I saw jazz saxophonist Will Donato a few years ago at a local festival. It was a single night event set up next to a roundabout in Old Town Helotes, Texas. The equipment was fairly rudimentary with a portable stage, some rather harsh LED lighting and a wireless sound system. Certainly these were not great conditions for available light photography.
There was one thing working in my favor; I could get close to the stage without guards or roadies in the way. As the night progressed I got closer and closer until my camera was on the front edge of the stage. The musicians tolerated my presence and even commented that they hoped I was getting good pictures. Which I’m sure actually meant something like ‘please go away and take that camera with you’. I persevered.
Lights were hung above the stage in the front and back. At first it looked like I could take advantage of the stage lighting if the musicians were individually lit. That was not to be. Once night fell they cranked all the lights across the stage. Worst of all it was difficult to find shooting angles without lights intruding in the frame. The hot bright circles overwhelmed everything else in the frame. I told myself the music was the thing, even if I didn’t shoot anything.
Getting in close to the stage was a big advantage in avoiding lights in the frame. Some of the time I was able to use equipment and musicians to mask the direct lights. With careful framing it was possible eliminate lights or push them to the edges. This left me with high contrast directional light on the performers and very dark backgrounds. It reminded me of jazz photos from the 50s where photographers popped flash bulbs close to the musicians. Only the performers were lit, everything outside of flash range being completely black. Excellent, I was channeling early William Claxton, at least in my mind.
Most of the RAW files shot that night have remained unprocessed until recently. My post processing skills were not up to the task of working with the extreme lighting conditions. Now I am able to produce decent finished images from some of the frames. Over time I’ve learned a great deal from the images shot that night. They have helped me understand the dynamics of working in an uncontrolled performance environment. In the end that is the real value of my night’s work.
The heyday of Jazz performance photography is long over. The great masters of the genre and the musicians they captured on film are gone. Those wonderful gritty dark club interiors were of course captured on film.
As far as I know the best album covers ever printed were for jazz LPs in the fifties and early sixties. They were often as avant-garde as the music itself. They mirrored qualities of the music transposed to the visual medium. Maybe you can tell I’m a jazz buff.
Every now and then I try my hand at jazz photography. For one thing I can’t resist music. In this era jazz musicians they are something exotic. They have a presence that may have been overlooked when the music was more common. Of course the best players were never main stream for the pop audience. You had to pay attention to the music and the musicians. They demanded that the audience be up to their standards.
On Independence Day I drove up to Luckenbach with the A7II to shoot some outdoor music performances. To be honest I didn’t have high expectations of being able to use a manual lens to get decent shots. As expected the results were mixed but the manual lens was less of an issue than the camera firmware.
As has been reported numerous times elsewhere the A series cameras insist on using 1/60 second shutter speed when set to aperture priority and auto ISO with manual lenses. That behavior makes shooting any sort of moving subject problematic at best. In most ways the Sony is an outstanding camera but it falls down badly in this situation because you can’t set a minimum shutter speed in aperture mode. It is really too bad and disappointing for such a competent tool to behave this way.
All cameras have quirks and there are ways around the slow shutter speed problem with this one. You just have to change how you work with the camera. There are three variables that can be manipulated on this particular camera to get proper exposure. These are aperture, shutter speed and light sensitivity (ISO). Using some combination of the three variables provides a solution.
Two simple workarounds use either shutter priority or full manual along with auto ISO to achieve a proper result. Both are very similar when using manual lenses. Set the aperture on the lens, select the appropriate shutter speed and allow the camera to work out proper exposure by varying the ISO within a user selected range. As long as the camera can adjust sensitivity to achieve proper exposure you are good to go.
This is not a point and shoot solution. It requires the photographer be able to judge lighting conditions well enough to be able to select a shutter speed that keeps exposure within the ISO range the camera will use. The camera provides all the information you need to get proper exposure right in the viewfinder but the photographer is in control.
The point is that the photographer has to make decisions to ensure that the camera performs correctly to get the desired result. If you are unwilling to control the camera to get proper exposure then don’t shoot with manual lenses.