Strings attached

A man called Peter Gregson has been on my radar for a good while now. A cellist and composer, excelling at a creative discipline but also popping up all over the place under virtual tags (in my mind, at least) of “innovative”, “social” and “digital”. While I’d be wary of comparing myself to the brilliance that is a professional musician, let’s just say that things have chimed here and there.

And then we got to meet. We’d almost met a couple of times before, but I was lucky enough last Thursday to hear Peter speak about the fascinating intersection of music, technology and enterprise at the awesome FutureGov 4th birthday party. A brief chat afterwards, and I’m delighted to hear about an after-work gig he’s playing the following evening (last night) at the National Portrait Gallery.

I’m there like a shot–though not to shoot it. To listen, get a dunking in a musical genre (modern classical cello, I guess?) that’s unfamiliar, and ok ok, just maybe to get a few shots.

This post isn’t about the music though: read about and listen to that in other places–but a little about shooting where you shouldn’t, and making images with the barest of ingredients.

You can’t take photos in the NPG without a special permit. Fair enough. I can respect that: for a whole bunch of reasons–flashlighting damaging colour and tone in the paintings, awkwardness over copyright and the gallery’s commercial interests, happy snappers getting in the way, and the big one: that a gallery has been set out as a place to enjoy in the moment, not blighted by a haze of flashguns and the interposition of lenses and time-lag in appreciating the works.

And I don’t have the special permit. When I’m working, I do, but tonight I don’t. Yet, here we are.

Low-light, so it’s high ISO–which means a bit noisy and grainy. But that’s not the end of the world. Definitely the wrong lens, but the only one I have in the bag. Too long by half, and I’m in stealth mood, so shooting “from the bag”, not the eye. Framing correctly under these circumstances is down to experience: judging what will be in the frame as you look down on the camera.
Exif*: 70mm; ISO 2000; f/2.8; 1/40


Is this ok? Well, I thought so, or I wouldn’t have done it. I’m not featuring any of the artwork, there’s no flash (despite the dim light; there are other ways around this), I’m pretty sure Peter is cool about it as we’d chatted about the restrictive conditions beforehand, and I’m taking every possible precaution to be discreet. In fact, to be completely unnoticed by the audience. This means keeping the camera down, almost inside the bag, and shooting without looking through the viewfinder. The DSLR shutter makes a good old clunking noise–it’s how they work–so timing is crucial. A quick frame during a very noisy passage (as the one above), or else between the pieces. No way will I press that shutter to disrupt the softer magic of the gentle pieces.

And there’s Mr Angry to bear in mind. Mr Angry is very angry. He’s sitting right next to me, too. I know he’s angry because he kicked off royally just before the music started when someone fired off a compact camera (complete with flash) right into the room. At the audience. Right into Mr Angry’s face. Whether it was the capture of his face, the assault on the senses or concern for the protection of the pigments, I don’t know. But he was angry, and he was right next to me, as I sat on the floor. If he spotted me, I might well be somewhat screwed. That’s Mr Angry’s bag in the corner of that frame above: I couldn’t get round it without abandoning my ultra-discreet schtick.

The gaps between the pieces provide a chance to grab a rather more composed frame. But just the one. This evening is not about click-click-click. It’s about listen-listen-listen. The low f number not only gets more light into the camera, it also helps isolate Peter from the artwork behind. In other circumstances I’d work on featuring those juxtapositions, but tonight it’s safer to lose them out of focal field.
Exif: 85mm; ISO 1600; f/2.8; 1/30 (right on the edge of being too slow, therefore too blurry)


And if I’m only able to take ten frames in total over the whole event–that’s my judgement as to what’s acceptable–then I have to make them count. I’m in a fixed position, the light is poor, I have massive restrictions on manoeuvring the camera and framing the shots. And I do not want them to be boring. So details become important–and is there anything more compelling than the hands of an artist?

Again, shot in a break: hands not playing, but still with a hint of motion. A black & white conversion and addition of a dark vignette helped to emphasise the hands and strings as strong graphic elements.
Exif: 200mm; ISO 1600; f/2.8; 1/25 (just too slow; see the difference?)


And one more image, making one last point: when all might be lost, careful editing can be your friend. I wanted to capture the sense of pace and action. The intensity of motion. And that meant grabbing a chance during a particularly fast and furious section. So it’s going to be blurry, frankly, under those conditions. Not much I can do about that.

Here’s a tip though: if you have got something that’s a little motion-blurred, you can often improve the position radically by converting to black & white. The eye and brain are stimulated in a different way–the information they process changes; it’s more about tone and shape, and somehow, more forgiving of sloppiness in other areas, particularly light/dark boundaries. Do that, then put a tint back in. And from the train-wreck of a poorly focused shot, a frame emerges that’s at least worth a second look.

The vibrato is captured: Peter’s left hand in fluid, powerful motion. There’s a lot of other motion too: it’s not amazingly well-focused, it’s dark, it’s grainy, but there’s a frame there. I can only hope it’s an acceptable one.
Exif: 70mm; ISO 1600; f/2.8; 1/30


So, a very small set. Exploring restrictions: of space, equipment and permission. And trying not to be boring by varying tone, composition and mood (in-camera and in post-processing) even when shooting from a very fixed position. None of these images are perfect, by any means, but I hope the technical notes are some use to you if you find yourself in similar conditions. (Oh, Mr Angry never noticed a thing. And if he didn’t, nobody did.)

(Clicking on these pictures should open them up in a nice lightbox–you can then use arrow keys to move between them.)

*What the Exif notes mean: this is detailed data about how the photo was taken–first, the focal length of the lens, then ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor: low number for bright conditions, high for dark or indoors), then f number (the size of the hole that lets the light into the camera: low = big, high = small), finally the exposure time (how long the shutter is open) in seconds.

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