Last week I got the chance to shoot a couple of incredible local bands at the Adelaide Uni Bar. Before I get into the photography, I really suggest you check out The Tanuki Suit and Orelia on Facebook - especially if you're into Indy Rock. The Tanuki guys fitted the more traditional Indy Rock category, however, Orelia, with the combination of Chelesea Turner's vocals and Troy Benson's drum work was a unique twist. Both bands were outstanding.
Doing gigs is always a tough challenge because the environment set up for a gig is exactly the opposite of the environment you want for photography. There was virtually no ambient lighting, instead a stream of spot lights were set up around the stage. The spot lights changed in both direction and colour. To add to that, the front man of The Tanuki Suit was incredibly agile and was constantly moving - which meant a reasonably fast shutter speed was necessary.
I chose to combine my Nikon D800 (one of the top low light performing cameras despite the large number of megapixels) with the Nikkor 50mm 1.8 - a fast, sharp prime. Having the wide aperture in this case was far more useful than a narrower zoom lens. Don't forget that the D800 gives you a lot of flexibility in cropping in post prod, so a fixed lens in this case was just fine.
I chose to shoot in manual, simply because the conditions were too unpredictable to leave it to the camera's meter. I do suspect though, the D800 would've been fine even in a semit automatic shoot - as the metering system is actually very good. The lens was open wide at f1.8, with the shutter speed sitting around the 160-200 mark; fast enough to stop motion blur, yet slow enough to let in enough light. ISO was adjusted accordingly, but as you'd expect, it was on the higher end of the scale. To me, noise is something I can deal with and the first thing I am willing to sacrifice.
the problem with a wide aperture
I got asked whether shooting at f1.8 caused problems with Depth Of Field (DOF). To be honest, it wasn't even a concern for me. Shooting from a distance meant that I had a reasonably large DOF, while shooting close allowed me to isolate the subject. When using large apertures, use shooting distance as a tool to control your DOF.
There's no doubt about it, I was hitting ISOs of up to 6400 and even a D800 will buckle under those conditions. The noise characteristics of a D800 are actually quite good, giving a certain film like texture to the image. I did do some noise reduction in post production, but I feel it's important to keep at least some of the noise in. The image characteristics have to reflect the shooting environments, otherwise the results can be very artificial.
shoot raw - watch the highlights
Shoot RAW - give yourself the best possible flexibility in post. Hitting the exposure or getting the right white balance when the lights are changing as much as they were is almost impossible, so shooting in RAW will save you. Just make sure to watch your highlights and don't lose details where it matters. Shooting in RAW also meant I could adjust White Balance to taste in post production. For example, the unflattering orange light in reality was neutralized in post production to create better, neutral skin tones.
It's easy to go overboard with these kinds of photos in post production. I am not sure I was able to entirely control myself - but it's important to not to deviate too much from reality. The environment itself was very interesting, with multiple coloured lights and a high contrast. I used these elements to guide my post production; where I had strong primary coloured lights on the performers, I opted for a more vivid look, whereas a softer look was used when warm lights were present. I also used the style of the music as an element; a softer more vintage approach for Orelia's softer music, while a higher contrast look for The Tanuki Suit's more dynamic music and a hint of black and white where appropriate.
I try and look for unique perspectives as much as I can to try and tell the same story in a different way. Look out for reflections and lights to show something a bit different. Here I shot an image using a heavily streaked glass cabinet which was reflecting the performance on stage. I had to wait for the lighting to become 'suitable' (harsh enough to reflect the streaks on the glass but not blow out the performance on stage).
Overall - I am fairly happy with the way the shots came out. Shooting in tough conditions is all about balance. You often sacrifice one thing to gain advantage in another. Having a high end camera certainly makes those sacrifices less painful, but it's important to get those decisions right in the first place. If I had to do it all again, I think I would've made the same decisions.