Perspectives - Photography By Anthony Nowack

LED Stage Lighting

I've found my activist calling. The important cause that I must rally all of you fellow photographers and videographers behind is freeing music venues from the scourge of LED stage lighting. If we all work together and demand action, this injustice can be purged from our lives forever. To the venues: I appreciate what you're trying to do. Standard stage light pots are hot and use a lot of electricity. Plus you need a can for each color you want to use. LEDs seem like the answer to all your lighting related prayers. The problem is that there are trade offs that make any photo or video representation of the acts in your venue look like impressionist paintings. It's not your fault. You didn't know better. The good news is there are things you can do to help until this blight is eradicated. But first, let's talk about why this happens.

LED stage lights are typically panels consisting of separate red, green and blue high output LED bulbs. They are capable of reproducing a wide range of colors on stage by turning each color on or off, or dimming certain colors to add less of that color. But there's where the problem comes in for the photographer/videographer.

With standard stage lighting, gels get clipped over the can to filter the other colors out of the light. But that filter still lets out some of the other colors. It just ramps off the farther you get from that color. With LEDs, if you turn on just the blue bulbs, all you get is blue because that narrow color frequency is all the light is putting out. What this means for capturing images is that you can't color balance like you normally would because there's no other color to push your photo to. Digital cameras are also still quite limited in dynamic range for brightness as well as color, so that a very strong color can wash out all detail in an area even though your histogram will tell you it's not overexposed. Adittionally, digital camera sensors are typically more  sensitive to certain colors. All this means that photos taken under LEDs are more susceptible to strange posterization effects where one color gets dramatically oversaturated or overexposed compared to the others.

White light from most LED cans or panels is made by turning all red, green and blue bulbs on at the same brightness. This can cause an additional problem, because the light coming from the LED panel isn't constant. It modulates on and off at a frequency that is not noticeable to our eyes but is recorded by our camera because the shutter speed you choose can freeze a scene in the fraction of a second when one or two colors are in their off phase. This can result in odd color shifts across a subject's face, for example, because two different light panels can be at different points in their cycle when the image was taken. This can make the color look quite unnatural and can cause blown highlights even if the camera's meter says the exposure should be correct.

Another side effect of this modulation is a strobe light effect where fast moving objects like drum sticks will move though a couple cycles of the light and appear multiple times. Using a faster shutter speed would seem to be the solution for the strobing except that it causes more of the color shifts from flicker. Slower shutter speeds will help minimize the color shifts by capturing full cycles of the lights but will leave you with blur from those fast moving objects or performers. See the dilemma?

Even if you find just the right shutter speed to counter these two effects, there's one more thing the lighting man can do to throw everything off again. Because when you dim these panels, that frequency changes.

At this point, I understand if you feel all hope of getting good photos in these venues slipping away. But there are some things you can do to help yourself have a better ratio of keepers.

First and foremost, shoot in RAW format. If you shoot in JPEG, the colors and brightness values are pretty much baked in and there's not much you can do help them. RAW files have much more color and brightness information you can use later to save highlights or tweak some strange color effects.

Second, err on the side of underexposure. DSLR cameras these days create files that are much more tolerant of being pushed in post-processing, but if you blow out highlights completely during the exposure, there's still no saving them.

Next, a little more involved tip for adjusting color. If you use Adobe Lightroom as I do, there's a tool called the Adjustment Brush. If you open it up there's a control called “Color”. Click the box next to it and it will expand to allow you to pick any color in the spectrum. You can use this to brush on a color that was missing. Just below this control you have adjustments for the size, feathering, and flow of your brush. Use a small brush to do narrow selective adjustments to a performers face or use a very large brush to paint the color over the whole frame. If you're not sure what color to use, the great thing about this tool is that you can paint over the area first and then drag the selector in the “Color” box over different colors while you can see the adjustment change on your photo in real time to see what works best. Use a low number on the flow control when using small brushes so that you can brush over an area multiple times until the color looks right.

Finally, if all else fails, you can always turn the photos to black and white. It's much more forgiving of posterization and if you're using a RAW processing program like Lightroom, you can still adjust white balance, color saturation, and hue. Even though you don't see the colors, the settings you choose will affect the tones in your final photographs.

So now that we know way to much about these lights and some about how to handle shooting under them, how do we get rid of them? Well, we don't. Sorry to break it to you, but as important as we like to think we are, making the photographer's job easier isn't that high on the priority list for music venues. So, just like the bouncer in the pit that looks like he just ate a Buick, we'll have to learn to work around them. I'd love to hear if you have any additional techniques for shooting or processing to deal with them though. Because, as much as I'd like to believe that we can get rid of them through some hunger strike, civil disobedience, or tactical nuclear weapons, for small venues at least they may be here to stay.

Examples

Lou Reed

Sometimes my role as a photographer is at odds with my life as a music fan. I've shot many bands that I would never listened to otherwise. But in my capacity as a music photographer, I have to decide what people will want to see, not be a arbitrator of musical taste. One of those instances has at Lollapalooza 2009. The schedule at Lollapalooza in 2009 put Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed on at the same time on the large stages on the far ends of Grant Park. When you cover these large festivals this happens often. You have bands playing at different stages all day and through the night, many of them at the same time. So, since you can only shoot the first three songs of any artists' set and it took almost a half hour to walk from one end of the park to the other when it's full of festival-goers, you have to make some tough decisions often. 

At first, my instinct was to shoot Snoop Dogg. (Fairly) modern artist who was still selling albums, not to mention pretty photogenic. I was never a fan of Lou Reed's music. I liked a couple of his songs (Heroin, Perfect Day, Walk On The Wild Side) but otherwise thought he was pretty overrated. But I was making one of the many trips to the media tent to dump photos just before the set time and a Getty wire photographer Scott Legato advised me to shoot Reed. The advise he gave me broke down to this: Snoop Dogg is a current artist but that means you'll have the opportunity to shoot him again. You may never get another chance to shoot Lou Reed. He was getting old and had some health problems already, he didn't play out much anymore and lets be honest, this might be the last time you'd get the chance. But it's at the other end of the park and he starts in 10 minutes, I said. His solution? “Let's get a cab.” So the two of us and another photographer went outside the fence to Columbus Drive and flagged down a cab. About 30 seconds later the car dropped us at the corner on Randolph behind the Budweiser Stage, we cut behind the stage and were in.

I remember thinking the whole thing was a bust and I wasn't going to get anything good. For most of the three songs he stood behind this keyboard stand that had little computer monitors on all sides with his lyrics scrolling on them. You could barely see him behind it but he stayed there whether he was playing the keyboards or not. At certain points when he was playing guitar, he would shuffle out from behind it a couple steps strum a few bars and then shuffle back behind the keyboard stands. And I do mean shuffle. He moved like Frankenstein's monster. Every step looked like he had on lead shoes. We left the pit area after the third song, caught another cab back to Snoop Dogg's stage and tried to get some photos from the middle of the audience. That didn't work out very well with swaying, dancing people all around blowing smoke in front of your shots. But I remember thinking, man, I'm glad I got those shots of Reed because he's not gonna last too much longer. A bit morbid for sure, but on Sunday October 27th 2013, Lou Reed passed away at the age of 71 from complications stemming from a liver transplant. And all I can think is, I've still gotta get some good photos of Snoop Dogg.

Lou Reed


My First National Gig

Back in early 2005, my music photography experience consisted of shooting a lot of local music acts in bars and small clubs. But as corny as it sounds, my dream was to take photos of the big names in the big venues. I thought, if I can get there, I will have made it. I (casually) knew the editor of a regional music magazine from a BDSM performance group that I shot a lot of at the time and I had just bought my first digital SLR camera (Nikon D70). There was a band coming to town called The Donnas who's first single, “Take It Off”, was doing pretty well so I thought that was a good show to try and get. Big enough to get my feet wet, but not TOO big. So I took one of my best prints and got up the nerve to go up to that editor and make my proposal. If she could get me in to the show, I would shoot it and they could publish it, no charge. She took me up on it and quickly set everything up.

Then, four days before the show, I was shooting a dance performance and my new camera stopped working. Nothing dramatic, it just refused to allow the mirror to drop back down after an exposure and wouldn't respond to any button presses. It was about a week out of warranty. I called Nikon and they wouldn't guarantee that they would fix it under warranty. Equally as disappointing was that they said it would probably take 2 weeks for me to get my camera back. So I sent off my dead camera. Three days before the show now and I didn't have the money to buy a second camera. So I asked another photographer friend who shot Nikon and he agreed to loan me a film camera (an N80 maybe?). I picked up the camera the night before the show and tried to get some experience with the body in the limited time I had. I shot some photos of the line outside the venue the night of the show and then went in and got in the pit to shoot my first national touring act.

I don't remember the opener but I'm sure I took a couple shots of them because when The Donnas went on I had about 8-9 exposures left in the roll. I brought along 4-5 rolls I believe which I thought would be plenty for the three songs I was allowed. I shot through the rest of the first roll just trying to get a feel for the lighting and then waited for it to rewind. You can't hear the camera winding in front of the stage so I just held it in both hands and waited for the vibration to stop. Now, I don't know if the film got stuck, or it was adrenaline that made me think the camera stopped but when I popped the back of the camera open, I could see film. This was not good. I closed the camera back up expecting it to finish rewinding but it did not. End of the first song. I tried the manual rewind button, nothing. Two button reset, nada. Now it's getting to the middle of the second song. In desperation, I put the camera under my shirt to try to protect the film from getting more exposed, opened the back and wound the film back in the canister by hand. I then put a new roll in and closed the back. The camera was still unresponsive. At this point it was the end of the second song and I was out of ideas. I walked out of the pit dejected while the security guy tells me, “You know you get three songs.” Thanks. I think I'm done.

And I thought I was. My music photography dream over as soon as it had begun. When an insane set of circumstances like this happens to you it makes even a cynic like me think about destiny. But I got another chance and a couple months later I was in an arena shooting Tom Petty. I had a working camera, great lighting, and got some great photos. Now I look at these photos from that maligned night and they're all shots that would never make the cut today. But I guess they're a reminder that everyone fails. And that I don't miss film. Not. One. Bit.

The Donnas

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