Purple Mafia at the Whiskey a Go Go

Don’t get excited — I know the first photo is out of focus:-) I want to use it to make a point.

Because I know that many readers of my blog are also photographers, I generally try to include some technical data – or, at least, some camera settings for a few shots. Yesterday, I published an article about shooting the German band, Johna, at the Whiskey a Go Go, in West Hollywood, on Sunday evening. I included an Animoto video (collection of stills set to Johna’s music), but since I didn’t publish individual photos, I didn’t include any technical information. FAIL! I woke up, this morning, to several email ‘requests’ for that info.

Rather that rework yesterday’s post, I decided to write another article on the subject of taking photographs at a concert. OK, not a large concert at a stadium, but live performances in smaller clubs. Larger venues may have a photographer’s pit, and you will probably need credentials to get in there. However, for many of us, we are either shooting in venues that don’t have the space for a pit, or are just taking pictures for fun.

If you’ve never been to the Whiskey a Go Go, there are two things that you’ll immediately notice: The acoustics are great — and the lighting is not. The stage, walls, and ceiling are all painted black as in light sucking dark. Add in the ever changing lights (changing in both color and intensity)– mostly from overhead spots, and you are faced with a few challenges.:-)

Because I was on the ‘crew list’ for Johna, I had a little more access that a regular customer, but that only helped backstage. During the actual performances, I was usually right there with the customers. During the sound check, I noticed a high energy ‘boy band’ from the UK. I liked their sound and decided to grab a few shots. Within are short time, I was in a conversation with the band’s manager, who was also taking some photos, and he asked me if I could grab a few shots of his band, during their performance. Since they were schedule to immediately follow Johna, on the bill, I decided to stay — and they were good and Johna wanted to see them, as well.

First, the logistics — or the equipment. One thing you probably know: These places can get crowded and there isn’t much space to move around. There is no way for a photographer to use a rolling case, or really large bag — and forget a backpack. Typically, I would just put what I need in a Shootsac. It is comfortable, body conforming, and doesn’t stick way out from your body — and your lenses are right there, when you want to change.

What lenses do you need? My choices, on a full frame Nikon D700, were a 50mm/1.4, 85mm/1,4 and 70-200mm/2.8. Additionally, I had two speedlights — a Nikon SB-900 and an SB-800. I had a Gary Fong Universal Lightsphere, with a Chromedome, a Manfrotto 190XPROB tripod with a 322RC grip style ballhead. I also had a Manfrotto 3216 monopod.

Getting there early, and having a chance to talk with the venue’s stage manager, or other people is an advantage. In this case, I was able to set up a speedlight near the corner of the stage, by one of the mixing boards. It was up off the floor, just a few feet above the stage, and gave a cool effect — as you’ll see in some of the following images. I only had space for one off-camera light, and controlled it via the D700’s built-in infrared triggering system. The infrared signal is line-of-sight, but in a dark environment (read not strong sunlight), where I was never more that about 50 feet (often much closer), it worked fine. In a larger arena, or in bright sun, I would have opted for a radio trigger.

At the sound check, I was able to test my setup, but I knew that two things would change for the actual performance. First, the house lights would come down, and secondly, the ever changing colored spots would require constantly changing exposures — I wasn’t concerned about white balance because all the light would be about the same temperature, even though the colors would be changing — but that is part of the environment. You can set your white balance, on the Kelvin scale, to what you think is the predominant light temperature, then batch correct in Lightroom. Don’t be tempted to use auto-white balance, because you will get no consistency, and will increase your post-production workload. Essentially, what I was able to test, during sound check, was the shooting angles, as well as the light pattern that I could get from the Lightspere equipped SB-900.

Any diffuser will attenuate the light, to a degree. Also, the Lightspheres are know for their ability to broadcast soft (softer than direct flash) all around a room, and bounce from walls and ceiling — EXCEPT my walls and ceiling were black! The first thing I did was remove the Inverted Dome, and comes with Gary Fong Lightspere, and replace it with what Gary calls the Chromedome. It has a 50 cent-size opening in the top, but also has a ‘kicker plate’ that blocks light from going out the back, and redirects it toward the subject — or in whatever direction you want.

Now that I had a place to put a light, and some way to control its direction, I had to decide on power settings. For Johna, there was only akeyboard player and a singer/guitarist, and they were moving around very much. However, while they were about the same distance from the front of the stage, I didn’t want a series on head-on only shots. I was bringing light in from stage-left, so Kolja (keyboard) was closer to the light than Nadine (singer). From acute camera angles (from the sides of the stage) one was actually the other’s background. Normally, I would light this by putting the camera on manual, opening to the largest aperture, and dragging the shutter (the burst of light from the flash is so fast (in the 1,000s of a second) that it would freeze any movement from the main subject, yet the longer shutter speed would allow for any ambient light to brighten the background. That would work well if the light to subject distance was relatively constant (think a portrait, or shooting the bridal party on the steps of the alter). In this case, since the light was stationary, but Kolja and Nadine were alternately the main subject and the background — and, on some shots, I wanted both of them to be in focus, while in others, I was using a narrower depth of field, so the background would blur a bit. The best power seemed to be about 1/8 to 1/4. My aperture ranged from f1.4 to 2.8 (remember, my two primes would go to f1.4, but my zoom would only open to f2.8). With the D700, I used an ISO of anywhere from 800 to 6400 (mostly in the 3200 range). In some cases, I just shot in ambient light, not using the flash. You sort of have to like noise — ‘grain’. In the photos of Purple Mafia, you will see some black & whites where I embraced the grain — yes, I know it’s noise, but I shot Tri-X for 30+ years, so I sometimes say ASA and grain 🙂

The most significant challenge was getting a good focus. While Johna was relatively stationary, the Purple Mafia was anything but. They are a high energy band, with everyone but the drummer jumping around and moving back and forth, on the stage. With a 35mm camera, manual focus was easy, because of the clear focusing screens. Digital cameras, are not very well equipped for manual focus. Fortunately, the D700 does a great job with auto-focus, but stick a 70-200mm lens on it, in a dark room, and be prepared for a few throw-aways — hence my first image. You have the option of matrix (or selective focusing) or trying to use one of the focus points. For me, eyes are nearly everything, so I tried to position a focus point on one of the band members eyes, and fire.

Fortunately, the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) allows the photographer to control remote strobes from the camera — no need to physically make any changes directly on the speedlights. Just to stay sane, since I was moving around, and the band members where in constant motion, not only affecting focus, but changing their position relative to my stationary light, I put the SB-900 in TTL mode, and fired at will. Exposure was pretty good, straight out of the camera.

The drummer was the biggest challenge, for two reasons: First, he was often blocked by the other band members and his own cymbols (remember, I was on the floor, and he was up on a stage). Secondly, he was at a greater distance from the flash than any the other band member.

Earlier, I mentioned embracing the grain (digital noise). Sometimes, a grainy image is better than no image, at all. Crank up the sensitivity (ISO), turn off the flash, and fire away.

If you re interested in seeing other photos of Purple Mafia, at the Whiskey a Go Go, the full gallery is here.

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Steve Rosenbaum Hey – really great photos! A lot of energy comes through and the color shots are beautiful!

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