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Band Photography

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If you're interested in music and photography, what better way than combining the two and photographing bands? Exactly how easy is it? What equipment do you need and can anyone do it? Can you just turn up with your camera and shoot? How do you get the settings right?


There are many questions associated with music photography and hopefully I'm going to try and explain the technical side in this tutorial so that if you get the chance to photograph a live band, you have some idea where to start.


Hopefully, my tutorial will offer a few answers. I've shot many bands and artists live including BB King, Heaven 17, Howard Jones, Whitesnake, Europe as well as many club/pub bands and cover bands. I'm going to share my knowledge and experience here.


First of all, is it easy? Well, the answer is yes it can be but more often than not it isn't at all! You may've had a try and found your photographs are blurred, the colour is wrong, the image is all washed out and totally red or blue or the subject is just out of focus. So how do get images such as the example below?



First of all, lets look at the main and biggest issue,




Most pub and club venues have very poor lighting. A lot of bands carry their own to supplement their stage setup. But, if you find yourself in a venue with poor lighting, how do you manage? 


The main objective is to get as much light onto the sensor as possible. We all know there are three ways to do that. A wide (low f stop) aperture, a slow shutter speed and high ISO.


So lets have a look at each of these and their benefits and disadvantages with band photography.


Aperture - A wide aperture will allow more light into the camera and onto the sensor so using a low aperture such as f2.8. f2.0, f1.8 and f1.4 will allow the most light. The disadvantage of such a wide aperture is the wider you go, the shallower the depth of field. This makes chosing the right focus point more critical as a lot of the subject will be out of focus.


Shutter Speed - As much as a slow shutter speed is ideal for letting in light, it has a negative effect with movement - and band members move around a lot! Too slow a shutter speed and you'll be photographing a blur! Ideally, you should be shooting a band with a shutter speed of at least 1/125th sec, unless of course they sat down playing a flute (in otherwords, doing something with very little movement). If the band are energetic, then you may find you need 1/160th as a shutter...thus reducing the light getting to the sensor even more!


ISO - The old film speed as it used to be. In film speak, this measured how fast the film reacted to light. Without going into too much tech, digital cameras offer a similar function. The higher the ISO, the more the sensor acknowledges light. The disadvantage is the higher the ISO, the more 'noise' the image suffers.


So what equipment do you need? First of all, the lens is more important than the camera. You need to be able to shoot at a wide aperture constantly. So ideally, you'll need a 'fast' lens with a maximum aperture of f2.8 throughout the focal range. You can also use the 'nifty fifty' or 50mm f1.8. Using a prime lens isn't ideal for a band but it is possible to get good images if that's all you have.


So to recap, you need a fixed shutter speed of at least 1/125th. This means putting the camera in shutter priority. That way, your shutter speed remains fixed to stop motion blur and the camera will always choose the widest available aperture the lens has. If you put the camera into aperture priority and chose f2.8, although the aperture remains constant, if the light level dropped, the camera would drop the shutter speed to retain exposure and you would suffer motion blur. Start with the ISO at 800. If the images are too dark, increase it. You can't alter the shutter speed, you can't get a wider aperture so ISO is the way to go.


Lighting Colour


Digital camera hate red and blue light. Especially when there's a lot of it. Unfortunately, venues like red and blue lighting! Ever wondered why when you take a photograph under all red or all blue light, it comes out washed, with no definition and you end up having to convert it to black and white?


The sensor actually sees in black and white. It's the bit on the front of the sensor that decides what colour each pixel 'sees'. This filters the light into three colours - Blue, Red and Green. However, it's not an equal split between the three and the sensor filters 25% Red, 25% Blue and 50% Green. This comes from the human eye being more sensitive to green than red and blue. So if you shoot in red or blue light, the sensor is using only 25% of its capability. The other 75% it has to 'make up'. This means the image is 'washed out' like the one below.



It may be that the only way to rescue the image, is to convert it to black & white.


Here's the processed image in B&W.



White Balance


Set the camera to auto white balance. You can change it in post to get a more natural look. Look at markers such as clothing and skin tones to adjust the WB so the image looks more natural.


Composition and Style


Each photographer has their own style. Composition is purely in the eye of the photographer. A good image is not just about it looking sharp and bright, composition can make a difference too. Unfortunately, you don’t have time to ‘compose’ a photograph when the band are playing live so as long as you get the whole subject, you’ll have enough to crop and create a decent composition.


Take the two images below.


Here's a good shot that fell short on was a quick shot but I failed to get enough of the stage floor.



Here's a much better composed image




If a band is local and playing in a pub or club (such as a WMC), then there isn’t anything stopping you from taking your camera along to photograph them. These places are the ideal way to practice and hone your skills. They are challenging and rewarding when you get pictures you are happy with. To start photographing more famous and higher profile bands is a lot harder. They are far more controlling of their image. With a band in the pub, you can shoot the whole set and keep going so you have a good chance of getting some images. 


With high profile bands, you get the first three songs only....sometimes not even may just get the one! To shoot these bands, you’ll need to be in contact with their PR company, band management or label. They are looking for professional standard images...don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll see the show after the first three songs because 99% of the time, you don’t. You’re escorted in and escorted out when you’ve done your 12-15 minutes.




So you have your chosen images. Is there a way to process them? Each photographer has their own way of processing until they’re happy with the final image. Some images look better in colour than B&W, so lend themselves to being B&W.


Here are the things I look at when I process a chosen image. Don’t forget, you’re working with the RAW file.


White Balance. The camera will select what it thinks is the best kelvin setting but this may not always be right. Check to make sure that the image looks as natural as possible. Look at skin tones and other smaller features such as is there anything that is white - maybe clothing - and adjust the WB to suit. 


Exposure. Is it the best level or does it need increasing or reducing.


Fill light. Does the image require some fill light to brighten it up and pull it out?


Does boosting the clarity, vibrance and contrast help the image?


Tonal Curve. Adjust the Highlights, Lights, Darks and Shadows to help bring out the images.


If you used a high ISO, use the Noise Reduction to reduce visible noise.


Decide if a crop is required or the angle of the image needs changing.


If you are putting them on Facebook or Flickr, reduce the image size but remember to use the unsharp mask after size reduction to boost the sharpness before you save the final image.


Apologies for the comprehensive nature but band photography isn’t about just pointing and shooting. There’s more to consider than pressing the shutter. I hope this tutorial helps a few people capture better images of their local bands.

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