I typed this up last year, but never posted it for some reason. Well here it is.
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.
Before explaining the setup, settings and why I shot how I shot, I need to explain a simple concept. When shooting in ambient light, shutter speed, aperture and ISO are the main controls that adjust the exposure of the image. When shooting with a flash, the shutter speed drops out of the equation and the only controls to adjust exposure are aperture and ISO. The reason shutter speed has no effect on the exposure of a flash generated light source is due to the short duration of the flash burst (which is anywhere between 1/800 to 1/2000 of a second; very short). This has some advantages in that the amount of light captured by the camera from the flash and from ambient sources can be somewhat adjusted individually with camera settings. When all the settings are dialed in, increasing or decreasing the shutter speed will only affect the ambient light captured.
A word on ambient lighting.
At a concert, there are several types of ambient lighting conditions that you’ll encounter. Being aware of them will help in deciding how to adjust your camera’s settings to best capitalize on that light.
First and simplest, is the totally dark stage. When working with flashes, the flash obviously provides all the light.
Then we have the colored flood lights in the background behind the performers. These lights are usually shinning from the back of the stage towards the audience and/or towards the stage floor. These are the lights that I personally prefer to capture in my photographs, as they add a lot of life and color to an image. Using 1/200 shutter, f4.0 for aperture and ISO 1600 has been my starting point for the last 2 days of the festival. This produced a rich colorful backdrop against which you can craft the look of the artist using the flash.
Then we have the super bright white flood lights pointing forwards (usually from the back of the stage). These flood lights are very bright. I am not a fan of composing against these lights, because there is no color to add richness to the image. The trouble with this light being so bright is that it washes out the people on stage. You really need to drop the ISO down to 200 or 400 to manage the light situation.
And I think lastly there are the strobes. These lights are not per-say ambient since they are strobes, but they are background lights. They are super bright flash at 2-5Hz and are also blinding. Due to the fact that they are strobes, the duration of each pulse is very short, which means that just like your flashes, adjusting the camera’s shutter speed will have no effect on the exposure. Adjust exposure with ISO and aperture. Only way to capture these is to shoot a burst of images and hope that you capture a frame when the lights are on.
How do I choose my exposure settings?
For me, it’s an iterative process. I try few combination of settings and adjust as I go.
For a first go , I meter on the background light (with no flashes) to set my base settings. I want to have a shutter speed of 1/100 or shorter, to avoid motion blur in the ambient side of the image. Shutter speed can drop down to 1/50 when there’s not much motion and you want to let a little more ambient light into your camera and it can go up to 1/200 if I want a little less ambient light into the camera. 1/200 is also the flash sync speed on my 5Dmk2. Then I will choose an aperture that will give me a shallow depth of field (so anywhere from f2.0 to f4.0).
A word on choosing apertures.
Getting smooth blurry backgrounds makes for great images, but at the expense of shallow DoF. If the artist is standing still, (like standing in front a of a mic without any head movement) then shooting at f1.4 can be achieved. But as soon as there’s any movement, you can forget about getting all your shots in focus. Yes, some will be sharp, but majority won’t, since the DoF is so narrow at that aperture. Especially if you’re quite close to the artist. Going up from there, to f2.0 or f2.8 or f4.0 increases the DoF and allows for a larger range of focusing errors to not be detectable at the expense of less blurry backgrounds. For most of the shots at this festival I shot at f4.0. The lower I think I shot was f2.8. You may wonder why go to the expense to using such expensive lenses (with large apertures) if I’m going to shoot at f4.0. The answer is twofold. First lenses get sharper as they are stopped down one or two stops (especially for the cheaper lenses) and second, the AF system always uses the lens at its widest aperture. So even though you’re shooting at f4 with your 50mm f1.4 lens, the AF system gets 3 stops more light to work with, which is a HUGE advantage and allows for many more in-focus images.
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
This year I worked with 3 flashes on PocketWizard TT1/TT5 remote triggers. Two flashes were placed on either side of the stage, pointing partly towards themselves and partly towards the center of the stage. The flashes I used were two Canon 550EX flashes. 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) 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).
The third flash (Canon 420EX with TT5 wireless trigger) I kept with me as a portable light source for shooting DJs and people. This arrangement worked quite well for me.
Pick a setting a stick with it.
I would recommend against trying to change camera settings in order to keep up with the changing light conditions at a show. Chances are you’ll be spending most of your time fiddling, and missing the sot more often then not. Pick a dominant lighting condition, meter for it (adjust your camera settings) and wait till the light is what you metered for, then shoot. The artist is likely to be up there for 1/2 hour to over an hour, so you’ll have lots of time to try capturing several light conditions.
Pick a spot on the stage and shoot only when the or artist comes into that spot. and capture in all light settings.
Further to the point above about picking a setting and sticking with it, pick a point/small area on stage and adjust your settings to shoot there. Chances are that the lighting is not even across the whole stage, and/or your flash’s power (if using flashes) drops exponentially the farther the subject is from the flash. Further, you may need to position yourself in a certain shooting location to maintain a clean background (and maybe avoid busy distractions in the 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.
This point is especially valid for
The settings I kept coming back to were; 1/200 (or 1/100) at f4, and ISO1600. This gave a good balance of background color lights and highlight lighting from flashes.
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 ove-all image is properly exposed, the artist(s) get over exposed. Not a good situation. Now 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.
However there are times when all the light you get is the heavy red light… for the majority of the show. Well in that case you have 2 options. Underexpose your image so that highlights don’t get blown on the artist, or overpower the red light with flashes to get a white(er) light cast on the artist.