Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Photographing Onstage Event Action

I'm relatively new to photographing live action at special events, although I have actually been a photographer all my life. I am rapidly learning how difficult it is to get really good images of onstage action at events. I'll share a few ideas from my experience.

First, if you want to catch stage performances up close and personal, you are going to have to put yourself right at the stage itself, preferably directly in front. Depending on the event and your part in it, you may need to get special permission from the organizers to allow you to place yourself there. This often involves getting an "All-Access Pass," which allows you to wander most anywhere with the typical exception of right ON the actual stage.

Second, you are not going to be able - or allowed - to use flash, mainly for two reasons: one, it is distracting to performers; two, because of the way cameras read light, you will inevitably have a very dark background and too much light on the performers closest to you. If you are further back from the stage than "the pit" directly in front, you will likely get only a shot of the first few rows of peoples' heads in front of you with a dark stage. People who try to take shots of concerts from up in the stands will usually end up with just this - well-lit heads and no stage action.

As for equipment, there is lots of information available on the web for shooting concert action. Let me briefly summarize:

  • Use a camera that can shoot at high ISO (i.e. up to at least 3200 or 6400) and crank the ISO up to around there, usually at least above 2000. Oh, yes, and put your camera in Manual mode.
  • Use a "fast" lens with as large an aperture as your budget will allow. 1.7 is great if you can get one. Whatever lens you use, you will need to open it to its widest aperture to let in as much light as possible. 
  • With a wide open lens and high ISO, you can play with shutter speed to do several things. The first is stop the action, so if you have dancers, for example, you will need a shutter speed of at least 1/100 sec, preferably faster. However, if you want to catch more of the exciting lighting shooting beams through haze, you will need a slower speed, probably under 1/100 sec. As you might guess, each of these presents a dilemma - either you get clear, in-focus performers with little fancy lighting effects, or you get nice lighting effects with possibly out-of-focus performers. You need to play around with speeds and ISO to hit it just right.
  • I prefer to use a super wide angle lens to capture the whole essence of the performance. My favourite is a 10-24mm Nikkor lens with which I can pretty well capture the entire stage, including lighting, from right at the downstage edge.
After you finish, you will undoubtedly need to do a fair bit of post-processing (i.e. work in either Lightroom or Photoshop). Why? Because most of the shots will no doubt have either a little bit or a lot of graininess due to the high ISO setting. Much of this can be taken out with software, Nik Define 2 being my personal favourite. You also may also have to play with colour temperature, exposure in some areas of the image, cropping, brightness, contrast and a few others. 

If you follow these general guidelines, you will likely get some good  - or even great - shots, but it does take work and practice. 

Below are a couple of my most recent attempts.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Don't Go Cheap on Audio

In my spare time I am also a pianist/organist and last night I, along with other musicians and a large choir, were rehearsing for an opening performance for a new church. The church has beautiful acoustics but is extremely reverberant. It is so much so that the sound designers for the building took out all of the low frequencies for the sound system that serves the altar.

As for those of us in the choir loft, we were on a separate mixer that feeds into the same main speaker system. Since the building is so reverberant this means that balancing the output is going to be a very critical matter. This is not the time to use cheap equipment (main speakers, microphones, mixer, monitors, etc) OR people who do not know how to mix properly. In a room that is so alive, it is very easy to go from low volume intelligible but barely audible speech, to a high volume ugly wish-mash of music. I know, because it has happened to me in many special events. Usually the reason is that the equipment (often the speakers) is incapable of handling the load or the audio tech is not knowledgeable enough to know how to fix equalization problems or how to set up main speakers, not to mention which types of mics to use in certain situations.

For example, in our rehearsal last night, we had to "make do" with a single vocal mic for a 30-voice choir. Of course, it sounded terrible. What should have been used was at least two or three choir mics (condenser overhead mics with unidirectional pickup) placed up high and just in front of the first row of singers. What happened? There was not enough of the right equipment (e.g. mics) available and we had minimal time to check and gain experience with the system.

So what is my point? It is that if you have an event that has a critical audio component (i.e. speeches, stage show, even a dance band), then you would be well served to not always go for the least expensive company to supply the audio. Do your homework and make sure you get techs who have lots of experience in running audio for your kind of event and that the company uses only the highest quality equipment. You will save money and your reputation in the end.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Getting in the Creative "Zone"

In this industry creativity is a much-revered talent. Not only that, but it must be almost instantaneous creativity, thanks to short lead times for proposals.

I have practiced and taught creativity for many years, but only recently have I discovered what for me is the best scenario for coming up with good ideas. It is not a gimmick but it does involve getting up from your desk and doing a little exercise.

Basically it is walking at a steady but not too strenuous a pace and it must be done for at least 30 minutes and not up an incline. Personally if I do this on a nice level walking trail, particularly away from traffic, I find that after about 20 to 30 minutes, my mind starts to de-clutter. At this point once I feel relaxed and able to move smoothly, I begin to think about a problem or proposal or whatever needs solving. I find that very quickly I will begin to develop related ideas that are creative, logical, and ultimately workable. I then continue to concentrate on this generation of ideas and try not to think about the physical walking or about my surroundings. In reality, this seems to be a form of hypnotism if one can call it that. By the end, if it has been a productive walk and lots of ideas have come forth. I often think back and realize I have no idea how I got from the start to the finish of the walk as I was so involved with the great ideas.

This seems to beat many other techniques for generating ideas, at least for me. But why? Here is what I think. When we walk at a steady pace, it has been proven that most people tend to fall into a regular pace of 120 steps per minute. This coincidentally is the almost universal pace that armies march at because it literally makes their minds numb and susceptible to taking orders and it also fosters togetherness. Not only that, but recent studies have also analyzed top musical hits over the years and found that the majority of songs are at a tempo of - you guessed it - 120 beats per minute. Finally, this number corresponds to an actual frequency of 60 cycles per second, a "mesmerizing" frequency in our brains. 

Think about this as a way to come up with new ideas. If you try it, let me know if it works.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Lighting for Houses of Worship

I am not an expert in this type of event technology but my son, the lighting genius, certainly is. The images below, taken by me, show some of his recent handiwork on a local installation. Seems to me it would certainly enhance any service.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Determining Vertical Stage Size

My most popular post to date has been the one about determining horizontal stage size for an event. In this post, thanks to several questions, I address the vertical dimension.

The first assumption in determining the height of a stage is that the special event is not being held in a venue with a permanent stage such as a theater. Otherwise, the height is dependent on the size of the audience, whether they will be sitting or standing, and whether the ground or floor is level (we will assume in this section that the surface is level). Standing audiences can occur for concerts, receptions, dances, trade shows, product launches, and others. Seated audiences can occur at dining events, award ceremonies, opening and closing ceremonies, meetings, and numerous others. We will deal with each of these.

Standing Audience

In order to make an educated determination of the correct height for a standing audience, we must make some assumptions of human characteristic body dimensions and typical spacing between persons in a standing crowd. For purposes of this exercise only, let us assume that the average person is approximately 5 ft 11 in. (179 cm) tall and that in a standing crowd, people will tend to space themselves no closer than 2 ft (0.6 m) apart. Also, we must assume that persons in the crowd are able to maneuver themselves sufficiently to see over the heads of other persons two rows ahead of them (i.e. about 4 ft, or 1.2 m in front of them). If we further assume that at minimum any persons in the audience must see at least the top part of the head of an average person standing on the stage (near the front or downstage edge of the stage), then we can draw some sight lines to assist us with calculating the correct stage height that will relate directly to the size of the crowd. Figure 1 does just this. Note that at 25 ft (7.6 m) away from the stage, a person is able to see the top part of the head of someone onstage if the stage is 3 ft (1 m) in height. Likewise, at 50 ft (15 m) from the stage, the height must be raised to 4 ft (1.2 m) to achieve similar visibility and at 100 ft (30 m) away from the stage, the height must be at least 8 ft (2.4 m) for the same visibility. It is clear from this explanation that given a specific audience size and venue size, that a stage should be constructed of sufficient height to enable the entire audience to view the stage in the worst case scenario. For example, even in the case of a standup reception at which there will be stage entertainment, the assumption must be made that during the entertainment, attendees will crowd the stage to the extent that they will be about 2 ft apart, even though when the entertainment is not on, this may not be true.

Figure 1: Stage Height Determination for a Standing Audience

Seated Audience

For a seated audience, the height is also determined by the ability to see over the head of a person sitting directly across a table (if dining) or directly in front by two rows (if theater-style). We will illustrate the principle by using a dining situation in which diners are seated at 72 in. (1.8 m) diameter round tables, separated by 10 ft (3 m) center-to-center. Exactly the same principle applies as for the standing scenario, except that, because the distance from the observer to the person opposite is much greater than the critical distance in a standing crowd, the angle is lower and so the stage can be that much lower in height. Figure 2 illustrates the angles and can be used to calculate approximate stage heights. Once again, the worst case scenario must be assumed and if the tables are less than 72 inches in diameter (e.g. 60 in. or 1.5 m rounds) then the calculation must be rechecked. Note also that because of the low angle, a constant stage height may be used for the nearest 50 ft (15 m) to the stage before the stage height really needs to be increased, unlike the standing situation.

Figure 2: Stage Height Determination for a Seated Audience

It should be kept in mind that the variables in determining stage height are many (e.g. slope of ground if outdoors, proximity of audience members to each other, whether performers stay on mainly the downstage portion of the stage), so the above analyses are only intended to be general guidelines and not hard rules. Each situation will be different and in some cases, a lower stage might be adequate.

Read more about this and many other topics in my new books.