Photographing live gigs can be tricky; odd lighting conditions, people moving and jumping around. It’s a challenge we partly explore in this article.
Back in March I received a call from FloydSpirit, one of the world’s leading Pink Floyd tribute bands, to photograph their concert at Tokyo’s prestigious ‘International Forum’. The gig was part of a small but important Japanese tour, the first the band had undertaken since re-shuffling their line-up and re-branding themselves.
The International Forum’s ‘Hall A’ is an aircraft-hanger of a venue; seating for almost 5000 in two tiers, a massive stage area and an impressive acoustic. It’s an impressive, blue-chip venue in a country strewn with impressive, blue-chip venues.
* If you are in Tokyo or visiting for a concert or tour and need photos of the band, see my other gallery at the foot of the page for more samples]
The brief was clear from the band: soak up the rehearsal and then get crucial shots of the main lighting rig for the live show. Given the original Pink Floyd’s penchant for outlandish and breathtaking light-shows, it was clear this job was going to present some interesting challenges.
I teamed up with the Canadian-born, Tokyo photographer, Stephen Lebowits [Design Festa, Japanzine and others] to shoot the gig. Given the brief, it was clearly important to have two snappers on hand: one to capture the live show from the front and one to get the wide shots, of the whole light-show, from the back.
I would take the long-shots [also the 'money' shots] with Stephen to take care of the bulk of the front-of-house work. We’d both shoot the rehearsal but I would shoot in black-and-white, Stephen in colour. If we had two photographers, we might as well each shoot differently to have as many options as possible.
Gallery of my shots from the gig [Stephen's to be added shortly]
The challenges of shooting this sort of concert are, essentially, like this [although they vary, and a reconaissance is essential]:
- This is a show put on for the public – obviously – and not just two photographers. One has to be sensitive to the paying customers and not get in the way.
- The long-shots would have to be done from the lighting and sound-desk, at the rear of the hall. There were no empty seats in between where the desk ended and where the paid-for seats began. Therefore, the photographer would have to wedge himself in around a vast loom of wires, flight-cases and sound/lighting desk in which there was no room for a tripod. Not the sort of place you want to be clambering around in the dark. And, you guessed it, there are no lights in that part of the hall during the show.
- The Floyd light-show, like many for music acts, is based a lot of the time around the beat of the music. One moment the entire hall is pitch-black, the next second it is lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree. There is no warning of this. You just have to get it from the beat of the music, and pre-empt what is going to happen.
- As well as lights pointing onto the stage, in such a show as this there are entire banks of lights pointing out into the crowd and, therefore, directly at one’s lens. Shooting into the light is not exactly what one would choose to do, but when you have to….. you have to. The lasers were particularly interesting to shoot. At times they were pointing right down the barrel of the lens. No damage though. But, very bright, so be careful if you are shooting pics lasers. Frame-up and shut your eye when you shoot. Sounds stupid, but if you are stable, have framed the camera up well enough then you dont need to see down the lens.
- The band tells you that as well as getting shots that show the impressive nature of the light-show, at the same time they want clearly discernable figures on the stage and images with low-noise that they can use large.
So, to paraphrase the requirements and challenges:
- People dancing and jumping that need to be captured as sharp as possible [fast shutter speed]
- Lighting that jumps from dark to bright in a split-second and an impressive rig that needs to be captured in all its many manifestations of colour, laser etc etc [manual exposure, auto just doesnt cope with this & a white balance that preserves the original colour of the lighting]
- A fixed shooting position 200-metres [at least] from the stage [at least 70mm - 135mm on the DX crop]
- Low-noise photos that can be enlarged for posters [ISO no higher, on my D300, than 500]
Some of these items may appear, you think, to contradict themselves: low ISO, lighting jumping from dark to light. They do contradict themselves. That’s one of the challenges.
The rehearsal was a chance to see some of the light show, but only for about five minutes. I fired some tests from the back of the room and was happy with the viewpoint, reasonable happy with the combos of ISO, aperture and shutter-speed but obviously aware that in the gig itself I would not have an empty stage. It would be full of musicians which I had to get sharp, and capture in that split-second of light with as many of them looking out at the crowd as possible. We both decided to wing-it on that front, and I planned to put the camera on Continuous Firing.
What we used….
The shots of the entire stage and lighting rig were shot on my D300, a Nikkor 24-70mm lens [thanks for the lend, Justin], at a maximum of 500ISO, minimum shutter-speed of 1/40th sec, maximum aperture of f/4, with the camera braced on a Slik monopod.
Auto-ISO on the D300 and above is a useful feature and I do use it sometimes for situations where the lighting conditions change very quickly; you can, handily, set the maximum ISO and minimum shutter-speed. But it really only works in one of the Auto Modes [S or A], which I wasn’t using because I just find that Manual does a better job.
Stephen used his D70 and D80 for the front-of-stage work. He was bumping the ISO a fair bit but had at least one lens [35mm f/2] with a decent aperture and he used my 85mm f/1.4 for a while as well [the only person who has successfully managed to prise it out of my hands fo far]. Crucially aware that the ’85 lets a lot of light in, but that it ain’t got a very big depth-of-field when it’s doing it. Compromise: what a wonderful thing. Anyway, Stephen got some great shots.
How we felt it went…
It was an awesome gig, a great experience for us both but especially, I think, for Stephen; he’d shot gigs before but nothing as big and challenging as this. We also got to enjoy the closest thing to Pink Floyd you will ever get to see nowadays. Given the state of relations between the original members, neither Stephen or I imagined we would be seeing the real Pink Floyd in a hurry.
FloydSpirit are a great bunch of guys and gals. Very talented, good fun, down-to-earth and it was a superb day.They took all the shots off of us at the end of the gig, via a laptop and card-reader. No time for us to do any editing. This shoot had to be delivered on-site.
After the gig, Stephen and I retired to a nearby izakaya for a post-shoot de-brief [i.e. eat yakitori and get gently sozzled on cheap beer]. It was at this point Stephen noticed my camera was set to ‘M’.
“How the f**k [and why] did you just shoot that gig all on Manual?’, he says.
Why? Cos not even Nikon’s very clever ‘Matrix Metering’ system in aperture or shutter-priority is capable of dealing with the extreme lighting conditions of a concert stage.
How? Years of practice [to the point where I can generally guess the exposure, by eye, to within a half-stop], combined with a decent enough memory to remember the combinations of shutter and aperture for the following:
- Good, even exposure of the stage when bright.
- Good, even exposure of the stage when darker.
- Good, even exposure of faces when in full light.
- Good, even exposure of faces when out of a spotlight.
This will get you most of the shots you need, in my humble opinion. Please feel free to add your opinions below. Thanks.
Oh, and by the way, the performance was awesome: very talented bunch of musicians, great production and sound, amazing light-show. I’d definitely go and see them again. Closest thing to Floyd you’ll get in the absence of the real thing.
Gallery of some of my other music photography: more available here.