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In this post Nyani Quarmyne talks about getting the shot – catching that moment in a show that captures the essence of a performer and the emotion they’re expressing.
Much of what I’ve seen written on concert photography centers on gear and the technical aspects of shooting (there are a number of good tips on this site). Of course, gear and technical know-how are important, and I’ll touch on a couple of salient points. But there are other equally important, more esoteric concepts at the heart of stage photography.
Stage lighting can be tricky, so you have to get your exposure right or you’ll wind up with beautifully composed, crap shots.
Evaluative metering can’t be relied on in the high-contrast and variable lighting conditions that are typically found on a concert stage. Spot metering off your subject or a mid-tone can be useful, but when you have bright lights in the background it can result in a correctly exposed subject and ugly blown highlights in the background. The optimal exposure is often something of a compromise, so I personally prefer to leave the camera set to evaluative/ matrix metering and then get a feel for how much over- or under-exposure is needed for different parts of the stage through estimation and some trial and error. With practice you’ll begin to guesstimate the right settings.
You’ll generally be shooting wide open, except when you may need to stop down to get multiple subjects at different distances from the camera in focus, so often it’s your shutter speed and ISO that you’ll be playing with. Once you have a sense of how much over- or under-exposure is needed, you can vary your aperture/ ISO/ shutter speed relationship while keeping the optimal exposure in mind. For example, say you’re getting sharp, correctly exposed images of a guitarist at 125th/s, f/2.8 @ ISO200. Then a singer joins him in the frame. You need a little more depth of field to keep them both in focus, so you leave the shutter speed as it is to keep your shots sharp, stop down two stops to f/5.6 to increase the depth of field, and raise the ISO two stops from ISO200 to ISO800. Your exposure is identical, but now you have the depth of field you need. Just remember to revaluate your exposure when shooting a different area of the stage, or when the lighting conditions change.
A camera that allows for clean high-ISO images is a huge advantage as higher ISO settings allow you to keep your shutter speed relatively high, reducing camera shake and better allowing you to freeze action.
The viewfinder preview is too small to give you a sufficiently detailed view of over- and under-exposed areas of your image. The highlights view will show you where you’ve lost highlight detail, but it doesn’t show you what you may have inadvertently sacrificed in the shadows. So if you don’t already, learn to use your histogram – it’s an invaluable tool for evaluating exposure, particularly in tricky lighting conditions. I have my camera set up so that pressing the centre button on the 4-way navigator flashes up a full screen histogram. That way I can use my preview to check sharpness and focus, and then push the centre button to do a quick histogram check before I go back to shooting.
Don’t obsess over checking your shots – if you’re looking at your screen you’re missing what’s happening on stage. Do enough checks to fine tune your settings for a given set of lighting conditions, and then focus on shooting.
Now that you’ve got your exposure sorted, watch the performers. No, I mean really watch the performers. Analyse their performance. How do they move on the stage? Where are their favourite places to stand? What are their idiosyncrasies? Facial expressions? Favourite postures? Signature moves? How do they express emotion? It doesn’t take a long – just watch for a while once a band has hit its stride and you’ll begin to see that each performer has little habitual movements, facial expressions, individual quirks, that are unique. Identifying these is key to capturing the individuality and expressiveness of a singer or player. If you have the opportunity to watch several performances by the same artist you may also find that there are events that happen at particular points in a set – pyrotechnics, a leap off a speaker stack, entry of a stage prop – and you can plan for these, too.
Once you know what you’re looking for, anticipate it. If you’ve noticed that a guitarist bends a certain way during emotional moments in his solos, anticipate it, compose for it, and be ready when the moment comes. If a singer leans away from the mike a certain way during soulful pauses between song lines, pre-visualise your shot, get set up for it, and execute it when the elements come together. Of course, you also have to be ready to react instantly to capture a spontaneous moment.
People, instruments, objects on stage and even the glow of stage lights create shapes and lines in the frame. The beautiful lines of a guitar, for example, generally look better from some angles than others, as do the combined lines of the guitar and its player. Try and see the shapes that the elements in your viewfinder create and use them in your compositions. Take into account things like whether a singer holds the mike in their right hand or left, whether a guitarist is playing a right- or left-handed guitar, and then move around to position yourself to get the right angles for your shots.
Work with the stage lights – move around and use them to rim light, sidelight or silhouette your subject. If there’s a background light flaring into your lens, see if you can make the flare work for you.
One of the challenges of concert photography is the clutter that is generally found on a concert stage – microphones and their stands, monitor speakers, amplifiers, cables, and even roving videographers. Clutter detracts from your shots. Try and position yourself to get shots that are as clear of such distractions as possible. In particular, watch for microphones that obscure a singer’s face (their mouth in particular), and watch for the shadows microphones cast too. In general, avoid standing directly in front of a singer as more often than not you’ll end up with a microphone where their mouth should be. Drummers are particularly tricky to get clean shots of, as they are surrounded by all kinds of ‘hardware’ and are usually also far back on the stage. Try and get shots of them from the side if you can.
Perth photographer Rob Miller likes to say, “Forget about the subject, it’s the background that makes your photo.” Of course he doesn’t mean that literally, but a fantastic moment captured against a messy background will ultimately be a messy shot, while a fantastic moment captured against a fantastic background will be a fantastic shot. Watch out for elements of the background that you want to avoid, like stage scaffolds, lighting rigs and even other performers, and try to compose for those that you can use to your advantage. Remember that on a well lit stage you can use the glow of stage lights, or even the lights themselves, as your background. If there’s nothing going on in the background, if possible, try and set your exposure so that your subject is correctly exposed but the background collapses to black.
Fast lenses help with background clutter, too, as not only do they allow you to make the most of what light you have available, but the shallow depth of field produced by a wide aperture helps to blur out background distractions. Accordingly, I rely primarily on a 70-200 f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.4 for very low light and for close shots in small venues or to take in more of the stage, and occasionally a 17-35mm f/2.8 for close work and for stage, crowd and venue shots.
Remember that while you are trying to get a job done, everyone else is trying to enjoy a show that they have paid to see. Be nice. Think about the people behind you – get your shots, but try not to block anyone’s view for too long. If you’re in a crowd and need to get right in someone’s face for a moment to get a shot, do so politely. I often find that if you’re nice to people they’ll actually help you get the shots you need by encouraging other people to let you get to where you need to be.
I try to avoid the use of flash as it’s distracting for performers and annoying for the people around you (and often also not allowed). Flash can also look unnatural, as it typically casts light of a different colour to the stage lights onto your subject. The exception to the no flash rule is when I need to lift shadows over a performer’s eyes, for example when someone is wearing a hat.
I also ensure that the autofocus assist beam on my camera is off so that it’s not poking performers in the eye, and I turn my viewfinder preview off so it’s not a blinking distraction to people around me. (This also stops people craning over your shoulders to check out your business.) It’s a simple matter to press “Play” every now and then when you need to check a shot. If your camera allows, create a custom settings profile so you can set your camera the way you want it with a couple of button pushes, rather than having to go wandering through the menus every time you need to get set up.
Anyone on a stage likes to know they’re being appreciated. Show your appreciation. You don’t have to jump up and down and scream (it’s difficult to take steady shots while jumping and screaming…), but make eye contact, show your appreciation with a smile, give a nod of thanks when a performer looks down your lens. Sometimes you’ll find a little appreciation earns you your own little mini performance, when a performer heads over to where you’re standing, looks down the barrel of your lens and pulls some moves just for you.
Nyani is a Ghanaian/ Filipino/ Australian photographer spending 2009 travelling around North America with his family working on a personal project. Find his work on his website and blog at www.nqphotography.com, and follow the family’s travels at www.YearInAmerica.net.