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Nine Minutes

Humour me on this one. If you have a watch with a timer on it then start it now. If you don’t then glance up to your clock and make a note of the time. The reason will become clear!

This post is all about working under pressure, and a good example of this is photographing a pop concert. Obviously this depends a lot on the artist you are photographing. If you are down at the local pub then you don’t have a problem, you’ve got all night. You could even pop down to the venue the night before just to suss the lighting out.

DSC0154It’s very different though if you are photographing a much more well known celebrity, and they don’t get much more well known that Ronan Keating. I was fortunate to be commissioned to photograph him at a charity concert. This isn’t the kind of thing you want to mess up!

How it works is like this. Around five minutes before the concert starts you and your fellow photographers who have the necessary accreditation and passes are taken through security to an area at the very front of the audience, right in front of the stage. You are then ushered through into an area called ‘the pit’, and this is where you’ll be photographing from. The lights dim, the band come out and you’re straight into track one.

You’re allowed the first three tracks to get your shot. As the average length of an up tempo pop song is three minutes then that gives you around nine minutes. The lighting is constantly changing, so realistically you’ve got the first minute to fine tune your exposure and settings, then the following eight to fill your cards with images. If all of a sudden the stage is bathed in perfect, clear light then you’ve got to make sure you’re ready for it. It may only last ten seconds – this isn’t a good time to be changing a card.

A relatively high ISO and spot metering is the order of the day, along with a fast prime lens and a monopod – flash is forbidden and is the quickest way to get thrown out. It’s all about anticipation. A singer can be difficult to photograph as his face is more often than not partly hidden behind a microphone, so you have to watch for those moments when he moves his head away. Depth of field isn’t important, but shutter speed is – if the images aren’t sharp they simply won’t sell!

You need to know how to operate the camera in complete darkness. You need to know how to flip the focus into manual mode without even thinking (for the times when the camera can’t quite nail it and you need to do it yourself). You need to be able to change a card within a few seconds without dropping the one that contains your previously shot images. You should know exactly where your ISO controls are incase you need to change it during unexpected changes in lighting, and you need to be able to do all of this without moving the camera away from your eye.

Once the first three songs are over then the security guys quickly and efficiently escort you out of ‘the pit’ and you’re gone! That’s it! If you haven’t got the shot then it’s too late, and there’s no way that you’ll be allowed back in. You’re done.

So, take a look at your stopwatch. By my reckoning you’ll be on around three minutes by now, so back at the gig you’ve only got six left to get the job done. And things are always more difficult when you’re under a bit of pressure aren’t they!

Holy Smoke!

I’ve been helping my nephew recently with his photography degree by walking him through a studio session. We spent the first half of the session going through some technical theory, then the second half actually taking some images.

img-1947He’s working on a theme which is all about capturing movement in nature in an abstract form. I noticed a little while ago how interesting smoke from an extinguished candle can be, and what amazing patterns it can produce. Well, smoke is natural, and photographing it well in an abstract way will involve a lot of thought (so good for a project). It seemed an appropriate thing to try.

So, what’s the best way to photograph gently swirling patterns of smoke? To catch it in an abstract way I think it needs to be shot at a high shutter speed, and frozen with flash. This will give us a glimpse of all the turbulence in the air that is so miniscule to us that we don’t notice it, but has an effect on how the smoke travels upwards.

I chose a black background, this was a piece of black cloth held against a wall. Ideally I would like to have used some incence sticks for a constant stream of smoke, but I didn’t have any so I used a candle instead and kept blowing out the flame to get the smoke effect I wanted. The camera was tripod mounted, and I used two off-camera flashguns fired by radio remotes. The flashes were positioned to the left and right of the candle, at right angles to the direction the camera was pointing.

I needed to make sure that no stray light hit the black background as I wanted it to stay completely black. This was done by using squares of card as makeshift gobo’s (go betweens). A gobo allows you to shield an area from light, in the same kind of way that a set of barn doors will. I also used some card to shield the camera lens from light from the flashes, as without these there was quite a bit of lens flare about. If I used my studio lights with spill-kills on as illustrated then this wouldn’t be necessary as these act as a hood and stop stray light from leaking everywhere.

I chose a small aperture (f11) as I wanted as much of the smoke to be in focus as possible, and shot at 1/250 second. The hardest part was getting the smoke in the right place as it just drifts around wherever it wants to. Blowing the candle out as gently as possible did the trick, and at the end of the shoot there were a good selection of images to choose from.

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