In Retrospect

Yesterday I posted my Ghost Town Jenny photos. I’ve been putting this off for a while – I’ve always suspected that the result would be disappointing. But I forced myself through for two reasons: a promise, and the sense that my avoidance was deeply hypocritical.

It’s difficult to articulate what exactly didn’t work with this series, but I know something’s wrong. Read enough great novels and you know when your writing’s not to par; look at enough great photographs and you’ll know when yours just don’t work. But, of course, simply knowing that something’s wrong is easy – identifying what exactly isn’t working is the hard part.

Composition

To start, I photographed Ghost Town Jenny the way I would static subjects: with an overbearing emphasis on form. Although I look at a lot of street photographs I primarily focus on static subjects. This creates a certain mindset, a way of seeing, that’s an impediment to photographing bands. With bands you want to capture vitality, that sense that they offer something special you can’t find anywhere else. You want to get at the core of why people love their music. I didn’t achieve this. Instead, I felt as if I’d captured only fragments of the show – as if each photo lacked the emotion that would truly set it off.

Closely associated with this was my use of darkness. I love darkness. Love photographs with deep blacks, so deep you could fall into them, the ones in which they’re graphic in their clarity and presence. Photographs like those reflect something core in how I experience the world. The problem is, though I tried to use darkness in my Ghost Town Jenny photos (some of it forced on me by technical limitations) it often just wasn’t the right fit. With static subjects I would have used it to build abstract compositions or highlight form-based incongruities, but I don’t think it’s right for a band, and especially not this one.

I guess the real problem was that I didn’t (and still don’t!) know what feel I was going for. How can you capture what makes a band special if you can’t fully identify it in the first place? Somehow I’d gotten so caught up in making photographs that I simply forgot to experience the music – almost as if I’d deafened myself. This manifested itself in other ways as well: in the end, the photos never felt quite right in color, and even less so in B&W; they felt like they needed motion, but the instances in which I captured it were few and far between, and didn’t quite work.

What should effective concert photos look like anyways? The few I’ve seen use telephotos to get that oh-so-recognizable narrow DOF look or are full-blown crowd shots (the more interesting the activity and the people the better). That said, my repertoire of band photos – let alone band photos with a 28 – is pretty sketchy to begin with. That just makes things harder since I have a pretty thin frame of reference against which to compare my results.

Oh, and then there’s the small matter of the 28. Looking at my results I can’t help but feel that I still can’t handle it. It’s a tricky focal length: too easy to mishandle, too easy to end up with something that just looks wrong. I’ve been trying to understand its vagaries but on the run the techniques and perspectives I’ve trained into being from years with the 40 get in the way.

With events I’ve always liked to work in sets as opposed to one-offs. This comes from my preconception that you can’t capture the entirety of something in a single shot (but now that I think about it, why not?) Unfortunately the set as it currently stands has two major issues: first, it starts too slowly, and second, it feels too long and … fragmented. I tried a tighter edit to resolve some of the issues, but that simply exacerbated the jerkiness. Bah!

In the end, my unfamiliarity with photographing people – especially in a dynamic venue like a concert) – , my inability to define exactly what feeling I was going for and my inconsistent handling of the 28 left my photos far less than they could have been.

Technical

These problems were compounded by two major technical ones: LCD blackout and slow camera speed.

No one likes shooting blind. No one. But that’s exactly what happens after you click the shutter button on a GRD III. The camera takes the shot and…then the LCD goes dark and you’re blind for a second. It is the longest second in the world. It’s one in which you see shot after shot go by and all you can do is grind your teeth in frustration until the screen lights up again. I don’t need the GRD to be D3s fast, but as it stands, it’s outclassed by both y my 6-yr old D70 and my 40-yr old CL. You can work around the blackout if you mount an external optical viewfinder, but only if you’re willing to deal with extreme parallax error and inaccurate framing for anything under 8ft. Talk about the worst possible trade off: accurate framing vs. the ability to actually take the shot.

There is one other issue, but it’s more annoyance than anything else. The inadequate lighting meant that I had to open up at least 10 stops in order to get photos unmarred by motion blur. (Not that motion blur is a bad thing – it’s only bad if uncontrolled). Unfortunately this meant that I had to use the GRD III at its worst possible ISO: ISO 1600. The GRD’s ISO 1600 is marred by color splotches which limit your ability to apply aggressive noise reduction or adequate sharpening. It also meant that a lot of the shots were a lot darker than I’d have liked and had to be pushed in post which obviously didn’t help quality).

In the end, maybe none of this analysis really matters. Something was simply missing: I’d just like to know what that something was and how I can do better the next time.

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