Concert Photography with Fuji X
By Piao Yishi
My name is Piao Yishi ( aka “Park” ). I’m an amateur photographer based in Hangzhou, China. The genre that interests me the most is environmental portrait and photojournalism. My curiosity constantly drives me into the exploration of people’s lives. And photography paves the way.
I’m a Fuji fanboy. I’ve been shooting with a Fuji x100 ( my first serious camera ) for 16 months and added an X-E2 with 18-55 lens to my arsenal just two months ago. Oh, I also own two legacy fast telephoto lenses, namely Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AI and Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 ED AI-s, both of which are over thirty years old. Despite the age, they managed to contribute most of the pictures in this article.
In the hope of capturing interesting people in interesting environments, I shot a lot of events in the past months, including parties, alumni gatherings and stage performances. They’re great. But none is better than a symphony concert. Why? A symphony concert involves many people ( several dozen performers and many hundred audiences ) in strong emotions, and you don’t see one in town every day. ( Not sure if it’s the same case in Austria though. ) That is why I got really excited when I was offered an opportunity to shoot the New Year Symphony Concert in Hangzhou, performed by the Wenqin Orchestra of Zhejiang University.
Well, how do I shoot such a grand event? Google didn’t have a lot of articles on that topic. There are some good suggestions in them, but my biggest takeaway was “it’s a rare opportunity, you better get ready”. So I packed my equipments tight and hoped for the best. Here are some of the key learnings from my first symphony concert shot.
If you arrive at the venue before audiences are allowed inside, you’ll get shots of a clean stage with all setups and some of the bigger instruments on it, you’ll learn where each instruments are located on the stage. With some luck, you’ll find the conductor sitting alone somewhere off the stage and you’re the only photographers to find it.
Well, how do you get inside before audiences are allowed to? Be resourceful, talk to the organizer, be nice to people but don’t be shy, and hope for the best. In my case, I was refused to get inside early by one of the staffs that day. When I tried another guy five minutes later, however, I got the greenlight and a badge.
If there’s a rehearsal or a pilot performance prior to the main concert, do everything you can to get inside and rehearse your shots. How do you get in? Same as above.
Talk to people.
The better you know your subject, the easier and more profound your shot is likely to be. How do you know a bunch of performers to whom you are a complete stranger in a symphony concert? Talk to them whenever you feel they will not be disturbed. Your camera is your passport. The retro looking Fujis makes me look more of an safe fanboy and less of a hard nosed journalist. ( Sorry, DSLR guys. ) But at the end of the day, it is you who’s gonna open the mouth and talk to people.
When I saw the conductor sitting alone far from the stage that day, I went to him without hesitations, showed one of the pictures I took him during the pilot performance two days before ( Go to rehearsal or pilot performances, and keep your best pictures in your phone! ). And guess what, he liked it and asked me to send it to him. So I knew he’s Russian and his name’s Mik. Then I asked if I could take a posed shot for him and a friend of mine who’s a gorgeous looking girl. He happily accepted. During that shot, I saw what a humorous, romantic and interesting man he is. Knowing him in person made possible some close shots of him later that day. And understanding his personalities helped me capturing the best moment of him on stage.
Another story happened in the back stage when I was trying to photograph a college boy who plays the flute. At first, he was a bit shy and didn’t know what to do in front of a camera. I said to him, when I was in college, my “Venus” was a flute girl, but she never played in front of me, which was why I stopped at him and wanted a shot of him playing that beautiful shiny flute. Then immediately, he started playing without the slightest hint of discomfort. There you see the shot.
Go to the back stage.
Having access to the back stage will give you two advantages.
First of all, during the play, the conductor will be facing his orchestra and therefore backstage all the time. Unless in the rare moments he turn back and say thank you to the audience, you won’t get front facing shots of the conductor if you physically shoot from off the stage. And shooting from there is a big annoyance to your fellow audiences around you. It’s not a rock concert! Symfony fans are not likely to swear to or attack you, but don’t spoil their evening and let them hate you. Plus, you’ll like the beautiful side light falling on players’ heads if you shoot from either side from the back stage!
Then, you’ll witness plenty of interesting stories in the back stage when performers are anxiously waiting for the prime time. In that tense atmosphere, you’ll see their personalities written all over their faces. And it’s a great place talking with your subjects.
Just don’t skip the back stage if you can get the access.
Fast long lens, ISO 6400 and a monopod.
We all know a good picture is NOT about the camera. When you take pictures in a challenging situation, however, some features of equipments will make your life much easier. Photographing a symphony concert is the most challenging job I ever did, because:
The stage is relatively large and you can’t go anywhere you want ( e.g. on the stage, or in front of the first row off the stage ). It’s difficult for the photographer to get very close or very high physically.
Ambient light can be dim. And you are not allowed to use flash. The lighting conditions can vary wildly among different venues. In the pilot performance, with f/2.8 and 1/160 seconds, I was able to get away with ISO 800 most of the time. In the real show however, I constantly needed ISO 6400 for similar shots on the stage. Without a light meter, the performers confirmed they felt the same. I heard one of the venue staffs saying they intentionally dimmed the lighting to prevent details blown out on players’ faces.
The stage is extremely crowed. With limited point of view options, it requires good observation and creativity to get interesting compositions unless you have shot such events numerous times.
On the stage, you’ll make a few wide angle shots, but not too many, because you can’t get close. Telephoto lenses with big aperture are your friend. Use more than one focal lengths for varying FOV and potentially more interesting shots. For the stage shots, I used the two legacy lenses mentioned earlier. Their 35mm equivalent focal lengths are 158mm and 270mm. They’re all sharp enough wide open. ( In my bag, Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 ED AI-s’s main use is astrophotography. ) I felt they were adequate for the stage that evening. I’m sure there will be larger or smaller stages so adjust accordingly. A 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom will do a better job if your wife plays ball.
And a camera body with usable ISO 6400 is highly recommended. Fuji XE-2 does that very well. I used a shutter speed of 1/200 seconds whenever lighting conditions permit when shooting the stage. In the pilot performance, I found that 1/160 seconds couldn’t freeze the conductor’s fiercest hand motion completely.
Even if you have all the low light equipments recommended above, you’ll still find occasions where the shutter speed drops below 1/200 or even 1/50. ( I used Fuji’s auto ISO feature. ) I found a monopod extremely useful for such a job. It helped stabilizing my shots and making my arm and shoulder less stressful. Most importantly, it gave me a pivot for experimenting different composition ideas and pull out the best one.
With my legacy lenses, I had to live with manual focus. I didn’t find it a huge obstacle though. Fuji X-E2 has a usable focus peaking feature. ( But add more color options to the peaking pixels, Fuji! ) And during the play, your subjects don’t generally move towards or away from your camera, but remain in more or less the same focal plane no matter how fast they move. Auto focus lenses are definitely more convenient to use. But with those legacy lens, I was able ( and forced ) to shoot more slowly and care for every detail without breaking the bank. A compromise I have to live with, and perhaps a good one. Some of the my pictures ended up not in perfect focus for pixel peepers, but overall most of them are acceptable, IMO.
Oh, the Fuji X100 always stayed on my neck. This beautiful non-threatening creature is still my best friend for storytelling in those behind-the-scene shots, all of which I shot one-handed. And when I need a wider field of view, I used Fuji XE-2 with 18-55mm on 18mm.
Shoot long lenses with a wide-angle mind.
For a whole year after I stepped into the world of photography, Fuji X100 was my only camera. It’s a small camera with a fixed 23mm f/2 lens ( 35mm in full frame equivalent ). I had to live with its fixed and wide view of the world, which turned out to be a good thing. It taught me to observe, care for and make use of the connections between subjects and the background. It’s just too wide to ignore the background or the connections between things and just point and shoot.
Back to the super crowded symphony stage, yes, you can play with that shallow depth of field. What you cannot do, however, is simply ignoring, blurring or blackening out all the surroundings of your subject, because they’re too close together, lighted too evenly and you can’t get your camera very high.
Fellow violinists playing together covering each other’s heads? Notebooks in the front blocking your view of the subjects on the other side? None is gonna make a good solo composition. But who said solo compositions are better? Think about how to live with and make use of all things in the field of view. Search for the connections between them. Capture eye contacts between the conductor and his players. Search for moments when the conductor’s baton and violinist’s’ bows point to the same direction. Use the darker audiences as a backdrop for players at the edge of stage, even if you can only see her back. Don’t be afraid to crop tight and try out impossible ideas when composing the shots. Be creative and bold.
Looking at the show through those long lenses, I felt a sense of similarity and familiarity, because it felt so much like viewing though my X100’s 35mm lens. If you didn’t take good care of the background and connections among different things, you’d spoil the shot. But If you did, you’d be blessed with a chance of getting a more interesting shot than most 85mm f/1.4 portraits.
Leave late and get to know the performers.
The performance lasted more than two hours before the audiences stood up and applauded with the Radetzky March. It was time to pack the bag, right? I didn’t think so. There must be interesting stories going on after the show. And I really wanted to get to know the performers better, get their contact information and send them their pictures the next day.
It turned out they appreciated it. A flute player who has played the new year concerts for seven consecutive years later told me, that all flute players were grateful for the pictures featuring them, because on the stage they sit in the back and normally don’t get much attention. And the violinist who got her back captured said she was very excited to see her picture on the homepage of a local website, even if it was only her back.
All players are college kids. It was the peak of their life so far so they overreacted, didn’t they? Well, I know a professional model who, after seeing my pictures of those kids’ symphony concert, told me that she was moved and regretted how few pictures she had kept for her own performances. She said normally photographers didn’t care to give the pictures to her after a show. It may or may not be a license thing.
Those kids have stories. The more I know about them, the more I’m confident that I can take my storytelling and photography to the next level in their next performance.
As a storyteller, I’ll make sure I can give away my pictures to my subjects, because what I did is merely freezing, capturing and presenting a split second of their lives. They own their lives. The more they feel the pictures are important to them, the more successful I am as a storytelling photographer.