For the Rands & Sense magazine of 2011, I was interviewed by Stephanie Craig of the Commerce Students Council (University of Cape Town) about my photography experience.
1) How did you get started with photography?
I worked with Sony compact cameras since 2008. I decided around the start of 2010 to upgrade to a bigger DSLR to take photos of dark situations like live bands. After a few months, I began taking photos for Big Concerts of bands backstage and I got to do my first fashion shoot. I started to get a lot of requests to cover events and parties and did a few band shoots with local bands like Captain Stu. My involvement in journalism came towards the end of 2010, when I joined the Varsity newspaper, UCT Thursdays and the Ikey Rugby magazine.
2) Who taught you to take photos professionally?
I am self-taught, as are many professionals. When I am stuck, I read online lessons or the manuals. When I need inspiration, I look at other artists on website DeviantArt. I like to tell people that I think I get bit better with each photo and I take a lotof photos, so that adds up to plenty of experience in all kinds of situations.
3) What are your future plans? Is this just a hobby or are you going to turn it into a career?
I am studying Marketing at UCT and finish in 2012, so I still have time to decide. Photography is very competitive since there are many people trying to get known and be successful. Photography is my way of having fun and meeting people. I’d rather not turn it into a career, since I would end up choosing the assingments that pay the most (like weddings) rather than what I want to do.
4) Who would you say is the guy behind the lens?
I develop myself as I discover how the industry works. I strive to be an excellent photographer by visualising scenes before they happen while at the same time always being open to spontaneous moments, spectular shapes, unusual angles and beautiful lighting. I spend time learning how to market myself and how to co-operate and network with people. When doing band or model shoots, I find it is very important to direct the subjects politely and make them feel confident and comfortable. Forced expressions and poses tend to look unnatural – the best pose is often during the transition between poses, when I will say “Stop, hold that pose! Please.”
5). Why do you like photography? What attracts you to it?
I spend a lot of time working on pictures that may never get viewed much, but I do it to improve myself and to relax. When I have my camera with me at an event or party, I enjoy seeing the reactions of friends and strangers… when they see a photo that carries a lot of feeling or beauty, or when they laugh at photos I took of them and their friends.
Photography is also my escape. In Knysna over the mid-year vac, I went off by myself the one day to spend a couple of hours in the afternoon and again at sunset taking photos of boats in the harbour.
I get the most satisfaction from taking photos within in a challenging genre. Bands were my favourite for a long time, now my favourite thing to do is organise model portfolio shoots at beautiful locations such as a forest, field or train station.
7) What inspires you?
I don’t learn the names of famous photographers, but I feel inspired by certain unique or emotional styles of photography. I disect their technique and I apply to my own work such that I aborb as part of my style, then I take it further with my creative.
I try to assess the techniques and ideas used in music videos and films, so that I can incorporate into my own style to create something suitably epic.
8) What’s the worst part about being a photographer?
It’s very easy to get stressed by deadlines and when my photos are in demand, and sometimes feeling lost when I don’t know why or for who I am taking photos for. To cope, I try to focus on the things that make me happy and that keep me inspired.
9) What’s your biggest achievement to date with photography?
Getting to be the regular photographer for Big Concerts for over year is definitely the best thing that has happened. I get to take live and backstage photos of most of the bands that come from overseas to play at GrandWest to huge crowds.
10). What has been the best/worst/funniest thing you have shot?
Earlier this year, I took an action photo of a guy stage-diving into the crowd at the Mercury – with his pants around his legs.
11) What events did you photograph on campus that stood out for you?
Memorable events include seeing the RainbowUCT march, the DA talk in a lecture theatre before elections and RAG beach day which meant inflatable pools on Jammie Plaza.
12) Can people hire you or are you merely doing this for fun?
Most of the paid gigs I get are doing events like formals and birthdays, with the occasional band shoot on location around Cape Town. I enjoy doing portfolio shoots, but I prefer to work with experienced models rather than someone who is doing their first shoot.
13) What are your contact details? Where can people view your work?
My online gallery can be seen at www.michael.currin.co.za and my e-mail address is there.
14) Any advice to people just starting up with photography?
Learn your camera inside and out as well as the basics of photography. Once you know how to get things like the correct exposure, technically good and a sharp picture, look for appropriate times to be creative and go against those rules. Choose a striking composition or choose something unexpected to focus on and your pictures can stand out from everyone else to photographed the same thing.
For the Eleanour Rigby’s blog, Hello Sunshine.
Hello Sunshine: When did the photography craze start?
Michael Ashley Currin: I got my first digital camera for my gap year in 2008. I bought a better compact camera at the end of 2009, which gave me decent live band shots. I did my first paid event in February 2010, which was a 40th party. By March 2010 I was ready to get a DSLR, for professional quality in low light gig venues. By June, I was doing my first fashion shoot with friends and taking backstage photos of Deep Purple for Big Concerts. I went to at least one concert a week throughout 2010.
HS: Being self-taught do you feel that it has given you an advantage above other photographers, who have studied photography?
MAC: I am the sort of person with the curiosity and determination to teach myself so it works well for me. I guess I was able to develop my own technique and style, by absorbing from a wide variety of sources (books, magazines, online lessons, forums, people, manuals), than having a main source such as a photography school. I still think that I have learnt the most through experience though.
HS: Analogue or Digital?
MAC: Digital for sure. It seems people who are at least five years older than me started on film cameras, since digital SLR cameras were not good quality when they came out around the year 2000.
RR: What make of camera do you prefer to use?
MAC: A Nikon D90.
HS: What camera would you recommend to the amateur photographer?
MAC: Nikon and Canon are said to have equal quality but Canon is usually less expensive. The Canon 1000d or Nikon D3100 are entry-level DSLRs for those on a budget, but you might like to get 500d or D5000 if you plan to get serious into it and be hired. A budget lens like the 50mm f/1.8 will give good results portraits in the day and dark stages.
RR: How well do you know your camera?
MAC: I know it very well. I’ve set up the custom menu for quick access to certain functions (like flash settings, ISO settings and timer delay). I know my camera’s strengths and weaknesses in light and dark situations with each of my four lenses. I know how it perceives colour, brightness and contrast different to the eye and how to correct for this such as using white balance, exposure value (EV) compensation and exposure metering settings.
HS: Where do you see yourself in the next ten years?
MAC: I am still seeing the potential for earning from events, band shoots, live gigs and model shoots. I might specialise in one of those but I would always be happy to do the others as well. I don’t plan to rely on photography as a main income though, I would rather have job in marketing (which I am studying for at UCT), so I can new afford photographic equipment and to travel.
HS: Do you think you can have an impact on someone through your photography?
MAC: Yes I do. I often change the perceptions of someone, often unintentionally. I like to show a person that I meet, the beauty and simplicity in taking a photo of something too small obscure to be noticed by most people, especially in black and white with a unique angle and blurred background.
I sometimes take a photo with someone else’s camera to figure it out and help them. I show them pictures I take with it, it usually inspires them and I get to show them that technique and creativity is more important than camera quality. After talking to me and seeing my photos of whatever event I am at, I have recently had a few people tell me that they want to take up a photography and get a good camera, because of me.
HS: Do you think Cape Town is the spot for an upcoming photographer to grow or would you say the place doesn’t really matter, but it’s more what you do in the place?
MAC: With regard to bands, Cape Town is great with a huge variety of genres and levels of fame here and unlike Joburg the venues here aren’t as far to drive to. Cape Town is amazing for natural landscapes, the sea and urban decay. There are plenty of models, studios, events, promotions businesses, photography schools… Cape Town is amazing but make sure you take your camera overseas or at least on a roadtrip or somewhere away from the city where you can find something unusual to develop your skills.
HS: What do you have to say to the future photographers out there?
MAC: One of the books I read says that there is always room in the world or in your area for one more photographer. Another book says “Don’t compete unless you have a competitive advantage” – in other words, you can be successful if you can find what makes your service unique, whether it is your style of photos, or how you deal with people and get them to look and feel relaxed in photos. I had one band member after their set, that he liked how I took photos of them, that I wasn’t afraid to get up close to them while they were on stage.
Be accepting of repetitive or what seems like silly questions from those that you meet. Most people are surprised when they see the view through an SLR viewfinder or you answer them with how much it cost. They might assume you are professional or studied photography, just because your photos look better than the average person’s. It is fun to see reactions of people when I explain that my flash works wirelessly, or when I show them is has a zoom inside to make the light go further.
HS: And a random one, just for fun. Your ideal night out would be?
MAC: My ideal night out happens quite often actually. I go to a club to see a band I know, perform with bands I haven’t heard of who often sound great. I talk to friends who are there. I meet many new people in the crowd who want to be in photos and are curious about what I do. I climb on the edge of stage to get dramatic photos. I chat to the bands to tell them who I am and that I will post a link to the photos on their Facebook page. Some nights, bands come up to me to find out who I am and where they can see my photos. Sometimes they give me a CD or offer to put me on the guestlist next time.
When taking photos of people at parties or gigs they often ask
- “So, did you study photography?”
- “When did you start as a photographer?”
- “Are you a professional?”
They are usually surprised when I say something like “No, actually I am studying Marketing at UCT. I have taught myself photography through experience and absorbing every source of information I can. I only became serious a year ago with a new camera or two, after I had already started Marketing but I don’t wish I had studied photography. No I am not a professional, but I am able to earn a bit as extra income.”
I’ve heard it is quite possible to get really good in art without having studied it. I think to earn some income you need marketing and networking skills to get yourself known out there. To earn better and to become well-known, you have to differentiate yourself. There’s a quote like “Don’t compete unless you have a competitive advantage”.
I work as a photographer for bands (Captain Stu, Irvine, photographer for Big Concerts), parties and my university’s publications (UCT Varisty mag, UCT RAG Sax Appeal 2011, UCT Ikey Rugby magzine). I am not desperate to take any job, I have the spare time to choose the ones I want and focus more on what I enjoy even if I don’t get paid (like going to gigs and doing model location shoots for friends).
I would recommend studying photography to someone if that’s what they really want to do and if they have at least a few months experience with a camera to see if they like it. But U think you still need the talent and drive to work hard, to match their inspiration to become a successful photographer. If you think “I’ve never owned a a camera but photography sounds like a nice job” or if a friend tells you “wow you should become a photographer!”, I don’t think those are solid reasons to choose that career path. I’ve heard photographers don’t make that much money – I am rather choosing to have a business career when I finish studying and I can take photos when I like and I can hopefully afford to pay for decent equipment.
I’ve looked into studying photography in Cape Town, but the courses are a lot of things I don’t really want to learn (such as developing film in a dark room or studio lighting techniques) or things I have already taught myself. I pick up a lot through experience, by being conscious of applying and inventing techniques in various situations of taking pictures. I analyse my photo and style and look at the photos of others to get ideas and to find the inspiration to go out and be original and amazing.
You can of course Google “sports photography” or “what is aperture?” and the popular pages will be ranked at the top of your search, but a great starting pointing to find out what is out there to know and a source of beginner to advanced free online lessons, is to use digital-photography-school.com . I talk to other photographers in person or on an online artist community such as DeviantArt.com .
Places in Cape Town
- I know a friend who is enjoying studying photography at Ruth Prowse.
- I’ve heard about the Cape Town School of Photography. You can do a 9 week workshop with lectures on a subject by signing up with ctsp.co.za
- Studio7photography.co.za offers photography as a year course and has part time courses for periods like 6 to 18 weeks on topics like an introduction, studio photography, black and white….
I almost always carry my camera with me and I quickly adapt to new settings and ideas when faced with photographic opportunities. I often take photos of bands, parties, events, models, crowds, sports, landscapes, insects, birds and textures such as wood or metal. You can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org for specific advice on camera equipment, settings, technique and so on.
I can also recommend reading a photography lesson on this blog for understanding camera settings relating to a DSLR.
Beyond the common “compact” or “point and shoot” cameras, if you are serious you should get at an entry-levelNikon or Canon “DSLR” or “Digital Single Reflex Camera” at R5000 in South Africa, but since it lasts at least 3 years it might be worth spending a few thousand rands more. The main attraction for DSLRS other than quality is that the lenses are removable so you can add more expensive or longer ones, etc.
There is also a new range of larger high end compact cameras still cheaper than DSLRs but they have 10 to 18 times zoom, though they have built in lenses but can’t have an external flash mounted.
Books I recommend
- The Digital Photography Book boxed set by Scott Kelby (3 books)
- How to Make Money from Digital Photography by Dan Heller (one of the opening pages says turning photography into income is a great way to ruin a passion or hobby)
- Digital Photography Masterclass by Tom Ang
The photography magazines out there have a mix of beginner to advance techniques. Some of their articles are quite obvious – or maybe you haven’t heard of the technique before but there are free lessons all over the internet explaining it. The Canon magazine reviews only Canon cameras, but the articles on taking and editing photos are easy to read for a Nikon user like myself. The Black and White Photography magazine or a title like that, has some breathtaking landscapes and portraits. It shows you what black and white photos can look like with purple, brown, orange tints etc.
You can see a growing of many list of concerts I have taken photos at, mostly small dimly lit clubs and couple of large stages in Cape Town, South Africa. I took the photos in this article with a D90 and a Nikon 18-105mm kit lens or a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8, edited in Lightroom.
Dim stage with a slow kit lens
A kit lens that comes with the camera will typically say f/3.5-5.6 which is considered “slow” as you have to use longer exposures (meaning blur) or higher ISOs (meaning noise) to achieve as much light as a higher quality low-light lens (read on for that).
- Aperture: 3.5 is the best at a wide angle, your lens will be forced to f/4, f/5, f/5.6 or f/6.3 as you zoom. So for bright photos, stand closer, zoom less and crop more on your computer.
- Exposure: 1/125, 1/100, 1/80 or even 1/60 if you already have a high ISO and have something to lean on to stablilise yourself, you have a VR or IS lens, or the band is standing fairly still.
- ISO settings: Turn AUTO ISO Off so that it stays at a value you fix. I prefer ISO 800, I use 1600 at some venues and if its really dark I use 2000 or 3200. Those last two mean you should probably turn the camera’s noise reduction to High, or leave it off and use higher values in Lightroom 3 etc.
- Mode: Manual
Dim stage with a low-light lens
- Aperture: A zoom lens with f/2.8 on it will stay wide open at that aperture throughout the zoom range so that you don’t lose brightness as you zoom. Even better can be a prime lens such as 50mm f/1.8 or 30mm f/1.4.
- Exposure: 1/160, 1/125, 1/100 or even 1/80
- ISO settings: Usually 400 or 800, sometimes having to resort to 1600 or 3200 at some venues but still achieving professional and fairly noise free photos.
- Mode: Manual, or Aperture priority with an EV of say -3.
Bright stage, any lens
- Aperture: you can probably afford to use values like f/4 and f/5.6, or like f/8 and f/11 if the lighting is shining right at you, which will also give a starburst effect. These settings allow use to get more of the musicians in focus (wider depth of field) while also reaching your lens’s “sweet-spot” for sharpness usually two stops above the widest. e.g. on a f/2.8 lens the sweet spot is f/5.6, on f/3.5 it’s f/8
- Exposure: you can probably use 1/200, 1/320 or 1/500 which will freeze musicians and their hair as they jump about the stage.
- ISO: If the lighting is pretty constant, set AUTO ISO ON with values from 200 to 800 and set a value for Exposure Value (EV) compensation at like -3 or -2. The ISO will change based on if you are aiming at a light or dark part of the stage. If the the lighting is changing every second so that your camera always gets the photo brightness way off, you are better off setting ISO yourself (AUTO ISO OFF) and using Manual mode.
- Mode: Manual, Program, Aperture Priority (e.g. f/2.8 for narrow depth of field), Shutter Priority (e.g. 100 for wider DOF or 200 for freezing action).
Small stage with flash
I have only used my new flash (SB-600) so far at once concert and it was a dark venue with lights aimed at the guitars rather than musicians’ faces. But my flash was capable of lighting up the stage well, or the whole crowd when I aimed it over their heads.
I like to use handheld off-camera flash (remote) and bounce it off the low ceiling (works well even though its black).
I use the built-in diffuser camera most of the time since I am close to or on the edge of the stage.
The point of flash is to get sharp pictures (little or no blur) even in dimly lit enviroments, as well as using it creatively. An advatange is that you can use lower ISO values such as 200 to reduce noise, but even at 400 or 800 (which makes the flash seem to reach further) I had no problems of noise in the bright or shadowy areas. I used JPG and Normal Noise Reduction – when not using flash, I highly recommend using the RAW format unless you hate post-processing which involves touching up your photos without losing image quality.
So I suggest…
- Aperture: f/2.8 or f/3.5 for narrow depth of field effect. This makes photos look more professional if the focus is right and the wider value will also mean brigther photos especially shooting musicians at a distance. Use f/4, f/5.6 or f/8 if you are close the musicians and you want more of them to be in focus (face as well as guitar, or guitarist and bassist).
- Exposure: Using 1/60 (default in program mode) will let it a decent amount of ambient stage lighting but might get ghosting and blur on strumming hands. You can use a shorter value in Shutter Priority or Manual Mode, or set flash on Rear Curtain sync on the camera.
- ISO settings: 200 to 800 should be fine. If you leave AUTO ISO ON, you should probably set Exposure compensation (EV) on the camera. Also generally set Flash compensation (FV) on the camera or flash to a lower value so that the flash lasts longer or pictures are darkened.
Turn High Speed Sync on and it will automatically kick in should you use shutter values shorter than say 1/250 of a second, but it’s not really necessary for concerts.
I like to be able to change quickly between flash and non-flash shots with as few buttons as possible. So I set my camera up as follows: External flash is on, camera in manual mode at 1/60 and whatever aperture I need. Auto ISO is ON with values 200 to 1600, but stays at 200 while the flash is on. I turn the flash unit off, ISO changes to 1600 (because the scene is dark) and I change exposure to something like 1/100 (2 turns of the dial) and aperture to f/2.8 if it wasn’t there already.
Depth of field
If you are using a low light lens (f/2.8 or faster), then depth of field will be much smaller (less in focus). This is great for artistic reasons (see the photo above) but if you don’t want that effect all the time, use a value like f/3.5 or f/4 when lighting is bright during a certain song, stand further back,t use the wide rather than zoomed end of your lens. Set AF-area to Single or Dynamic rather than Auto, then you can use AF point system in the viewfinder to aim at eyes and faces, usually on the musician closest to you. Focusing in Live View seems to be slower and less accurate in my experience but helps alot when used with Manual focus (set on both your lens and your camera body) if your camera struggles to find something to focus on.
A good lesson I found on choosing lenses for concerts. Choosing Lenses For Concert Photography
All photographers know what’s like to miss the perfect shot when it happens in an instant, so here I identify my own mistakes which you probably share, then I address them with solutions. I spend most of my time photographing local bands in Cape Town, South Africa, but some of this advice is also based on my experience in taking photos of sport and people too.
As the action unfolds, you realise that your camera…
- is off
- is around your neck and not in your hands
- still has the lens cap on
- If you know you have more than enough battery for the event, leave it on for a few seconds longer each time, or put in on in anticipation of the crucial moments.
- I can get tired holding my camera with a heavy zoom lens, but the least I can do is keep it around my neck while still holding it loosely with both hands.
- If I have a lens hood or filter on, I don’t mind leaving my lens cap off for a few minutes when I have nothing to shoot at the moment. Also I keep a lens cloth in my camera bag so I can wipe any dust or finger prints off straight away.
Keep your eyes on the action
I have missed a few key shots on stage because I was too busy…
- checking the monitor to see if the previous shots came out alright.
- going through the last 10 shots to delete a few
- admiring the most recent shot, while something better happens.
- Wait for breaks in the action so you can review the image composition as well as settings. Choose Program, Aperture priority or Shutter speed priority, with EV compensation (like -4 or -5 on dark stages) and ISO limiting (e.g. 200-1600), then trust your camera for a while. If the light in unpredictable, or low, you’ll have to check image quality more frequently.
- I like to delete my bad photos on my camera as I find it more efficient than on my computer for a few reasons. But I try to avoid the decision-making of to delete or not, while the action is happening. In between bands is when I often take time out, to find my best shots so I can get more like that and to delete the bad ones.
- I know it’s tempting to look at a photo that you know turned out really well, but don’t let that take preference of taking another like it a few seconds later.
Stay in focus
With energetic events and moving objects, you might not get the right moment in perfectly focus because…
- autofocus let you down
- manual focus failed
- you got camera shake
- the depth of field is too narrow or misplaced
- you timed the shot wrong
- autofocus let you down – If you choose the default version of autofocus mode, it will likely choose whatever object is biggest, brightest, or closest in the view. You can lock the focus and exposure with the AE-AF buttons or by half-pressing the shutter. More conveniently, I find when I want to keep the eyes and faces of people in focus, I set autofocus to the AF-point system. I then use the buttons to move the point around so that the face is in the top third of my photo, whether in portrait or landscape mode. Also note that Autofocus will be less accurate in low light, so I like setting the AF point to the person’s face (which reflects) rather than their clothes or the background (which are harder reference points). I find the dynamic “3D” autofocus mode great sport or moving objects – while keeping the shutter half-pressed between shots to keep it locked on. (e.g. I have 11 AF points on my viewfinder, but it works differently and less efficiently in Live View. Live View also focuses incredibly slow in low light, but in good light it’s worth using for the facial recognition if it’s turned on).
- you got camera shake – I read an article in a photography magazine reviewing the difference an IS or VR lens makes and that feature is definitely useful especially at shutter speeds like 1/60 or longer (though it uses batter faster, it’s worth it). Still, it helps to find something to lean on – a wall, a chair, railing – to get sharp shots. By looking through the viewfinder against your face, the camera will be more stable than holding the weight out at a distance when using Live View.
- the depth of field is too narrow or misplaced – Since you’re shooting in low light, you’ll get narrow depth of field from a f/2.8 or f/1.8 lens, or from zooming in a lot. This can look very dramatic, make sure the focal point is spot on such as having eyes and face in focus (sharpening with a mask on the computer can help for misplaced focus). What usually takes priority over that rule, is focusing on what is nearest to the camera (as in the guitar back shot above, but not in microphone cases such as below).
- I have missed a few cool shots because I was too busy thinking, “wow I can’t believe he’s jumping that high” or that “the chameleon is really catching the fly”. I have to work on remembering to take the photo. To catch quick movements like that, rapid shot /drive mode work well, but it’s really important to autofocus before the thing happens the since half a second it takes to autofocus could mean you miss the moment.
If you know your memory card is getting full or your battery is running low, change it early during a calm moment so that your camera won’t let you down in a crucial moment.
- Nikon D90, 2 batteries and a 16GB memory card
- Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
- Sigma 24-70m f/2.8 lens
- Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens
- Sony H20
All photos in this post were taken by me. See my band photography WordPress blog at michaelcurrinphotography.