As a photographer who spends a lot of time outdoors at night, has worked closely with the performing arts for nearly a decade, and tends to draw the blinds on sunny summer days, I like to think that darkness and I are well-acquainted. Once in a while, though, a shoot comes around that reminds me not only how nice it can be to be working in the light, but also why I spend so much time understanding the limits of my physical and mental tools.
I met Dan quite soon after arriving in Los Angeles this summer; he’s an all-around cool dude from the swamps and oilfields of eastern Texas, making music in LA while working as an audio engineer to keep the rent paid. His band, Little Timmy McFarland of Flight 19, was playing a set in the tiny loft of a Burbank recording studio, and I brought a camera along to document their dulcet “country death-punk, or something” stylings.
I was met in the parking lot by one of the loft’s engineer-operators and he brought me through a side door up to the space. The three-quarter spiral stairwell was decked out with old drawings, record sleeves, and a Guitar Hero axe — all memorabilia from System of a Down’s tenure in the space, I was told. The door opened into a rectangular room much smaller than I had anticipated, with an extra corner nook in which a drum kit and a few guitar amps were stashed, resting on the discount oriental rugs which carpeted the entire space. Should the entire loft been scaled up by another twenty percent, it might have been perfectly sized, but in this incarnation it felt cozy or intimate, if not a little cramped.
The only sources of light in the room were two paper lanterns, each equipped with a remarkably dim bulb, and a projector running as hot as it could go, looping an upside-down and color-inverted Russian cartoon on the sheet hung behind the band. It would have ordinarily been a simple case of dealing with the extreme dynamic range — something always has to give at one end of the exposure — were it not for the complete lack of any midtones between the projector lamp and near-total darkness.
I kept my normal zoom mounted for easy jumping between not-quite-wide-enough and just-barely-tight-enough, which mostly worked out. I was stuck at ƒ/2.8, the shutter speed kept coming down and down, and I started to worry…
In moody theatrical lighting, I can often hang out around 1/80–1/125 at ISO 1,600 (if the action isn’t too quick), which leaves me plenty of headroom if the client wants moderately-sized prints or big digital finals. In terms of total light, that’s in the range of EV 3–5; not unusual for stage productions, but maybe a little dim for concerts. Despite the blinding brightness of the projector, none of the light was directed onto the front of the performers, and the paper lanterns didn’t exactly pull much weight on their own. Getting the job done would mean getting a little dirtier than I liked.
In the above frame, the shot was made at ƒ/2.8, 1/50th, ISO 8,000, raised about a stop and a half in post, with the shadows pulled up by a further stop. Oranges (i.e. skin tones) were raised just a touch during the black and white conversion. Safe to say, it was dark. The shaded areas probably would have measured about EV 0, and the projection was at least five stops up from the middle. It wasn’t an easy exposure to make, at least in one sense:
Old habits die hard. For years, I shot on a body that began to lose traction around ISO 1,000 — it hit a hard cap at ISO 3,200 — and even after almost two years with my current camera, I’m still a little hesitant to head into four-digit territory. By ISO 6,400 my instinct is to start compromising other settings before pushing further, mostly because motion blur and critical focus will start to get lost in the noise anyways.
Dan and Karter are pretty raucous performers, and drummers like Max naturally tend to have a lot of moving parts. Csongor had his moments, too, but tended to be a bit cooler on stage. Since shots go from performer to performer without much notice, I had to plan for the worst case, which was unquestionably the guitar and bass duo up front. After dropping the shutter speed shot by shot, I resigned myself to a little bit of motion at 1/50th, but that was definitely a hard lower limit. Considering the physical limits of lens apertures, my only other option was to start pushing the ISO. I think my exasperated sigh was audible as I moved up another third of a stop to ISO 8,000… I could just imagine opening the files later and practically being able to taste each grain.
And, as it turns out, everything was totally fine. The camera didn’t burst into flames, nobody got hurt, and the music was great. As the set played on, I quickly got back into the groove of just making pictures, and stopped worrying about noise and movement. I had gotten to thinking that I could go with a black and white look to hearken back to the punk-rock photography of the 1960s and 1970s, grain and all. It suits the band’s style pretty nicely, especially considering the DIY-type venue and crowd. The band didn’t need huge files or big prints, either, so the clearly visible noise in the images is barely there in the reductions. I left the shoot kicking myself for not cranking the ISO right away and just getting straight to shooting.
After all, your photos will be much better when you stop looking at the numbers and start looking where you’re shooting.
More images from this and other concert shoots can be found here.