Behind the Shot

After numerous requests asking me to describe the thought process behind some of my pictures….well, not really, I just made that bit up to make my blog sound popular and interesting…I thought I would talk through some of my pictures after some of the different jobs I cover and how I came to throw away the one’s and zero’s onto a particular picture.

However, a cautionary note. During this post there may be mention of such strange things as apertures, shutter speed, ISO, lens choices etc etc! For those with an anti-techy talk disposition then click away now…(maybe to my website…maybe….HERE )

For those sad keen enough to remain….

I covered the Forces Festival in Bulford over the weekend. A one day affair organised by the Forces charity ‘ Project  65 ‘ who provide support to veterans of our armed forces, a worthy cause as I’m sure you will agree but also a chance to shoot some live bands.

A number of bands were appearing and whilst you can’t really compare this event to some of the big boys and more well known festivals…The Glasto’s, the V fests and the Leeds/Reading’s et al – it went OK and it offered the chance to shoot a bit of live music which is something I don’t do much of.

Gray Smith performs at the Forces Festival – 28mm, 1/8000th, f2.8, ISO 200

Because I knew that this would be a smaller scale event and I had also managed to blag arrange an access all areas pass (which is rare but very welcome) I knew that I could pretty much dictate what I did and more to the point how I shot it. To that end and as I’ve mentioned many times in previous posts I prefer to shoot much of my own stuff on primes rather than zooms.

The reason for this is simply I prefer this way of working. Doesn’t mean the pictures are better from a quality perspective, not these days, but I like the discipline of working to the limitations of prime lenses which, once you become familiar with using them, these limitations actually become advantageous – in my opinion.

In this case I was shooting on a couple of D3’s. One with a 28mm f 2.8 manual focus and the other with an 85mm f1.4 lens. I also had a F1.8 50mm which I switched to for a few of the shots.

For the picture above of the artist Gray Smith, I made my way back stage and went for a shot showing him performing, the crowds in front (although not massive at this point!) and tried to make use of an impressive and dramatic sky. A general rule of thumb – in my opinion – bright sunshine…bad, overcast and cloudy…good. From a ‘quality of light’ perspective anyway, but you go with what you have and work accordingly.

Framing him in the centre (something I probably do a little too much of?!) I liked the composition, dropped down low to show the sky and with the thought in my mind of using this shot in black and white I shot a couple of frames as he played.

The picture below, showing some dodgy bloke skulking around at the back of the stage which in case you haven’t worked it out yet is me, was taken by a photographer I know called Tom Robinson, check his music and band photography out as he does a lot of this stuff and is probably far more accomplished than I when it comes to music photography.


One of the hardest things to get right with live music performances is the light. You have, as in this picture below, natural daylight, background spots of all different colours and banks of spot lights all doing their thing and causing you problems…throw in a bit of smoke action from the machine off stage and it all gets a bit messy.

In Darkness play at the Forces Festival 2011 – 85mm, 1/350th, f2.8, ISO 400

But don’t panic! Pick your shots and try and use the light to your advantage. Hide it, mask it, back-light it, side-light it…you get the point – get as creative as you want. Expect to shoot a few and expect many of those to end up in the big recycle bin in the sky but who cares. It’s all free on the card. Watch the performers. They all have little nuances or ways of playing so try and wait for these moments to get the best expressions. Avoid shooting so that they appear to have a mic stuck in their face so try and shoot from the side if possible.

The picture below of Gwyn Ashton, who is a great guitar player and performer, has some of the problems already mentioned. Strong blue spotlight behind, fill-in white light in front, a bit of red in there off to one side. Add this to his movements and the mic in the front and it gets a bit cheeky.

I like the way the blue spot gives some separation to the dark background, so I timed it to shoot as the white fill-in spot lit up on his face and I noticed that he would glance at the neck of the guitar occasionally as he sang and played. Add a dose of good luck and you have yourself a half decent picture – maybe?

Gwyn Ashton doing his thing at the Forces Festival – 85mm, 1/3000th, f2, ISO 1600

In another shot by Tom (below), this is how close I am to the stage, I’m shooting up with the 85 to get some uprights like the one above. I’m trying to use the lights and the backgrounds to try and frame something up that works. Keep your eye to the viewfinder all the time, within reason, to see the ‘moment’ as it happens. You can’t shoot if your not following the action and press the button when you see it starting to work. I’m on single shot here and not hosing down on ‘continuous high’ so pick your picture otherwise you will fill your cards very quickly.

Be prepared to switch to manual focus at times. Because of all the light, movement, smoke, etc your auto-focus might struggle and ‘hunt’ around so don’t be afraid of going back to old school and taking control of everything yourself.

The shot below I like because of the warm front light from the setting sun but it hasn’t quite worked. What I would need here to make it ‘right’ would be a massive cheering crowd to round it off, as this wasn’t really the case on the day I don’t think it works as good as it could have. But what you gonna do? It’s always worth a try.

The band In Darklight finish their set – 85mm, 1/8000th, f3.3, ISO 200

For the two pictures below I wanted to illustrate a couple of similar pictures to show how turning a picture to Black and White or mono can also work. Whilst the colour, in this case the blue spots, is interesting I prefer the more moody and atmospheric B&W. You can play with the shadows and use the areas of darkness to create some nice effects. Also, because my ISO is up at 1600 you start to see some digital ‘noise’ coming into play which can give a more traditional ‘film’ feel to the picture. You could also ‘mac’ it up and add this film effect in post but I didn’t on this occasion and tend not to go mad with post work and definitely not with anything destined for a picture desk.

Blues and rock performer Gwyn Ashton – 85mm, 1/350th, f4, ISO 1600

The choice to do this is all subjective of course so try it and see what you think. Not every shot suits this conversion but on some it can look great. My previous post … here shows some pictures from the festival all in B&W.

Gwyn Ashton plays at the festival – 85mm, 1/350th, f4, ISO 1600

There are many great music photographers out there so get on Google search and check their work out. Remember that the bigger the event the less access you might be allowed and restrictions on how long you can spend in the ‘pit’ in front of the stage may apply – the usual rule is that the photographer can have ‘..the first 3 and no flash’ – (First 3 songs and no flash allowed) but this can vary of course.

But it offers a good chance to practice all your photo skills and even at smaller events there is the opportunity of getting some decent pictures.

For more info on all the artists who performed at Forces Festival 2011 check out this link…

The Artists

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