I recently mentioned taking some pictures of my wife’s cousin performing in a local bar. To say that the shooting conditions were challenging is a bit of an understatement. The bar is still a bit under construction, and as such, the stage was lit entirely with utility lights, mostly pointing at the sides, not at the performers. Even then, it was like two lights. The image above was ISO 1000, f/1.8, 1/15s. And I’m pretty sure I did some tweaking in Lightroom. I took around 120 shots, I’m pleased with 3, and about 20 didn’t suck. It was tough, and I don’t have any illusions that I’m an amazing photographer. So when I use this post to demonstrate ways another photographer could improve, I’m really trying not to be snarky and egotistical. If I knew the shooter, and he asked, these are the suggestions I would give him. If you’ve made these mistakes (I know I have), consider this feedback for you too.
The person who took the pictures I’m going to critique was at the same performance as I was, using a DSLR-like point-and-shoot. I didn’t notice the brand (did I mention it was dark?) or model. I noticed him sitting at a table early on, and could frequently see the shots he was composing on his LCD. At the time, from what I could see, the camera’s performance looked very impressive. I was hopeful I would get a chance to see his results. Fortunately, he posted them to Facebook, but unfortunately, the set is not public, so I can’t link to it directly. And that’s probably best anyway. I’ve taken screen shots of the set (1, 2, 3, 4) and have saved a few samples.
Also note, I’m not critiquing someone who showed up with a basic point-and-shoot or camera phone, noticed the performance, and decided to snap a few pictures. Joe (not his real name) had an advanced point and shoot and a tripod, and took pictures all night long. He was being intentional. Joe was not a happy snapper; he was attempting to capture the performance through photographs (and maybe video) just as I was.
Things he did right :
- Joe stayed out of the way, and was not obnoxious about taking pictures. I believe he sat at the same table the entire evening. I noticed Joe, but that’s only because I’m hyper-aware of potential meta-photography moments. He was inconspicuous.
- Joe didn’t take any pictures using on-camera flash. One or two probably wouldn’t have been a big deal, but he didn’t use flash at all which also tells me he was being intentional about shooting inconspicuously.
- He attempted a number of compositions: faces, hands on instruments, sound-board detail. A couple of his shots are clearly off-vertical, dutch tilt style. Given that he had a tripod, I assume that was intentional, and adds a little variety to his set.
The image above is, to my eye, Joe’s best shot of the night. Both musicians are engaged in the performance. The exposure, though not great, at least results in facial detail. The red cast is coming from overhead utility lights, and explains why I preferred to convert my images to monochrome (see above).
Things Joe could improve on (and I think most of these apply to any shooting situation where people are involved):
- He could have varied his shooting location. Though he changed composition during the performance, he never left his seat to the right of the stage. This is, of course, a balancing act. Perhaps he thought I was a bit of an ass, occasionally walking around to get pictures from the side of the stage. But taking pictures from just one location is an easy habit to break.
- Joe didn’t edit his own work, eliminating the obviously bad shots (see image at right). There really is no reason to publish frames to Facebook that are almost completely black, with no discernible detail. For this picture, you can make out the silhouette of a young woman, but that’s about it. It really is OK to delete an image.
- Joe didn’t edit his own work, focusing on his best shots. This is slightly different than the previous point. It’s easy (or should be) to get rid of obvious missed shots. It’s something else entirely to take six nearly equivalent images of a singer (or anyone else for that matter) and pick the one that best expresses that moment.
Now, to be fair, maybe Joe took 300 photos and did both phases of culling, leaving only the 72 best shots of the night. I doubt it, but I could be wrong. And someone could look at my set and ask “Jeez, 24 images? Couldn’t you have pared it down a little?” And that’s a fair question–I probably could have eliminated a few more. Editing your own work is very hard.Continuing my list…
- Spot metering is your friend when dealing with challenging lighting. The lighting on the performers was horrible (not Joe’s fault), and he was facing the shadowed sides of their faces. It looks to me like his camera was metering for the whole scene, getting the bright background right, letting the faces fall to muddy darkness (see left). Changing to spot metering might have helped here. Alternately, setting exposure compensation to over expose the scene would have done the trick too since the light wasn’t changing.
- Turn off the image date stamp. You are not a court recorder, or a police officer gathering evidence.
And finally, this isn’t something Joe did, but a warning for anyone who posts pictures on-line: don’t always believe the praise offered on Facebook. One of the comments left for Joe:
Dude, KILLER shots, THANKS!
And this is where I’ll get perhaps a bit harsh. None of these shots were “killer”. And the person leaving this comment knows that. Sometimes people are motivated to leave feedback for reasons other than an assessment of your skill.
Here are the tips that anyone can apply, simplified:
- Don’t publish your missed shots.
- Don’t publish every shot from a rapid fire succession. Pick the best one and delete the rest.
- Don’t use the image date stamp unless you are gathering evidence.
- Explore other angles and shooting positions.
Now, what could I have done better in my set?
- I could have gotten closer on some of the shots. I had only my Jive 35 (35mm f/1.8), and some of the images might have benefited from being tighter on the performers.
- When Lydia’s band played, I didn’t get decent shots of the other members of the band. Normally when I shoot a performance, I try to give each member some lovin’. I failed to do that this time.
- I ended up with three shooting positions, but probably could have found more. I only kept images from two shooting positions.
- I should have shot in manual exposure at 3200 ISO the whole night. The performance lighting didn’t change, so once I got the exposure I wanted, I should have just locked that in. I ended up deleting a number of shots that were either under or over exposed because spot metering didn’t do the job I wanted. I probably would have been at 1/50s, eliminating most camera shake and minor musician movement blur. As it was, I was incredibly lucky to get the shot up top at 1/15s.