I'm With the Band

Three reasons why photographing bands helps me with my portraiture - and why you should try it too.

As a photographer, it's always good to challenge yourself. To try a new technique, or to try a different subject matter. Photographing bands on stage is one of my favourite things to do when I need a bit of a creative boost. It also has the added benefit of allowing me to fine-tune some technical skills without the added pressure of delivering images to a client.

I love photographing bands and music but by no means is it my day job! Portraiture will always be my first love, so how does photographing a gig help me with my family sessions and weddings?

1. Understanding how my camera handles low light situations.

It's happened to all of us portrait photographers at least once. You arrive for a shoot and the room you're supposed to be shooting in is dark. A hotel room with tiny windows and awful tungsten lightbulbs. A chapel with low wooden ceilings and dark pews. If you're solely a natural or ambient light photographer, these situations can instantly cause your heart to sink.

When I studied photography at university, I shot on film. When we hand developed our own images, we would spend hours in the darkroom making sure the grain in our images was visible, and our images tack sharp. When I first made the switch to digital, grain or "noise" was a big no-no. I was terrified of a noisy digital image, and as such would never let the ISO on my camera drift outside of the 100 to 400 range. Unfortunately, this meant that shooting indoors was impossible for me, unless I could shoot with a huge window to light my subject. Seems pretty silly looking back on it now doesn't it!

I first started shooting gigs on a Canon 20D that was nowhere near as good at handling low light as my current camera (Canon 5D MII). I relied on a bit of luck to capture the live performance images.

This image was taken on that 20D while on set for a music video for the band Changing Face. I was able to use the existing light sources that the videographer had rigged for the shoot but I still bumped the ISO way up - to gasp! 1600. Totally out of my comfort zone.

Slowly I got over my fear of ISO's over 400. I would photograph a gig on various ISO settings and compare the images in Lightroom. This helped me to see the levels of noise I was willing to accept in my images when shooting with ambient light alone. It also helped me understand what leeway I had to manipulate the image and remove some of the noise in post production. After all, a sharp but grainy image is better than a non-grainy but blurred one. And better than no image at all!

2. Freezing movement.

The way I shoot family portraits means encouraging my clients to be natural. I use the phrase "capturing the moments between the moments" to define my work which means me always being at the ready to hit the shutter button at the exact right time to catch the giggle, laugh or smile.

Photographing gigs helps me follow movement and always get my focus points right. I'll challenge myself to follow the singer's mouth, the guitarist's and drummer's hands. The band may be jumping around the stage, interacting with the crowd. Freezing this action is my goal. This means that when it comes to capturing images of children, running in a park for example, I can focus quickly and effectively to get the shots I need.

No matter the lens I'm using I will always shoot handheld at a minimum shutter speed of 1/125. Once ISO is set I'll also experiment with faster shutter speeds, different focal lengths and different aperture settings.

3. Understanding light.

Light travels in a straight line, and this is one of the key things for us to remember as photographers. Many of us take that for granted, but when you learn to really see light and what it is doing to a subject, your images will improve. Mine certainly did!

A larger light source further away from your subject gives you a softer, diffused light. A smaller light source closer to your subject gives you a hard light. And what could be a harder light source than stage lights flicking on and off during a gig? Paying close attention to how the spotlights light both the stage and the band has helped me in low light environments where I need to establish exactly where to position myself in relation to the subject and the light source, to get the desired effect.

Dramatic side-lighting, or something a bit more more mysterious?

I also use the gig images to train my eye to see different colours. The stage lights might be purple or blue or red and those colours will dominate the image. I'll open an image in Lightroom, and play with the Kelvin Temperature, Tint and HSL/Colour panel sliders to

eliminate the dominating colour cast.

In the first image, direct from camera, I wasn't happy with the skin tones. Using the colour panel I de-saturated the oranges and yellows which gave a far more pleasing result, without compromising the rest of the image.

On other images I will use the same sliders to enhance the dominating colours even further.

All my colour corrections were once done in Photoshop, but now I find it much quicker to adjust white balance, exposure, contrast and saturation in Lightroom. I then use Photoshop for fine-tuning, removing blemishes on skin and applying special edits.

Ultimately photographing bands and gigs has boosted my confidence ten-fold when it comes to shooting in low light environments. Give it a try, if nothing else you'll get to hear some great live music!

Do you have any techniques for improving your portraits skill set? What has helped you improve your portraits photography? Comment on the Leigh Benson Photography Facebook Page and you could be featured in an upcoming post!

Want to know more about me? Click here, or get in touch with me here.

Special thanks to Rumours Rock City and the bands for letting me hang out for the night to shoot the images for this post. World War Me, Dirty Moonshine and Man As Machine. You guys are awesome.

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