- January 21st, 2010
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My journey with music photography
Photography has something that, in retrospect, has always been a part of me, despite my having ignored it for a very long time. Growing up I had shot countless rolls of Tri-X Pan 400 with my dad’s camera, and at summer camp learned to process the film and print to paper. I was the photographer for my high school newspaper (as well as the editor) so I had some sense of how to shoot on a deadline, create printable images, etc. I had some basic techniques for manipulating the output, dodging and burning, “pushing” the iso, overexposing, etc. Then, it was off to college, and I hardly looked at a camera again for more than 15 years.
A little over a year ago, I decided to rekindle my interest in photography. It was born out of a desire to express myself creatively (something that I don’t do in my day job as an engineering-type-guy) I was further inspired by several friends who are excellent photographers, and I wanted to see if I could create compelling imagery like they have. I bought a used dSLR (Nikon d70s) and an all-in-one zoom lens (Tamron 28-300 VR) from a friend of mine who was upgrading, and I started walking around New York taking pictures (mostly landscape and architecture). I immediately noticed that the technology of cameras has evolved significantly in 15 years, and that there are many things you can do with digital that you could never do with film. Being a digital sort of guy this should have come as no surprise…
Getting up to speed on digital
The first thing that I noticed was obvious: I could shoot as many pictures as I wanted, and see the results immediately, for no incremental cost beyond the camera itself. Next I noted that ISO was just another knob to be tweaked on the camera, and was not a function of any physical property of the film being used, rather a setting on the sensor that was recording the image. You pay a price in noise and image quality for pushing it, but you can capture images beyond what you could with film easily, and fix a lot of the noise problems later. There was also this thing called White Balance, which I mostly ignored at first, and later learned to deal with in post for the most part. Lastly, I realized early on that that the line between shooting and post production is a lot more fluid with digital than film, especially if you shoot RAW and use a non destructive editor like LightRoom or Aperture.
These are very obvious things to understand about digital photography, but knowing them and integrating them into your picture taking are 2 different things. It took a while for me to get the hang of the workflow and additional knobs I had at my disposal.
Later on, more subtle things began revealing themselves. In film photography, it is generally understood that you can pull pictures back from overexposure but there is little to nothing you can do about underexposure. As it turns out, this is the reverse of what is true for digital. In fact you can pull quite a lot of shadow detail out of an underexposed digital picture, but if you blow your highlights, it’s pretty much game over. There are very good technical discussions on why this is on the web, mostly having to do with the way CMOS sensors convert light into data, but I won’t go into that here. But it generally means you need to keep an eye out for overexposure, and thats why most dSLRs have a feature which shows you blown highlights in your playback view so you can see them immediately and correct your camera settings.
What to shoot?
Once I had a semi grasp on how to use my camera I turned my attention to what I wanted to shoot. And this is where things got interesting. I started out shooting landscapes and architecture stuff in new york, learning about composition, and trying to control the basic mechanics of shooting static imagery. It was a great way to learn, and I still enjoy it. But lets face it, there is a ton of landscape photography out there, and unless you are doing something truly innovative, it’s pretty boring. Another major problem with architecture / landscape shooting in NYC is that there tends to be a LOT of people around, which can seriously interfere with taking good shots. However, this taught me one extremely important lesson about photography: the discipline is all about patience. You might wait hours for the perfect shot, say a sunset, and then something environmental will interfere with it at the last second. The only thing you can do is come back again, if that is even possible.
Brigantine Island, New Jersey
But like I said, static landscape photography started to get a bit boring, so I started looking for other things to shoot. Fortuitously, around this time, my Tamron lens broke, so I was forced to change up my equipment a bit. I purchased a fast prime lens (Nikon 50mm/1.4 AF-D) and started playing with that in even lower light situations, shooting people and trying some low light stuff. I started playing with some more artistic style shooting, like leaving the lens open on bulb and painting with a flashlight, etc. Fast prime lenses are great because you can pretty much do anything with one, so long as you can zoom with your feet. I got my 28-300 back, and subsequently started playing with macro, which I also liked a lot. But then a photographer friend of mine offered me a pretty cool opportunity: Shooting the NYC halloween parade. I picked up a flash unit (Nikon SB-600) and off I went.
I immediately loved it. I had access to create images that most people would never be able to see for themselves. It was real time, there was no second shot, or coming back later. It was now or never, and you had to get it right. And this is when I learned another great lesson of photography: necessity is the mother of invention, and you have to work with what you have. The d70′s sensor is not all that great at shooting at night, and the SB-600 is not that powerful a flash beyond about 10-12′ or so I needed to get close, and push the ISO. I shot fast and furious, trying out many combinations of settings, aperture, shutter speed, etc, and I think that was the night I learned to control depth of field by instinct rather than by thinking about it. I think i took over 1000 images that night, which is totally excessive, but the learning experience was priceless. In 3 hours of shooting I learned more about event photography than I could possibly have imagined. Most importantly, I learned that it was the kind of photography I wanted to focus on.
NYC Halloween Parade
Seeing as there aren’t tons of parades to shoot, I needed to find events to attend with some more regularity. I have been an aficionado of music and specifically the NY live music scene for over a decade. It is something that has been a pretty major part of my life for that entire time; at one point I was seeing something like 200 shows a year. I had moved away from it the past few years, but it was still near and dear to my heart, and I wanted to combine my new hobby with something I had been enjoying for what seemed like forever.
I have a number of friends who do music photography so I started talking to them about it. I know some folks in the music business, so I reached out to them as well. I have come to appreciate this as extremely fortunate, because it often can be very difficult to get access to shoot shows, especially in the beginning. Generally speaking you can slip in with a point-and-shoot, but bringing in a dSLR with a telephoto generally requires a pass. Fortunately, I was able to get access to do that pretty much right away.
The first show I shot was John Prine at the Wellmont Theatre. I will never forget the experience. First off, the man is a legend, and I was psyched to see him live to begin with. I was given the rules of engagement: first 3 songs down in front, no flash. So, down in front with my photo pass and d70s I went. John Prine isn’t a particularly animated show, not a lot of flashy lighting effects, or jumping around stage. Just a guy with a guitar and a microphone. And thats where I picked up my first few tidbits about music photography:
Microphone stands are the bane of your existence. Nothing messes up a perfectly good closeup like a poorly placed mic stand. If only they would think of the poor photographers when placing them on stage Second, I was very frustrated by the lighting, because it wasn’t a flashy concert, it really pushed the ability of my zoom lens (which was f/5.6 fully extended to 200mm) and the ISO of my body to the point where photos were basically not there. I ultimately tried dropping my shutter speed way below acceptable tolerances. I tried leaning on things, but to no avail. My 3 songs were up, and I really didn’t get any good shots. But again, there was a silver lining and a lesson to be learned: Being up front doesn’t really guarantee great shots, and in fact some of your best shots will not be from the pit or other “special access” areas.
I went back to my seat, which was near the back of the auditorium, somewhat dejected. I really wanted to take some great pictures, mostly because I really enjoy John Prine’s music. I decided to keep my camera out and see what I could do from the back of the house. As it turned out, being able to sit down and rest my camera on the seat in front of me was the medicine my photos needed that night. I took some great pictures with extremely low shutter speeds and ended up with plenty of usable prints. Again, necessity is the mother of invention, and you have to work with what you have. Indeed, being adaptable is a key component to success.
That being said, I also learned that what I had in terms of gear was not going to be up to snuff if I really wanted to take great music photos. The 50mm prime lens was going to be useful, but i would need to get really close to use it at the lowest f-stops owing to the DOF and bokeh issues. This made it impractical to use as a primary lens for most shows. The Tamron was *way* too slow, it was almost F/4 by the time it got out to 70mm, which is basically unusable unless the stage is fully illuminated. Its a great lens if you are shooting outside during the day or at family functions, but for serious pro level work, its got a lot of things going against it, even aside from it being slow: falloff, vignetting, barrel distortion, chroma problems, etc. The d70s was and is a great camera. It takes amazing pictures, but it’s sensor is now almost 5 years old. You can’t push its ISO much beyond 400-800 without getting grain you cannot fix in post. It also is only a 6MP camera, so if you want to blow up and crop, you have far less pixels to work with than you would with a newer camera.
In other words, it was time to buy some new gear…
John Prine @ The Wellmont Theatre
Next Up: The dreaded NAS (Nikon Acquisition Syndrome)