On Assignment: M4. Like the Carbine, But With More Power

About this time last Friday I was in head-scratching mode, trying to figure out my light. Here was the challenge:

Teeny-tiny stage. Twenty three insane performers. No room to change shooting positions. Complex, low-level and fast-changing ambient.

I had been looking forward to it for weeks. Because I was getting to photograph MarchFourth, my absolute favorite band in the world. Lighting, pics and video, inside…

Wait, Who is MarchFourth?

MarchFourth Marching Band, or M4 to their fans, defies description. But for the unfamiliar, I'll try. (You Portlanders can skip this part, as I am sure you are already smiling knowingly.)

So, M4. How can I put this? They are a marching band, technically, but unlike any other marching band you have ever seen. I first saw them in 2010 when they showed up and breathed life into an increasingly boring, staid, aging art festival in my town.

I just stood there with my mouth agape for an hour as they absolutely killed.

They are consummate musicians. But that is almost secondary to their stage presence, which is utterly unique. Think self-designed, one-off post-apocalyptic costumes—kinda like marching-band-meets-Mad-Max. The drum harnesses, for instance, are hand-built recycled from bicycle parts.

Original music, drawn from a wealth of influences. Dancers. Stilt-walkers. Fire-breathers. Off-the-scale energy. The ethos of M4 is one of leaving no drop of life unsqueezed.

Spending an evening with them is an experience not to be missed. It's hard to describe. But my theory is that we all have just a tiny bit of M4 inside us, and these guys allow you to tap into it, release it and embrace it. If you get a chance to see them, just go.

On Friday they were performing on the tiny stage at The 8x10 Club in Baltimore. I watched as the setup crew tried to figure out how to put the 23 performers on the little platform. That compactness and visual clutter would absolutely dictate how I would choose to light them.

First off, I wanted the light to be believable. It would be all strobe, but I wanted it to feel like club lighting—but of course with more exposure and predictability.

The frame will be busy. You want to get a sense of the mayhem, but you can't highlight everything. So my approach was to backwash the stage with a strong color and grid the various featured performers as they cycled through the front/center mics.

Here's the "intimate" stage, with my backlights in place:

I chose red, as it was the only thing that came close to connoting the energy they project live. And having a strong color base was important, as it would allow me to focus some attention amidst the chaos with a gridded, neutral key.

You can see how small the area is in the pic above. This is an 18mm lens throw on a full-frame chip. (Small chip equiv. would be a 12mm.) So you get a sense of the density issues with 23 performers up there.

Here's a test shot done while the sound guy was checking mics. At this point I knew I would at least have a focal point within the chaotic frame.

Using color contrast is a good way to light a whole frame and yet keep the center of interest where you want it. You can go subtle, or you can do it like this. If someone wants to go digging for more visual info in the back, it's there. But you keep a logical entry point with the neutral-balanced key.

The grid was to keep the key's energy centered and protect the red background and fringe areas from being washed out from the front. Here's my key light in place:

All three lights were similar setups: an e640, 8" reflector, VML battery and PW+III remote. They were held in place by a Mafrotto Magic Arm which, when paired with a superclamp is an absolutely wonderful piece of gear that will securely mount a light (or remote camera) to damn-near anything. The grid seen on the key was a 30-degree beam spread.

The backlights, mounted (roughly) on the back 45's were the same setups, but without grids and with a deep red gel. I wanted the wash here to spread around the stage and eat into all of the areas not hit by the gridded key.

How Bright?

The ratio between the key and backlights was done by eye. I flooded everything with red first on medium power, and then adjusted the exposure with my aperture until the backwashed color looked right.

I could easily do this while standing next to my key light up front. So manually adjusting the key's power afterwards to expose the center areas in balance with the red backwash was easy.

Now you have the lights set relative to each other. But you also will have some cool ambient (but fast-changing and unreliable) stage lighting to deal with. So, and keeping this ratio, I dropped my key down as low as I could (1/128 power) and adjusted the reds to track that shift. The reds settled out at about 1/32 power because of the red gels, which eat more than two stops of light.

Dropping down to very low levels did several things for me. First, it of course meant great recycle times and shot capacity. It allowed me to be down in the exposure levels where I could include (or reject) the stage ambient lighting by altering my shutter speed.

Also, given that the stage lighting would be in the frame, working a couple of stops above it would keep the ambient light sources themselves within tonal range as subject matter. I.e., my visible strobes would match up pretty well and look like stage lighting.

Finally, it gave the least amount of intrusive flash that might be a problem for the show's performers. I actually talked with the stilt walkers before the show to run the light levels and locations past them for safety. Since they are usually looking down and my lights were coming from fixed positions up above, we were okay.

Still, I didn't go all strobe-y on them while performing, trying to exercise restraint with my shooting frequency. And when possible, I tried to sync my exposures to the downbeat of a measure, as this will often give good frames and will feel synced to any stage lighting for the concertgoers. Just common sense and courtesy.

In the end, I shot about three quarters of the show and then hid my cameras behind one of the drummers to just enjoy the rest of the show. (I pocketed the CF cards, just in case.)

And to that end, everything posted about the lighting above is secondary to this: If you get the chance to see these guys live, go do it. They play everything from music festivals to small clubs, and it is almost never expensive to see them.

December dates include Austin, Dallas, ABQ, Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, LA, and of course, Portland on New Year's Eve. Consider yourselves invited. Specifics (and signup for their mailing list to receive 2013 tour dates) are at MarchFourthMarchingBand.com.

I hesitate to even post a video. Like the still photos above, it does not begin to convey the experience of a live show. But this one is from a couple of years ago and features two full songs:

And if I have done nothing more than intro you to MarchFourth in this post, that's mission accomplished as far as I am concerned. Go see them.

If you want to leave a comment below, you'll have to speak up. My ears are still ringing from last Friday night.

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Blogger Rick Urb said...

Awesome lighting David.
Are those Buff reflectors?
They look too beefy to me

November 19, 2012 3:57 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


They are the new ones, which are really good. They are paras, and pebbled inside for smooth coverage and even fall-off. Not that it mattered than much here, but you'd really see the difference on a portrait.

Paul had pretty crappy mods for a long time. With the Einsteins he had to up his game, and he did by a long shot. Still, these are only $20.

November 19, 2012 4:00 PM  
Blogger Rick Urb said...

Definitely some of those reflectors in my future.
My old flimsy ones have a pebbled finish... from the multitude of dents they have acquired.
The big PLM's and softboxes are outstanding.

November 19, 2012 4:08 PM  
Blogger Jason Roeder said...

Kinda like Extra Action Marching band, but not as scary.

Nice lights.

November 19, 2012 5:09 PM  
Blogger builderlee said...

These guys are coming to a club within three hours drive of me... I'm there. Just wondering, who would i talk to to try and shoot them myself? Looks amazing!

November 19, 2012 5:57 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

There were several people with cameras at the show I shot, and no one seemed to mind. But I worked with the venue, and you mileage may vary.

November 19, 2012 6:15 PM  
Blogger Yugo said...

Gorgeous, David! I really like how you overcame the ever-changing ambient by keeping your lights above the stage lights. Seems much easier than depending on serendipity and fighting high ISOs.

November 19, 2012 6:40 PM  
Blogger Paolo said...

Hi David, given the low power level you used your Einsteins at, could you have achieved similar results with 2 SB-800 in the back a one gridded SB-910 zoomed at 200mm in the front?
Thanks as always!

November 19, 2012 8:05 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yes, at ~1/16th power on the key and ~1/4 on the back/washes respectively. I still would have gridded the key, as it would give a much smoother fall-off than would a 200mm fresnel, which is designed more for evenness across the 200mm frame than fall-off outside of it.

Not knowing exactly what I was walking into, I came prepared to deliver more power. But if I went back to the 8x10 to shoot I could comfortably do it with speedlights.

November 19, 2012 8:24 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Oh, and didn't mention it in the post, but the wides were shot with either an 18mm or a 24mm (FF chip) and the closer shots were done with a 50mm.

November 19, 2012 8:25 PM  
Blogger Rick Urb said...

I checked the Buff site and I couldn't find a reflector called para. Is it the "8.5-inch High Output Reflector"?

November 19, 2012 8:39 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

By "they are paras," I meant they are parabolic, as opposed to conical like the old (not nearly as good) reflectors. And yep, it's the 8.5 HO.

November 19, 2012 8:43 PM  
Blogger Rick Urb said...

Not paranoid?

November 19, 2012 8:44 PM  
Blogger Wink of an eye Digital said...

Your right... hard to describe the Band but way cool

Kinda like
Cirque du Soleil meets Chicago in the latin sector with Pink Floyd lighting.

Will be watching for this group in my area
Party on Dave

PS liked your idea on low and using ambient. Seen Flashers that could care less about the enviorment to the show

November 19, 2012 9:08 PM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

Another really nice feature with great photos. What's the best way to connect safety cables to the Einsteins ?

November 20, 2012 3:02 AM  
Blogger Paul Bisaillon said...

This is a great post about the possibilities of lighting a concert but still make it look like you just got the timing right with EVERY stage light...everytime :)

This band reminds me a lot of Gogol Bordello. I'm sure you've heard of them but if not I would definitely recommend checking them out. I've seen them like and like you said videos and photos don't do the show justice. http://www.gogolbordello.com/

November 20, 2012 9:34 AM  
Blogger Jim Quinn said...

I recall your announcement a few years ago, at about the same time as the introduction of Paul Buff's Einstein flashes, that you had made a major move to Profoto lighting gear. Lately it seems that you have used Einsteins for most of your more-than-speedlight jobs. They're all just tools, of course, but I wonder if you would discuss when and why you would choose one system over the other - in this case, for example. Thanks!

November 20, 2012 11:47 AM  
Blogger Anders Hansén said...


The main reason I think you were right to bring the Einsteins instead of speedlight is that they look like they belong on stage.

Looking at the first pic my eyes immediately (and incorrectly) identified the Einsteins as standard Arri backlight kegs.

Speedlights I would have identified as speedlights just as fast. That rectangular shape doesn't belong up there.

So, could you cover this with speedlights? Absolutely! But I think you should bring the Einsteins the next time as well.

Light needs to be contextual. Otherwise it just looks strange.

November 20, 2012 12:15 PM  
Blogger Vitaliy Sholokhov said...

I love this kind of event photography and try to immerse myself into it as much as possible :-) Here's a shot I did few days ago in Sullivan's Hall of my friend's band http://www.vspicture.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/DSC_3255.jpg

November 20, 2012 12:18 PM  
Blogger oletimey said...

Hi! Question, how do you focus in low, fast moving unpredictable lighting situations? My auto focus wasn't working so well last weekend at a dark laser effect lit show, and manual focus was difficult (I couldn't see!) Also, what's with people getting better low light shots with their damn ipods?? Is the technology better in those? SHould I throw away my D90 and buy an ipod instead?? :)

November 20, 2012 12:58 PM  
Blogger hikerted said...

How timely! I just bought tickets to their December show in Phoenix next month and a few minutes later I get this most excellent blog from you about shooting them!!
First saw them at Burning Man last year. Any band with a tuba player that shoots flames is OK with me :^)

November 20, 2012 1:29 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Rex- Hadn't yet done it when I shot these pics, but I went thru the umbrella tube. Only way, as far as I can see.

November 20, 2012 2:25 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Prolly won't be a flame tuba in that venue, but you will not be disappointed.

November 20, 2012 2:26 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


The stage lighting gave me more than enough light to focus by.

November 20, 2012 2:27 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


When I need distributed battery power or the ability to drop power down waaaay low, I always go Einstein. In this case, it was a twofer.

November 20, 2012 2:28 PM  
Blogger Nayana Jennings said...

@ builderlee

I am one of the managers of MarchFourth. If you'd like to shoot the show in your area, send an email to info@marchfourthmarchingband.com to make arrangements.

And thank you, David, for such great shots!

November 20, 2012 2:35 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

@David, do you have any shots with just the house lights, no strobes?

November 20, 2012 4:10 PM  
Blogger Richard Kimbrough Photography said...

Cool shots and cool band. Sounds like they'll be in town next month. Might have to see if I can drag the wife out to see them. If they've played at Burning Man that'd be a good excuse to get her out there as she's pretty hooked on that.

The lighting is very similar to what I use on my roller derby photography. Different subject, but same high action high creativity subject.




It is a lot more work to set up, but has given our league photos that stand out from the crowd.

November 20, 2012 5:19 PM  
Blogger Levi Thomas said...

I love this band, too. Wonderfully warped and, well, colorful. I got to shoot their shows a few times over the years. But I never got to add my own light. Now that you've shown us a good way to do it, I'm going to talk to management of every venue in town.

BTW, have you ever seen/heard the Tiger Lillies? Also half-a-bubble-off but darkly funny. Way fun to shoot, too.

November 20, 2012 8:23 PM  
Blogger robm001 said...

My favorite part of this post is talking about timing your shots to the downbeats! lol I shoot a lot of classical music and this is often the best way to hide the clackety clack of my shutter during a performance. Thanks for a great post as usual!

November 21, 2012 12:08 AM  
Blogger Phil said...


Thank you for correctly identifying the M4 as a carbine, not a rifle. Of course, the article was fantastic, but you had me at carbine.

November 21, 2012 2:01 AM  
Blogger Ivan A mendez (FoToGrAfIkA) said...

lovely post
incredible band and performance
crazy ligth
i wonder if they ever come to the dominican republic
big hugs
David !!!

November 21, 2012 7:13 AM  
Blogger Bryan Leighty said...

And M4 was just here and I missed them. Ugh. Thanks for the post David. Amazing stuff as always...

November 21, 2012 2:24 PM  
Blogger RFS said...

@oletimey Nikon (and I assume Canon) have awesome autofocus assist lights on their speedlights. Even better is that the light is red and throws a trippy looking cross-hatch pattern on your subject so at a concert it will look like part of the show.
I have used it several times to make perfectly focused pix in almost complete black such as backstage areas of theaters.
The MAIN thing is that you have to turn the flash itself to its lowest power and then block the light with gaffer tape or black show card or whatever. Otherwise the flash from the speedlight light will hit your subject and that's not cool.
The settings to get it to work are fairly specific, on my SB600 it's when the camera’s focus mode is set to S (Single Servo AF with focus priority), AF, or A. You usually also have to dink around with the metering and the camera settings to get it to work. But it's definitely worth it because it rocks.

November 21, 2012 4:31 PM  
Blogger Anna Nguyen said...

My boyfriend Kerry was in marching band in high school and has heard of this band. They look like a good ol time so I'm already looking at tour dates for next year!

Thanks for the introduction!

November 22, 2012 12:32 PM  
Blogger Anna Nguyen said...

Thanks for the introduction!

I'm already signing up for tour dates for 2013! Let's hope they find their way over to FL soon!

November 22, 2012 12:33 PM  
Blogger Gordon Huston said...

I'm just curious on your thoughts regarding the Buff Cyber Sync system with the Einstein units. I have a pile of Einsteins, but I only recently added the remote system that allows me to not only fire the units wirelessly, but to adjust the levels that way as well. It's not a universal system, but it's been rock solid for me with the Einsteins.

As far as a safety line on the units goes, I replaced the standard bolt that locks the head to the stand with an eye bolt. I can then run a safety cable through the eye bolt. It appears the be as secure a safety point as anything else on these heads.

November 23, 2012 12:00 PM  
Blogger Graham & Graham Photography said...

Thanks for turning me onto a band I had never heard of before. They're coming to L.A. so I'll definitely check them out. Oh--nice pics too. It's a rare venue that would let one of us get in there and put lights all over the stage....

November 23, 2012 3:20 PM  
Blogger JB Dewitt said...

I learned something here (like usual) that I can directly apply to my own work- thanks!

It so happens I live just a block away from the Orpheum Theatre in Flagstaff where M4 will perform; thanks for the recommend, I'm looking forward to the show!

November 25, 2012 11:21 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey David, just a quick line to say thank you *so* much for sharing this technique with us. It was utter serendipity to read your post the week I got asked to shoot a gig in a very similar venue and I'm not ashamed to admit that I totally ripped off your lighting scheme using a bunch of SBs instead of monolights.

To everyone asking "can this be done with speedlights?" I'd say, of course it can! You've just got to wring out the power by using higher ISOs and wider f-stops. I had my rear lights set on 1/8th for a fast recycle and they did just fine.

I posted a few setup shots and sample frames over on Flickr:


December 04, 2012 4:23 AM  
Blogger bobusn said...

Nice! Crys & I have shot available light in the 8x10 before...


While we really liked our results, yours is definitely an elegant & more flexible solution. Well done!

December 24, 2012 3:07 PM  

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