It’s been 365 days since the last Kinetik Festival, where I shot my first 5 day music festival. I had learned a lot over those 5 days, and I kept a loose log about what types of things I came across that weekend, in hopes to document my learning. That documentation took shape in the form of two posts: post 1, and post 2.
I came to Kinetik this year with some new knowledge about lighting, some new equipment and a desire to experiment and learn some more.
As it is to be expected, the lighting at most concerts is all over the place, and Metropolis was no different. From barely enough light to too much light, and from one color to another, it can all change in seconds. And then there’s the artificial fog….
This is my account of the experience I had at Club Metropolis in Montreal over the Kinetik Festival 5 music festival.
Last year I used a set of dumb wireless flash triggers (Yongnuo RF 602). Those worked great to trigger the flashes, but I wanted to be able to also adjust the power of the flash remotely. So over the course of last summer I bought into the Pocket Wizard TT1/TT5 wireless flash triggers. These allow the flash power to be adjusted remotely from the flash anywhere from full power down to 1/128 power. They also can do TTL flash, but I prefer to use them on manual mode.
On the wireless triggers I had a Canon 550EX flashes. At the recommendation of one of the stage hands, I ended up taping the wireless trigger to the speaker where I placed the flash, so it wouldn’t “walk” due to the heavy beats during the performance. Good call.
On the camera end, I was using a Canon 5Dmk2. Lenses were 50mm f1.4, 85mm f1.8, 135mmf2 and a 1.4x Extender (which I used with the 135mm f2 lens from time to time).
I shoot in manual mode all the time for both flash power settings and camera exposure settings as I don’t want the metering system choosing exposures for me. Besides learning more about what exposures work, I can be very consistent when they do work.
To aid in focusing I brought my 4th generation AF Assistant tool with me.
My setup is 2 flashes on either side of the stage. These allow me to add a little bit of light (and I mean a little) to add some depth and contrast to the artist being photographed. Often the artist is bathed in a colored light that doesn’t produce images that are very pleasing to me (especially the red light; yuck).
The two flashes were placed on either side of the stage, pointing partly towards themselves and partly towards the center of the stage. I positioned the flash head so that it would light the front of the stage as well as towards the back of the stage (where keyboardist or drummers are usually positioned).
It was my experience that these flashes were too powerful for a venue the size of Metropolis. At the camera/exposure settings i ended up using, even at 1/128 power these flashes put out too much light. I was able to drop the power an extra two stops (by using the flash’s compensation control) so the dimmest light was 1/512. Even at that setting, there were times I wish I could go a little lower (I was shooting at ISO 1600).
In retrospect, I had these flashes zoomed to 50mm. If I zoomed the flash out to the widest zoom of 24mm, their intensity would likely be considerably lower. Should try that next time.
Pick a setting a stick with it
I found that it was simpler to not try and chase the light conditions at the show. Chances are that I’d be spending most of your time fiddling, and missing the shot more often then not. Picking a dominant lighting condition, metering for it and waiting till the light is what you metered for worked much better form me. The artist is likely to be up there for about an hour, so there was lots of time to try capturing several light conditions.
Pick a spot to shoot at and wait
Further to the point above about picking a setting and sticking with it, I need to get better at picking a point/small area on stage and adjust the settings to shoot there. Chances are that the lighting is not even across the whole stage, and the flash’s power (if using flashes) drops exponentially the farther the subject is from the flash. Also, you may need to position yourself in a certain shooting location to maintain a clean background. A good example of this was the video screen that was at the back of the stage which took up maybe 1/3 to 1/2 the stage width. When shooting with the screen in the background, the white color of the screen (even though there was video projected) was in stark contrast to the flat black wall behind the screen.
The settings I kept coming back to were; shutter speed of 1/200 (or 1/100) at an aperture of f4, and ISO1600. This gave a good balance of background color lights and highlight lighting from flashes.
The thing that I did too much of was to try to follow the artist around too much both in position and by trying to adjust the flash power accordingly. I need to do less of that.
Red lights on the artist is especially annoying. At Metropolis, the red light either came from overhead spotlight pointed at the front of the stage or side lights at the at the front of the stage pointing towards each other. Regardless of the location, the red light is deceivingly bright. The camera records the light much brighter then I see it (I know it’s a subjective observation). What this means generally is that to properly expose the face, the rest of the scene is under-exposed, or if the over-all image is properly exposed, the artist(s) get over exposed. Not a good situation. When using flashes, one can easily overpower the house lights, but that comes at the expense of dimmer background (ambient) light. After a few days of trying to battle the dreaded red lights, I just gave up. I would not shoot when those lights would be one. Chances are that the next song (or even later in the same song) would get a different color light to shine on the artist.
The artificial fog also posed a problem from time to time. It works well to being out the colors of the stage lights, but bu the same mechanism, the light from the flash can wash out those colors (if set too bright). Too much flash power would yield a whitish background (with only traces of color from the ambient lights). This only became a problem when I was trying to overpower the red lights that illuminated on the artist.
Ambient light metering first
I found that I was spending too long often trying to match the flash power settings to the ambient light conditions. Fiddling with the setting and being frustrated yields no good results. By the end of the festival I found that by first metering on the background lights (and by metering I mean take a few shots and see how rich the colors look; I don’t use the light meter) and then adjusting the flash intensity from the PW AC3 produced repeatable results.
Speaking of ambient lighting, I tried to stay away from shooting when the super bright white flood lights came on. That light was much too bright for the settings I had dialed into my camera and would take too long to keep changing the settings.
Flash intensity settings
The flashes were usually set to 1/128 power. When both flashes had the same power setting and the artist was in the middle of the stage, that yielded a nice look where both sides of the head were illuminated, and the center portion was in the shadows (the size of the shadow varied with how far the artist was fore-aft on the stage). This produced dramatic results when the artist was very far forward on the stage. A nice shadow are forms and adds contrast.
When the artists moves left and right across the stage with this light setup, you get one side of the face darker and one side lighter (as they get closer to one flash and farther from the other). This can be a problem as the closer flash can easily blow the highlights on that side of the face.
I didn’t spend much time in the center of the stage because of the distracting video screen in the background. I preferred to stick to the side of the stage and shoot towards the other side of the stage, where it was all black (most of the time) in the background.
What to watch out for when shooting from this position is adding too much flash power on the flash nearest to the camera. Since that flash is pointed in a similar direction to the camera, the light from it can light up the background (if set to a high intensity) and add distracting background clutter. It also tends to light up the fog and wash out the background lights. I tended to use more power on the flash opposite me, (at a light ration of 2:1 or 3:1 biased towards the flash pointing towards the camera position) which would create a nice highlight on the side of the artist.
Another trouble spot I came across was when one flash was in the field of view of the camera. I needed to put the flash power all the way down otherwise it would totally drown the image in light. Besides lowering the power I would also wait until the artist was between me and the flash to block the direct light from the flash. This can create an interesting look of a controlled white background and silhouette of the artist.
I mentioned earlier that even 1/512 power setting was not low enough sometimes. Well I found that there were a few times when I wanted a larger ratio of light between the two flashes. I ended up turning one of the flashes off in those cases, but that produced too dark of a side sometimes. I don’t know how to fix this for next time.
AF point selection
Having spent a bit of time looking through the images in a preliminary editing phase one thing I noticed is that using the outer most focusing points leads to less then sharp images, even at f4.0. On the other hand most of the shots that used the center focusing point were focused spot on. Just a note foe next time to just only use the center focus point. I can always crop the 5dMk2’s 21mp image later to get the right framing. This is a shame since there’s been quite a few great images that I don’t deem acceptable since the focus was off.
A word on camera settings
I would not shoot at lower then 1/100 shutter speed. Full stop. Very few situations will take me to slower shutter speeds and more often then not, I end up regretting it. Using a flash will freeze motion on the subject in the area where the flash is hitting the subject even at slow shutter speeds since it’s the briefness of the flash of light that freezes the motion, not the shutter speed. The part of the image that is lit by ambient light will however get blurred at low shutter speeds. I have had many shots that were 1/2 ambient lit and 1/2 flash lit, and the look of 1/2 blurry and 1/2 focused is not appealing to me.
Aperture I start at either f2.8 or f4.0 and ISO 1600.
And don’t be afraid to use high ISOs. As the light gets dim, either shutter speed needs to drop (which can lead to blurred images) or ISO needs to increase (at the expense of noise). Blurred images happen at low shutter speeds for 2 reasons. Either the artist is moving too fast, or camera shake at the time of exposure. Both are valid, and high shutter speed solves both. I would much rather have a high ISO (noisy image) that is sharp (no motion blur) then a clean low ISO image with lots of blur.
These are starting points. I adjust from there, but for the most part 1/100 at f4.0 and ISO 1600 worked great.
By no means do I have this down to a science yet. I’m still learning, but it’s a good reminder for me as to what worked and what didn’t for me for next time.