How-To: RAW Latitude When Shooting Live Music

11 Dec

Before and After - Live Music RAW Shot

When I first started shooting concerts with digital cameras, I was shooting exclusively in jpeg. I figured shooting RAW would add complexity to the post-processing sequence, reduce memory card size and just generally be a bit of a pain in the ass. To be frank, I must have gotten lucky in my first few gigs, because I did come away with some pretty decent shots – no doubt thanks to generous lighting sets on stage.

However, here in Sydney, we’re not exactly blessed with venues that boast healthy in-house lighting rigs. Unless you’re shooting big name bands all the time who are more likely to drag their own additional lighting with them from venue to venue, then you’re at the mercy of whatever lighting the venue already has, and that can be pretty woeful. So, I began getting more and more frustrated with what I was coming away from the shows with. But it wasn’t an entirely conscious decision to switch to RAW – it was actually an accident.

Anyway, without boring you any more on the back story, I switched to shooting exclusively in RAW when covering live shows and there’s no way I’d look back now. The amount of latitude that is available when processing RAW files continues to surprise me and nowhere more so than when I’m working my live photos. When processing the images from my last show (with Steel Panther, Buckcherry and Fozzy [pictured]), I was faced with the relatively normal problem of support bands being given shitty lighting conditions. In this case, red back lighting. Everything was just washed out with red. However, there was a little blue lighting coming from the front of house, which helped when it came time to work the shots.

The image above shows what I started with and what eventuated. This was one of the worst examples I came home with and I was surprised with just how much detail I could bring out from the image. Below, I’ll outline the alterations I made in Lightroom 4, keeping in mind that each shot will require a slightly different approach and every gig offers different lighting, which will require a different series of alterations:

The original image was taken on a Canon 5D MkII with all the typical default shooting settings in place. With the camera set to ISO 1600, shutter priority at 1/160sec, auto white balance and high-speed burst mode, I looked for good images to take. But with live photography, there’s always an element of luck.

Opening the image in Lightroom, the image was washed out with little contrast. The camera had captured the image with a white balance of around 5500K, which was exacerbating the red issue. I began by reducing that to around 3500K, which reduced some of the red saturation. I then headed down to the bottom of Lightroom’s Develop module to the Camera Calibration section. Here I changed the RGB settings to +62 Hue and +10 Saturation in the Reds, -37 Hue and -92 in the Greens and -50 in the Hue and -100 in the Saturation of the Blues.

I also started by setting my camera profile and removing chromatic aberrations in the Lens Corrections panel, as well as adding sharpness in the Detail panel. My settings were 40 Amount, 1.0 Radius, 50 Detail and 30 Luminance in the Noise Reduction section.

Things were already looking much better, but there was still issues with how dark the musician was (Rich Ward, guitarist with Fozzy). I headed up to the Hue, Saturation, Luminance section of the Develop module and concentrated on the Luminance of the visible colours in the face and body of the musician, which in this case was blue, purple and magenta. I set all these to +100 in this scenario, which really brought out the detail in the guy.

I was getting close to a usable image now and I was definitely seeing more potential than I first did. What helped here was that there was that blue light hitting his face and body. We would have had a different story to tell if it had have all just been red wash.

Back up to the Basic settings panel, I added my usual +15 Contrast and +20 of Clarity. Then in this instance I set Highlights to +15, Whites to +33 and Blacks to -23 to try and get some more depth to the image. Overall, I was pretty stoked with the result, capturing a strong expression and pose in the musician and saving what at first seemed like a particularly poor image. I urge you to try it yourself next time you’ve got the opportunity to shoot some live music.

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