Friday, 14 August 2009

Raw Theory

So, the weekend started with a session of Escape From Atlantis, candle-lit in a nearby garden, until 4am. It rather set the tone for the week; 3 possible shoots turned into a mess of administration, not one of my strong points. As much as I love my job, the trials and tribulations of getting work, organising the job, and then harrying people for money often makes me envious of folks who work for corporations and companies that often have whole departments for dealing with those issues. Then again, photography isn't really a job you do out of choice. As it goes, administration also has its good points; a productive Le Cool meeting on Thursday left me filled with hope at the possibilities of what we could do. Looking back at the initial meeting, accidentally in a gay pub on Charing Cross Road because the venue we'd hope to meet at was closed, the lucky chance that three people called Mat Osman, Josh Jones and later, Chloe McCloskey would all put so much time and effort behind something with little reward other than it being "our project" and succeed in making it into a real force - I don't know that it would otherwise be unlikely to succeed, but certainly I'd say in the main part it was down to the amiableness of the people involved as well as their undoubted talents. You could not meet three nicer people.

Shooting less gives me more time to think about shooting. For next week, starting on Saturday, I have two or three beauty shoots lined up, a big club to shoot on Saturday night, a product shoot for Tesco on Monday.. I enjoy the intensity of work; no time to think, no time to worry. My big shoot last week was Dice Club, a club night I've been involved with for a couple of years, shooting once a month. Putting aside the music and fashion, here are some thoughts on how I shoot music in small-medium venues.

On a fashion shoot, they key is control. You can take 100 shots for just one picture, moving the model and lights cm by cm, changing lenses, seeing it all on a laptop screen as you shoot it to make it look exactly how you want. Shooting performance, in club-type venues, the only things you can control are - where you stand (unless there's a crowd), shutter speed and aperture (unless, as is usual, it's pretty dark), and your flash (except, usually not). The first thing to do is accept that you are not going to get a low-grain, pin-sharp perfectly posed images with each shot. So you can work with that. In the shot above, I feel that the coloured blur adds to the picture. The area of the blur gives you an idea of how he's moving while he plays. Repeat after me: with each picture we tell a story.

This shot, I would call it a progressive shot, which is to say, I've found my shooting speed and aperture, but not yet nailed the right position and angle to shoot from. A couple of things to note: firstly, that there is strong use of coloured lighting - if you don't know about colour, a red and a blue that look similarly bright to the eye can come up hugely different in pictures. While red is generally the brightest light you'll get on a stage, it can overpower any tone definition. Also I've often found that the cooler colours, blues and greens, can leave a nice flattened tone when they burn. Secondly, there is a projection on a screen behind the band. It is generally a good guide to say that if you can find a shutter speed that you can shoot the projection at without blurring, you will be able to get a reasonable exposure shooting anyone standing in that light, and that will make it much easier for you to judge exposure comparing the stage lights to the brightness of the projection.

These two consecutive shots show, the difference in a second from the change in exposure from red to green light, and, in my opinion, superior framing to the previous image. I've got a little closer in to get a better angle on his face. Although the red wash across the screen is dramatic, if I had to pick one of these shots I'd go for the green because of the gradient across the singer's face. By the way this band is called No Kisses.

Closer in again, so that the the projection fills the background. I processed this shot in b&w, because it was completely red. People often tell me that it takes more skill to shoot in colour because everything looks dramatic in black and white. While it's true that black and white photography gives us an image at one remove from how we would see with our own eyes, I think each picture needs to be developed on its own merits. A completely red shot has been turned into a nice high-contrast shot, and the drama is not in the lack of colour so much as in the amount of detail you gain from the heightened contrast you can squeeze out of monochrome.

This is one of my final shots of the set; I've found my angle (working around the frame provided by the giant figures on the screen) and shutter speed (having checked while shooting and decided to shoot when the yellow light is brightest). I'm pretty pleased with the result.

The next band were called Schwefelgelb, and I had been told good things about them before they went on. The stage manager rigged up some dry ice, which can be both dramatic and a pain in the arse if you're using autofocus. They has asked to be bathed in strong green light, which is great when they were standing still, but made it hard to get clear shots when they were dancing around the place. Clear shots are overrated.

It's important to say that, besides making sure I have a rough idea of lighting levels, most of the things I'm writing down here are firmly in the background of my thoughts while I'm shooting. I would not do music photography if it wasn't something I can let completely overwhelm me while I'm doing it. It's not like it ever pays..

The shot above is a good example of finding a way to use tricky lighting to your advantage. Often when a stage is well-lit centrally, singers will stand forward, dance about the place etc. out of reach of the lighting. There is still a good chance to get nice shots though if you start thinking silhouettes, blurred shapes etc. and really, I think anyone who just concentrates on getting crisp images in these circumstances is missing part of the point of it. This is a creative discipline, and to a certain extent it is as important to produce a aesthetically appealing image as it is one that perfectly records the scene. This shot is made as much by the darkness of his face and the blur on his hair as it is by the stillness of his arms, the mic and cord in his hand and the nice diagonal of the framing.

Here again a b&w process has saved an overexposed shot. Overexposure is unavoidable if you shoot manual in rapidly changing lighting conditions. If you can't avoid it, work around it.

In this shot, I've processed simply by pushing the contrast to see what happened. It was overexposed and a little out of focus; when I processed it though, that little line above his mouth, the burnt-out red and the darkness of his eyes made it, for me, into one of my shots of the night.

The last band was Lung, Rotter and Seven. It's a bit tricky to shoot bands which stand around a table drinking wine and beer, so I only took a few shots trying to frame nicely and left it be.

It was a pretty good night though, and Dice Club goes from strength to strength, and in my opinion is the best place to see new and coming-up bands in London.

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