UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


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.

Next: Light That Isn't There


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