Photographing Live Bands in Small Clubs

New local talent "The Frenzy"

Some Downtown Fredericton Live Band Fun: Getting Flashy

I spent some time at the Capital Complex last night, one of the most popular places in the downtown Fredericton area to see live local talent.  I was asked to get some photos of the band The Frenzy, which gave me a chance to try out some ambient light and flash techniques.  I was lucky enough to talk to the band beforehand and get an idea of what they wanted for photos, and also to the lighting guy, who told me that if I needed anything throughout the set to ask for it.  

When you get a lighting guy like this, don't tell your friends.

Halfway through the second song, the red lights came on, making all the photos I was taking effective in one format: Black and White.  I don't mind black and white stuff and it can really save my butt when all I have to work with are photos that look like I spilled ketchup on them.  Back to my original point, when you can ask the lighting guy for less red, it saves your bacon.  

My personal favorite from the night, not because it doesn't have anyone's face, but because the lighting really looks cool.  I posted this shot to my 500px account and made it my photo of the day.

There are times when you can't do this, or the lighting guy simply says "yeah man, I'll do that"....and then doesn't do that.  The ambient lighting only looks good in black and white because otherwise it's all red.  Or, no matter what you do, the house lights are simply in the wrong place to look good in the camera.

Time to bust out the speedlites.

I pushed some on-camera flash stuff to see what I would get.  In a small club setting, you can point the flash at the band.  Sometimes.  Usually, however, the photos look bad and you're out of a job. You can point the flash at the ceiling, the equivalent of turning on the house lights.  Takes away the 'cool' factor.  The photos just looked like a bunch of guys jamming in an old brick wall basement with drop ceilings (By the way, drop ceilings are functional and all, but man they look like crap in a bar...seriously guys, get rid of those ceilings!!).

Okay, that didn't work.  Time to really get creative.  I luckily already had some shots that worked using ambient light (see the banner at the top of the page), so I wanted to try some strobist stuff.  I put my flash on a wireless receiver and set it down to 1/64 power, zoomed it to 80mm, and then got the tallest guy I could find to put a the unit up in a small box that was installed for mounting a video camera, well back from the stage (about fifteen feet).

With this set up, I began to fire away using various shutter speeds and apertures to find the right balance between my new 'spotlight' and the existing light.  I found out that I could use a mixture of slow shutter speed (1/15 to 1/60) and low-ish aperture (f3.2-f4) to blend the lights together and create images I was happy with.

Mixture of the off-camera flash and ambient (read: gross) red lighting.
So, once again, the strobe saves the day.

Lesson learned.  When shooting in small clubs with poor lighting, the safest bet is to find a spot to put a speedlite.  If you can't find a little nook or shelf to tuck one away, then it might be time to set up a light stand.  Either way, you can really get some usable shots this way, and not just black and white.

One more pro-tip: Get there early. If the band you're shooting happens to be on after another band, you can use the first group as a 'warm-up'.  This will tell you a lot right off the bat, including whether you can get away with just the house lights or whether you should fire up your speedlite.  If this isn't the case, a soundcheck might be the time to get a feel for your situation.

Cheers, more tk...