Tricks for concert photography (II)

In the previous post I gave some technical tips for taking pictures in concerts. The post came from a conversation I had with a colleague a few days ago, and it included about half of the things we talked about. In this second part we we’ll see other recommendations, less related to the technical part and more related with the artistic way of taking those pictures.


Spot metering and ETTR (advanced)

One of the problems that you’ll surely have during the event is the variable amount of light, which will change along the scenario. The camera has a built-in photometer to measure light and controlling the exposure parameters (on guiding you on the adjustment if you are using manual mode). But if the measure is wrong you will end with a poorly exposed picture.

When using evaluative or center weighted metering, the camera will take into account a lot of information in the scene and will average it. This means that if you have a big area poorly lit or with an excess of light, the measure will be wrong. The best way of dealing with it is using spot metering. In this mode the camera will measure the light only using the central point. This way you can point it to the place of interest, measure it and be sure that the subject you are interested in will be correctly exposed (but you have no guarantee on the other parts of the picture).

Anyway, if you still need to use one of the wider modes, stick to evaluative, as it gives more importance to the point closest to your focus point and less to the further areas of the image.

For more information about the metering modes you can see this resources for Canon or Nikon (in other brands modes are similar).

A concept related to spot metering is exposing to the right (ETTR), where you take the pictures as overexposed as possible without blowing up any important areas. This allows storing a higher amount of information in the area with less noise (highlights). In concerts, many of the information is in the dark area of the histogram, and the highlights are usually empty, so storing the picture in the highlights (overexposing) and correcting afterwards in the post-processing can help to decrease the noise levels. This technique, however, is advanced, and the photographer should be confident with it in simpler circumstances before trying it in a concert. If any part of the picture is blown up (pure white) you won’t be able to recover it.

The best way to perform this operation is using spot metering, pointing it to the brightest place of the scene that we want to be correctly exposed (e.g. we might want the white shirt of the singer to be well exposed but we don’t care if the bulbs of the lights are blown up or not, so we will measure in the shirt). We will adjust the camera’s parameters in this point so the photometer shows the indicator as right as possible (usually +2 o +3), but still inside the scale (it’s better to not reach the final line than getting slightly too far outside the scale, usually marked with a right pointing arrow). Finally, once taken, if the picture is overexposed we compensate it while processing the raw file.

Always Late
The dark areas on the right will confuse the camera on average metering, leading to overexposure to compensate them, and rendering the important area (on the top left) overexposed and probably blown. Spot metering on the area of interest allows to adjust the correct exposure on the desired point.

RAW format and processing

Shooting in JPEG will allow you to take more pictures in the same card, but at the price of poorer quality if you need to touch anything later. And have for granted that you’ll need to touch things… many things. This is the reason why you should always use RAW format. Using RAW means that you will be in charge of processing it to get the final image (instead of the automatic process the camera does). Think about it: Who knows better how the picture should look like, your camera or you? If you are opposed to photographic retouching you are lucky: standard processing of the RAW usually doesn’t count as retouch. You are just making an interpretation of the information the sensor stored. The camera also does that, the only difference is that the camera just applies default values blindly and you can decide the optimum ones while you see the result. It is the digital equivalent of choosing the brand of film, choosing the times and amounts of liquids or the times used with photographic paper. In the era of film cameras nobody opposed for that.

When adjusting the parameters, you should take care that the main subject is correctly exposed by adjusting exposition controller. After that you can recover the highlights and control the shadows with the respective controllers. Blacks and whites should be used in a way that both are just at the limits where you won’t see any pure black or white area (of interest) in your picture. Also, take a look at the noise levels and adjust the color noise value (as much as needed) and luminance (a good balance between noise and sharpness).

Finally, if you are going to process it further in other software, don’t do any sharpening and wait to the final step to do it, as quality quickly degrade if modifications are made after a sharpening process (even resizing!).


Get the best place you can (or allowed)

In a concert there are a lot of people. We want to make the best possible pictures, but sometimes somebody’s head will challenge our ability (and patience) as photographers. If we are taking the pictures for ourselves a rogue head in the middle of the picture can be annoying, but if the pictures are for professional use this can render them completely unacceptable and without any chance of recovering.

If it is possible, try to talk with the organization to get a favorable position. Sometimes the first line is reserved for press and photographers, or at least you will get a reserved place near the stage. If that is not an option try to arrive with enough time and position yourself in the best spot you can. Sometimes, if you have in mind the kind of pictures you want to take you will see that some places are more adequate for them than others.

Also, try to analyze the public and the “sweet spots” during the show. Sometimes people may get more concentrated in some areas than in others, or you might find some higher spots where people won’t interfere. Analyzing the space around you is a necessity if you will be surrounded by the rest of the public.

Also, if you have confidence with the performers, try to get some pictures before the concert, when there are no people around. Those pictures will not replace the ones you will do during the act, but might help as a failsafe in the case that something unexpected happens. The pictures before, taken with a calmer mood, will probably be sharper and with more quality than the ones taken in the hot moment.


Take advantage of eventualities

Finally, one last piece of advice. During a concert, many unexpected things may happen. I’m not talking about UFO abductions or Superman appearing to save the day. But sometimes the singer might adopt the exact position where the light creates a mystic halo around his head, a burst of smoke might create a great effect, or the performers might do some nice movement that they won’t repeat (like rising a fist to the air or jumping).

Always be ready for those eventualities, and be sure to catch them with your camera. In the worst case you’ll have the most iconic picture of the event instead of a lot of cliché pictures. In the best case, if more photographers are present, you might be the only one to have the best picture of the event. And this opens a lot of opportunities.

It's time to kick some aces
During this carnival parade, the girl stopped a couple of seconds to adjust her cape. This can be seen looking at the complete series of pictures. But taking the picture in this exact moment led to a different interpretation, where she looks like she is preparing for some kind of fight (Hollywood style).

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