Category Archives: SMAC

SMAC Barn Burner with Dennis Brennan

It has been a while since I did some concert photography for the fun of it.   We were up at our favorite place for live music, the Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine, for the second in their “Barn Burner” series of music there.   Held in their lobby barn instead of the main hall and it’s a lot closer to a club feel.  Pizza, beer, and dancing are the order of the day.  The Iodine Brothers, one of Dennis Brennan‘s ongoing bands, rocked the hall with ballads across several genres and, of course, the amazing backing of Duke Levine and Kevin Barry on guitar, Billy Beard on drums and Richard Gates on bass.

If you’d like to see a short series of photographs from the evening head on over to my SMAC gallery.  If you’d like to read a bit about how the photographs were made, read on.

After a rousing first set I thought it would be fun to capture the feel of the barn burner shows and the image above is what I was after.  The band said it was OK to take a few shots so I grabbed my 5D Mark II, cranked it up to ISO 3200, opened the iris and hoped for the best (there is NO stage lighting — just the dimmed overhead lights and some christmas tree lights).   I headed to the back the room, grabbed a bar stool and, while co-ower Jeff Flagg spotted me, I climbed up and grabbed a few shots with a 16mm lens.   This is more or less a straight shot, not much Lightroom tweaking to speak of.   (Not so for the rest of these.)

The hands of Duke Levine on guitar.

That’s Richard Gates on bass and Billy Beard on drums.

Dennis Brennan is well-known in the roots rock-and-roll circuits around Boston with a solo career stretching back to the early 90’s.   His band used to play all the time here in Maynard at the Sit ‘N Bull (which I walked by every day for years on my way to work but, sadly, didn’t head in because while I like great music I hate cigarette smoke even more… sigh)

With no stage lighting the only source of light were the colored christmas lights ringing the stage (I think they were six inches from his head).  I like color but for this photograph of Dennis they were competing, so I went with a black and white version.   Frankly, Dennis feels more like a black&white photograph kind of guy anyway.

Duke Levine.  Another great example of using black and white to extract a decent photograph from an otherwise useless file: the process of pulling detail out of the shadows, coupled with the saturated lighting looks horrific in color but attenuates nicely once you throw that out…)   Like the other black and white images here I added grain with Lightroom to give it a bit more “grittier” feel.

Kevin Barry  (seen recently on television with Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs). Go Kevin!

I’m shooting at 1/30th of a second so motion blur is a constant factor with musicians doing their thing.  The 5DMk2’s auto focus is nearly useless in low light — making this especially challenging.  If this was something more than a casual shoot I would have attached my viewfinder and used the electronic viewer to manually focus.

This was subtly tweaked in Photoshop.  The primary lighting are the hanging fixtures along the ceiling.  To create more emphasis on the stage I added a neutral density filter just above the beam, darkening the upper half of the image by a half stop.

All images were taken with a Canon 5D Mark II at ISO 3200, 16-35mm f/2.8L or 70-200mm f/2.8L IS.  All handheld.  All wide open.  Between 1/25 and 1/40 second — and that was underexposing a 1/3 stop.  At ISO 3200 you really can’t under expose much more or the resulting image will have too much noise.   It’s still a frickin’ miracle.

My thanks to Dennis Brennan and his band for allowing me to photograph them, and to Carol Noonan and Jeff Flagg for their support and bringing great live music to everyone.  If you haven’t been to Stone Mountain Arts Center you are missing something special.

In case you were wondering why there haven’t been as many photos coming from Stone Mountain LIVE shos the past year, I’m working on a video project with SMAC and that has seriously cut into the still shooting.   But we’re not filming the June show so I’m looking forward to finding those moments while behind the shutter again.

Stone Mountain LIVE – July 2010

It is always a privilege to photograph the Stone Mountain LIVE shows.  Over the years I’ve come to know many of the talented musicians and behind-the-scenes staff and see the dedication and passion they bring to each show.  Within the confines of not getting in the way and being as invisible as possible to the audience, I try to capture that passion.

July’s show took place on a warm Saturday evening.  Special guest performers Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas performed some vivacious Scottish tunes on the fiddle and cello.  The regular Stone Mountain crew, along with guest pianist Consuelo Candelaria-Barry, provided a wide variety of folk, R&B, and roots music.  The evening began with a short film I produced for the show.  I produced a 3-minute “music video” of the barn raising that took place on Memorial Day.  Sonny Barbato provided a live piano soundtrack for the film.  The film closes with some lyrics of a Carol Noonan song about the barn, which was the first song of the evening.  Pretty classy.   I hope to have a slightly longer version of the film published soon — we’re kicking around ideas for the music.

A complete gallery of the evening’s photographs can be found at: [url][/url]

Here are a few of my favorites from the evening along with a bit of “technical” commentary.

Summer shows at Stone Mountain start well before the sun goes down and so the floor to sky windows behind the performers create a very strong back/side light that competes with (and almost overwhelms) the stage lighting.  So for the first hour there’s a lot of decisions to be made regarding exposure and composition.  One of the more annoying aspects of this is that the color of the light coming from outside is very cool versus the very warm stage lighting.  I decided to render the photograph above of Carol Noonan (which you can find in the gallery in color) in black&white and I think it is a stronger photograph because the contrasting colors are eliminated.  That still leaves a lack of tonal balance, but I didn’t have any control over that.

It’s hard enough getting good photographs of individual performers when there is a strong backlight, but add in the complexity of two or more performers and there’s just not a lot of options left.

For the second set I changed location to backstage.  While this location provides very few angles, I enjoy the vantage point it provides and affords me opportunities for images that are sometimes stronger than the normal front-stage view.   When I get lucky, I get to photograph glances and postures of the performers that provides a more intimate view.  It’s not quite the “musicians point of view”, but just shy of that.

Technical stuff:

All photographs were taken with a Canon 7D, 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens, handheld.  ISO ranged from 1600 to 5000.  Shutter speeds varied from 1/60 to 1/100 second depending on stage and background lighting, angle, etc.  Aperture was typically wide-open (f/2.8).

Lightroom 3 was used to process the images.  All of them had exposure tweaking as I typically underexpose the images slightly to gain a some shutter speed (the stage lighting is relatively dim and you lose another 2-3 stops when shooting from side-stage).  I took advantage of the noise reduction in Lightroom 3, particularly for the ISO 5000 images.   Very pleasing results.

For more information about Stone Mountain LIVE, visit the Stone Mountain Arts Center website or check out these videos I produced for the center:

Stone Mountain Arts Center Lobby Barn Raising

On a beautiful Memorial Day weekend a team of timber-framers and neighbors came together to raise a 200-year-old barn once again.

In 2005 the barn’s much younger sister was literally flown over it to a new foundation where it became the Stone Mountain Arts Center performance space.  The older barn was disassembled and stored in a nearby field, quietly waiting for its chance to serve again.

Restored by Scott Campbell (Maine Mountain Post & Beam) the structure was raised on its new foundation just a few feet from its original location.  The barn will now serve as a lobby and reception area for the Arts Center.

I was there to document the raising of the barn, a 10 hour process involving many hands, backs, and one hydraulic crane.  It was humbling to know that a couple of centuries ago a similar event took place with most of the same timbers.  I reckon it may have taken more people and more time (and probably a horse or two).

A full, annotated, gallery of the event is available on my SMAC photos page: [url][/url]

I shot over 500 stills, 200 video clips, 22 minutes of HDV footage, and a 3000-frame time-lapse video.  This is the first of what I suspect will be several “products” related to this event.   I hope to create a couple of short-form documentaries or music videos using the video and stills.   Here’s the first video from the event, a time-lapse of the the raising:

Below are a few of my favorite images from the day.  After that I include some technical notes on the filming process (settings and setup).

As a fund-raiser for the barn people could sponsor a peg and have a message written on it.   When the barn is refurbished in another century or two, these messages will be there to read — a time-capsule in plain sight.  These are just a few of the many pegs that carried messages to the future:

The large hammer is called a “beatle” — because it is used to beat a post or beam into place.

When the structure’s is completed a ceremonial “wetting bow” is nailed to the peak:

Technical notes and behind the scenes (including my mistakes):

I had nearly every piece of equipment I own involved in this project:

1) 22 minutes of the initial wall raising was filmed with a Sony HC-7 HDV camcorder that was attached to a signpost using a Jobi Gorillapod and some elastic ties.  By the time the crane arrived the sun was MUCH brighter than when I set the camera up.  So much brighter that I couldn’t see the viewfinder well enough to tell if the film was rolling.  So I just shut it off, turned it back on, pressed the record button and hoped for the best.

Why 22 minutes?  To be honest this camera was just a bit of extra coverage and I was using up what was left on a tape.  I knew this was going to be at least an 8 hour process and I had no intention or reason to film all of it.  I figured the first wall would take less than a half-hour to raise and gambled from there.

2) The time-lapse video was captured with a Canon 10D mounted with a 16-35mm f/2.8L lens at 16mm. The exposure was set manually: 1/80, f/11, ISO 100 and fixed white balance: 5800K.  Because of the length of the capture I elected to shoot in JPEG, medium resolution (2048×1152) as this would give me sufficient resolution for a 1080p video frame but still fit the day on a couple of 4GB cards.  The camera was controlled by a Canon TC-80 intervalometer.

The camera was mounted on a tripod and ballhead which was fixed to the top of a step ladder with gaffers tape.  The step ladder, was set on a reasonably firm surface and ballasted with some spare post pieces that were hanging around.  This provided a reasonably stable platform, although you can see small shifts every once in a while when I ascended the ladder to check on exposure, batteries, etc.    By incredible luck (for me that is) the camera was able to be aimed almost directly north which meant that the sun was always behind the camera, eliminating a chance of lens flare.  Putting a hood on a 16mm lens seems superfluous, but I suppose I should have brought one along.

The camera has a dual battery setup and it performed well considering the age of some of my batteries.   If you look closely you will see that there is a slight skip in the video when be broke for lunch.  I changed out the batteries with another set at that time.

The 10D was not my first choice for this assignment.  It was a backup camera.  I wanted to use my 1D Mark II for the job.  The 1D’s sensor has a 1.3X crop factor versus the 10D’s 1.6x.  The 1D would give me a much larger field of view, and I really wanted it given where the camera had to be placed and the size of barn – especially because I planned on cropping the image down to 16×9 for the video.   Being a careful planner, I had scoped this out and fired some test shots on Sunday afternoon to confirm that this was the better camera to use.  I had also brought along two batteries for the 1D and its charger.  What I didn’t bring is the AC cord for the charger and the Ni-MH batteries don’t hold a charge well for long periods of time — so I had planned on charging them Sunday night.   I discovered the lack of a cord around 7pm — which is precisely when the nearest Home Depot closed on a Sunday.

And that’s why I bring backup cameras…

Because of the narrower field-of-view with the 10D I had to guess how tall the barn would be and try to frame it accordingly while still keeping some of the interesting stuff in the foreground.   If you watch the time-lapse video you’ll see that the peak of the barn JUST fits into the frame and so I elected to do a little downward tilt of the camera, moving it slowly across about 8 or 9 frames.

I had planned the time-lapse to run about 90 seconds covering the 6 hours, so I had set the camera to take an exposure every 15 seconds, mostly to make sure that I kept within the 4GB limit of the CF card I was using.  When the noon-time switch was made I noticed I had used just over 2GB and so I changed the timing to every 10 seconds for the “second half”.  The difference isn’t all that extreme but I think it makes some of the crane movements much more fluid and only extended the run-time a slight amount.

3) Video was shot using the Canon 5D Mark II, 1080p at 30fps.  I used a 3-stop ND filter and a polarizer on the lenses to cut the light down and give a decent depth of field.  I typically shot at 1/50 second, ISO 400, and around f/5.6 — depending on the scene.  The camera was stabilized on a monopod, although occasionally used a tripod coupled with the Zaza Slider.   I used both the 24-70mm f/2.8L and the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lenses (mostly the latter) for the video work.   Because I was shooting video most of the time (although I shot over 160 stills using the camera) the Zacuto Z-finder made the day a lot nicer.

Audio was not a primary concern for this shoot, but I wanted something cleaner than the camera mic.   I had brought along the JuicedLink and some good mics, but opted to just use a wired lav clipped to my shirt and let the 5D do automatic levels (horrors!).   Again, I was just looking for natural sounds, but not a structured soundtrack.   If I had approached this more as a documentary featuring, say, Scott and wanted to capture dialog I would have used the wireless mics and mixed in natural sound from a shotgun.

4) Stills were captured with the 1D Mark II (until the batteries wore out) and then the Canon 40D.  The still camera got whatever lens the 5D wasn’t using at the time (mostly the 24-70mm).  The camera was set in aperture-priority mode, ISO 320, and around f/5.6.  This gave shutter speeds around 1/1200 to 1/2000 second during the day and would freeze the action well.  This was in marked contrast to the 5D which would have lots of motion blur at 1/50 second because of the video settings.  I could move between the two looks the cameras would give as needed.

5) I had my MacBook Pro set up in the Arts Center ready to process cards at various points during the day.  My little area also had battery chargers going for (almost) all of the cameras.  This worked out well and I was able to show people some morning shots and preliminary bits of the time-lapse by the time lunch was over.   By the time I left for the evening I had all of the stills processed through Lightroom and the video clips (all 23GB worth) were previewed.

Other than my charger debacle, everything worked as I had planned and I’m really happy with the results and look forward to sharing more of them with everyone in the near future.

Stone Mountain LIVE – June 2010

Due to other commitments we arrived at the show about halfway through the first set and, so as to not disturb the folks we were seated near, didn’t break out the cameras until the second set — so the photos from this show are a bit thin.  Add to this that the stage was, for some reason, very (and I mean VERY) dimly lit, made shooting a real challenge.

The full set of selects from the show is available on my SMAC gallery:  [url][/url]

The June show was a great mix of guest musicians in addition to the fantastic regulars at Stone Mountain Arts Center.  Miss Tess was there, but we missed her performance.  The last time Kenny White (with Cheryl Wheeler) was there he blew the audience away with some stunning performances.  This night was a bit more subdued, but he played some new works including a great New York blues piece that went over well.  Rounding out the evening was Boston’s mandolin man, Jimmy Ryan.  Jimmy has played at SMAC a few times and fits right into the fun and musicianship that is the hallmark of this place.

Here are a few more pictures from the evening and the technical notes follow.

Jimmy Ryan backed by the Stone Mountain Boys:

JJimmy Ryan with Duke Levine:

Miss Tess and Jimmy Ryan belting out a tune:

Did I mention how much I dislike microphone stands?  Here’s another great concept that almost came together:

Curtain call: Sonny Barbato, Carol Noonan, Katy Noonan, Duke Levine, Miss Tess, Kevin Barry, Richard Gates (hidden), Kenny White, Jimmy Ryan, and Billy MacGillivray.

Technical notes:

This show was the debut of my new camera, a Canon 7D (so new I haven’t even attached a strap to it yet).  The wide shots were taken with the Canon 5D Mark II and a 24-70 f/2.8L lens.  The closeups were with the Canon 7D with the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens strapped on.  Both cameras were set to ISO 2500 and barely managed to grab the images at 1/60 second at f/2.8.   I bumped up the exposure in Lightroom, sometimes by nearly a full stop, so there’s probably a bit more noise in these images than you normally see from my concert images.   How dark was it?  It was so dark that I took some photos of candles using the same settings and they were perfectly exposed. It was so dark that I had to lower the white balance by nearly 800 kelvins so people’s faces didn’t look like they were sunburned (the dim tungsten lights were pushing further towards the red end of the spectrum).

Stone Mountain LIVE with Bill Kirchen

Saturday’s Stone Mountain LIVE show was subtitled “The Guitar Gods” show and it was almost more like sitting in on a roots guitar master class than a regular night out on the town.  The Stone Mountain LIVE house band is headed up by Duke Levine and Kevin Barry, two very fine guitar players.  The band is rounded out with Sonny Barbato on keys, Richard Gates on bass, Billy MacGillivray on drums, and Chris Cote on vocals.  Most folks would be happy if they just played all night — but they keep inviting great guests, the most recent being Bill Kirchen.

Bill Kirchen is often referred to as an “elder statesman” in guitar circles.  He’s a master of the Fender Telecaster and is best known for the song “Hot Rod Lincoln” when he was with Commander Cody back in the 70’s. (I can still remember listening to that on the radio on the Giannetti’s back porch.)  Honky-Tonk and “Dieselbilly” is the corner of roots guitar music that he is the master of and putting him on stage with Duke and the gang was to watch pure genius at work. Bill is also one of the nicest people you could meet — quite the ambassador for Austin, Texas.

Bill performs his version of “Hot Rod Lincoln” that includes a medley of musical vignettes that is simply jaw-dropping.  He and the band effortlessly recalled the riffs of (in order): Johnny Cash, Duane Eddy, Roy Orbison, Johnny Rivers, Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, Merle Travis, Merle Haggard, Bob Willis, Hank Sugarfoot Garland, Earl Scruggs, Iggy Pop, The Ventures, Bo Diddly, Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Alvino Rey, Stevie Ray,  Freddy King, BB King, Albert King, Ben E King, Billy Jean King, Elvis Presley, Cream, Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Sex Pistols, and Jimmy Hendrix (and I’m sure I missed a couple of them).

When I photograph live music performances I try to do two things: 1) capture the emotional power of the performance from the audience’s side, and 2) get a glimpse into the what goes into the performance from the artists’ side – those quick glances between band members, the look of concentration as they work through a song, and the smiles when they just know it is “coming together”.

For the first half of the show I was taking the audience perspective, but for the second half I shot mostly from just off-stage providing a more intimate set of angles and, for my money, much better lighting (Carol even had a “hair light” now and then!)

I hope you enjoyed seeing some shots of these “guitar gods” in action.   I think Bill is now an honorary Stone Mountain Boy (he should consider moving up to Maine for the summers — it gets hot down there in Texas!)   A gallery of close to 70 images from the performance is available at:


Here are a few more of my favorites shots from the evening:

My thanks to Carol and Jeff at the Stone Mountain Arts Center, and to Bill Kirchen and all the performers for allowing me to photograph the show.