BR Green | Green Paradise No 3
The tones are weird in this version, I should re-edit it...
Shooting under stage lights is a challenge. That is just all there is to it. Venues tend to be dark but the high-powered lights you often find there make for areas of intense brightness. This makes metering to get your exposure right a bit of a headache. The lights often have colored gels on them, so the standard color correction methodology will end up being thrown out the window. Whatever the contrasting color to the gel is gets pushed into a weird tone. Basically, everything you know about shooting and processing photographs under normal lighting conditions needs to be disregarded.
Between photographing concerts at local venues and taking pictures of Of Moving Colors (where my girlfriend, Anna, is a dancer), I have found myself shooting under these conditions a fair bit. Every situation is a little different but I have learned a few things about getting decent shots in these situations that are listed below. I hope they help any interested shooters out.
Chances are, it is not as dark as you think. “Par cans” or stage lights put out a lot of light. The ambient scene will be dark but subjects under these lights will be very well lit. Your meter will lie to you in this situation. So, in order to get the best shot possible, you will need to take test shots, then drop your ISO as much as possible while still keeping the rest of your settings within an acceptable range.
You will need fast glass. Because of it’s reach, I like the Canon EF 135 f/2 L USM for shooting concerts but even f/2 does not always let in enough light. If you can get close enough to use an 85mm or 50mm prime lens that goes to f/1.4 or f/1.8 then get on up there. Your aperture setting is a balancing act like ISO. The wider your aperture, the more narrow your depth of field will be and this means that your subject may not always be in the best focus. But, you probably won’t be able to get THAT close, so you should still have a reasonably deep depth of field since total DOF increases as you move away from the subject. For example, a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera, set at f/1.4 and shot from 20 feet away will give you a total DOF of a little over 4 feet. The shorter the lens or narrower the aperture, the deeper DOF will be at any given distance.
Remember the “1 Over Rule.” If you are using a telephoto lens like the above-mentioned 135mm then you should avoid dropping your shutter speed below 1/160th of a second or so. Any shutter speed below the focal length of the lens will generally reveal hand-shake. This is less of an issue if you are shooting from a tripod, but who wants to set up a tripod in a crowded performance space, much less move it around to accommodate your frequently moving subject? In fact, you will probably want to shoot at 1/200th of a second or slightly faster in order to be able to stop motion on the stage.
If the stage lighting set up has the performers back lit at any point, try positioning yourself so that the subject is in front of the light. A strongly back-lit subject can look very good, but you have to be on your toes to capture this.
Consider investing in some noise reducing software. Even with fast glass you will probably be shooting at no less than ISO 1250 and even a high-end digital SLR will have some noise at these sensor speeds. I have experimented with both Noise Ninja and Nik’s Dfine 2.0. In almost all situations I have found that Dfine does a better job of removing noise while maintaining as much sharpness in the image as possible. Dfine also seems to do a better job of automatically determining where the noise is and applying correction appropriately. Both programs will smooth out a lot of sensor noise but Dfine seems to do a more selective and effective job. In the interest of full-disclosure, I was given a copy of Dfine by the nice folks at Nik after I did a write up about a function in the Color Efex Pro 3.0 suite called Tonal Contrast.
Somewhat related to the issues brought up above, Nik’s Color Efex Pro 3.0’s Tonal Contrast adjustment can bring out a lot of detail in concert photographs if used selectively. Tonal Contrast has a tendency to make human skin look over-sharpened or slightly unnatural so you if you use this software you will probably want to back the High and Mid-tone sliders back a bit to avoid making your subjects look like they are covered in age-spots. The Contrast Color Range adjustment can also be useful as well as Remove Color Cast for when you need to take out some of the odd tones that white-balancing may bring out.
Be prepared to compromise. Lighting techs seem to be fond of red or amber gels in their spotlights. When an entire stage is lit in red you have two options. You can either correct the white balance (using the eye-dropper tool in your post-processing program of choice) to bring the subjects into a natural looking tonal range or you can just roll with the dominant shade. I prefer to correct the white balance so that the subjects appear as they would under normal lighting conditions but this has the downside of throwing some surfaces that are near to neutral-grey (or sometimes whatever the contrasting color of the spotlight is) into an unattractive and unnatural color range. I find that selecting this new, unnatural tone and selectively de-saturating it can help return the image to something close to normal. Alternatively, you can select the same tone and darken it in order to reduce how distracting it may be.
Shoot RAW. You are going to want all the sensor data you can get in order to recover highlights and bring up dark areas. Shooting in JPEG isn’t going to cut it. Then again, it rarely ever does.
Lastly, feel free to be creative. When you have spots that are washing a whole scene in strong light of one particular tone then you can either try to render the scene as closely to reality as possible or you can just roll with the altered nature of the lighting scheme and employ cross-processing type looks or other creative editing adjustments to convey the theatrical nature of the scene according to your own vision.
If all else fails, you can always convert your pictures to black and white.
All that said, different people have different approaches to shooting concerts and performances. If you have any suggestions, feel free to post them in the comments. The photographs here were shot at a recent performance by Of Moving Colors at the opening of Baton Rouge Green’s annual fundraiser/auction/gala Green Paradise.
NOTE: All How-To's, Guides, Comparisons and such are offered as organic suggestions that will change over time and present my present state of understanding on the subject. If you have suggestions or think I got something wrong, please message me or say so in the comments. These exercises are meant to be helpful and not as the final word on the subject.
Check out more at my blog, Lemons and Beans, for lots of photos, recipes, travel writing and other ramblings. I appreciate any feedback but, please do not post graphic awards or invitations in the comments, I'm just not crazy about them. Also, if you want to use any of my Commercial Commons licensed photos please link the attribution back to my blog (listed above) and use my full name, Frank McMains. Thanks! Sorry, but you have to pay to use fully copyright protected photos.