June 17, 2016

UCT Choir Winter Concert 2016

My friend Runako asked if I would be interested in taking pictures of the Choir Concert that UCT Choir was hosting after lectures ended for the semester. It was a good time out from the tough couple of weeks I had in classes. Runako also asked if they could hire me as the photographer for the event and I didn’t even hesitate when I said no. Yes, I rejected the offer. The reason is simple, It was such a big event under alien conditions, I couldn’t guarantee that I could produce good photographs despite the amount of faith she had in me. However, I was allowed to shadow the other more experienced photographer which they already had in mind so I could gain some experience for future works.

UCT Choir Winter Concert 2016

That’s Runako in the middle there… 😀

The concert was to be held at Baxter Theatre and because I attend evening church service there, I knew the sort of lighting I was going to have to work with. I did a some research on shooting plays, choirs and other events under low light situations. The recurring advice was, wide aperture and high ISO. In my case, I had a prime lens EF 50mm f/1.8 which lets in a lot of light but sadly not much flexibility which the focal length. For my camera, I am comfortable with a maximum ISO of ISO-1600 which is not really high enough to get fast shutter speeds. Here’s the gear I used for this event:

  • Canon EOS 500D
  • EF 50mm f/1.8 II
  • EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II
  • EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 III
  • Battery Grip with spare battery

Equipment used for the shoot

I got to the venue 40min before time to scout and prepare and my fears were soon confirmed. Took a couple of shots at f/1.8 and ISO 1600 and they did not look pleasing at all. I was using Aperture Priority mode and the shutter speeds I was getting were way too slow to have any sharp images (was constantly getting around 1/20s ).

UCT Choir Winter Concert 2016

At least the stage was well lit

I switched to Manual Mode and for most of the night I shot at at least 1/50s hoping that I’d be able to pump up the exposure in post-processing. Thankfully though, the stage was very well lit. I could afford to even use the 55-250mm lens to get close up shots although I had to shoot at a relatively low shutter speed of 1/160 (which is very slow for 250mm but the IS helped out a lot).

UCT Choir Winter Concert 2016

Opera cameo

Time out from technical stuff. This was the first event I had actually attended at Baxter Theatre (besides church of course). I had been missing out on a lot! The music was simple sensational. From the opera cameos, to the American visiting choir singing the South African National Anthem. I remember the lady announcing that the choir was about to sing a legendary South African song. People speculated whether it was Brenda Fassie, or Lucky Dube. To our surprise, we heard the Americans sing, “‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika!”, I was just there smiling like an idiot. Everyone stood up to join with their hands by the chest. Both choirs sang beautifully. I made a promise to myself to attend more choir and other events at Baxter Theatre in future.

UCT Choir Winter Concert 2016

As people stood at attention for the South African National Anthem.

Back to my shooting experiences. Most of my shots were close up and a few full body pictures. This is because I was mostly restricted to using the 50mm prime lens. Because I personally prefer portraits and close up shots, I didn’t mind most of the time but there were so many times I wished I could go a little bit wider especially during more active music but unfortunately there was not much I could do.

UCT Choir Winter Concert 2016

UCT Choir conductor joining in on the dancing. Sadly I couldn’t fit him in the frame. This is where I needed a fast wide angle lens.

During the whole event, I tried my best to get the best shots and push my skills to the limit but even so, I was comfortable with the fact that 99% of my pictures would not be usable. I took as many as possible hoping I’d get lucky every couple of pictures. To my astonishment, I had taken a lot of very good pictures. I did have to increase the exposure especially with pictures on the audience but in general, the pictures where really good. The noise at ISO-1600 was very present but the pictures even got better after some noise reduction they were as good as ISO-400!

Here is a list of things I learnt from this experience:

  • High ISO is not the end of the world. Most of my pictures had an ISO above ISO-1250 but they were absolutely beautiful.
    UCT Choir Winter Concert 2016

    One of the grainiest and noisy pictures I took from this night. Shot at ISO-1600. I love this picture despite the grain and noise in it.

    Jared Pollin (FroKnows), one of the photographer I follow, has always emphasised that you can get away with high ISO photos because most people will look at the images on laptops and handheld devices and the noise will barely be noticeable here…and the average human does not look at a photo and zoom in to look at noise any ways. Although shooting at high ISO has other disadvantages besides noise, when the situation needs it, I shouldn’t hesitate to use it.

  • Camera shake is a real thing. Because I was forced to shoot at very low shutter speeds, the slightest vibrations from my hands were visible in the pictures I took.
    UCT Choir Winter Concert 2016

    Picture shot at 1/160 seconds at 250mm with very little to no camera shake.

    I learnt to be as steady as possible when pressing the shutter. I even came up with a strategy where I hold my breathe for a few seconds just before pressing the shutter. This method is inspired by Call Of Duty where players have the option to hold their breathe to steady the rifle when they are using sniper weapons or shooting through the sights.

  • I also learnt to be creative. Because I couldn’t zoom into the action on stage, I ended up walking around taking picture of people enjoying themselves. Covering the event did not just mean taking pictures of the choir singing, but also show how people reacted to the performances.
    UCT Choir Winter Concert 2016

    Taking advantage of the f/1.8 on the nifty fifty

  • I should have more faith in myself and prepare adequately before events. Because I arrived 40min before the event started. I got a chance to walk around the whole place and work out how I was going to cover the event. This also gave me a chance to determine the exposure settings I was going to use (which wouldn’t change much because there was constant lighting so I could use my camera in Manual Mode all night), also set the white balance and other relevant settings.