photos for them, shot a music video (in another first for me) that ended up getting play on MTV in Europe, and in what I consider a career highlight, shot my first concert performance- which also happened to be their first concert performance.
Having never shot a live performance, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew the venue was a small local place, so I had no idea what the lighting would be like. I came prepared with two lenses, an EF 24-105 f/4L and EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II, as well as a 580EX II speedlite. I wasn’t sure the speedlites would be allowed, and even if they were, felt they would limit my shooting since I’d have to wait for the recycle. I used two cameras- a Canon EOS 7D and a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. Both are capable of relatively high ISO’s, which I knew I’d be using in a dimly lit concert venue. By raising the ISO, it minimized how hard the flash would have to work. I experimented starting at ISO 800, and finally settled on ISO 3200 a song or two into the show.
The great thing about musical performances is the lighting is generally pretty
interesting, if not all that bright. What I wanted to do was figure out, when the lights were at their brightest, what my exposure should be. I had the luxury of an opening act to shoot some tests. In addition, I wasn’t limited to just three songs like you might be with more well-known performers. I had an entire two hour show, so I took the first two songs to really nail my exposure down.
Even when using flash, I wanted to balance the flash with ambient light, not overpower the ambient lighting. To do this, I shot in Manual mode. I set my aperture wide open at f/2.8 or f/4 depending on the camera. I wanted a shutter speed fast enough to stop any movement on stage, so I ended up settling on 1/200 for the most part. Knowing the 7D would be a bit noisier at the high ISOs due to the smaller sensor, and that the lens I was using was a stop slower, I put the 24-105 on that camera and shot it at 1/100 at f/4 to give it an extra stop of exposure. That allowed some motion blur to creep in, but for the most part I lost very shots due to motion blur.
The constantly changing lighting meant that some shots just vanished as I pressed the shutter button. The lighting was frantic and pulsing and constantly changing. But after a song or two, it got easier to predict the patterns, as well as see where the band members liked to stand so I could plan for a shot. After a time I ditched
the flash and opted to shoot sequences at 8 and 10 frames per second to be sure I caught a good expression or peak action. In some cases, I’d catch great lighting for an instant, and then wait to see if the lighting sequence repeated and I could catch it again.
Overall, it was a great experience, one I hope to repeat again some time. It was the perfect combination for me- great music and photography.