Jazz Club Ambience (and more things they don't tell you about getting great photos)

March 17, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Inside: More things they don't tell you about taking great photos; I'm supposed to be making mashed cauliflower right now; To flash or not to flash in a jazz club; Bohemian Caverns; Mindmapping

When you first get a camera that suits your needs, you get pretty good shots. Every now and then you get something magical.

When you learn more and practice more, your success rate improves.

When you learn to use a flash on- or off-camera worlds of opportunities and possibilities open up.

When you play around with manipulating the light from your flash and ambient light it kind of blows your mind and ups your game.

When you learn your way around capable post-processing software you are empowered in a new way.

Then you get to a point where you start looking at your photos with some satisfaction. You go somewhere with your camera and gear and think, "How can I do something unique, innovative or especially compelling?"

Just getting a solid shot isn't enough. For example, there's no end to the amount of bird photos out there. It's practically its own industry. So what can I do here? Same with photographing people. How can I take these pictures in a way that will move people? How can I be in the right place at the right time and ready to rock 'n roll?

How do you show people something that they've seen a bazillion times but in a way that they've never seen it before?

Research: What they don't tell you about taking great photos.

The Jazz Club: Bohemian Caverns

If you are trying to take photos in a dimly lit or just plain dark jazz club you've a challenge on your hands.  Assume for a second that you can't use a flash and of course there's no room for a tripod.  Your only options are:

  1. A very fast lens.
    My fastest is a 50mm 1.8, which is so good.  I refuse to pay (unless I can make scads of money somewhere) $1,600 for a pricey f1.4.  Or $10,000 for whatever.  Pass.  (It still won't stop movement, though, and unless your subject is directly under lights or in one of the bright spots, well....)
  2. A steady hand.
    I use a GorillaPod and try to brace it against me somehow.  And I use the viewfinder to add another point of contact with my body.  I hold my breath and exhale slowly.  Use just the first knuckle on my trigger finger.  (It's still not enough.)
  3. Jack up your ISO.
    Your shutter speed has to be at least 125 and even then.  BUT then you get a lot of that noise.  All of those colorful speckles jackin' up your photos.  I experimented with up to ISO 6400.  I had to process the hell out of them and go for a stylized look, though.  That will work on modern cameras as a grainy black and white photo.  Suits my taste, anyway.
  4. Post-process.
    You're probably going to have to try to remove noise, adjust your exposure and what not via software.  No shame in it, but if you have to use software to save a photo it's probably not going to be your best.

And guess what.  You'll get very few shots, relatively speaking, that blow your socks off.  Here's what they don't tell you.

  • The pros often won't even bother to take a photo if the conditions aren't right.
    If it's a bright day out in the early afternoon, for example, when shadows are crazy harsh and unflattering.  If it's super dark and there's no angle or no flash allowed.  I've read articles recently where they just don't do it.  They wait until the right time.  They pick their location.  They anticipate the variables that they can work with and then they make magic.
  • You need a flash.
    If no flash is allowed, you're kind of screwed.  Luckily, Bohemian Caverns was photo friendly and there was some room to maneuver.
  • Social engineering matters.
    Being a musician myself (albeit a rusty one), I know a lot of musicians at least in passing.  Some are good friends and we go way back.  So when the staff sees you pulling out a douchey-big camera get-up but they see you talking warmly with the musicians they let you do your thing as long as you aren't being obnoxious.  (Blues Alley doesn't allow flash photography and even if they did it's so tight in there that you'd have a heck of a time trying to line up anything interesting without being in someone else's personal space.)
    • I shut my camera down or put it on manual focus during soft ballads or during a bass solo.  No whirs or clicks coming from me to distract the performers or audience.  I don't block anyone's view.  If I'm going to do something annoying I'll make eye contact with an audience member so they know that I'm going to be in their way for a few seconds to get a shot.  I try not to blast people in the face with the flash.  I used a snoot the other night. It keeps the direct flash off of the subject (avoiding most harsh shadows).  Even with the flash exposure compensation dialed ALL the way down it was sometimes brighter than I wanted compared to the room ambiance.But then again, it's better to be too bright (and adjust for it in post) than too dark (and adjust for it in post only to see a crap-ton of noisy speckling).

Sometimes the difference that sets you apart will be less tangible.    It's not your equipment.  It's not even your subject matter, necessarily.  You won't be the first person to go to an arboretum during tripod-friendly hours.

  • Access.
    The difference may be your knowledge of a subject or your "in" that allows you to be, for example, close to a performer.  Or to hang out with the musicians after their gig for the candid moments.
  • Trust.
    People will learn to trust you and your judgement.  Like, I look good (as an amateur photographer) if I make you look good.  I see your "good side", or a certain look, or the light shining in your eyes, or how awesome you look doing that thing you do, or how when you laugh like that you look more attractive than that one Hollywood starlet who people claim is attractive.  My goal is to try and capture that magic and sparkle in the every day so you can see you (and the world) the way I do.  Or the way I do after I've had a latte in the morning.
  • Patience.
    Your angle may be the fact that you're willing and able to sit or even lay in one spot for an hour to capture THE moment.  You don't know what THE moment is but you're willing to wait for it.  Or you're willing to get up before sunrise or to stay up all night.  Maybe you're willing to risk getting your gear wet or even to risk your own safety.

The Research

I did a fair amount of research and a little but not enough practice.  (Future practice will be in the form of self-portraits, probably.)  I bought an eBook.

100% Reliable Flash Photography: How to Get Amazing Light in Any Situation

I should still take a class.  Here's what I came up with.  I find it helpful to start off with the "right" questions.  Like, "How to freeze motion with flash photography".  Something like that.

The cool thing about iThoughts(HD) is that you can tap one of your bubbles and then click "Research" and it will google (or bing or wikipedia) the text within.  Then you can select text, a photo, or a link on the subsequent web page and choose to add it as a new node or to link to it from the node.  It's an amazing research tool.  Expand or collapse branches as you go so you can keep your focus on your current train of thought.

Photography Notes and Research (pdf)

 Lyle Link Residency at Bohemian Caverns (November, 2012)

And at last here are the photos.  You can catch the quartet one more time next Tuesday.

 

Technical Jank

I'm not an expert or anywhere close to it but writing about it helps to solidify the experience in my brain.  It's how I process things.  Having said that:

  • Manual Mode (no flash)
    • Aperture: f1.8
    • Shutter speed: Between 1/60 and 1/125
    • ISO: Between 800 and  6400
  • Manual (flash)
    • Aperture: f1.8
    • Shutter speed: Between 1/60 and 1/200
    • ISO: Between 200 and 800

What they don't tell you (or what I had to look up):

Stopping motion or action is done with the flash and NOT the shutter speed.  When you're using a flash the burst of light is very short -- 1/1000 second-ish -- and that is fast enough to freeze the action, regardless of whether your shutter speed is 1/60 or 1/250.  BUT a low shutter speed gives more time for the background ambient light to sink in.  I was able to isolate the piano player, for instance, with a higher shutter speed.

Bohemian Caverns is dark.  Very dark from a photography point of view.  It has a very low ceiling made out of whatever faux rock is made of, which is dark colored and yet strangely reflective.  There are small lights that provide ambience.  It's nice but it's very uneven on the stage (again, from a photography point of view).  So Lyle would be in the light for a second and I'd get a decent flash-less shot at a high ISO and then he'd turn to the side to cue the band, for example, and there was no shot.  Well, there was a blurry, noisy, fuzzy shot.  From one second to the next.  So ... you know.  Timing and patience.


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