On Friday 24th March 2023 I got back to something I have long enjoyed doing – taking photographs of musicians playing live at small local venues.
This was the first time I’d taken my camera to a gig since pre-covid days and it felt really good to get back to it. I headed down to The Soundhouse in Leicester where a variety of artists were performing that night (auditions for Leicester’s Western Park Festival this summer) .
It was also the first ever time I’d visited The Soundhouse. I’ve been following the Leicester music scene for around 35 years so this seemed something of an omission. I’ve haunted The Musician and The Donkey frequently and go back to the days of The Royal Mail and the folk club upstairs at The Spread Eagle. I really enjoyed my visit to Soundhouse and I’m looking forward to returning.
I shot using my Fuji X-H1 and a variety of lenses. The 100-400mm to get right in close, the 90mm f2 for slightly wider shots (and I enjoyed using this lens in combination with the IBIS provided by the X-H1) the 35mm f2 for something a bit wider and even the 10-24mm for much wider “whole stage” shots.
I love contrasty lighting so venues which employ spotlights make me smile. And at The Soundhouse they really put on an interesting light show for the size of the venue.
Why do I enjoy this so much? Many reasons. Of course, I love to hear the music and on an evening like this you get to hear a variety of styles. As I said, I like contrasty lighting. Not all venues employ a lighting rig like the one at The Soundhouse of course but when they do I like to take advantage of it. I’m also hopeless at posing people. When a musician gets up on stage they take care of posing themselves and then produce a variety of expressions invoking a range of emotions. Of course we no longer have smoke filled basement jazz clubs, but that’s the kind of venue I love to shoot. We still have the jazz clubs, just not the smoke filled ones since the indoor smoking ban came into effect in the UK in 2007.
I’m hoping I’ll be doing more of this soon. For personal reasons I’ve been absent from many things which I enjoy so much and it feels great to finally be getting back to some of it. I’ve added this post to several blog categories including “projects” as I see shooting live music to be an ongoing, life-long project.
More photos from the evening below. I ended up taking over 700 shots so just a small selection!
I’m very aware that it has been a couple of months since I posted anything here. Yes, it has been a busy couple of months and thankfully some of that has been photography busy.
This photo of Rick and Warren was taken during the interval at a charity gig I recently attended at The Donkey on Welford Road, Leicester. I was there to support the good cause of the night and also to support my friends on stage : Bellatones.
I still have loads of photos to work my way through from that night which was over a week ago now but this one stood out from the pack for me when I was browsing through to see what I had captured that night.
The vast majority of my photos were of the musicians on stage, that was what I had intended to shoot after all. But at the interval I got chatting outside with Warren (the landlord at The Donkey) and Rick and his good lady, Caroline. It was Caroline who told me that it was “Rick with a silent P” so I do hope he doesn’t mind me using that as the title of this post.
We had a bit of friendly banter during which time Rick, Warren and Caroline got talking about my photography and I snapped one of Rick and Warren together at their request.
It can often be tricky to judge the technical qualities of a photo from the tiny screen on the back of a camera but this one looked pretty good and after showing it to the subjects I ended up being persuaded to take quite a few more of Rick, Warren, Caroline and various of their friends.
It was dark out there.
I had been shooting the acts on stage at ISO 3200 but for these shots I was nabbing outside the venue I had to crank it up a notch to ISO 6400. I’ve always been wary of shooting at high ISO with any camera I’ve owned but I tend to think that it’s better to get something that may have some noise but is free of camera shake so these days I tend to just go with the flow and pump up that ISO as necessary.
And I was not disappointed.
Shot at 1/125, f2 on the X-Pro2 with the excellent Fujinon 90mm lens at ISO 6400. I was even able to focus using auto-focus without any trouble. The only lighting was provided by a string of light bulbs set along the top of the wall about 10 to 15 feet to my left as I shot.
Would this photo have been any better if I’d used my so called “full frame” EOS-6D? I doubt it. I don’t like the term “full frame”. If you mean 35mm sensor then say 35mm sensor. “Full frame” is meaningless – what is full? 2.25 inch square is bigger than a 35mm frame size so how can 35mm be “full”? How about 4×5 inch sheet film? How about 8×10 inch? That makes 135 film (35mm) look tiny. Where do you stop? (I tend to agree with Zak Arias’ point of view on this as expressed wonderfully here).
The best camera is the one you have with you – whether it has a 35mm sensor, an APS-C sensor, Micro Four Thirds or a phone’s camera. You just have to get out there and shoot with it.
Friday evening found me heading out through the cold and wet of an English winter evening to the snug comfort of Pi Bar on Leicester’s Narborough Road. It had been a while since I’d last shot a gig and it was time once again to crank up the ISO, select my fastest lenses and see what developed on-stage.
I started shooting with the Fujinon 55-200mm which has the advantage of giving me image stabilisation in addition to a good long reach. However, image stablisation is only half the battle when the light is low, you also have movement of the subject to consider and musicians have a tendency not to have their feet nailed to the floor (excepting Steve Rothery). After a little while I decided it would be better to break out the 90mm f2, trading the OIS and longer reach for some extra stops of light.
I did mention cranking up the ISO didn’t I? At many venues I’m often shooting around ISO 3200. Here at Pi Bar I started off at 6400 and soon decided that I needed to up it to ISO 8000. Dark? Hell yes, it was dark. So many of these small venues really could do with better lighting but I guess they’re not really too interested in making life easier and more interesting for photographers. A few well used spots make such a difference, giving me the kind of high contrast look I enjoy and making subject isolation easier.
ISO 8000 is maybe a notch higher than I would generally like to go and it does show in the graininess of these pictures. Having said that I do find the grain produced by my X-Pro2 to be more pleasing and reminiscent of film grain than that produced by my EOS 6D (or other previous Canon bodies). Usually I would much rather have a grainy photo than a blurry photo (unless the blur is intentional). Yet again I was very impressed at the low light performance of my X-Pro2’s APS-C sized sensor. If Fuji can make a sensor perform like this at APS-C then what is the new Fujifilm GFX 50S medium format camera going to be capable of? (Sadly I won’t be getting the chance to shoot with one of those unless I win the lottery).
I have to say that in these murky conditions the 90mm f2 did seem to provide a superior auto-focus experience than the 55-200. This is probably only to be expected as the 90mm is the more recent lens by a good couple of years and it’s also a prime. What I lost in reach I gained in consistent results.
I’ve written before about my enjoyment of shooting at local music venues (see Shooting Musicians on my previous blog). It’s something which combines two of my loves (music and photography) and often provides a meet up with some friends as I’ve come to know quite a few people in the Leicester music scene over the years.
Up until now my gig photography had been the one thing which seemed to require me to lug around my Canon EOS 6D and a big, heavy L series zoom. I prefer shooting with my Fuji X cameras but whilst my X100T is certainly up to the job in terms of low light performance – both in image quality and autofocus reliability, the focal length is probably not ideal for the job unless I can actually get up on stage (which doesn’t happen).
My X-Pro1 would be more suited to the task as I have the 55-200mm zoom but I found it frustrating to autofocus in the extremely challenging lighting which most small music venues offer. Yes there was the option of manual focus but that can also be tricky to get right when musicians are hopping around a stage.
When Fuji announced the X-Pro2 I knew that I just had to have one. I already have way too many cameras but the X-Pro1 is a camera I have enjoyed using so much that I knew I simply had to have its successor if I possibly could. Could I justify the not inconsiderable cost of the new camera? Yes, of course I could – photography is one of my main pleasures in life and a body like the X-Pro2 will give me several years of shooting fun. Life is short and if I had the money then I certainly should spend it on something which I will enjoy so much.
My X-Pro2 arrived on Sunday March 6th and I did a little local photo walk, despite the awful grey, flat light here that day. I then noticed that there was a local gig on Thursday which might be a good chance to get out to, take some photos and give the X-Pro2 a bit of a trial.
I ended up packing both my X-Pro2 and my EOS 6D and headed down to The Donkey on Leicester’s Welford Road to enjoy a night of mainly improvised music provided by “The Status Trio” and whoever wanted to get up on stage and join them. My plan was to start off shooting the X-Pro2 and if I got frustrated with autofocus issues I would have the 6D there to fall back on.
The 6D never left the bag all night!
The X-Pro2 exceeded my expectations in every way. Autofocus was just as quick as my DSLR and I think more accurate. All the more impressive as none of my Fuji X mount lenses are ones which are regarded as particularly snappy in the focussing department. I took most shots that night with the 55-200mm, it has the reach to get in close for a head and shoulders of a musician on the stage and the image stabilisation really helps, especially in low light situations. I also had my 35mm f1.4 with me for wider shots. I didn’t take my only other X mount lens, the 18mm and I kicked myself for that. I spent most of the night sat or stood right next to the stage and the 18mm would have been very handy to grab some overviews of the whole scene.
I did have to fall back to manual focussing at one point as I tried to get some shots of the drummer who was sat in such a gloomy spot I think the 6D would have struggled to autofocus too. But this is where the mirror-less camera wins out, it’s very easy to focus manually with a camera which provides focus peaking and digital split frame focussing.
I didn’t try anything too fancy, I’m still familiarising myself with this camera so I didn’t play with the continuous focus tracking. One for another occasion.
I ended the evening feeling incredibly positive about the X-Pro2. It performed incredibly well under what are likely to be the most challenging lighting conditions I’m likely to throw at it. It feels solid, positive, reliable and seems to be everything I was hoping for in an update to the X-Pro1.
The X-Pro1 and X100/X100T have been my favourite cameras to shoot. There’s this thing as a photographer when your camera feels more like an extension of yourself than just something you’re holding in your hand and all of my Fuji cameras feel like that to me. Shooting with them becomes a more organic process. It feels simple, natural and flowing.
As I write this I’m really looking forward to trying the X-Pro2 in as many different shooting scenarios as I can. And when I do I’ll be sure to write about it here.