There he is. He was grinning ear to ear the whole night.
1. Do your research, have a plan, and be prepared to ditch it if reality doesn’t match your assumptions
During the afternoon just before this event, I spent some time searching the web to see if I could find any photos of the stage area at the IOTA Club. I found a dozen or so, and the first thing I noticed about them was that almost every one was either surprisingly underexposed, grainy, or both. The graininess in digital photos is typically caused by luminance noise (un-natural pixel-to-pixel fluctuations in the recorded brightness), and color or ‘chroma’ noise (un-natural pixel-to-pixel fluctuations in the recorded color). Both of these are indications that the pixels in the camera sensor are light-starved, such that the ‘signal’ that the camera is being asked to record is so low that it is down at about the same voltage level as the random ‘noise’ in the camera electronics. This effect in these photos was so extreme, that I made the assumption that the photos had to have been taken using rather cheap camera equipment, in particular kit lenses with small apertures that only open up to maybe f/4-5.6. I, on the other hand, would be using the Nikon D500, a camera that is advertised as having much better low light performance (less luminance and color noise for an equal signal), and I planned to use my 50mm, 85mm, and 105mm lenses, which all have a maximum aperture of f/1.4, and so they are able to provide at least 8X (3 stops) more light on each pixel than a lens with an aperture of f/4. So overall, I thought the available stage lighting would be adequate for me to capture good photos without using a flash, which could disrupt the performance.
In the posted photos of the IOTA Club, I also found a low-resolution ‘360-degree’ camera view that I could pan around, so that I could see not only the stage and the bar area, but I could even look up into the ceiling to see where the stage lights were positioned. What I noticed was that there were three stage lights, all clustered fairly close together, and all three appeared to be pointed at center stage, or even slightly to the right. Although I was a little surprised that they weren’t spread out more, I didn’t notice any lighting issues in some of the other photos of performances that were posted. But it is worth pointing out here that most of those performances were of bands with fewer than four members.
So, here is a photo of Kenny’s first band. What do you notice?
The bass player (right) is well lit. The lead singer is pretty well lit. Kenny is pretty well lit. And the lead guitar (left) is not well lit at all (which makes sense, based on how I saw that the stage lights were positioned). I had the aperture set to f/2, in order to try to get a little more sharpness by not operating the lens at the wide-open aperture setting, but in the process I sacrificed half the available light I would have collected at f/1.4. As it turns out, light was my issue, and not sharpness, and so I should have just gone ahead and set the lens wide open to f/1.4 to collect the most light that I could.
Also, notice that I was barely able to capture the whole band using my 50mm prime lens. For some of my later photos, I switched to using my 35mm f/1.8, so I could get a wider field of view, but again, I sacrificed at least 2/3-stop of my available light-gathering power in the process.
I wish I would have noticed the uneven stage lighting earlier. I had brought two speedlights with me, one of which was already set up with a Rogue ‘Flash Grid’ light shaper that would have made a perfect fourth stage light (when flashed). Part of the reason why I didn’t break it out was because I didn’t see a real good place to mount it. But that is only because I didn’t bring any GoPro mounting hardware with me (although I had considered it). As it turns out, there was a steel column right behind me when I took this photo, and just above my head on this column there was a mounting interface for a GoPro camera. Obviously, others have used GoPro’s to record their performances at the IOTA Club, and I could have used the same bracket to mount my speedlight. From there I could have pointed it right at the lead guitar, and triggered it using radio control to balance the stage lighting for my photos (likely using manual control of the flash power).
Without having my GoPro adapter, I also could have just mounted the speedlight to my camera instead. But I seriously dislike the lack of visual depth you get in images made using on-camera flash. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to these details when I was shooting, and so for photos of the lead guitar, I ended up with some noisy images, especially after I had to crank up the exposure in post-processing. And of course, the same effect was even worse when shooting people on the dance floor, both because there was even less direct lighting on them, but also because they were moving around more so than the band, and so I also needed to use a faster shutter speed to prevent motion blur, thereby reducing the captured light even more. Those images were actually unusable.
So, I definitely could have gotten some better shots if I had used a speedlight or two. But, I prefer not to generate flashes during stage performances or sporting events. So, one alternative would have been if I had in my possession the just-announced Nikon 28mm f/1.4. This would have given me both a wider field of view than my 35mm f/1.8, and a larger aperture to put 2/3-stop more light on each pixel. The ultimate alternative would have been to have the full-frame Nikon D5 camera body, which would put more of the light from the lens on the full-frame camera sensor, and at the same time it has a larger sensor with larger pixels that can collect more light than the smaller D500 pixels. Cha-ching!
2. Highlight Weighted Metering performs well if the subject is brighter than any lights in the background
As far as I am concerned, David D. Busch literally wrote the book on how to operate most Nikon DSLRs. In his Nikon D500 Guide to Digital SLR Photography, for stage performances he recommends using Highlight Weighted metering. This metering mode forces the camera to ignore the fact that large areas of a totally black background will prevent it from achieving an overall 18% grey exposure level for the photo, and instead just makes sure that the well lit subject is properly exposed.
But, what if there are bright accent lights in the background, or if there is some other light-colored surface that is brighter than the subject’s face? If the area that these bright surfaces project on the image is relatively large (and bright) as compared with the intended subject, then the camera may take those bright surfaces to be the subject, and underexpose the features you want. That appears to be what happened in a few of my photos of lead guitarist. Even though I got close to ensure that the auto exposure was focused on him, I didn’t take note of the accent lights in the background, or the bright shirt in the foreground. As a result, in some of these, the subject’s face was underexposed, even though in these cases I added fill light during post-processing to increase the exposure of the skin tones without blowing out the highlights.
To solve these problems, for the accent lights I should have either repositioned myself to minimize the amount of the image they covered, or just get them out of the image altogether, or for both cases I should have switched to using Spot metering, and placed the focus point on the subject’s face. This would have achieved better exposure on the subject, but the accent lights and the shirt may have come to dominate the images. If this was a problem, then again, I could have put a flash on the lead guitarist’s face, to make him brighter relative to the accent lights and the shirt.
3. The folks at the IOTA Club & Cafe were great
Patty and I had never been to the IOTA Club before, especially for a private party, so we didn’t know what to expect. It opened some time after our club-hopping days were pretty much through. But we really enjoyed ourselves there for this concert. The staff was attentive and very friendly. In addition to a club full of friends and neighbors, the staff showed us a great time. But I’ll tell you, having some better photos out there on the web (and maybe a little better stage lighting) would probably do wonders for their business. 😉