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« "Dance for Life" 2010 West Indian Folk Dance Company's 2010 Season »

Photography Mon Aug 16 2010

Why Bands Shouldn't Play in the Darkness

Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Aragon Ballroom

I've been a concert photographer based in Chicago now for about four years and I've seen a startling trend...increasingly more bands think it's "cool" to play in the darkness. It's the opposite of reality, this idea that dark and red lights look great to the audience, and I'm here to set the record straight.

Janelle Monae at Schubas Tavern

(Note: above and throughout this article are photographic examples of success stories -- in other words, bands that have played with great lighting. When these bands have used smoke or have been highly active on stage, it's been captured with a faster shutter speed that this light will allow for. I'd show you the more disappointing shots but, to be honest, I pretty much delete those shots as soon as I arrive home from the show.)

While it's true that some clubs tend to be darker than others (and photographers all know which ones tend to be poorly vs. well lit), it becomes pretty clear that a lot of bands like it dark. It could just be a confidence issue but there are definite problems that arise from this.

Gabriela of Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Riviera Theater

Part of the thrill of seeing a band live instead of simply playing their records in your living room for much cheaper is actually being able to see the band. That means by all means use your backlighting and smoke but also make sure there's enough foreground light to illuminate your facial features.

From a photographer's perspective, this is one of those things that makes us bash our heads against the stage in frustration. Now, before you think this is unjustified whining, please know that we've spent thousands of dollars on camera equipment we'll likely never re-coup out of sheer love for music and bands. Most of us get paid nothing or very minimally for the shows we shoot. Then, when we get there, we find we can't even make out where the musicians are on stage.

Amy Cole of The Rural Alberta Advatage at Lincoln Hall

Inevitably, a few consequences take place when shows are too dark. One, you may have photographers flashing like crazy throughout the whole show. That's just obnoxious, as I'm sure most people who go as audience members to shows will agree. The second thing is, photographers will submit the bare minimum of shots or try to get out of submitting shots at all. Why? Because it makes us look bad when our shots are dark and/or red or just generally not worth salvaging because of stage conditions.

The Soundtrack of Our Lives at Lincoln Hall

No mater how talented a photographer happens to be, all cameras need light, even when using apertures of 1.4 or 1.8, ISOs up to 6400 and shutter speeds of slower than a tenth of a second, which is pretty much as far as you can stretch any camera. Unfortunately, even the best photographer has a difficult time when the band gives us nothing to work with in terms of light.

Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders at the Vic Theater

So what ends up happening over time? Well, inevitably there will be fewer decent looking live images out there and less positive press. If I have to photograph a band in the dark even once, I will remember that the next time they come to Chicago and most likely will avoid covering that show at all costs, even if I like the band's music. Most press outlets like to run photos with reviews, so this doesn't really give the band any advantages. Many photographers also write live reviews for bands and we're less likely to pitch coverage of a show to a publication if we have experienced horrible lighting in the past or have heard through another photographer the band has chosen they would look better in a dark cave than on a proper stage. Make no mistake, word gets around fast in the photography community.

Mac McCaughan of Superchunk at The Taste of Randolph

A few other things I'd love if every band knew about:

1. Smoke creates a cool effect only if there is enough light to see it. If there is no front lighting, it just adds a dark layer of grain to the photographs.

2. If you have dark colors shining not only as a background but also on you, you may end up looking like a tomato rather than a human being. This is probably not the look you were intending.

3. If you are insistent on playing in the darkness, the VERY LEAST you can do is use strobe lighting so that there's a slim chance of photographing something.

4. If you use only background lighting, the photographer will likely be able to get only silhouette shots.

5. If you're a super active band that likes to jump and kick, photographers will need to increase their shutter speed or you will likely just end up as a giant blur. In order to increase our shutter speed and not have the entire frame dark, you'll need to increase the light shining on you.

6. Nobody wants to talk about it but the reality is very few people have perfect skin. We are human and we all have acne, scars and/or age spots at different points in our lives. It sounds very counterintuitive, but what I've found from experience is that harsh or very bright light is actually the best in this case. What ends up being emphasized is the shape of one's face vs. the exact physical contours of it. Brightness tends to de-emphasize skin flaws in favor of light and contrast. The most challenging shots to edit are shots in which the dark graininess against pre-existing skin flaws almost heightens the issue.

7. It's a little obvious and painful when bands decide to play in pitch black darkness for the first three songs then turn the light way up for the rest of the set. If you really hate your photograph being taken, do not grant photo passes to those who love your music so much that they will suffer through these difficulties.

Frances McKee of The Vaselines at the Cabaret Metro

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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