Great Music, Crappy Light - Shooting Live Music with the Fujifilm X-E1

Austin is a wonderful place to be for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is its huge live music scene.  I'm fortunate to know a number of talented musicians and I've spent some time lately shooting some performances for a few of them.  Getting great shots of live performances in Austin can be a challenge.  A lot of the venues have small, dark stages.  Stage lighting is often haphazard at best.  Such was the case at a couple of shows I covered recently with my Fujifilm X-E1.

It takes fast glass and high ISOs to get good shots in dark places and the X-E1 with the 35mm f/1.4 lens was my weapon of choice.  The first show that I covered was a happy hour gig with Red Dirt Rebellion at the Hole in the Wall, right on the Drag by UT near downtown Austin.  The guys are on the stage there every Thursday night from 7-9.  In this time slot it's still daylight outside for most of the show and the sun is pouring in through the window behind the stage.  Forget any automatic exposure programs, this is manual exposure territory.

For the most part, I had to be content with letting the background blow to oblivion for proper exposure on the guys in the band.  The above picture was an exception as a passing bus served as a short-lived flag for the hard sunlight.  I was shooting at ISO 3200-6400 to get the shutter speeds necessary to minimize motion blur of some animated performers.  Autofocus lock was a challenge with faces in shadow for the most part.  I found it easier at times to lock onto a guitar strap instead of facial features.

All of my shots were in black and white.  Well, that's not entirely true.  I captured raw + jpeg files, using the in-camera black and white red filter simulation for the jpegs.  I've found that the red filter simulation works quite well for enhancing skin tone in challenging light such as dark club stages.  The shots you see here are the camera jpegs, which I adjusted slightly in Lightroom - basically just an adjustment of black and white points to taste and a slight clarity boost.  Why not color?  What little light hit the performers was very red.  It just doesn't look good and to my eyes it's a huge distraction from the emotional intensity of the band.

It seems like the majority of Austin musicians have more than one gig going.  It's virtually a necessity for anyone trying to make even a partial living from playing music.  Several of the guys from Red Dirt Rebellion also happen to be the Swamp Bats, a gutsy blues-heavy rock trio.  I caught the Swamp Bats at the Red Eyed Fly in downtown Austin last Saturday night.  The Bats played on the inside stage in an awesome sounding room that was plagued by more crappy light.

The stage lighting went from bad to worse as I went from the Hole in the Wall to the Red Eyed Fly. There are a few reddish lights at the Fly sort of aimed at the stage.  They were positioned just right to practically nuke the fair skin of bass player Jack and barely feather guitarist Steve.  Jeff on drums probably had the best light but still not much to work with.  We're talking about ISO 6400, f/1.4, and about 1/60 seconds here!  There will be some motion blur, oh yes.

Since 1/60 was about the best shutter speed I could manage, I took a lot more shots in this venue.  I knew there would be lots of motion blur and that my keeper rate would be low.   To make matters worse, my autofocus only occasionally locked on.  It was just too dark for the X-E1 to handle most of the time.  Low light AF is truly the Achilles' Heel of the X-E1.  I was forced to manual focus for a lot of my shots.  This isn't as terrible as it sounds.  The X-E1 allowed me to zoom in on the focus point in the EVF for accuracy.  I focused while the guys were relatively still and kind of moved my body back and forth in concert with their movements to maintain focus.  Sounds awkward (and it was) but it worked.

So, is the Fujifilm X-E1 the ideal concert camera?  No, probably not.  That said, I won't hesitate to use it for that purpose.  The advantages far outweigh the negatives.  Its small unassuming size means no questions at the door to the club about bringing "pro equipment" in without forms and permission.  The image quality is stellar.  ISO 6400 is no sweat at all.  If you're like me and love B&W, you need to check out X-E1's in-camera film simulations.  They are truly something special (don't worry if monochrome isn't your thing - the X-E1 kicks ass in color too!)  Could I get better results by converting the raw files?  Yeah, maybe.  However, when I'm capturing hundreds of shots of a band I don't want to do all that post processing.  The camera files are more than good enough and they have plenty of latitude for pushing the pixels in post if you want.  The only real downside to me is the autofocus sensitivity (or the lack thereof) in low light.  It's not insurmountable and worth the minor frustration for some great looking shots straight out of camera.