Shooting a band in a pub

This past weekend, I was invited to be the band photographer for a band we’ve been following for a couple of years, Mother Grove. The request came from Brad, the lead singer:

I really like where you’re going with alot of your photography. You think you might wanna take some good shots of the band when we’re in town.

That original request applied to a different date and venue, but when they added a show in Dayton I figured I could use the practice.
The venue in question is the Dublin Pub. We’ve been there before, and I remembered it was quite dark. I would definitely need to use flash, even with a better camera than in previous visits.

In preparation for the event, I made three additions to my camera gear.

  1. I knew that my previous diffuser project would throw light everywhere, probably irritating the patrons more than lighting the stage. So I started looking for a design that would push the light forward. I made a bounce flash diffuser very similar to this one.
  2. I purchased some flash gels with two goals in mind: a) white balance color correction, and b) artistic effect. As it turns out, I didn’t feel like taking the time to switch the gels around, so I just stuck with the color correction. More on that below.
  3. I made a hand-strap, similar to this one. I’ve recently found a neck strap to get in the way, and have either left it dangling while I’m holding the camera, or tried to wrap it around my right hand. Replacing it with a hand-strap seemed like an ideal solution.

So I loaded up the camera bag with a bunch of batteries, both lenses, both flashes, wireless flash trigger, and 12GB of SD cards, and a freshly charged camera battery.

When I got there, I realized that I had forgotten just how dark the pub was: dark paneling and very dark ceiling. And the stage lights were 5 gelled flood lights directly over the stage. And they were five different colors. There were no lights (except my flash) hitting the performers in the face. The floods just hit their hair. Oh, and did I mention that those overhead floods were like 45 watts?

Four hundred plus shots (as in photography, not liquor) later, I learned a great deal. The huge majority of the night I shot on manual shutter and aperture, autofocus, and a single manual flash off-camera. I shot the majority of the time with my kit 18-55mm lens, though I did switch to the 70-300 for a while to see what opportunities that would present.

New stuff that worked well

The flash diffuser was fabulous. Even on-camera, it produced a wonderfully even, soft light. Snap-shots in a bar never looked this good.

Any time the flash was on the camera (or in my left hand) I had the diffuser on. Oh, and notice the distinct lack of red-eye? None. Not in any of the 400+ shots, even at long distances from the subjects. That alone saved hours in post-processing.

At the beginning of the night, I put a full CTO gel on the flash. This adjusts the white balance of the flash from daylight to tungsten. I also set the camera to tungsten white balance. It looks to me like the flash and the ambient (what little there was) mixed well. Brad’s white shirt actually looks white. However, I never did change that gel like I had hoped. I had thought about changing to a dark red gel for effect, but since the gel was still in the camera bag in a pack with 53 other gels, I didn’t feel like messing with it. Next time I’ll pull out the two or three that I expect to use into a business card case (or something like that) for easy access.

The hand strap worked very well, and felt quite secure. The neck strap would have been dangling in my way, getting wrapped up in the flash or diffuser, or something like that. However, when I’ve changed lenses in the past, I’ve put the neck strap around my neck to hold the camera while my hands mess with lenses. This presented a bit of a challenge that made me a little nervous changing lenses in a dark, crowded environment. Fortunately, nothing bad happened this time.

I also shot in RAW mode for the first time, other than one or two shot experiments. I had read many comments from experienced photographers that this was the only way to go for two reasons: a) exposure compensation, and b) white balance. I knew that this environment would be challenging for exactly those two reasons. I’ve now seen the light (so to speak) in my post processing and will will hopefully write a full entry about just how that works.

Shooting with the flash off-camera was incredibly powerful in this environment. Since this is a stage performance, it is OK for the light to be “hard” so whenever the flash was distant from the camera (via Cactus wireless triggers), it was either bare or snooted.

This hard light ends up looking a lot like a stage spot light. I also had my absolutely wonderful voice-activated carbon-based light stand (my wife!) who was able to point the flash at whichever performer I wanted. We even played with back lighting some of the performers and the fans. A couple of these shots worked OK, but an additional very low power flash on the front would have helped.

The combination of remote flash, snooted, and voice-activated stand helped me make the best shot of the night.

When I saw this picture on the back of the camera, I suddenly, enthusiastically understood the term chimping: I let out a little “ooh! Ooh!” when I saw it.

Stuff that could have been better
Most of my shots were made at 1/10 second, ISO800, with the biggest aperture possible, and flash at 1/8 to 1/2 power, triggering at the end of the shutter opening. I chose such a slow shutter speed to allow motion blur. It worked well for only two shots (here’s one). The rest of the shots where there was enough ambient light to see motion blur just looked bad. A faster shutter (all the way up to 1/200) would have limited only the ambient light, not the light from the flash. In most cases this would have completely eliminated the backgrounds, which would have been good in most situations. I might have had to boost the flash power a bit to compensate, but that wouldn’t have been a horrible result.

Oh, and by the way, we had a great time. The performers were generally good sports about having me in their faces. Fortunately they’re used to playing pubs where the fans are less-than-polite-body-space away. It was a great experience that I hope to capitalize on soon.

Brad, the lead singer, upon seeing the pictures on Flickr wrote:

No one has ever taken such great pix of us @ the pub. The lighting and clarity is perfect!

Since this band has been together for 10 years with tons of people taking their pictures, I’m very flattered.

3 thoughts on “Shooting a band in a pub”

  1. The thing that really struck me (other than the photography itself) was the fact that you captured so much of our personalities. A great deal of that is knowing you personally and you knowing us, contributing to the comfort factor.

    I’m looking forward to future pix!


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