Photographing Bands in Bars, Part 2 – Set Up

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A guest post by Music Photographer Rick Bennett.

_Users_Darren_Downloads_bands-in-bars_bandsinbars2-a.jpgBand photography in bars can be very challenging, but with a little bit of knowledge and planning you can make images that blow away the standard fan photo. In Part 1, I discussed equipment choices: cameras, lenses and flashes. In this article, I’ll describe how to set up just before the performance to get the best shots.

First and foremost, you need to attempt to assess the security of your gear before you pull anything out. No band photographs are worth losing a camera or lens or flash over. The bands I’ve tended to shoot have played in nice neighborhoods in well established bars with well behaved clientele. But I’m constantly on the alert because the clientele could change in a heartbeat. In some situations, I’ll leave flashes and camera bags unattended, but I’ll never walk away from my camera. A VAL (voice activated light stand) can certainly help keep an eye on your gear, but the best place for the bag with extra gear is with the band’s gear, usually close to the stage. Having it close to their things means they’re more likely to help keep an eye on it as well. That being said, I’ve never had a problem with gear walking off, but that is something you’ll have to assess at every gig.

I generally try to find a seat (if they have seats) near to the front of the audience, left of center from the audience’s perspective. If there is an obvious front-row of fans, I’ll put my “home base” behind them since a) those fans would be the most irritated by a blocked view, and b) their excitement can make great framing devices. I choose left-of center because most guitar players are right handed, and I prefer pictures where the body of the guitar is closer to the camera. I want to be off-center because it generally results in better images of singers if the microphone doesn’t cover the lower half of their face. But this is just a “home base” where I’ll come back to in order to change lenses or enjoy some of the music. This is not where you’ll park your camera the whole performance. More on that in Part 3. After you’ve determined your home base, try to introduce yourself to the band, if this wasn’t arranged ahead of time. Get their permission to shoot their performance–I can’t imagine they would be upset by it, but it helps to build rapport by asking.

If you’re going to use off-camera flash, you’ll need to determine placement based on the layout of the bar. My standard layout is to work with two flashes, one at the extreme left of the stage, and the other at the extreme right. See this light diagram as an example. But again, it all depends on what you’ve got available to you for clamping/securing/mounting a flash. If I’m going to clamp a flash to something that the bar owns (and isn’t as simple as a chair or table or steel pole) I’ll check with a bartender or sound-guy first. I’ll let them know I’m there to shoot the band, and ask permission to mount a flash on their light-bar, for example. No one has ever given me grief, but its good to get permission first–asking forgiveness is not a good way to build your reputation. After I’ve placed the flash, I point the flash at the far side of the stage–this way the closest performer is in the “feathered” light, where the furthest performer gets the most direct blast, but at a much greater distance.

When shooting with two flashes, I generally set their triggers to different transmitter channels for the first set, and to the same channel for the second set. This gives me a wide variety of pictures–some with dramatic hard lighting, some with more balanced cross light.

Cross-lit with two off-camera flashes


Since I’m using manual flashes, I set my shutter speed to one click down from my max sync speed, which means I’m set to 1/160s. For the most part, this usually eliminates the stage lights, if any. I can always slow that down if I decide I want to let in more ambient or motion blur, but I start with 1/160s. Then I go to each of the positions of the band members, and if needed, place my hand about where their face would be, take a shot, chimp, repeat, until I determine the proper aperture for that performer. This ends up being pretty straight forward in a one-flash setting: the performer closest to the flash might be f/11, the next one might be f/8, then f/5.6 then f/4.8. I might write this down in a note pad, but usually I just get a feel for how “hot” the closest performer is, and knock the aperture down from there. If I can’t get enough light on the performer most distant from the flash, I’ll either increase the power on the flash or increase my ISO. I prefer to keep my flash power at 1/4 for fast recycle times, but that isn’t always possible because of the layout of the bar.

If you’re not using off-camera flash, I recommend setting your ISO to the highest setting you can tolerate based on the noise it produces, probably in the 800 to 3200 range. With my D60, I never went higher than 800 if I could help it. With my D5000, I can go all the way to 3200 with impunity. Next I’ll set the camera to spot metering, servo-continuous focusing, and aperture priority at the lowest setting for the lens. The D5000 (and other cameras I’m sure) can also enable “Auto ISO” where you specify the range of ISO that are acceptable (I’ll allow 200-3200) and the minimum shutter speed. The camera will then automatically boost your ISO as needed to match your given shutter speed. I’m still getting used to this feature, but I think it has the potential to really help in these kinds of situations. I’ll also set the camera to capture RAW+Basic JPEG. I save RAW and JPEG because the RAW files allow me to manipulate color balance better than JPEG, and the camera applies the best noise reduction to the JPEG.

To summarize, my camera settings generally look like this:

  • Off Camera Flash: Manual mode, 1/160s, aperture depends on performer distance to flash, ISO 200-800 if possible to get flash power set to 1/4. Metering mode doesn’t matter since I’m in manual mode.
  • Ambient Only: Aperture priority, smallest f-stop for lens, ISO high enough to get to 1/120s shutter speed, spot metering for close up shots, matrix metering for wide angle.

In part 3, I’ll cover shooting

Rick Bennett has been shooting bands in bars, at festivals, and on big stages for about a year. You can see more of his work on his blog, portfolio, or Flickr stream.

Post from: Digital Photography School – Photography Tips.

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Photographing Bands in Bars, Part 2 – Set Up


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