Interview with Hello Sunshine

For the Eleanour Rigby’s blog, Hello Sunshine.


first Big Concerts event - Steve Morse of Deep Purple (click for larger version)

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.


first fashion shoot - Simóne Meyer

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.

Kombat Fudge band shoot

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.


SAX Appeal 2011 shoot using bounced flash - Tammy Feldman

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.


first studio shoot - Lisa Harrison

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.


Big Concerts event - Rammstein

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.


first band shoot - iScream and the Chocolate Stix


Concert Photography Tips – DSLR settings

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

LA Cobra - 18mm, 1/80, f/3.5, ISO2000

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

Stonecollar - 24mm, 1/100, f/2.8, ISO800

  • 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

Wishbone Ash - 42mm, 1/400, f/3.5, ISO400

  • 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

Heldervue with mixed remote flash (from below) and stage lighting - 24mm, 1/60, f/2.8, ISO500

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.

Reburn's singer showing front curtain flash ghosting - 24mm (cropped photo), 1/60, f/2.8, ISO400

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

Black Market Riots - 65mm, 1/100, f/2.8, ISO250

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


Lessons in Photography

I have learnt a lot about photography lately and I want post some of the tips I have picked up.


London Calling

I got a new “superzoom” digital camera 3 weeks ago and I have already taken 2 600 photos. (Edit: 4 months later I had taken 27 000 photos then bought bought an Nikon SLR).
It is the Sony DSC-H20 with 10 megapixels and 10x zoom. Most of my photos on my DeviantArt gallery were taken with it. I am able to get much better focus and zoom than with my previous cheap 7MP camera, which I had from the end of 2007.

My Sony DSC-H20

I took a lot of bad and blurry pictures in order achieve a few perfect shots. I figured out how to use a tripod and how my camera works, so that’s increased my success rate. I also like to leave my camera on Rapid shot mode, to take a few quick shots of the action and then keep the ones that aren’t blurred.

For learning the basics of layers and partial color (selective black & white), these easy tutorials will get you started in Photoshop.
Layers: [link]
Partial Color: [link]


Partial color applied to a bumblebee in my garden

Picasa is the best free photo editing program I know of. Especially because you can easily save and undo changes. You only need to click Save (right click save, or the little disk save button), if you want to update the original file so you can upload it or copy it somewhere.
For DeviantArt, the best I think is to select the files you want and go File > Export. Leave it as Automatic quality and set the width in pixels. I usually go for 800, 900 or 1024, which makes them quick to upload to DA and 900px fills the screen well in full view.
Of course, export makes a copy of the photo you are working with and automatically applies the effects you were using, while still leaving the first photo edited but “unsaved”.

Download Picasa here [link]
Read tutorials for it here [link]

Applying sepia and warmth

This is what I have learnt about the basic Picasa effects.

-Is the photo taken in cloudy weather or does it look too blue or do people look too pale?
Add a some warmth with the slider, as much as you need but don’t overdo it unless you want an old look (combine with sepia and film grain then)

-Do the colours still look washed out or do you need them to look more vibrant?
Set the saturation up a tiny bit (less than the default, but slightly right of the middle line)

-Then add fill light to brighten dark photos (but remember to increase darks a bit as well). Or add darkness to bright photos (but add a bit of light to balance it out).

If the lighting is good but you want to improve the contrast (this works for almost all photos), put the fill light up by say 10% and put the darkness up by 10% too. Or 5% and 5%, etc.

The order of Warmth -> Saturation -> Brightness/Darkness was recommended to me and it works well. You can leave out some of those steps if they make the photo look fake and overdone. I have found Highlights are very useful for low light such as , as you can often turn it up a lot without much noise appearing.

There Be Dragons III

I would appreciate feedback if you found this useful.

Michael Currin