Light Fighting

One advantage of working more-or-less right downtown in Toronto is that it’s possible, on occasion, to make time during the day to catch some interesting things going on.

I’ve spent some time recently wearing my official photographer’s hat for the Honda Indy Toronto, the annual race around the streets of Exhibition Place, which is coming up in early July. I’ve worked this event with media credentials the past two years, which you can read about here and here. From photographing famous Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe with the Mayor of Toronto, to covering a kickoff for a fundraiser to support kids’ activities, to being on site for the unveiling of this year’s trophies, there’s been a lot going on these past weeks. Photos of all of that are right here.

Even so, I found a little slice of time to sneak down into Toronto’s financial district for a lunchtime concert by blues-rock guitarist Colin James, celebrating the release of his latest album. This is a guy whose music I’ve known since his 1988 debut, but have never seen live. Along with his rock-pop efforts, he’s also recorded three albums of big-band swing in the same vein as the Brian Setzer Orchestra and is a mean blues guitarist, and an impressive vocalist, to boot.

Colin James tears it up in Toronto
Colin James lays down Dylan’s “Watching The River Flow“.
1/30th of a second at f/5.6 and ISO 2,000.

I’ve done very little live music photography, with the exception of a large convention I’ve written about previously, but I do know that lighting for such events is usually best described as “awful”. Concert photography discussion groups, like this one on Flickr, are full of complaints about lighting, endless discussions of lens and flash choice, and one-upmanship about the worst conditions possible (shooting punk bands in unlit basement clubs being a popular example). What I’ve learned is that even stages that look brightly-lit are actually really dark by comparison with daylight, and that the mix of spotlit and shaded areas can be a real bear. The trick is to get as much light into the camera as possible, which you can accomplish in three ways:

1) Open up the aperture. The wider the opening into the lens, the more light gets in. Aperture is measure in f-numbers, also called “f-stops” or just “stops”. The f-number is a ratio of the focal length (that number in millimetres written on the side of the lens; longer for telephoto, shorter for wide-angle) and the diameter of the hole in it letting light in. The larger the hole, the smaller the f-number. A lens that can manage a small f-number lets a lot of light in, and is referred to as a “fast” lens. f/1.8 is very fast; the lens I used for the photo above manages f/5.6, which isn’t. Fast lenses, generally speaking, require much bigger pieces of glass, making them larger, heavier, and a lot more expensive. Because of how it’s calculated, double the light getting in to the camera (one “stop”) means a change in the f-number of the square root of 2 (which is about 1.4). For example, f/5.6 is one stop slower (narrower aperture, less light, bigger f-number) than f/4.

2) Slowing down the shutter speed. The longer the camera’s shutter stays open, the more light gets in. I shot that photo at 1/30th of a second, which is pretty slow, and you can see that Mr. James’ hands are blurred as a result. That doesn’t bother me, because his face is still sharp. Any slower and the photo would have been a a blurry mess – trust me, I tried. Doubling the shutter speed results in twice the light getting into the camera, so 1/30th is one stop faster than 1/60th (are you following this? It’s a slower shutter speed, but lets more light in to the camera, so in terms of exposure it’s considered “faster”).

3) Raising the ISO sensitivity. ISO is a funny term, left over from the days when film was rated depending on how sensitive it was to light. Higher numbers meant “faster” film that was better for low light. In digital cameras, we use a similar scale. Raising the sensitivity two-fold is equivalent to letting twice as much light in, so ISO 400 is one stop faster than ISO 200. The trade-off is that increasing ISO always results in decreased signal-to-noise, and increased graininess. That’s why photos taken in the dark with a camera phone look grainy, and more or less why fast film was notorious for being grainy too.

On this shoot, the light was sufficiently bad that I needed to drop the shutter speed as slow as I dared (and 1/30th is pretty darn slow for anything that’s moving), and crank the ISO up high enough to get the exposure bright. ISO 2,000 is likely to be pretty nasty looking on anything but a professional full-frame camera, but I think it’s ok here, if you accept that grittiness can be good, and that I’m not going to be printing poster-sized copies.

Colin James Band, First Canadian Place, Toronto
It gets worse – 1/40th of a second at f/5.6 and ISO 2,500.
Covering Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic“.

You might wonder why I simply didn’t use a faster lens – one with a wider maximum aperture. With more light coming in, I would have been able to either speed up the shutter to avoid blur, reduce the ISO to avoid grain, or a bit of both.

The answer, no surprise, comes down to money. By spending roughly five times what I did on my lens, I could have been using the classic 70-200 mm f/2.8, which allows for a maximum aperture of f/2.8. This is a perennial favourite of sports shooters, photojournalists, and even fashion photographers everywhere, and is referred to by one motorsports friend of mine as “the moneymaker”. Canon users are familiar with this formula as well, for the same reasons. I do own a very fast lens, but it has only a 35mm focal length, far too short for isolation shots of performers on stage. It got a workout for wide shots at that convention, though.

If you’ve been following along, f/2.8 is two stops faster than the f/5.6 I was able to use (remember, f-stops go in powers of the square root of two, and 2.8 is half of 5.6). That means I could have stayed at ISO 2,000 and bumped the shutter speed to 1/120th of a second, which would have frozen the motion of his hands, but not really have improved the sharpness of his face much. Or, I could have reduced the ISO by four-fold (remember, ISO goes in powers of two) to 500, which would have been much less grainy. That lens also has other advantages, including reportedly very quick autofocus, but at over a thousand dollars per extra stop of light, it’s just not in my budget. However, since photography is all about making the most of what the situation hands you, and working within the limitations of your gear, I’m not disappointed with the results. And if Mr. James should ever come knocking for a paid photoshoot, I’ll rent one for the day, open it up to f/2.8, and shoot like crazy.

Colin James at FCP, Toronto
1/60th of a second at f/5.6 and ISO 2,500.

More photographs, almost all of which are at stupidly high ISO and miserably slow shutter speeds, are in this Flickr set.

About Richard Wintle

I am Canadian by heritage, and a molecular biologist and human geneticist by training. My day job is Assistant Director of a large genome centre, where I do various things along the lines of "keeping the wheels on". In my spare time, I tend to run around with a camera, often chasing horses, race cars, musicians, and occasionally, wildlife.
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2 Responses to Light Fighting

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    I assume that as you have a DSLR, you have shake reduction built in. In my experience, it does give you the equivalent of reduction in blur from your own shaking equivalent to 3 stops higher shutter speed. Also, whilst you may not be able to use a tripod, monopods are remarkably effective (your two legs become the other two legs of the tripod). Lastly, try burst shooting – you can get the camera to take several frames/second while the memory fills up. The chances are at least one will be distinctly sharper because you have captured the instant when the performer is momentarily stationary.

  2. Laurence – thanks for the comment. I do use a DSLR. As I suspect you know, Nikon’s approach is to put stabilization in the lens rather than the camera body, the rationale being that it can then be fine-tuned to each lens. The one I used here has it, and it was on all the time. It doesn’t help with mobile guitarists, but as you say does get rid of hand shake.

    I don’t own a monopod but it might help. This lens is pretty lightweight though (another advantage of slow vs. fast lenses). If I rent something beefier I would definitely consider getting one, although at some events I can’t use it (not allowed in trackside photo holes at the IndyCar weekend for safety reasons, for example).

    I do shoot bursts for this kind of thing – it also helps with avoiding ridiculous facial expressions that pop up when people are singing or speaking. Paparazzi use it for the opposite reason, so it’s more likely that they catch an unflattering expression. 😉

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