Normally my iPhone ($650 at Amazon) wouldn't be my first camera choice for taking photos at a concert. Rock gigs are dark, fast-paced, and the iPhone's small image sensor doesn't let in much light -- typically a perfect storm of shoddy images. But considering so far, I decided to give it a shot.
A combination of image noise and difficult lighting meant my shots won't make the cover of Rolling Stone, but with some degree of trial and error, I got a selection of dramatic shots that I'm pleased with.
I'd arranged access to the photo pit for English rock act Don Broco's performance at Alexandra Palace in north London. That put me right in front of the stage, with a dramatic, low-angle view for my shots. Crucially though, by not being in the audience, it also meant I wouldn't obstruct anyone's view from the audience when I held up my phone.
The downside -- beyond feeling like a total amateur shooting with my iPhone next to seasoned pros with full-size DSLRs -- is that official photographers in this pit usually have a limited time to get their snaps. In my case, I had three songs, then I was out. I had to shoot fast.
Stage lights make things difficult
The crowd roared as the band came out on stage, but the lights remained extremely low. That built drama for the audience, but it ruined any opportunity I had to get shots. As opening song "Technology" kicked in -- deafening me instantly as I was right in front of a giant speaker -- the stage lights burst into action. While the spotlights lit up the performers, the lights were erratic -- swooping around the stage and strobing on and off. I needed the light to remain on the faces long enough to get a clean shot, but the window of opportunity was sometimes there for less than a second.
The solution? Burst mode. By holding my finger on the shutter button, I could take multiple shots per second. All it takes is a second for singer Rob Damiani's face to catch the light as the beam speeds past him. In those instant moments, I could only hope I was getting the shot -- after the show I was able to go through the burst captures and select the shot where the light was just right.
It's a hit-and-miss approach, I'll admit. Out of the hundreds of shots I took in burst mode on the night, I'm only really happy with about six. The rest were eventually deleted to free up space.
Although I was close to the stage, I mostly shot while zoomed in using the iPhone's second, telephoto lens. This lens has a wide f/1.8 aperture on the iPhone X, which lets in more light than the telephoto lens on the previous iPhones, so I was confident that I'd get the same result using either lens. By zooming in, I was able to cut out distracting elements, such as the speakers on the ground at the front of the stage, and focus purely on the band members themselves.
Capturing the atmosphere
Capturing the band only tells some of the story though so I turned my lens on the crowd behind me. Every hand was in the air and most of the fans were singing along -- I didn't need to provide any encouragement to capture the mood.
It was at this point that singer Damiani left the stage, crossed the photo pit past me and mounted the crowd barrier to sing the chorus. It was a great moment that showed the band's awesome stage presence and the way they interact with their fans.
But even that moment didn't last long, so I again had to use burst mode to increase my chances of getting a usable image. Holding my phone up high to show not only Damiani, but the extent of the crowds beyond, I held my finger on the button, firing off perhaps 70-something images.
Lighting was an issue again -- the stage lights weren't pointed to the crowd, so it was only on a few shots when a stray beam cast its light over Damiani, highlighting him and making him stand out from the scene.
Even then, I had to process the image in Snapseed. As well as converting to black and white (which I'll come back to), I've lightened the image, bringing up the shadows in the background to show more of the crowd. It added a lot of noise to the image, meaning that the fine details look very mushy when you zoom in close. That means the detail simply isn't there to print it out in a large size, but I'm happy with this image when I view it on a phone screen on Instagram or Twitter.
The final shot I wanted was a wider view, encompassing both the stage and the crowd. When my time was up in the photo pit I was forced to join the hot, sweaty crowd. I headed to stage left and captured a wide-view shot that, thanks to the confetti cannon, resulted in a dramatic, action-packed image.
Brightening and colour toning in Snapseed
Brightening in Snapseed (free on iOS and Android) was necessary on almost all of the shots I took. After that, I played around with colour balance using different filters. That's an important step, as many of the stage lights were different colours, resulting in a vivid pink being cast on the band, which didn't always look great. Even so, the low light means there's not a lot of information recorded in each image, so editing an image too much quickly degrades it into a mushy mess.
In these instances, I found that converting to black and white resulted in a much nicer image overall. As well as removing the distracting colours, the image noise generated by brightening looked more like the natural grain you'd get from shooting on film, when in black and white.
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