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.