Speakers

BPC presents – Chris Oaten : Live Music Photographer – 22-Oct-2015

Last week BPC had the honour to listen to Chris Oaten speak to us about live music photography. Accompanied by his wife Melody (who provided the background commentary), we had a very entertaining evening that inspired a few of us to take up our camera at a live gig or two.

Chris is a media professional with over 20 years in the industry. Starting from a base of journalism (reporter, writer, sub-editor) he has followed his passion of photography to become a full time professional photographer, is a member of the AIPP and in his spare time photographs live music (I’m sure he does other things in his spare time!). He has extended his knowledge with a TAFE course in photography and is now doing a Bachelor of Visual Communications at UniSA. The night he spoke to us he was due to go to 2am shoot at a construction project. That’s a pro.

Chris Oaten at BPC - by Ashley Hoff

Chris Oaten at BPC (Ashley Hoff)

His range of professional work encompasses architecture, sport, travel, humans, commercial and time lapse images. He specialises in time lapse images around our fair city. To view the breadth of his work visit his website.

But as I said, in his spare time he likes to shoot live music with his trusty Canon 5D Mark III and some fast lenses (his range of lenses includes 24mm, 50mm, 70-200mm, 8-15mm, 16-35mm, tilt and shift 17, some Sigma Art lenses – you get the idea – but not all are used at music events). He does the music photography¬†for professional development – not to make a living – which is near impossible these days. You can see some of Chris’s music photography on the Adelaide Music Photography web site he showcases his collaboration with Max Moore.

I’ve watched Chris in action around live music gigs – and to me it seems effortless and unobtrusive. In reality, there is more to it – and what follows is Chris’s take on how to shoot live music.

Chris started by giving a taste of the problems in photographing live music in pubs and has to deal with poor lighting (professional performers often have far better lighting and make the job easy Рwe were shown some images from a Tina Arena concert), crowded venues etc.

So here are the problems Chris sees – and his solutions:

  • Don’t share boring photos!
    • You aren’t doing any favours for¬†anyone. So edit what you share ruthlessly and be prepared for harsh criticism.
    • Remember, that your photos don’t have the music that goes with them, so they must stand on their own.
    • That means they need to be in focus and they need have the action associated with the photo – singers need to be singing, musicians need to be playing their instruments.
  • Don’t use on camera flash
    • It is needed sometimes, but very rarely
  • Don’t use high ISO where possible
    • Cheaper cameras can’t do it well, it pushes inaccurate focus
    • Hiding noise results in a compromise (over smoothing looks like plastic!). But there are ways to overcome this issue
  • Understand your subject
    • Good sports photographers often play the game, great nature photographers understand the animal and their behavior etc.
    • So in the case of music, understand the dynamics of what is happening on the stage and apply it to the action.
  • Not shooting enough frames
    • Don’t use spray & pray – that high burst mode – as it will often waste time (eg as the buffer clears) and wear out the shutter sooner. Single shots are better.
    • Remember that most of what is happening is out of your control
    • To get the shots you need to be an aggressive shooter. What is that? Someone who moves around and makes the shot rather than someone who walks up timidly to the same spot, takes a few shots and walks away. Music photographers need to move around and capture the action, be involved, engage with the artists

So what is Chris’s style? Get in close, use the lighting to your advantage and use selective (ie shallow DOF) focus, often manually.

So what are his solutions?

How not to be boring

Live music is action photography. Instruments are being used. So get profile shots, stick with the subject as the action unfolds.

Bad lighting can be your best friend – it makes you work harder. There is no such thing as bad light – only bad photographers. Chris showed several example of this with the band Lucky 7 at a gig where there was one light behind the artists. Instead of abandoning the shoot, he used the light to create profiles and silhouettes. Think of old horror movies and how they were lit – the images had great power and atmosphere. Do the same.

On the other hand, daylight music festival are a breeze – but you still need to work hard.

Steve Mitchell - by Chris Oaten

Steve Mitchell – by Chris Oaten

Change your position and angle of view. Use the stage equipment to help frame shots. Remember, the photo is telling a story so use the elements of that story. Chris showed us an example at the Semaphore music festival – which unfortunately for the organisers was held on a AFL Finals weekend. The crowd was a bit sparse, but by moving around the stage he was able to make it look busy (using the out of focus background and more crowd), show interesting on lookers, the artists in action from in front, behind and to the side as well eye contact with the artist to lend intimacy to the image.

He quoted photographer Berenice Abbott¬†“photography helps people see” and illustrated this with some great shots:

  • a young boy at his fathers gig¬†enjoying the music whilst sitting on the floor
  • The interaction of musicians on stage when not playing
  • People dancing to the music (and those disconnected from the action) – the burlesque dancer picture
  • Interesting people and characters
  • Portraits of musicians that they actually like

It’s important to remember that good photographs are enhanced with details – they add depth. That means when taking photographs be observant. Some of the¬†examples acutely demonstrate this:

  • Steve Mitchell - by Chris Oaten

    Steve Mitchell – by Chris Oaten

    Steve Mitchell from the rockabilly band The Satellites has hair that starts out controlled, but very soon is part of the act

  • A musicians special moment – like Belinda Hartman – ¬†from The Satellites singing
  • the musicians style of playing – like a trombone players blowing their cheeks (or giving cheeky looks) or guitarists with special (eg car seat belt) guitar straps
  • Use
    • compositional elements
    • portrait shots of the performers
    • (our tired old friend) the intersection of thirds
    • selective focus
    • the Golden Spiral¬†– where a photograph spiraled in to one person in focus around the instruments and equipment on stage
    • close up features of the instruments or instruments being played (trombone players, guitarists – but drummers are difficult!)

The trick here is to apply what you learn – don’t just be a technician. As Chris said, don’t just be a wood pusher in a chess game (ie know the moves but don’t develop new strategies). In photography, pixels are free, so don’t be a shutter pusher.

How to use on camera flash

Flash does have a role in anti-establishment genres such as Punk and Ska. It is harsh lighting, but can work in such genres. However, at other times it rarely works well.

It’s often better to have off camera flash – and even combine flashes. Chris¬†illustrated this with an image of¬†lighting reflected from a white wall behind the performers onto which the flash fell – much more depth than a straight flash¬†onto the performers.

If you must use flash, use a an orange or yellow gel to warm it (flash can look very cold) – don’t use green or blue. You need to be sympathetic to the available light too – don’t overwhelm the stage lights.

And use the lights to go for drama – like silhouettes or use the light to make more reflections – such as brass instruments.

How to handle high ISO

You’ll need to do some testing of your own camera gear and work out it’s noise signature. What is acceptable and what you can tolerate. Chris rarely goes above 3200 on his Canon 5D Mark III.

Here are the steps:

  • Place your camera on a tripod in a lounge room and shoot some still life. An 18% grey card may be helpful too
  • Shoot images at each¬†ISO from 800 to your camera’s maximum
  • Evaluate the resultant images and determine what is acceptable to you

If you are using high ISO, make sure you have fast lenses – f1.8, f2.8 etc – like his 70-200 f2.8

One simple solution is to purchase a 50mm f1.8 lens second hand Рthere are plenty about (I confess to having a nifty 50 f1.4 myself) Рthat will give you a lens that is fast and flexible.

ISO changes are needed depending on the speed of your subject – a Bob Dylan is ok with slow ISO, but Mick Jagger needs higher ISO and shutter speeds.

Now the tricky bit – professional events have good lighting – pubs have cheap lighting. Usually LEDs and that is hard to work with. So work with the light – use blur, have long exposures to add a dynamic element.

How to work with your subject

When photographing live music you need to know what is going on – understand the dynamics of the performance.

You first need to understand the genre. Once you’ve got that, then think about the parts of the performance.

There are verses and choruses. So you’ll have a group in a chorus, but the main performer in the verse, or a solo instrumental. Knowing how performers work and when they are likely to do something can help.

For example Steve from the Satellites (who is a double bass player) often has a big finale Рtime your shots for events like that. Lucky 7 have a horn section who will play together Рuse that.

Drummers are often left out of shots, but they do some interesting things (Chris has got know a couple and now interacts with them whilst shooting). Pick the player most likely to give you a performance.

But always be respectful of the performer. Don’t embarrass them.

How to shoot more frames

You need to commit yourself to chase the right frame and for fast action.

Most performances are 2 hours – which is 7200 seconds. After most shows Chris has about 1000 shots in the camera. That’s about 1 shot every 7 seconds. But not every shot is a winner – and some shoots the band might be having a bad night, so getting good shots is difficult.

Many bands will be slow to start (or nervous) – so don’t shoot song 1 – wait for song 2 or 3. Be patient.

Final words and where to start

Chris never shoots with any supports like a monopod – all hand held. That is part of being respectful of the audience. They are there to hear the band or dance or both. So don’t get in their way.

Some gigs require a media pass – if the band is signed to a label or it is a major event like WOMAD (who are very restrictive). The Roller Derby in Adelaide has photographers sign their rights away. In some cases your copyright may be lost – but that is another major discussion!

Venues such as The Gov are accepting of photographers if it is a local band. However, to be safe, contact the venue or the band. Many local bands don’t mind – and if you share the images they might even get you back.

And remember a big camera can be seen as problem by some venues – even if you are an amateur.

So there you have it Рa great night, lots of useful information and a really entertaining evening Рfinished off with cake, cups of hot beverage and lots of chat. Many thanks to Chris and Melody for sharing their experience Рwe hope to have Chris back as some stage to share his other photographic skills with us.

Cheers

Chris ūüôā


Les Peters: The Bird Man of Aldgate – 22-May-2014

Les Peters (photo Ray Goulter)

Les Peters at BPC on 22-May-2014 with part of his bird photography set up

On the 22nd May I had the pleasure of introducing Les Peters as guest speaker to the Blackwod Camera club.  Les is a keen bird photographer living not far from me in the Adelaide Hills.  I became aware of Les’s photography when he gave a similar talk to the Birds SA group some 18 months ago.  Speaking to him after this meeting, he encouraged me to step up from the small Panasonic I was using and buy a Nikon.  As it happens I did buy a Nikon and within weeks he was loaning me his Nikkor 300mm lens.  Les took me out to some of his haunts, Laratinga wetland and Browns road reserve.  I was fascinated by his depth of bird knowledge which is equally matched by his knack for photography.

His presentation was no less intriguing, saturated with his passion for bird photography.  He talked almost without interruption for 90 minutes and showed over 200 excellent bird photographs (a small selection is in the slide show below).   It is hard to comprehend the range and quality of the photos when they come so quickly and intensly.  Les however chatted away, keen to tell the story of each photo.  The birds, as Les describes them, have purpose and personality.  This youngsters learning to fly, this one is making a nest, this one hiding from the camera, this one thought I couldn’t see it.  Some of the birds were common, yet beautifully captured.  Others were uncommon or rare birds and would take great luck and skill to capture.

As he talked he described his techniques.¬†¬†Sometimes he will stalk the bird with the camera in hand.¬†¬†However his preferred technique is to sit and wait for the bird to acclimatise to his presence and photograph them as they relax and begin to behave more naturally.¬†¬†He said it often takes around 20 minutes.¬†¬†Les often uses a tripod and a flash with a ‚Äúbetter beamer‚ÄĚ.¬†¬†Certainly these shots had much stronger detail than the ones he took by hand.¬†¬†The sharpness and detail of his shots was breath taking.¬†Occasionally he would enlarge a shot 3 or 4 times and I admit I could not see any less detail in the cropped image.¬†¬†He also described how he photographed birds by remote control.

It was a packed house with over 40 in attendance.¬†¬†Talking to various people after the meeting, Helen and Jo said they felt inspired, and were looking for an opportunity to hone their skills.¬†¬†Jo was impressed by Les‚Äôs kit.¬†¬†‚ÄúThat Gimbal head on the tripod is worth a heap.‚Ä̬†¬†Ashley although admitting that Bird Photography was not his thing, learnt much from the evening, especially from the explanation of the techniques.¬†¬†He was amazed that it only took 20 minutes to familiarise yourself to the birds.¬†¬†Richard found useful Les‚Äôs advice to get to know the behaviour of the birds in order to take better photos of them.¬†¬†¬†Ray lamented that there were too many images that he wished he had taken.¬†¬†‚ÄúThere is one common theme though.¬†¬†The best images are taken closer to the subject. Even if you use a long telephoto lens a small bird is still a small bird and you can’t fill the frame even with a 1,000mm lens.‚ÄĚ

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Les’ hints for success

  1. Know your birds
    You’ll be better able to predict where they might go and set yourself up in the right place.
    After watching them for a while, you’ll also be better able to able to follow them at the right distance.
  2. Know your camera
    Play with it until you know it well. You don’t want to be thinking about how to use it when you have only a fraction of a second in which to get your shot.
  3. Watch the quality of the light
    You may want to move around your subject to find the best angle for the light. Add flash at -1.7 stops if needed. Watch for any reaction.
  4. Choose a suitable camera height
    Being level with the bird’s eye often makes for the most engaging picture.
  5. Try to capture a clear catch light
    It adds a great deal of vitality to the image.
  6. Use a shutter speed that suits the action
  7. Remember to have fun

I’d like to thank Les for taking the time to share his remarkable hobby and passion with us.  In the car on the way home he agreed to lead an excursion to the Laratinga Wetlands later in the year.  I will speak to Graham and finalise details later.  I can personally say it is worth going out into the field with Les.

James Allan


28-Mar-2013 – BPC Presents photojournalist Barry O’Brien sharing his experience

We were fortunate to have multi-award winning photojournalist Barry O’Brien speak to us on 28-Mar-2013. Barry was unsure if he could see us – as he lives in Gawler, but despite the distance, he made the trip and we thoroughly¬†enjoyed every minute.

Barry is the current Australian Society of Travel Writers Photographer of the Year. Since leaving The Advertiser after 46 years, he was asked to return and produce two books, Moments in Time and also Moments in Sport. He is now a freelance travel writer, having stories published around Australia in News Ltd Escape sections as well as a variety of magazines. But that only tells part of the story of this fascinating photographer.

Barry started in 1956 at age 15 when his mum showed him an ad for a job at the Advertiser. He applied and so started a remarkable career. His first camera was pulled (not actually – but the same model) from a well worn aluminium case – a wonderful Speed Graphic. With this camera, Barry had 6 plates of 4×5″ film he could use – 5 that were used on the assignment, and a spare for that shot that popped up when you least expected it. The Speed Graphic had a focal plane shutter, shutter speeds up to 1/1000s and 3 viewfinders. It was the work horse of press photography – but not built for speed.

Barry’s first front page photograph was George the orangutan at Adelaide Zoo. George was a much loved character at Adelaide Zoo and Barry wanted a special shot of George, and went to down Rundle Street and borrowed a football from the sport store of Hambly & Clarke promising to return it when done. Barry went to the zoo with the football – which George played with for a few minutes before proceeding to pull it apart. From that event a classic front page was born – and the sports store was not happy – they did get their football back. His association with animal didn’t stop there, with images of circus elephants escaping in the Adelaide hills (moral of story – have camera, will capture image!) which couldn’t be caught. He also developed a love for rodeos and ¬†even tried it – although the image of him falling from a horse after a few seconds was a touch¬†embarrassing.

Apart from this animal work, Barry also did a lot of serious photojournalism, capturing images of significant events such as a major bus crash at Wasleys in the late 1960s. On this¬†occasion, his camera failed him – it was night, his flash wouldn’t work (they were very finicky devices at the time) and he rushed to Gawler where he bought some Kodak Instamatic cameras from the chemist with flash cubes and proceeded to capture this¬†horrific¬†event. He covered other events such as the Bordertown bushfires and a lot of political events.

At the moratorium marches of 1969 Barry was looking for a unique image – so he stood behind the police motorcyle cordon, climbed on his trusty aluminium case and with a 20mm lens captured an image with the police in the foreground and the marchers approaching. This followed his mantra of shooting where someone else wasn’t. During that time in Adelaide, Barry was walking along the River Torrens one morning and came across a group of university students on the river bank being spoken to by one serious gentlemen. Barry was in the habit of wearing a suit at all times whilst working, and the speaker saw the camera and the suit and accused Barry of being an ASIO agent. Things got a little heated as the man ran for Barry & his camera whilst Barry snapped off a number of images – one of the man running making the front page.¬†But politicians (& politics) were also shown as human – with images of them like Don Dunstan in the Le Cornus children’s ball pit, or Des Corcoran resigning due to illness.¬†He also enjoyed capturing faces – such as a brilliant image of¬†Chad Morgan.

His other passion Рas hinted by the rodeo work Рis sports photography like cricket & football. Once again, the camera case came into its own to help get above the action. However, as he pointed out the art is to catch the exact moment Рso you need to know what is happening and anticipate it.  Of course, not all images were spontaneous Рmany were staged. Some of you may remember John Platten at a very muddy MCG in gum boots, or South Australian Football coach Neil Curly wearing a Victorian footy scarf, or the image from the top of a light towers at Football Park (although Barry is afraid of heights). His fear of heights was tested even more when he crossed by rope between the HMAS Adelaide (on her maiden voyage) and another ship in mountainous seas.

A problem with being a sports photographer is that you get given other tasks, or where your equipment is not perfect for the job, and your subject is not in your own comfort zone. One such incident was the visit by Rudolf Nureyev & Sir Robert Helpmann. The image that he captured of Nureyev was frowned upon by the great dancer (and bears a cross from Nureyev across it as proof) Рas his toes were not perfectly pointed down Рand Barry managed to trip up Sir Robert in an area he was told would cause no problems. So much for the the arts adventure.

However, sport shots can also be very rewarding, such as aerial shots of events, and important images including those of Sir Jack Brabham & Stirling Moss at the first Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne (in the late 1950s) & then Adelaide subsequently. Barry also managed to capture other interesting images like the washed out 1989 Adelaide Grand Prix when the drivers went on strike. Barry however got a different shot – of Ayrton Senna in his car praying. That image went around the world as one of the great images of Senna. Motor sport can provide opportunities for unique images – just don’t be where the other photographers are working. Go down to the pits, take an image of a driver walking back to the pits all alone, show the pit crew celebrating. All unique, and all out of the main stream.

Barry O'Brien at BPC - showing the bent Uri Geller spoon

In addition to ballet stars, sport stars & politicians, Barry had the opportunity to photograph celebrities like Uri Geller – and showed us the bent spoon he still has from that photo shoot.

Barry told us the story of drug smuggler (and former athlete) Reg Spears pretending to be someone else, who was caught in Colombo. Barry had to fly to Colombo, via India at short notice to check if this really was Spears, and if so capture a photo and transmit it back to Australia for the next days headlines. The tale of travel, customs officials, bribery and equipment mismatches. The man was in fact Reg Spears, and when he met Barry confessed that the game was up! But that wasn’t the end of the story. Barry had to send the images back to Australia, but his power adapter was wrong for Colombo (despite being told it would be ok). Fortunately a lamp cord was pressed into service to help send the images and we saw the images the next day.

Barry also covered the Azaria Chamberlain inquest. In the process he got to know the Chamberlains, and understand what they had been through. He sometimes caught Lindy Chamberlain’s emotions, but these images were never used. Barry also obtained images without permission from the authorities as the Chamberlains were moved out of prisons in the Northern Territory – but only passed them to his editors despite offers of cash & rewards by other publishing groups. A result of his integrity and honesty was that when Lindy Chamberlain published her story, she asked for Barry to be the photojournalist who took the images exclusively. That is another interesting story involving messed up visas and cross border events.

So after a fascinating 90 minutes of hearing and seeing what Barry had done, we were given a few take home messages. Rather than paraphrase Barry, I’ll quote from his last email to me:
What I wanted to get across was to think outside the square. Don’t just take the obvious. Think ahead. When I covered an event, (of any description) I would take the obvious so that at least I had a standard picture if all else failed. But then I’d look around for a different angle. I was probably considered anti-social by other photographers and cameramen because I rarely participated in the banter. While the others were telling jokes and discussing other things (which I’ll leave to your imagination) I was usually off to one side thinking about what I could do to be different. I hated bringing back the same images that were seen all over TV.
Thanks Barry – we had a wonderful time and hope you can come back and share some more of your experiences.
Chris ūüėČ