Concert Photography: Catch Flash & Light Trails

A concert photographer I follow named Todd Owyoung made a post today referring to “catchflash” – I’ve never heard of it referred to in that way, but I definitely use it! I would bet that every concert photographer has taken advantage of it, at some point.

It’s when there are lots of fans with point-and-shoots flashing all around you, and you catch some of that flash in your own shots. The longer your exposure, the more likely you are to catch some of those neighboring flashes. Usually I shoot at 1/80th or faster at a concert, so the timing has to be perfect for it to work – the fan and I both have to press the shutter at the exact same millisecond – so rare, and definitely not expected, but not impossible.

For me, “catch flash” usually just provides a little extra light from the front – and if the band is heavily backlit, that can be a really nice thing once in a while. But I like it even better when the “catch flash” comes from a fan on the side, and gives me a bit of unexpected rim light.

Quietdrive at The Glass House // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

Here’s an example from last year that shows not only the effects of that rogue flash, but also the flash itself! I sort of like the burst of white light as a compositional element, but I really like the rim lighting it provides on the guitarist! You can see the rest of that concert – Quietdrive at Pomona – it was good lighting overall, but getting a little extra rim light once in a while is a nice bonus – especially since I like a lot of variety.

But it doesn’t have to be an unexpected bonus – you can court “catch flash” – just by using a longer exposure. If your exposure is half a second or longer, and if the fans are going mad flashing, it’s very likely that you’ll pick up some of that flash activity – you might even get multiple flashes from different directions. It’s an iffy process, since you have zero control – you have no idea when those flashes will be fired, or how strong they will be, so you just have to shoot a lot, and hope that some magic happens!

Thinking about “catch flash” today reminded me of how I used to chase light trails…

In the mid-1990’s, right when I was starting out, there was a big trend in concert photography – mostly with grunge bands. You’d load a roll of 400 ISO B&W film, set your shutter to one or two seconds, and set your flash to maybe half-power? I played around a lot with the settings – there was no one right way – especially with a process this experimental. Then you’d hit the shutter right when the guitarist was whipping his guitar around, and you’d freeze that initial moment, and then get wonderful light trails from the guitar head and any other highlights during the remaining second or two that the shutter was open. It was frustrating at times – sometimes I’d get nothing worthwhile on an entire roll of 36 exposures – but when it almost worked, it bordered on magical.

I never totally mastered the whole grunge/flash/light trails process – and I tried! I used so many rolls of film trying… But I knew then and know now, how much chance comes into play with a process like this. It does take skill and knowledge – absolutely! But yeah, luck also enters into it, when you’re dealing with a moving subject! Part of what makes a good concert photographer is knowing the exact right moment to squeeze the shutter – the peak moment – it’s a gift and a skill and it’s necessary to get really fabulous concert shots. But no matter how good you are at anticipating peak moments, that still doesn’t guarantee that the second or two after that peak moment will be interesting, and provide interesting light trails. So yeah, a lot of luck, to get that one perfect shot.

It’s been a long time since the mid-1990’s – so maybe it’s time for me give it another try? One of the benefits of film over digital, is that it handles over-exposure better – and when you’re dealing with super-long exposures and trailing highlights, you need that margin. But, film was also limited to 36 exposure per roll, and consequently I typically shot fewer frames than I do now with digital – and with this process you definitely need to shoot a lot, that’s the only way to get the odds in your favor!

I think maybe I’m going to court a few light trails the next time I shoot a concert…

Quietdrive at the Glass House in Pomona, California

Quietdrive at The Glass House // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

On Tuesday one of my favorite bands, Quietdrive from Minneapolis, Minnesota, released their latest CD and launched a new tour at the Glass House in Pomona, California. The image above was shot after the show in the lobby, with a group of their fans watching – so it’s more a quickie than a serious band portrait – but it’s still fun!

But the real fun was shooting them live – they’re a great band to see in concert! I’ve posted the slideshow from the concert on RBL and it’s big and bold and beautiful – definitely worth watching. And if you’ve never seen a violin at a rock show, then you really need to look!

Quietdrive is currently on tour across the United States and the United Kingdom – so catch them if you can. Watch the slideshow above and listen to their music on MySpace, and you’ll understand…

Quietdrive // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

Hot New Band! Quietdrive!

I got to shoot a really hot new band last night! Quietdrive has a CD out on Epic Records that was produced by Butch Walker – big big deal producer! Their two most popular singles have been downloaded on MySpace a combined 400,000 times. And they’re super cute and young – so much fun to shoot. Oh, and I LOVE their music. Their CD has not left my CD player since I got it!

I shot them for ROCKBAND.COM and you can see the rest of the images there, but here’s a little taste…

To see the rest of the images, go to: