I found myself in unfamiliar territory the other day on assignment. Country music legend Willie Nelson was scheduled to open the sixth season of musical entertainment at the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts with two shows on September 11 and 12 and I was asked if wanted to take pictures at the concert. there was only one stipulation, I would only be allowed to photograph the first three songs.
When the Grand first reopened their inaugural concert featured Linda Ronstadt. When we asked about photographing the first ever concert we we were told no photography allowed. I sort of figured that with a star of Willie Nelson's caliber photography would be prohibited as well so I was more than surprised about the opportunity.
I haven't photographed two many music performers from the national stage before. We had a few concert shows I shot in my Turlock Journal days covering the Stanislaus County Fair. the rules for most of the performers were the same, maybe the first two or three songs then security hustled you out of the arena. the one exception was Lee Greenwood to his credit actually stopped the concert and had all the security crew lining the front of the stage removed so the audience could enjoy the show. Anyone was welcome to step up to the stage front and snap a picture. I think he actually waved at me once.
So setting up to photograph Willie Nelson presented some challenges. first was the time constraint. This was going to be run and gun. Shoot as many frames as possible in the time allowed. I figured roughly three songs might round out to about 15 minutes. He was scheduled to take to the stage at 8 p.m. so my night would be over about 8:20 p.m.
My shooting location was going to the the ground floor all the way to the back of the theater. I figured this would be a long lens shoot so I packed my 300mm f.4 with the 1.4 extender on my Canon Eos 40D camera and the work 70-200 mm f2.8 zoom on the work Canon 1D MKII. I decided to make the 40D my primary camera because it has a slightly higher resolution, buffers to the memory card quicker and has newer color chip that could handle the stage lighting.
The lighting was my next concern. I've shot drama rehearsals and some events there and the lighting normally is tricky at best. Big wide stretches of darkness punctuated by spotlights. Not the type of lighting you switch your camera to auto and let the frames fly. I figured I would have to be dialing in some exposure compensation in along the way to accommodate the contrasty lighting. Flesh tones would have the priority and I would let the background fly. I figured there would be a mix of colored gels and background scenery so this was going to be a shoot then chimp to see what kind of adjustment I needed to make. I figured I would lose about half the first song just dialing in the right exposure.
There not really that much to say about the actual shoot, it is kind of like taking a picture of a man at a podium, they don't move around too much. My biggest problem was when Nelson wore a hat casting a shadow over much of his face, although the "got Weed" hat did add a nice touch. The lower lighting values dropped my shutter speed some although blurring his hand on the guitar in some frames. I tried to shoot at mostly wide open apertures and focusing was sometimes tricking in the mixed light.
To tell you the truth I can't tell you what the three songs he played were. I was too busy shooting and chimping to really listen to the music. Sometimes when I cover a sporting event the last thing I do is look at the scoreboard to see who is winning. Shooting sports I am not watching the score but the players so sometimes I lose track of the scoring. It is easy to spend more time shooting than watching an event, there is a big difference.
Anyhow back at home I process a quick 30 photos from the overall 760 I shot with both cameras. i had a lot of outtakes but I happy with the results and I think for just shooting three songs I captured a good variety of poses and moments to give readers an idea of his performance. My one brief brush with name star, it was fun but I'm ready to go back to the quiet calm of my normal assignments around town. Give me the small town stuff any day.