Concert Photography, Appendix 1

by Steve Mirarchi

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stereophonics motion shot

Using Slow-Sync Flash to Capture Motion

Many artists who approach me to photograph their concerts request clean shots in which the subject is in sharp focus and motion is all but brought to a halt. These shots have their uses, to be sure, especially if the artist wants a particularly clear look to the images.

But an equal number of artists--particularly rock and punk bands, whose genres lend themselves to a lot of motion--want to see thrashy, action-filled images, photos that emphasize the movement and energy of their performances. To the left is a 1999 photo I took of the Welsh band Stereophonics for the British magazine Melody Maker. If you know the magazine, you know they print colorful, active shots from which American magazines normally shy away.

The key to such motion shots is slow-sync flash. The technique, from a settings point of view, is not difficult. With a flash mounted, many modern SLRs will default to slow-sync flash mode when you set your camera to aperture or shutter priority. Slow-sync flash simply means that the camera assumes you have adequate support (for example, a tripod) to expose the scene properly, which in an indoor environment most likely means a shutter speed slower than 1/60.

When you don't have support, the motion that happens while the shutter is open leaves a colorful trail on the film, and when the flash fires it freezes the subject. What you get is a frame with both a sharp subject and a motion trail, which lends itself well to showing the dynamics of a rock star reaching for the sky or a punk guitarist leaping into the air.

Of importance is where you want that motion trail. Normally, the flash fires as the shutter opens, which means that the motion trail will show everything after you fire the shutter, with the sharp subject in the starting position. Specialized flash units, however, have a second- or rear-curtain sync feature, which means that the flash does not fire until the shutter is closing. In this case the motion trail shows everything that happens while the shutter is open, with the sharp subject in the final, end position.

Both syncs have their advantages. If a singer is moving across the stage, second-sync will produce a frame that shows the artist sharply in the final position with a motion trail behind her. If a guitarist is moshing his head up and down, it's much easier to fire the shutter when his head is up, and only first-sync will capture that moment sharply while recording the motion of his head then proceeding down.

There's the question of which settings produce the most effective motion blurs, and though that's subjective, I've found that shutter speeds between 1/4 and 1/10 work best. The trick is to get those shutter speeds at wide apertures like f/2.8, since you don't want the depth of field of f/8.0 or smaller, which will easily record all the background clutter of the venue. If you set your camera to shutter priority and use slow or medium speed film (ISO 100-400) to ensure slow shutter speeds, you can achieve the most flattering results: frames that isolate the focus on the artist.

Arun Venkatesh of El Dopa I like to use a diffuser like the Photoflex XTC-II or the Sto-fen Omnibounce to evenly distribute the light over the artist and to soften shadows. To the left is Arun Venkatesh of El Dopa, an industrial/techno/metal band for whom static shots were not an option. I used first-sync flash on this shot to capture Arun's face sharply, and with the shutter at 1/10, his body stays sharp but the guitar shakes, creating a sense of intensity that no static image could. Notice how the diffuser distributed the light evenly such that we see some detail in his dark shirt and the fretboard, as well as in the guitar's bright pickguard.

I use slow-sync flash in many applications: people riding on elevators; babies running across floors; karate students sparring. Timing such shots is a matter of experience. Experiment with different settings and configurations, and you'll be surprised at how creative just a little motion can be.


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