Burlesque Performance (photo by Ramya Jegatheesan)
How to Shoot the Live Show – 10 Tips
by Ramya Jegatheesan
Ramya Jegatheesan is a freelance photographer, writer, and documentary filmmaker. She loves telling stories that capture the beauty, tragedy, and complexity of the human spirit whether they are through still and moving images or the written word. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, The CBC, Filmmaker Magazine, and The Charlebois Post among others. Ms Jegatheesan worked on the award-winning film, The Creator's Game: The Quest for Gold and the Fight for Nationhood, which premiered at the ImagiNative Film Festival in the fall of 2011, and won the Viewer's Choice and Naish McHugh Emerging Filmmaker's Award at the Toronto Urban Film Festival for Footprints in 2012. Her most recent documentary, The Playful City, screened at the 2013 COMMFFEST Community Film Festival (where it won an Honourable Mention) and at the 2013 Regent Park Film Festival. You can see her work at www.ramyaj.com and www.ramyajimages.com.
Shooting a live performance can be an adrenaline rush. You are in the midst of exhilarating chaos, your senses are overwhelmed, and you have to get the shot. There are no re-dos. So how do you get it right the first time?
Be present. Be observant. Trust your intuition. There is no script to follow so embrace the lack of control, but try and predict what’s coming. Place yourself in the best possible position for the shots you need, but don’t be afraid to move if it doesn’t work out, and always keep an eye on what’s happening outside of your frame. The action you want may end up happening while you’re focused on something else entirely. Above all, don’t get rattled.
The photographer is the artist, but the right equipment will still take you a long way.
Ideally, you’ll want two cameras and at least two fast lenses: one wide and one long. Prime lenses are a beauty and will save you in low-light situations. But you’ll want a wide to mid-range zoom lens as well. The Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 is great for this while the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 is fantastic for getting those expressive close-ups especially when you can’t always get close to the stage. While a full-frame DSLR is ideal, you can make do with a crop frame and some careful post-processing too.
Put one lens on each camera: this way you won’t miss any key moments fumbling to changes lenses mid-performance. You can just pick up the right camera and shoot. I like having one set up to capture the audience and another for the stage (the lighting conditions are like night and day). An external flash is also handy to have in your arsenal for pre and post-show photographs.
Extras of everything. Extra batteries, extra memory cards, and an extra camera. If you’re shooting for fun, having a camera or a battery die on you isn’t the end of the world, but when you’ve made a commitment to deliver photos to a client, you can’t ask them for a do-over especially if it’s live.
Show up early and scope out the venue, the lighting, and the videographer (if there is one). Make sure you don’t get in each other’s way and see what you can do to help each other out.
Try and familiarize yourself with the act you are photographing. Do they have any quirks or trademark moves? If you know, you’ll be ready to capture it when it happens.
Is your image too dark? Too noisy? Is the white balance a little off? Could your photo be sharper? When you shoot in RAW, these are problems you can fix.
RAW captures all the data from your camera’s sensor. With JPEG, you lose valuable information when your camera makes its own decisions and compresses the data without your input and without the magical editing tools your computer has in its arsenal.
Shoot RAW and you will get the best image quality and endless possibilities for editing in post. It’ll save you numerous headaches in the long run.
Show venues are plagued by low light and a crazy mix of incandescent and fluorescent lighting. Flash photography is often forbidden, and the lighting situation can change on you in an instant. You have to be able to adjust your settings at a moment’s notice.
While auto-white balance will get you close enough, there will be instances where you will have to tweak your white balance in camera. But shooting in RAW will also help you adjust the white balance (and reduce noise) in post.
And how do you deal with the low light? Crank your ISO as high as it will go while still retaining good image quality. This number will vary from camera to camera. The Nikon D700 that I use can go up to ISO 6400 and still produce decent results. This is a godsend when you’re in a dark no-flash environment. But you will want to use noise reduction software in post-processing. The other fix is to use speedy lenses like primes (the 50 mm f1.8 is great value for your money) and f2.8 lenses like Nikon’s 24-70mm.
Live shows are a goldmine for action shots. People are jumping all over the place and their faces are creating the most intriguing and hyperbolic expressions. It makes for fascinating and, sometimes, hilarious images. To take advantage of this, you’ll need a high shutter speed to freeze the action. The last thing you want is to upload your photos and discover that the leaping splits in mid-air shot you think you got is actually a blurry mess. Arrive a little early to the show and experiment with your settings. You’ll probably want your shutter speed at least at 1/200sec. If you can’t use flash, try to pinpoint the highest shutter speed you can use in the lighting you have available (hint: you may need to bump up your ISO).
In some shows, it will be so quiet that your every move and every click will be noticed. This is where it would be better to conserve your shots, to move spots when the audience is laughing or clapping, and keep to the fringes of the space you’re photographing. This is where you must choose your moments and be especially respectful of the performance. Sometimes though, you’re given free reign and it isn’t disruptive when you’re right up there shooting away because the audience is loud and boisterous and the action explosive. Take advantage of it.
You can never have too many photos. Really. Particularly in a fast-moving environment like a concert or show. With all the shifts in movement and light, you may not get the shot you need with a single frame. When you see the moment you want to capture, get multiple shots. With luck, one or more of these will be keepers.
You are a storyteller. Your goal is to capture the story of the show you’re photographing so get more than just photos of the stage. Try and get some shots of the audience reacting; people buying tickets; fans interacting with the performers; people drinking and having fun. Get wide, medium, and close-up shots. Every image should tell a story. Avoid the static image and find the living one.
So much of photography is instinct. And this instinct is crucial when you are shooting in a photojournalistic style. Nurture it. Take your camera everywhere. Photograph everything. Try different angles. Study people’s body language, their expressions. Try to anticipate what will happen next. It will take your photography to the next level.