Pro photographer Damien Demolder gives a performance-photography masterclass as he reviews the work of six Wex customers who attended a dramatic night-time performance at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.
In the build-up to the Norfolk and Norwich festival, Wex Photographic held a competition for six photographers to win the chance to join me on a dress-rehearsal shoot of the spectacular ‘451’ outdoor performance. A night-time visual feast of fire, coloured lighting and smoke, the occasion would provide some fabulous opportunities to create intensely dramatic images.
The performance is based on the book Fahrenheit 451, about a future society in which books are burnt by firemen. In this production, a team of actors dramatise the story in a street-theatre environment with flames, smoke and pumping audio. With ever-changing side-on stage lighting, performers running all over the place and the action occurring on the ground as well as in the air, the winners of the Wex competition were in for a mental and physical workout.
The problems for photographers were always going to centre on exposure, focus and image noise. Exposure was going to be difficult because the performers were lit with powerful lights against a dark background – and the colour and intensity of the lighting changed significantly from moment to moment. The background also changed from a dark sky to a cloud of back-lit smoke and back again, so we all needed to stay on our toes and maintain concentration at all times.
In the low light we had to be careful to find high-contrast edges for our AF systems to lock on to – or switch to focusing manually and relying on our eyes to tell us when the image was sharpest. As there wasn’t much light, and we were trying to keep control of our ISO settings, we were using very wide apertures – and thus working with very restricted depth of field. Accurate focusing was extremely difficult but important.
Noise was always going to be the biggest issue – but mostly in the heads of the photographers. Image noise is inevitable when working in considerable low light, and we just have to accept that fact. We turn our ISO settings up to avoid camera shake and subject blur – two far more certain image destroyers than a bit of grain.
Most photographers have an unhealthy fear of noise, as though it is our worst enemy, but it is much better to encounter a bit of granular interruption than to have pictures that just aren’t sharp. So, we all worked at ISO 3200 and 6400, and tried to set our minds to live with the noise. After a brief chat about exposure, overriding metering systems, potential angles and white balance, we all got stuck in.
Philip said that the speed and intensity of the action at this event was something he wasn’t used to, and that he got rather carried away during the shoot and wishes he had paused for thought a little more! Pausing for thought in the midst of the drama is a difficult thing to do, especially when in a situation for the first time, but it does always pay off. Having said that, though, Philip has produced some lovely images.
Philip’s original image lacked any true black tones
Altered to give the image a little more punch
Philip says he regrets not using a longer lens, as the pictures he has submitted are heavy crops from the originals. However, he also notes that shooting wider has allowed him more compositional flexibility after the event than shooting tight-in would have done.
I rather like his detail images, and they both sum up two of the principle shooting opportunities that presented themselves during the event.
Philip’s detail image has a great sense of atmosphere
Altered to enhance the contrast, which gives the image more impact
Both of Philip’s images shown here suffer from excess noise because he hasn’t produced a proper black in the pictures. Pulling the general exposure down and lifting mid tones to compensate have shifted much of the obvious noise into the deep shadows where it disappears. I also increased the mid-tone contrast in the pictures, to give them a little more oomph.
Philip says he doesn’t like the pastel colours of some of his images, and rightly suggests that this is a consequence of heavy noise reduction. A little boost to colour saturation often fixes it, Philip.
It might seem a little odd to work in black and white when recording a spectacle of colour and fire, but Wil’s pictures have plenty of atmosphere and are certainly engaging. They also stand out from the rest of the collection as they don’t rely on colour to make them interesting. I like the man with the lamp very much, and the way the smoke around the performer’s head emphasises his messy hair. The light catches the front of his face just enough to give us a clear idea of who he is.
Altered to reduce highlight curve and restore some blown detail
The wider scene also works well and gives us a broader view of what is going on. The spotlights are well picked out against the sky, with their beams caught in the smoke, and the hard lighting at ground level shows us the shape of those gigantic rolling ladders.
Both shots have quite hard and bright highlights, which burn out some of the important detail. I opened both JPEG images in Adobe Camera Raw and pulled down the highlights a little to fill some of those near-white areas with information. That makes them less powerful and less of a draw to the eye, which allows us to concentrate on the subjects a little more easily.
Original image containing some strong contrast between highlight and shadow areas
Altered to tone down the impact of strong highlights
Good effort Wil – and well done for trying something different. I do wonder what they would have looked like in colour though.
Nigel has given us a dramatic moment in his first image, which shows a violinist on top of a metal tower, lit up against the night sky. He has really made the most of the colours of the lighting at the time, and the result is both powerful and visually arresting.
The original image has very strong contrast and colour casting
The altered version has been cropped to 3×4 to fit more common image proportions
The not-quite-square crop of the violinist picture doesn’t quite work for me, as it doesn’t conform to recognisable edge proportions, so I’ve trimmed it to 3×4, which I think sits more comfortably.
The contrast is a fraction too hard for me in both images, so I’ve lifted the shadows a tiny bit to bring out more detail – especially in the smoke. Although most people aim for hard contrast in this sort of situation, it is actually lower contrast settings that produce the most information. The lighting at the event was contrasty enough, so we shouldn’t really have to add any more.
Original image: Nigel has used a slow shutter speed to capture the motion of the spinning performer
Altered to lift some of the shadow areas
I like that Nigel has risked a longer shutter speed to capture the motion of the performer spinning around against the sky in his second shot – it works very well. The tilted angle adds to the sense of being off-balance, and the combined techniques represent well the chaos of the action.
Some great images Nigel, well done.
First-year photography student Kerry is more used to shooting fashion and portraits, so the 451 show was a totally new experience for her. Shooting at ISO 6400 made her feel uncomfortable, and she has asked for some help with the amount of noise in her images. The best advice I can give Kerry is that she just needs to relax and accept that noise is part of the deal when you shoot in conditions like this. She might also choose to take another look at her pictures to see how the noise actually adds to the atmosphere.
Original image showing a fantastic eye for detail
Altered to lift mid-tone contrast, and slightly sharpened
I guess it makes sense that Kerry has chosen not only to shoot a wide view of the event, but also the accessories too – as you would on a fashion shoot. Her picture of the page of the ripped book is very well seen and is lit beautifully. The 451 performance is about books, their negative influence on the citizens of the imaginary setting and the people employed to burn them, so this shot works extremely well as an icon to represent the story. It is very cleverly done. Kerry regrets the amount of noise in this image too, but I suspect that no one will notice.
Her second shot, of the man reading by the lamp, works very well too. I love the texture of the smoke and the brushstroke of light across his forehead and nose. There is enough smoke to have an exciting effect, but also enough clear detail for us to see what is going on.
Altered to reduce lamp highlights and boosted colour saturation
For both images I’ve increased mid-tone contrast with a shift to the right of the clarity slider in Camera Raw. I’ve also added a bit more sharpening to the page of the book and lifted its highlights, while bringing down the highlights of the lamp shot and boosting the colour saturation.
They are both excellent images Kerry. Well done.
There is something very biblical about Kat’s shot of the man up the TV aerial pole, what with that classical face, the Old Masters cloud-style smoke and the warm colouration. I like the composition too, with the subject placed neatly to one side and the majority of space given over to the texture of the smoke.
Original image with very strong contrast
In this altered version, the contrast has been lowered a little and the shadows have been lifted to recapture more of the detail in the smoke
The contrast is perhaps a little too harsh, leaving more detail hidden in the deepest shadows than is absolutely necessary, so I’ve dropped the contrast a little and lifted the shadow areas. This also lightened the smoke a fraction, showing its swirls and the different densities. I highlighted the texture of the smoke, making a small adjustment to the mid-tone contrast by boosting clarity in Camera Raw.
I like Kat’s second shoot too, as it makes the most of the bold colour of the event and her exposure gives us a graphic set of hard-edged silhouettes. Most of the frame works really well, but our friend at the top of the ladder is rather lost against the night sky. In fact he doesn’t need to be lost at all as there is a tree behind him that copes well with a bit of lightening, to make him stand out and become a part of the scene.
Altered to increase shadow detail and reduce contrast
Two great pictures that ably show the atmosphere of the event and the dramatic colour that was involved.
Irene has made some really quite iconic images of performers in meaningful poses at significant moments in the story. In both cases we are left to look up at the characters, giving them a sense of power over us and elevating them in importance. The shot of Captain Beatty up a ladder in front of the book oven is particularly effective – with his arms spread out wide and a book in his hand.
Original image captures iconic moment
Altered using levels to increase the black tones in the image, hiding some of the image noise
Irene is also worried about the amount of noise in her images, but she hasn’t helped herself with those bright shadow areas and a lack of a proper black. To reduce the noise in this picture and to add a little more impact, I brought in the black slider in Levels to darken the darkest tones. Stopping short of making Captain Beatty too dark, I then used the burn tool (shadows, 8%) to make the surroundings go black without affecting the rest of the image. The darkening has increased colour saturation and has introduced a lot more punch to Irene’s already excellent image.
Original image showing great composition
Altered using the burn tool around the edges to focus attention on the centre of the image
Irene’s second shot is nicely composed, and she has included plenty of space to allow the smoke to make its presence felt. The light has a lovely starburst and glows just enough to show us some detail on the man’s face. Again, I increased the contrast of the image to create impact and to reduce the visibility of noise. The burn tool was run around the outside of the frame to concentrate our attention in the middle of the shot, and the added colour saturation accentuates the drama.
Really nice and well taken shots, Irene.
All the winners did very well considering the challenges they faced with the fast-paced action and dramatically changing environment. I think the main lessons that could be learned from the event are that often high-contrast scenes need to be rendered with lower-than-average contrast in post-processing to ensure detail is not lost; and that noise is an inevitable function of high ISO setting and has to be accepted. Noise is most visible in darker tones – especially those that have been lightened – so when those tones can be made darker, noise plays less of a part in the final picture.
A great effort by all the photographers on the night – well done to you all.
About the Author
Damien Demolder is a independent photographic consultant and former editor of Amateur Photographer magazine. Damien also runs a number of photographic events and courses for photographers of all abilities. For more information visit his website.