EIKON at ISO 3200

March 03, 2009  •  Leave a Comment

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Even the outdoor photographer in me jumped at the chance to shoot an indoor live, musical performance when asked. So this past Sunday night I had the pleasure of photographing EIKON, an independent worship service put on by a few very gifted musicians in our church and community. Sunday mornings we worship God one way, but Sunday night was far from "unplugged." It was great-high energy, gifted musicians performing with passion, and a congo there to drink it up.
 
I had my trusty D300 and had hoped for enough light to shoot between 1250 and 1600. But the atmosphere dictates what you have to work with (no flash), and most of the evening was spent at ISO 3200. I knew I could remove a good bit of noise if I had to via processing, and on the opposite side of the spectrum, that there's no way to remove camera-shake induced blur from shooting too slow at too low an ISO, so I cranked it up and put my fast glass on. 
 
What I saw when I got back to the office and loaded the pics really blew me away. Between the way CaptureNX 2 handles noise, the performance of the D300 shooting RAW and Noise Ninja in Photoshop CS3 I wound up with far better photographs than only a year ago when I shot a similar event, Paradoxollogy, the Christmas program again for our local church, Faith Evangelical Free here in Fort Collins.
 
If you have a D300 or any contemporary DSLR, don't be afraid to stretch its legs a little. It's probably more up to the task than you think. From my experience, the top 10 "most important things" for these types of events seems to be:
1) Spot meter. Matrix metering factors in too much of the dark, ambient background and blows out the main figures too much. Spot metering on the targets face or head assures (OK, maybe not assures, but increases the probability of) a sharp, well-exposed face and eyes-which are really what count in most photos of people. A caucasian face meters at about zone 6, and your in-camera meter is looking for zone 5. So your shots should be pretty well-exposed if you switch the camera over from matrix (what a lot of people just leave their camera on) to "spot" mode. The D300's focus point, when shooting in "Single Point Autofocus" mode becomes the "spot" in Spot Metering when you're shooting like that. So where ever your focus spot falls on, your meter is also taking a reading from that same spot.
 

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2) Shoot Manual Exposure.
I usually don't use programmed auto, but tried it for a few shots Sunday night just for fun. It did a pretty good job, but wasn't reliable. As things like guitars or instruments with shiny, hard surfaces caught the light and a specular glare would throw the meter into a tail spin, the exposure would be all wrong for a brief instant. Shooting manual, you can essentially lock the camera down as to how you want it to shoot, and it won't get confused when a spot light hits the shiny surface at the instant you take the picture.

3) Have fast glass. There's no way around this. The slowest I shot was 5.6-which was only a few shots. Everything else was from 1.4 to 2.8, with f4 mixed in when I shot the 12-24DX (which worked just fine). I know, I know... it's more expensive. But often times it means the difference between being able to take a picture and not.
4) Be flexible and patient. move around a lot. The light is being run by the guys in the back. Sometimes they'd see me up on the platform waiting and they'd boost the light knowing I was waiting for it. Other times the light would ramp up across the platform while I was shooting a different guy, and I needed to zoom over to where the light was fast, before it faded down again.

5) Don't use flash. It's too disruptive to the musicians, and obnoxious to the lighting designers. They've thought through the best way to aim and light, and randomly firing off flash around the platform is disruptive to the crowd and the musicians.
6) Search for unique angles. I always want to get at the base of a  guitar and zoom up looking at the face of the musician, but often times you just can't get that close-either because there's too much gear around them, security, or it disrupts their performance. I also like to get behind people to get that "see what they see" shot.
 
7) Try to get at least one of everyone. Invariably there are people tucked in the back that are tough. I missed one guy Sunday night-he was in black, in the dark, behind other people. I just never saw him, but my mind registered he was there and as I was driving home later turning over the performance in my head, I thought "uh-oh." and sure enough as I was looking through the photos, saw only his back in most shots.
 
8) If you have any input into what people wear, contrast between the background and their clothing is really great. Our drummer had on this great, plaid shirt. The camera focused on him so fast-which was good because he was really active. One of the main leaders though had on a dark gray, long-sleeve sweater shirt kinda thing. It was tough for the camera to find where he quit and the dark background began. Dark backgrounds are great. They help isolate the musician or performer better and reduce visual clutter in both the photo and the actual performance. They also help the colors pop more.
 
If you're shooting with screens in the background and have anything to say about what's on those screen, push for dark screens with light text. A light screen in a dark room visually competes with what's going on on stage-both during the performance and in the photographs.

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9) Watch for good use of colored lights. Forget white balance-it's impossible anyway with multi-colored theatrical lighting.
 
10) Look for expression and emotion. Music performances are usually performed by extraordinarily gifted musicians, passionate about their music. It's virtually impossible for a musician to sing, play or perform without baring their soul on the platform. Watch them perform and try to determine how to predict facial and hand/arms expressions. You don't need to shoot too fast to stop them-1/60, 1/80 or so is usually enough-unless it's a drummer going nuts-then the motion adds to the e-motion. Hey-that rhymes. Being not musically inclined myself, I have an awe of those who  perform music-especially live music. It's something to behold.
 
Have fun. Today's digital cameras were made for this type of shooting. Shoots lots of pics, experiment with the ISO and have fun with it. The musicians will appreciate glimpses of their performances after the fact, and it's a great way to re-live the event later, and ramp up for the next one. Speaking for someone who's scared to death to be on any stage of any kind, I find it much easier when I'm hiding behind a camera. I'm like Nikon Ninja-boy and I pretend like no one can see me as long as I'm up there shooting. Try it. It works ;-).
 
Come join us at Faith Church for the next EIKON, time & date TBD.

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