Friday, 25 November 2011

. . . Elvis has left the building (follow up to "Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting . . . Elvis Presley!!!!!)

Yes, Elvis has left the building, and he ain't coming back.

What would you give for an original photo of Elvis on stage, taken by you?

Not going to happen is it? Too late and all that. So what about those performers for whom it isn't too late? What would you give for an original photo of your current, still-with-us favourite performers on stage, taken by you? Perhaps the question should be, to what lengths would you go to get an original photo of your favourite performers on stage? Of course, if you want to just wait until it's too late, fine. But if you don't want to have to one day say "I had a chance of getting photos of [insert name of favourite artist] but I didn't", read on.

Kutcha Edwards, Fremantle 2008. Copyright Sheldon Levis 2011
Kutcha Edwards singing tears from the eyes of all who were there (Fremantle, 2008)
  Definitely NOT taken with a phone camera or point-and-shoot.
Nikon D200, 180mm f/2.8
ISO 1250, f/4, 1/200

In an earlier post I displayed some photos I have taken of some of my favourite performers. I also briefly mentioned the main obstacle to getting those photos--the venue's security folk, for the most part enthusiastic enforcers of all venues' NO PHOTOGRAPHY policy. I know many of these security folk--some are fine people. And of course they are just doing their job . . . although some approach the anti-photo aspect of their job with an almost sadistic relish. But if you want photos, you can get photos, and I'm here to let you know how.

Before a concert, I always have to make an important decision: do I want photos of this act? Sometimes I'm not particularly enamoured of an act, going along to keep the better half happy (I must add, one of the things that makes my better half "better" is that she has mostly similar tastes in music to me, so I'm very rarely dragged to see someone I don't like). And sometimes I just can't be bothered. But most of the time, the answer is YES, I do want photos.

At this point, you dear reader may have to make another decision; do I want high resolution pics I can print big enough to cover the wall of my shed, or will I be satisfied with images of tiny, blurry little blobs of light indistinguishable from the photos of the Russian Ballet Aunt Ethel took from the 153rd row with her Box Brownie? If the latter, pack your phone/camera or little point-and-shoot in your pocket, go to the concert and hold your hand up in front of the people behind and shoot away.

But if the former, if you want photos you can print up to A4 or A3 and beyond and still be able to see whether or not Mick Jagger trims his nose hair, or which string is missing off the mandolin in the background, if you want images that people can look at and say "is that what she looks like now?", sit back and read on.

Derek Trucks, on stage with Eric Clapton. Perth 2007. Copyright Sheldon Levis 2011
Derek Trucks, accompanying Eric Clapton (Perth 2007)
Nikon D200, Nikkor 135mm f/2.0
ISO 900, f/4, 1/125

What you need.

There are three main requirements:
1. camera
2. lens
3. means of getting camera and lens into the concert
4. (free bonus for reading this far) means of using camera in concert under the nose of anti-photography security

1. Camera.
Ultimately, to shoot high resolution images in the conditions at most concerts, you need a "good" camera. For my purposes, this means an SLR. In my case, I use a Nikon D700 or Nikon D200. With both I can remove the battery grip and significantly reduce the bulk of the body.

2. Lens.
You really don't want to attract attention, so something like a 70-200 zoom is out. I use either of two lenses: an old but stunningly sharp Nikkor 135mm f/2.0, or the legendary (and even older) Nikkor 180 f/2.8. Both are relatively small (will fit in large pockets), not particularly long, and don't look at all impressive to a non-photographer. And both are pitch black, handy for not standing out in a crowd. Both just have to be manual-focus too, so if you are children of the digital revolution you just might have to brush up on your manual focusing skills should you use similar lenses.

Doyle Bramhall II on stage with Eric Clapton. Perth 2007. Copyright Sheldon Levis 2011
Doyle Bramhall II, on stage with Eric Clapton,
Nikon D200, Nikkor 135mm f/2.0
ISO 900, f/4, 1/125

3. Getting your camera and lens into the concert.
In winter, drop your lens into a jacket pocket, and then carry the jacket nonchalantly in one hand, clutching the jacket just above the pocket. This prevents the lens from slipping out of the pocket (ouch), and makes the jacket look less like something you could be hiding something in (wave it about carelessly, it is after all just a jacket . . . ). Place one arm through the camera strap, which then goes over your head so that the camera sits snugly in one armpit. Okay, for a Nikon D700 "snugly" doesn't really cover it . . . uncomfortably and awkwardly more like it. And you might have to walk like a poser with one hand on your hip (to give your upper arm the angle necessary for the camera to fit into your armpit). Get loaded up, then work out the least silly stance necessary for it to all fit.

In summer, wear a very loose shirt to accomodate the camera in the armpit, making sure it's not so LOOSE that the camera strap is visible. If you can get away climatically with a light jacket, the problem of hiding the lens is solved. If not, "cargo" pants (with large pockets above and to the side of the knees usually) can suffice--if your lens fits in one of the pockets, good and well. ALTERNATIVELY, you might have to engage the services of your partner: find a bag with a strap that the lens will fit into, and get your partner to "wear" it under his/her armpit. Ta da. PLEASE NOTE: It's "LOOSE" when it's not tight, and "LOSE" when you make something lost--please don't try to tell me, as one enlightened child of the digital revolution did recently, that they're both spelled "LOOSE" ffs. And "alternate" is not an alternative word for "alternative" . . . . but enough free language tuition . . . /soapbox . . . .

You're nearly there. Now, when you approach the security check, it is a very good idea to engage with the security guards. Be friendly, chat, and most of all . . . give them something to look through. A very small backpack with perhaps a blow-up cushion ("got a sporting injury, sometimes need the cushion when I have to sit for a long time"), perhaps a paperback and a light raincoat. Gives them something to look at (distracts them from your unusual stance), makes them feel they are doing their job, and gives you a chance to engage with them and appear to be totally cooperative. Have it unzipped as you plonk it onto the table in front of them (see how cooperative I am), even move things around so it's easier for them to inspect (look how helpful I am). In other words, display trustworthy behaviour (while you are being decidedly untrustworthy) and you lessen the chances of attracting their suspicion. You deserve it more, but attract it less.

4. You're in, just need to get the shots.
Initially, do not unpack your gear until you are sure you can do so without being spotted by an alert security guard. This may mean waiting until the show begins. So be it.
Then, choose a shutter speed, f-stop and ISO setting and take a quick test shot once the concert has started. Then check out the histogram (or preview image) and adjust settings to suit. Then you can forget about settings until there is a significant change in lighting levels, when you can usually accurately guess the adjustment and make it quickly. Remember, concert lighting is actually quite good: if a white spot is being used, I start my settings around ISO 800, f/4, 1/125 sec., and adjust to suit. As the lighting gets darker (and it won't ever get lighter than a single bright white spot), I usually adjust the ISO. The f-stop is about as wide as I like to go when manually focusing, and I'd prefer to not go slower than 1/125sec when using a 180mm lens.

Tal Wilkenfeld accompanying Jeff Beck. Perth 2009. Copyright Sheldon Levis 2011
Tal Wilkenfeld, accompanying Jeff Beck (Perth, 2009)
Nikon D200, Nikkor 135mm f/2.0
ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/80
 Shoot one or two shots at a time max. Don't have the camera to your eye for any longer than necessary. And allow lengthy periods where the camera isn't visible--if someone does notice you, they may lose interest if they see nothing for 5 or 10 minutes.

Don't lean forward so your camera is inches from the ear of the person in front of you--even in a loud concert, the sound of a dSLR rattling of a few shots inches away from your ear can be very annoying. And the last thing you want is to piss off other patrons.

If you're caught.

If you do get spotted, keep one thing in mind: despite all we may think, the security folk are just doing their job. Even if you think they're shoving their weight around, are arrogant or rude or not listening to you . . . bottom line, they are doing a job, and you really have no argument against that. So don't argue.

If you're spotted, you may get a light shone in your face and a stern look from afar. Either stop then and there, or find a way of not being spotted again . . . me, I'd stop, and probably stay stopped. 

If you're spotted, you may be approached and asked to stop. If so, stop, and stay stopped. Or risk moving onto the next phase:

You may be asked to leave the venue. If so, leave the venue without fuss--they are well within their rights to require you to leave. Okay, you could beg and promise to not do it again etc etc, and it may work . . . but if it does work, because you promised to not do it again, DON'T DO IT AGAIN. You'll just make it harder for the next poor bugger who gets caught. And believe me, if they let you stay, they'll be watching.

You may also be asked to delete the photos you took. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DELETE THE PHOTOS -- well, not in Australia at least. Security, or the police for that matter, cannot force you to delete your photos, nor can they delete them. And nor can they confiscate your equipment, unless you are arrested. However, if you think it's to your advantage, deleting the photos is not a problem as far as the actual photos goes . . . you just retrieve them with any of the free card-retrieval programs out there once you get home (and if you bought "good" cards you would have a copy of such software anyway). But I do advocate not deleting them, so as to not reinforce the commonly held misconception that you can be made to do so.

Now, what about this scenario: you are at the last, last, last, last, never-to-be-repeated concert of your lifelong musical heroes. They/he/she will never again appear in public. You have managed to get your camera and lens in, but a security person has parked where you are within reach and directly in their line of view. The second you show your camera you'll be busted. What do you do?

Well, in this case I'd get everything ready and wait until the first encore. Then I'd start shooting until I was approached by security. I'd shoot until I absolutely had to stop (raised voices from security perhaps). Then I'd gladly leave, mission accomplished.

So, excluding the extreme example immediately above, the things to remember are:

be nice, and do not get arrested . . . be careful, be polite, and don't take unnecessary risks . . . unless of course there's just no other way to get original photos of Elvis on stage . . .

Good luck at the next concert.

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