Steve Martin/Steep Canyon Rangers: Creating Exposure (Part 2)

The lesson I learned from shooting The Wiggles’ concert last summer was that you have to shoot these things in manual.  For a concert like this, it’s not a problem. There’s no crazy lighting scheme here.  It’s a few spotlights, no strobes, and no major changes in light color.  Find an exposure that works and stick with it.  Why waste the camera’s time in guessing with each shot?

The thing that worried me the most going in was that I wouldn’t be able to freeze action.  I was using a 70-300mm lens on a crop sensor camera.  Racked out all the way, I’d need a shutter speed of 1/500th to ensure a frozen pic.  And even with a spotlit stage, there was no way I was getting that.

So I used my monopod.  While it’s nowhere near as sturdy as a tripod, I spent a lot of time the night before the concert practicing with it to find the right way to hold it to prevent camera shakiness.  It never went away, but one in three pics, at least, would turn out perfectly sharp.

In the end, the limiting factor to my photography that night wasn’t the lens, but the location.  I was relegated to the “back of the house.”  I did move up close enough for about 30 seconds to fire off a few shots with my 85mm prime lens, but even then I wasn’t close enough to get real close-up shots.  The pictures were noticeably sharper and brighter, though. Here’s the kick: I shot those pics at f/3.5, not even f/1.8.  It was still a full stop and a half brighter than the best my 70-300mm could get, but almost another stop slower than what the lens was capable of.

Shooting at 85mm, f/.5

Sample Picture from 85mm

I left white balance on AUTO just because I knew I’d be fixing it in post, anyway.

The only thing I played with was ISO.  I wanted something as low as I could get while still freezing the action.  I started at 2500 and worked up to 5000 and 6400 as needed.  It looks like I hung out around 4000 for most of the concert, though. Noise Reduction can handle that in Lightroom 3.  It’s a tough balance to strike there, though.  You can get rid of the noise completely and create nice smooth surfaces, but then you loose detail and get a softer looking image.  So you need to be careful about how far you push it.  Since my images are just being used here, I can push it a little further without worrying about it.  If I blew them up to a 20″ x 30″ print, for example, I’d need to be careful that it didn’t print out looking washed out and flat.

Here’s a before and after example.  I’ve zoomed in to a 4:1 section of a picture.  I sent the Noise Reduction slider up to 50 (out of 100).  The results are smoother without being a cartoon.

Noise Reduction in Lightroom 3 before and after

Lightroom 3 Noise Reduction

Some would likely appreciate the noisier example, just because it looks more like grain. Just remember — this image is blown up by 400%. Spread out over an entire image, it gets a bit bothersome to me.

One last exposure thought before ending this: I felt like I was shooting a wedding. All of the Steep Canyon Rangers wore darker, browner suits and ties on stage. Steve Martin stood (and sat) front and center in his trademark white suit. I have a newfound appreciation for wedding photographers who need to balance the exposure for the bride’s white gown next to the groom’s black tux.

Tomorrow: Objects getting in the way, and the problems with focus.

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