Jun 192011

Seal in Parnu Estonia 2011: Challenges & Rewards of shooting concerts without a Zoom

By Steve Huff

Happy Sunday morning to all! Don’t you just love Sundays? I usually DO love them because Sunday is usually my lazy day off. This way I wake up on Monday energized and ready to post something new to this very web site. As I write this though, it IS in fact Sunday and I have some free time today after shooting a Seal show last night in Parnu, Estonia.

At this moment, I’m sitting here in my hotel room for the last day in Tallinn, Estonia. We will all leave here in about 5 hours for the airport to head to Lithuania for the next show. Just last night (Saturday) I shot the 1st show of the tour in Parnu, Estonia and right off the bat let me say WOW WOW WOW! This was a VERY energetic and fast flowing show.

Instead of just posting images from the show, this time I wanted to write a little but about the challenges of shooting a concert without zooms…meaning only prime lenses. Also, I am not posting every image I shot at this show in this post. More can be seen at SEAL.COM if you are interested in seeing more from the Parnu show. I also have my Seal 2011 gallery HERE if you want to see my fave past shots. So, on to this post…

It all started with Sound check as the band went through a few tunes with Seal… as always, click the images for better versions.

This one was shot with the 90 Summicron Leica sent me to borrow for this tour. Even with the slight misfocus, I love this image. In fact, I prefer it slightly out of focus.

on the other hand, for this tour my Noctilux has been tuned up and is focusing like a champ…

Holly Palmer – one of the new backup singers for the show

For this summer European tour there have been some band changes and additions and I have to say, I have never heard Seal sound better live. Maybe it was the fact that it was still bright outside at 10pm, or maybe it was just that crazy excitement of the first show of the tour that energized everyone, because the whole band was in top form.

1st pic: Me just before showtime all geared up.

J.R. – Fuji X100 – He was wantig to buy my X100 and offered me $1350 on the spot but I turned down the offer :) I do believe Seal sold him one though as he had an extra.

I had my M9 along with a 24 Lux, 50 Noct and 90 Cron. Also had the X100 but it did not get used much at all, if at all. I only shot with it during the soundcheck. Why? Well, when you shoot a concert, or in my case, a tour, some days can be better than others.

Every day when I arrive to the venue I immediately look at the setup of the stage, wether or not there are barriers, and if I will have room up front to shoot. Sometimes, like this first show in Parnu, there were no barriers which means I had to try to squeeze my way through the crowd to get close enough to shoot. Getting in close is the best way to get shots when shooting with a 50 or 35, and to get more intimate images as well.

Sometimes the fans do not like this as they think I am just some gung ho photographer trying to push my way in front of them. I usually get an odd look or two when moving up, and sometimes, like yesterday, I could not position myself to where I really wanted to be because it was so crowded up front.

Be The Zoom

Shooting the shows with just a 50mm means that I HAVE TO BE THE ZOOM. I am fine with this as it is how I shoot, and how I always shoot but some nights are just tough to get the right angles. This makes some nights a real challenge, but I am always up for a challenge and welcome them. In fact, it pushes me harder to get better results with what whatever situation I am dealt with.

Seal in Parnu Estonia 2011 – M9 and the 50 Noct, all wide open at 0.95

I Like to Keep It Simple

Many pro concert photographers have loads and loads of gear. Usually two pro DSLR’s, mass amounts of memory cards, lighting and flash equipment, triggers, and multitudes of lenses. They have cameras set up on stage and have full roaming access and can even position themselves ON stage! I am sure that with all of this equipment you can get some killer shots like THIS guy (love the Bon Jovi Elvis impersonation). I am sure if I wanted to lug around some pro Nikon gear and some super wides and mass zooms I could get some shots like that but upon closer inspection, I am not sure I would want to.

I am in no way knocking his work, hell,  he seems to kicks the pants off of me and his images capture the moment, excitement, and thrill of the show but personally, for me, I like more artistic personal types of shots. I love to play with the color, the depth of field as well as the emotion, and the sweat and excitement of the moment. I also don’t want some automated trigger and flash shooting my shots on stage. I guess I believe more in the Jim Marshall approach (RIP). He is the only concert shooter I have ever been inspired by, and back in his day he walked in with a couple of Leicas strapped to him and shot the show and the personal moments before and after.

Jim’s images with Hendrix, Cash, Dylan and Morrison have what I like to call “Soul”. Was it the Leica that had a hand in this? Not sure, but to me, Jim’s style managed to create classics.

Again, it is all about simplicity. With a simple tool such as a Leica M9 and one 50mm lens, magic can be made. No flash, no zooms, no auto focus. When you hit it, you hit it. When you don’t, you can even still walk away with a great photograph. Other times you walk away with nothing but when you do, it feels really great.

Seal In Parnu. I missed focus in the 1st shot but Seal was in a moment, and that moment was captured. Shooting something like the Nocti or even a 50 Summilux ASPH propels a shot from flat and boring to deep and emotional. The Silhouette is Seals fave shot of the Parnu show. It may also be mine. Why? Because it breaks free from the norm of most concert images.

Over 95% of concert photos I see were taken with Nikon or Canon with Zooms and Flashes. This kind of system will indeed provide you with an almost foolproof way of getting great shots but I have to say it…the results usually look like all of the other concert shots out there.

I have scoured and scoured the net and studied thousands or even tens of thousands concert images and almost all follow the same DSLR/FLASH/ZOOM formula. I could switch to that route but to me that would not be as rewarding, even if I only manage to capture one magical shot per show with my M compared to 20-30 with the gizmos and gadgets.

Before anyone starts commenting that I am a Leica fanboy, what I say can also be done with a D700 or 5D and a 50 1.4, or 85 1.4. Doesn’t have to be a Leica. I am just not into Zooms and flash.

All in all this article was supposed to be about the challenges of shooting concerts with prime lenses but it has seemed to kind of stray off track a bit due to my rambling. Basically, it really is a challenge to shoot a concert without a zoom but my take on it is that you will always get more creative results when you do so. Want to stick out from the crowd a bit? Use one camera, one fixed focal length, and use your body, eye, and mind to create the magic.

Not all of the great shots happen on stage. I always take a walk around during the show to see what is going on in the crowd. Nocti wide open.

90 cron, f/2 (should have shot it a 2.8)

So even though I can’t stand and zoom to compose my shot, even if I don’t have AF, and even if I do not always get a good position to shoot in and a ZOOM would be an easy way to get a shot, I still would not give up shooting the shows with the M9 and Noctilux, which is the perfect lens for this kind of work (IMO) and gives me many rewards back.

As I was sitting here writing this time has flown by and it is now time for me to pack and get everything together for the flight out. Until next time!

The f/0.95 flare…

Mar 212011

Just wrapped up shooting the 5th show on Seals South American tour in Belo Horizonte Brazil and it was a WILD one! The crowds seem to be getting wilder and wilder and tonight was the most amazing crowd yet in BH. Rio was fantastic as well, though these two shows were the most challenging to shoot yet.  I came away with 4 or 5 I really like regardless.

But yea, the crowds were intense!  As usual, I managed to get some very cool shots with just the M9..no big honkin’ zoom of course though I did see many in the crowd sporting 5 and 7D’s with huge zooms.

I’m sitting in my room now in Belo Horizonte and leave here in 2 hours to head back to Rio for two days so maybe I will enjoy the beach or Sugarloaf mountain. Lots to do in Rio, especially when your hotel is right on the Copacabana Beach!

I’m posting both nights here and the camera and lenses used were the M9, 50 Noct and 35 Summicron. Those two along with the 28 Elmarit cover just about all I need but it would be cool to have a 21 and 75 Lux with the 50 Noct….wow.

Be sure and visit the Leica dealers who sponsor my site if you are interested in some gear :) – B&H Photo, Dale Photo and Ken Hansen!

Rio Brazil – Saturday March 19th 2011

I always go for a soundcheck shot to test the lenses, exposure, colors, etc…

The set list is displayed…

Steve (Syd) Sydelnik prepares for the show minutes before showtime…

and the Rio show begins with “If I’m Any Closer”!

Flying to Belo Horizonte – March 20th 2011

Just a few snaps from the airport in Rio…

Seal and Mark waiting to board the plane for the one hour flight from Rio to Belo Horizonte

This little girl kept looking at me and smiling because she saw that I had a camera. I snapped this one and she was excited that I did. Very cute. To the left is Steve Brumbach, the tour manager.

just a shot from the van window on the way to the hotel

Belo Horizonte – March 20th 2011

The road crew sets up the stage…


Seals Manager, Rick Salmon looks on from off stage

Mar 152011

Holy S*%T am I tired. It is 2:36AM and I have to wake up in 4 hours to go pick up my Visa so I can get into Brazil tomorrow! Crazy crazy crazy but hey, it’s all an adventure right? Today was a LONG day and when I arrived to the arena to shoot tonights show I was ready for bed but I collected all of the energy I had and just went with it.

Before the show I was snapping some test shots and realized that my new Grey M9 body MAY be out of alignment already! Using the Noctilux on it tonight led to MANY OOF shots that I could not use, but I noticed it was only when I focused far off wide open. It could be my eyes but I did not have this problem the other night. I was pretty wiped out though so who knows…

Even with those OOF shots gone I managed to come away with some fun images from before AND during AND after the show! As always CLICK on these images to see the better versions!

Mark Summerlin warming up before the show

Steve during the soundcheck – this one is a bit out of focus but I KNOW I had the lens in focus in the RF

Steve McDonald – Seals best friend, guitar tech and one hell of a photographer

Gus at sound check – shot with the 90 Summarit at f/4 –  1/30s

First things first! Santiago Chile was FANTASTIC! The crowd was amazing and not afraid to get up and dance which made for a very cool and fun show. Everyone had a great time no doubt and the performance by Seal and the entire band was just about flawless.

This time Seal came out in all black so no yellow “pop” in these :)

The shot below was shot with the legendary 35 Summicron at f2

The 28 Elmarit wide open at 2.8 just performs amazingly well on the M9

I was shooting in VERY tight quarters tonight so it was hard to get the better angles but this is what this kind of thing is all about. Do the best with whatever is thrown at you I always say :)

Marcus Brown up close and personal

a fan gets emotional as Seal comes to the crowd

I’m still digging the combo of the Leica M9 with the 28 Elmarit and 50 Noct. Even with it’s quirky focus I still managed to come away with some images that have strong feeling, emotion and loads of energy. Something I strive for when shooting these shows. The crispness and color from the Nocti, when spot on, is remarkable.  The color from this lens is special and much more vibrant and rich than from any other Leica lens I have used.

Once the show was over there was a backstage meet and greet along with a small party and even Bruce Kulick, former KISS Guitarist was at the show and the after party. The funny thing is that I have been a fan of KISS since I was 9. I’ve always admired Bruce and there he was at the show, front row center. I chatted with him for about 10-15 minutes and he was great. Another down to earth guy who loves music and even photography! He was showing me the shots he got of Seal with his Iphone and they looks damn good.

Seal with the British Ambassador (bottom right) who showed up to the show as well…how cool is that?

Bruce Kulick and Seal

You know there was no light when you shoot a Noctilux at f/0.95, ISO 1250 and 1/30s…this is the reason for the blur here. The guy in the middle was one of the GREATEST guys ever and worked at the W hotel where we stayed.

So another show and another day down. About two weeks to go. Tomorrow we head to Sao Paulo Brazil (Im in trouble if my Visa isn’t ready at 10 like they said it would be) and I am looking forward to more adventure, more photography and more time hanging with Seal and the guys. Having a GREAT time so far! I am hoping to write and article soon (when I get some free time) about shooting with the Noctilux and how to bring out its greatness. Stay tuned :)


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Jul 202010

I’m back from Europe, jet lag and all!

I’m back home after a week on tour with Seal and after what seemed like a solid 20 hours of travel time to get back home, I arrived and crashed for 10 hours. Today I felt great and am now fully rested so figured it was time to get back to work as I need  this site more than ever.

I had a great time with Seal on the tour and wanted to share some new photos here as well as a few of the favorites that I was able to get from the past few days. Shooting concerts is loads of fun, but also tiring when doing two hours each show in sweltering heat. I have no idea how Seal and his band does it as they have what appears to be unlimited energy through the entire night. Add to that the little sleep one gets on the road and it makes me have even greater respect for what they do on a daily basis.

The shows were awesome, the music was awesome, and the locations were gorgeous (even though I did not get to see too much of them). His new album comes out in September and the songs I heard were mind blowing good. His best work ever, and as he says, the Quintessential SEAL Album.

What I want to talk about today though is my experiences taking all of these concert photos and the gear I used to  take them with. What worked, what didn’t, and what I feel is the best concert camera/lens combo on the planet.  When I left to meet up with the tour I only brought along a Leica X1, Olympus E-P2, Sony NEX-5 and a Pentax K7. I did not bring my Leica M9 as I had to sell it just a couple of days before due to financial issues beyond my control. Many of you know the situation I was recently put in, and financially, it killed me. So the big toys had to go. So that hurt and killed me but no choice.

The cool thing is that when I got there Seal had many cameras with him and he allowed me to shoot with whatever I wanted. He let me borrow his M9/Noct combo, his Canon 1dMKIV, etc. That is one of the cool things, I was able to shoot with so many cameras and find out what worked well. I always dreamed that one day I would get to shoot concerts as I am a huge fame of Jim Marshall who used a Leica to shoot some of the most historic concert photos of our time. While many say a concert should only be shot with a DSLR, I feel a Leica M is the best tool for the job in most cases, with the right lens.

The Dream Combo – The Leica M9 and Noctilux 0.95

The LEICA M9 and Noctilux is a combo that comes in at over $17,000. INSANE amounts of money but it’s a beautiful setup that will give you results like no other camera and lens combo on the market. I shot this setup at 0.95 for three nights and it never let me down. The first two night I shot in A mode, but by night 3 I was all manual. Focusing was very easy for me and capturing Seal as he moved around the stage was a challenge but doable. Due to the M9’s bright viewfinder, and focus patch I came away with some beautiful images. If you have $17,000 to spare, hey, why not? For concerts? This is my dream setup. If I were a hotshot pro concert photographer I would own TWO M9’s, the Noctilux and a 90. No question. The images from this combo are in a class of their own and do not look like standard pro concert shots.

The Canon 1dMKIV with 100 Macro lens

THE CANON 1D MKIV – Shooting this massive DSLR was sort of a revelation. I have not shot with a DSLR in a while and once  held this camera I knew it meant serious business. The focus was lightning quick, the response was simply jaw dropping and the images that came out of it were beautiful. This combo comes in at MUCH less than the M9/Nocti and in many ways will give you more reliable and consistent results. The color is much nicer and the camera is so chock full of features it numbed my brain a bit. I am so used to simplicity with the M9, I forgot how high tech DSLR’s have become these days! I shot it with the Canon 100 Macro and it never did let me down BUT most of the shots I took with it looked like many other pro concert shooters images. Is that a bad thing? No, but I feel the M9/Nocti combo gives a unique edge with the “look” one can achieve. Still, this is probably the best Canon DSLR I have EVER shot with. Gorgeous.


This new Sony NEX-5 camera is A unique little bugger. One one hand, we have a small, cute, nicely designed camera that has a large APS-C sensor in it which should mean GREAT quality in a compact size. WRONG! The lens this camera comes with is very very soft and after shooting it all week I found it to be TOO soft for my tastes. At web resolution the images are fine but at closer look they are soft.  I did shoot one of the shows with it but had to crank ISO to 6400 and shoot in B&W as the color shots were awful at that ISO. BUT, for $700 it is a decent camera as it packs in a great 108oi movie mode, and its LCD is very nice with its swivel feature. This camera needs a better user interface AND better lenses. Then it may be more worthy of consideration over other small cameras. As it stands, I prefer the Olympus E-P2 over the NEX and even from what I have seen of the Samsung NX10, I prefer it over the Sony. But, the Sony is TINY, I will give it that! Also, I found this camera excels when shot in B&W!

For concerts, it would not be my #1 choice, or #2, or #3, or #4…but it can provide some great shots regardless…

The Leica X1

Ahhhh, my Leica X1, now my only Leica :( This is a fantastic camera but it has its quirks of course. It’s small and light but looks and feels like a Leica. The Image Quality from this little jewel is astounding and the lens is also special. High ISO is better than the Leica M8 and I have no worries shooting it at ISO 3200. For concerts, its not the most responsive solution, and you have to  get in really close so no, it’s not a traditional concert camera but like the Sony, it can pull it off if you work at it. I take the X1 with me everywhere these days. Love it.

The flight out to meet with the tour was WONDERFUL. Even home made ice cream sundaes were offered up, all free of course!

The horn section warming up before the show.

after the show mostly everyone hooks up with their loved one via Ichat on their macbooks. So cool :)

The bus rides were always interesting but always the same. On the bus, edit photos, drive for a few hours, off of the bus, eat, shoot the show, back to the bus, drive and maybe get some sleep. It was so cool to experience this first hand and now I can say I accomplished something I always wanted to do, and that is tour with a band and shoot their shows.

Florence Italy from my hotel window…

Seal portrait in his Hotel

The Olympus E-P2

The little Oly that could, THE LOVELY E-P2. This camera has been a fave of mine for a while. I like its build, its feel, its look and its EVF even if it does stick out like an alien life form. For a concert situation I did not have too much luck with it but when I slapped it in grainy B&W mode it did add a unique twist on traditional convert photography.

I did not shoot with the Oly too much but I did enjoy it more than the Sony NEX-5 and that is most likely only due to the lens quality being better on the Oly. The only lens that I shot with on the Olympus was the 14-150, and its a great, but slow lens.

I also shot some stuff with the Pentax Kx and 200 f/2.8. Great camera kit and lens but I did not get the best results with this setup so I ended up leaving it on the bus for most of the trip. It seemed when the lights went down, even with the f/2.8 lens, it could not keep up IQ wise. Nice setup with good light but it lacked that “something” that cameras like the X1, M9 and 1dMKIV had.

With that said, I hope you have enjoyed this little article on my experiences with these cameras while shooting them in a concert setting. So thank you for reading it, and thanks once again to Seal for allowing me to tag along for a week. It was a great experience that helped me in a time when I needed it most. Thanks buddy!! I know you are reading this :)

Also, I have to put a shameless plug in here as right now I need all the help I can get. I have been dealt some rough blows lately in my personal life and I can use all the help I can get. I never ask for donations, and am not doing so now but if any of you reading this need to buy any gear it would REALLY help me if you used my links to B&H Photo or Amazon to do so. Just clicking those links will give me credit for ANYTHING you buy there, so I thank you!

PS – Due  to many requests I added a paypal donate button on the right, and can also do donations via google checkout but would have to email an invoice. Also, I have been toying with the idea of a get together soon, spending a day in a great location shooting, learning and processing. More to come on that. Also, all of the emails – will get back to you ALL tomorrow! THANK YOU TO ALL for the support, it really helps to boost my spirits!


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