Canberra Swing Katz - Canberra City Band Floriade 2016

Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016 — photoshoot notes


Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to photograph Canberra city band’s performance in Floriade 2016.

CCB is one of Australia’s oldest community concert bands, serving the ACT community for over 90 years and recently ‑among many other accolades — won the New South Wales A Grade Concert Band Championship 2016, Australian National Eisteddfod Champions 2009 – 2016.Here are my technical notes of photographing the performance.

Here are my technical notes of photographing the performance.

The problem with the scene’s dynamic range

Music director face is darker in than the mid-tone in background. Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016
Music director’s face is darker in than the mid-tone in the background. Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

Canberra City Band performance photography in Floriade 2016 was amazing and difficult at the same time. In an ordinary sunlit midday, there’s around one stop of difference in light between the surroundings and the stage 88 itself. So you have to either overexpose the backgrounds or take an underexposed shot and pull one stop of details from shadows, which I dislike. Pulling details from shadows in landscape photography and inanimate objects is one thing, and doing the same on the delicate human skin is another, and usually leads to unpleasant results, unless you are looking at a particular effect.
Now, the performance day was dark and rainy, and I had around 3.5 stops of difference between mid-tones outside and inside the stage. So, while having the cloudy sky as a slightly underpowered softbox helped to take shots from people under the tent, the difference with the surrounding made the job rather difficult. But after all, I don’t want to pretend that I took pictures on a sunny day, so let the things be true to themselves. The following picture is a good example of the situation that I had:

Musician's face is at least 3½ stop darker than the sky in the RAW capture. No flash used.
Musician’s face is at least 3½ stop darker than the sky in the RAW capture. No flash.

They say don’t do black and white just for the aesthetics.…

Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

I disagree with that. I love the pure black and white photography (as the joy of seeing the world black and white and taking pictures of that). But sometimes, converting a colour photo into black and white can remove distractions. Maybe it’s the only technique that ‑unlike all other post processing techniques-  can turn an ordinary picture into a something worthy of keeping.

First steps in dance photography

Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016
Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016
Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

From my past experience in dance photography, when you haven’t been to rehearsals, you will get constantly surprised by the moves and your subjects hands and feet will be out of the frame, ruining otherwise great shots. So wide-angle, good shots need anticipation that either needs knowledge about particular moves of the dance you are photographing or simply having the chance to attend rehearsals.

When you have none of the above, I think one of the best techniques is stepping back and zooming in. This way, you can anticipate the movements and keep the dancers within the frame without knowing their next moves.


Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

I’ve chosen to bring a Canon 60D and 24 – 105L for dance shots (Best thing I had access too) and it was useful because of spot-on and fast autofocus and good frame rate. I also liked the film-like black and white renderings of the lens and camera combination. These days any seemingly notable photography results (or even cheesy ones) are attributed as being “film-like”. But by film-like, I just mean a slow and smooth transition to highlights, which was very pleasant in the case of Canon 60D. The negative part was the shallow camera buffer of 16 images in RAW. If I have to do photography again with the same configuration, I would certainly turn off burst shooting or at least put it on slow burst mode, not being out of memory in the midst of photography.

For complete gallery, please visit the following gallery in Flickr:

Canberra City Band - Floriade 2016

The Parlour Social - Jazz Photography

The Parlour Social at Smith’s Alternative — Jazz Photography

I had the opportunity to photograph The Parlour Social, an amazing Canberra-based traditional jazz band. The most interesting part of this particular jazz photography was having the chance to photograph piano playing, which a rarity for me. However, the stage was so small and the Café so crowded which moving behind the piano or changing position as I liked was impossible, so I used a limited set of locations which I could hide and be less of a distraction and photograph. Canon 5D MKII shutter sound was at the threshold of being of noticeable, which was something new to me because my jazz photography experience with Canon 5D is mostly limited to big bands which are loud enough for suppressing the loudest shutter sounds. Perhaps a camera with a quieter shutter sound or an electronic shutter is more suitable for these environments. The light was adequate most of the time, so there was no focusing problem and use of extreme ISO levels, which is common in jazz photography.

On the technical side, this event coincided with the introduction of Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, which has amazing specs and looks like a very balanced camera just like it’s predecessors. It’s amazing that even the old 5D MKII is so good that having the minimum light and paired with the right L lenses, there’s very little left to be desired technically. Being a Nikon user, I personally really like to try the 30 megapixels sensor and the more advanced AF system in the reliable and ergonomic chassis of 5D, provided that all this be paired with a near silent shutter.

Thanks to Robbie Hugh Mann of The Parlour Social,  Tim Benson and Smith’s Alternative for help making this to happen.
The Parlour Social at Smith's alternative - Contact Sheet

Music photography and the difficulties of shooting in the dark

Music photography and the difficulties of shooting in the dark

I bitterly remember the time when I was asked to photograph a band in a dark whisky bar. The light was so low (Candlelight plus some disco lights in purple, orange and green) and in no way, the camera could focus. The tiny pinhole of modern DSLR’s viewfinder didn’t let me focus manually either. I was watching the band playing hide and seek in the dark in frustration. My equipment was too modest for the job, but I doubt even having the best professional cameras could have changed anything for the better then. After that night, I studied and thought a lot about ways to do better if I had another photoshoot in similar conditions. Choices of lenses, flashes, autofocus method, post processing choices, noise reduction and composition re-evaluated and re-thought.

Recently I was asked to do another photo shoot for the band Big Boss Groove, in Mawson Club, Canberra. When I entered the club I realised I’m going to have a difficult night; the environmental light was nonexistent and harsh disco lights in red, green and purple were used on a corner of a stage, flashing on musicians faces.

I realised that Canon 5D Mark II can’t focus in that light if I insist on using single point focus. So I switched to full autofocus, something I rarely do, and also switched to burst shooting. To my surprise, results were better than waiting forever for the camera focus on a single point. Of course, I had to pick and choose in-focus photos from a collection about twice the number I usually shoot normally, which was frustrating, but I didn’t return from the event empty handed.

I like nightclub’s spotlights. They are interesting and can be used as a strong compositional element, provided that light designers plan them carefully. Otherwise, they distort the colour channels of every object they hit in a way that is irrecoverable in post processing. Also, they make the focusing in low light even more difficult.

Because of very low light, I broke the rule of not using flash for some shots. Using Nikon SB-700 pointed to the ceiling and the diffuser, I took some of the most difficult to expose angles.

Here you can see the results of my photo shoot and judge yourself how much I was successful in taking successful shots in such a challenging environment. Comments are welcome.

Big Boss Groove at Mawson Club - 2016

Meditative music of John Burgess electronic quartet - Merimbula Jazz Festival 2016

Meditative music of John Burgess electronic quartet — Merimbula Jazz Festival 2016

I was already sure that John’s performance would be an interesting photography subject as well as a chance to listen to a different kind of music in this year’s Merimbula Jazz Festival. The single-track performance, a meditative journey through various soundscapes being played in a semi-dark room and among an audience of mostly professional musicians was a genuine musical experience. I tried to use the harsh, unidirectional light, the reflections of light on steel and chrome musical equipment and all the cables and microphones to my advantage and do what I really like with them, and really like the results. Photos are taken with my inharmonious trio of lenses, Sigma 70 – 200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM, Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 18 – 105mm f/3.5 – 5.6G ED VR and  Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G  Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G.

Big Boss Groove at AIS Arena, Canberra

Big Boss Groove in AIS arena

I have photographed Big Boss Groove first in Merimbula Jazz Festival in 2015 and later in their rehearsals and performance in Great Hall, Parliament House in Canberra. This time, I had the opportunity to photograph the band in AIS arena and was very fortunate with the large and accessible stage as well as very good stage lighting.

Photography was done with two cameras, Canon 5D Mark II with Canon EF 17 – 40mm f/4.0L USM attached to it most of the time for wide angle shots, and — when I had the chance to swap lenses in a short break amid the fast-paced performance- Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM for some close ups and to capture brass and artists under the dreamy light of hundreds of small bulbs.

Telephoto shots were taken by Sigma 70 – 200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM mounted on the tiny, simple and old Nikon D3100.

With the Nikon, at times when the light were too low to focus, I’ve used Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G. to get the shots I wanted.

If you forgive my Middle-Eastern mindset which is infused with military terminology from childhood, I believe if ultra wides and telephotos are respectively equivalents of cannons and sniper rifles, normal primes are the dagger; when all else failed, go up close and finish the job.

Big Boss Groove at AIS Arena, Canberra

Notes on jazz photography – Part I

Notes on jazz photography – I


Jazz photography is an unending experience in discovering motion, feelings, light and interconnection of the human form with musical instruments and each other. Some rules of photographing a portrait apply to it, but the unpredictability of movements, emotions and the need for working with available light make it more similar to the practice of candid photography. Also, the human aspects of it – who to shoot and when, the question of photographer’s courage to cross boundaries and get close, invisibility, visibility, and the speed – make it similar to street photography and social documentary.

This post is a summary of author’s experiences and lessons learned through photographing various rehearsals and live performances, mostly in artificial, low-intensity light, no flash and equipment that’s hardly can be categorized as semi-professional. Of course, having inadequate equipment for a job is not a good thing in itself, but it teaches you what is critical in your future choices of tools.

As I explore this subject, I will write about musicians and their instruments as the central part of the mise en scène*,  light as a subject, the audience, camera angles, camera settings, and some technical aspects of the workflow in my upcoming posts.

Part I – the human factor and the mise en scène*


The need to have a rapport with performers as they play is not as essential as in portrait photography — which is paramount — because they need to focus on their own task and you should focus on your own. Trying too hard to maintain eye contact with them is not productive because will distract them from their work. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on your work and not trying to look “nice”.

Rangefinder cameras, which can be helpful for photographers who have difficulty creating rapport with their subjects — when their face is hidden behind the SLR cameras — are not necessary, because maintaining eye contact is not essential in photographing musicians.

Ask artists to change positions during breaks


If it’s possible, ask the band to change positions during breaks. Usually, some performers can get behind others, equipment, microphones, music stands, or simply positioned in the depth of the stage, in an unsuitable location, or without good lighting. Some examples are when there’s a busy or visually unpleasant background behind them when they are sitting/standing alone without any props or people to help the composition. Bad lighting can be either poor light, uninteresting, dull light or coloured light from stage lighting. The whiteness of sheet music, the backlight of tablets used for reading sheet music, computer displays, phones and other electronics can either ruin a composition, scene tonality (think a triangle of extreme highlight in the intersecting one-third of the frame) or confuse the spot meter. Also, open doors or emergency exit lights can be a problem.

It’s not always possible due to wirings and the performers’ preference on maintaining eye contact with the conductor, drummer, singer or other members of the band, however, sometimes all these problems can be reduced or eliminated by simply asking a musician to put one step forward.

Take photos when the band looks fresh

Physical activity, heat, sweating and getting tired alters the makeup, skin tones, clothing, hair and eyes of the performers. It’s a good idea to take some group shots in the early stages of performance, like the first break, when everyone looks their best.

Behind the scenes, drinks and breaks


Documenting the behind the stage activities, drinks and conversations while waiting for the call to the stage can be even more pleasing than the performance itself. Of course, all these should happen naturally and within the flow of events. I personally dislike being visible in the backstage and make people uncomfortable when they are having a meal or concentrating. Photography must be done in a relaxed and invisible manner.

Jazz rehearsals


Jazz rehearsals are a distinct and entirely different photography experience than the live performance that can be subject of another article. One can spend years attending rehearsals and learn. However, when it comes to photographing the live jazz performance, rehearsals can be as an essential practice for the photographer as the musicians themselves.

Understanding timings, who’s playing what, where to turn the camera to, possible good angles and knowing the timing of interactions between band members, can make live performance photography a more constructed, planned and effective session. You know which lens you need and when you need it, the time gaps that can help you change position, focal length or camera, and who to frame and exactly when.

Attend sound checks

Not attending sound checks as well as getting as much information about the venue (lighting, light temperature, access level, stage dimensions and position) can break the best-rehearsed photography sessions. So many unpredicted factors are in play in the live performance, and sound checks are the best opportunity to prepare yourself for the unpredicted. Also, it gives you the best opportunity to do metering, check the shutter speed and make the last-minute decisions about which lenses you are going to use.

Usually, you can find information about the venue on the web, looking through online photo galleries to get an understanding of the stage, capacity, lighting, and access. Of course, the best way to know about the venue is going there before the performance or making a phone call and ask.

(To be continued.)

* I’ve intentionally used the mostly cinematic term mise en scène, because I want readers to re-imagine the Jazz photography more as a story, being performed in a scene, and less as a collection of successive cutaways of musicians using an instrument.