Just in time for this year’s festival, I’m finally ready to share some black and white film photos from the Underground Music Showcase in Denver, July 18-21, 2013.
The UMS is a massive undertaking that gives hundreds of bands and thousands for fans a chance to connect on South Broadway every year. Each year I look at the lineup and discover that I don’t know more than a few of the bands playing.
Prior to 2013, though, I had only seen one band on one night of one UMS — the night I took this photo of a pedal steel guitar player at the Hi-Dive.
With seven years working nights and weekends over, last year I finally had the chance to attend the UMS for real. I knew I was going to be photographing everything I could, but I needed more than that nebulous idea.
I honestly haven’t been to many photography exhibits in the past, but in 2012 Kate took me to see an exhibition of Ruby Ray’s punk scene photos from the late 1970s. I found her flash-heavy live show shots inspiring and decided to spend some time getting to know a flash with film.
I picked up a second-hand Vivitar 272 Auto-Thyristor flash a while back (probably six months before the 2013 UMS), which I snagged largely because it had its sync cable. I’d passed on several Vivitar 283s because I didn’t want the hassle of obtaining a separate sync cable and I knew the 283 and 285 flashes had a special connector.
I also had another flash that came in a camera bag with some other camera from a thrift store. It’s a Vivitar 728AF/C, which is really designed for Canon DSLRs. It’s a cheaply made plastic piece of crap that recycles slowly, but it’s really simple and seems to work just fine in the hot shoe of my Nikon FM2n (and my other FM2n).
I also found a $2 flash bracket at a thrift store separately. Between the bracket and the sync cable, I figured I could avoid having to buy AS-1 or AS-4 flash adapters to use a flashgun with my Nikon F2 or F3 bodies.
The next thought I had was that instead of flash, I could try push processing for the first time. Push processing is intentionally over-developing your film to compensate for underexposing it (intentionally or accidentally).
When you read about Kodak Tri-X online, pushing enters nearly every discussion. The versatility of Tri-X is legendary and despite being rated at ISO 400, you can essentially do whatever you want with it. It can be pushed 4 stops to ISO 6400 with incredibly good results.
So I opted to use Tri-X and shoot the whole weekend in black and white (there’s that Ruby Ray influence).
I didn’t want to do my first push-processing experiment expecting too much (and I wanted to get at least a few usable frames) so I opted to go with a one-stop push for this round. I shot and processed my Tri-X as ISO 800.
The UMS was one of the first outings for my Domke F2 Waxwear bag. It’s got plenty of room for the gear I took with me. Maybe I’ll do a detailed breakdown of what I carry in a future post.
I took with me both FM2s and my F3. I put my 105mm f/2.5 on one FM2, set the other up with my 20mm f/4 and the no-name flash, and attached the flash bracket and Vivitar 272 to the F3 along with my 50mm f/2 lens.
A lot of these shots were made without flash, such as the Mudhoney shots above. As you can see, I wasn’t able to speed the shutter up enough to freeze motion very well. I wonder if going to 1600 on the film would’ve helped. That’s only one stop, but sometimes one stop makes a big difference.
In a few instances, the motion kind of works. I’m not in love with all these shots, but some of them work on at least one level or another. Some are just interesting but really not that good (and I’m okay with that — I’ve always been my own worst critic, and I don’t mind sharing my learning experiences sometimes).
I’m honestly really happy with the framing of the first Mudhoney shot above, but the crowd-facing lights going off at just that instant did mean the band is darker than I wanted, especially Guy Maddison (left).
Mudhoney played a great set. I’ve never been a big fan personally, although I like a lot of their Seattle grunge contemporaries. Their energy is great, even after over twenty years.
The second shot, of drummer Dan Peters, is one where I froze the action I wanted — Peters himself and the drums and cymbals — but not the drumsticks. They have just enough motion to make it clear he’s playing furiously.
The third Mudhoney shot, with Maddison a blur on the left, works for me in terms of concept. I wish I had more of Maddison’s blurred form in the left-hand side of the frame, and I wish that Mark Arm were sharper on the right. He’s almost there, but not quite. The blown highlights on his hair don’t help him look sharp, either.
Same problem with the last shot of Mark Arm twirling. He’s out a bit because of the motion, which works on his hand (why I liked this one) but not so much on his face and hair. It’s strange to me that his right leg is sharp, and that the amps behind him (right) aren’t quite as blurred as I would expect for a 50mm shot at f/2.8. It’s possible I stopped down to f/4 or f/5.6 and forgot to make a note of it.
After Mudhoney, I moved down the street to the Skylark for Accordion Crimes. Inside the crowd was tightly packed. It took me two songs to make my way to the front. Usually two or three cameras and a press pass make that easier, but there just plain wasn’t room for people to get out of the way.
In the dark room I knew it was time for flash. But I’ll be honest, this was the first time I’d ever used a flash with film. With digital, basic flash use isn’t really too hard. Yeah, doing it right takes practice and skill, sure — but you can make a lot of shots
and adjust by chimping and examining your histogram. I got some acceptable results with my Canon 30D and a 530EX Speedlight when I covered the Occupy Denver evection from Lincoln Park.
You can’t do that with film, though. Since covering Occupy Denver, though, I’ve done a lot more with flash on my digital and, while I’m still basically a beginner, I feel like I’ve learned a lot. Enough to feel like I can start working with film and flash without being in the position of completely wasting every frame.
So I made plenty of mistakes with the flash shooting the UMS last year, but a few things came out not bad.
The first shot of Accordion Crimes singer Bryon Parker was shot with the 105mm and no flash. The depth of field wasn’t quite enough to cover the headstock of his guitar, which I don’t love, but Parker is sharp and his expression and the moment are pretty good. The barely-visible girls near the left edge of the frame help show just how closely the audience was crammed against the stage area.
The second Accordion Crimes frame is pretty much what I intended with the frame, with the exception of how imbalanced the light is. Too many reflective surfaces in the center of the frame and too much light bouncing back there. The back of the headstock of Bryan Feuchtinger’s bass is uneven and mostly totally blown out. The horizon isn’t quite level, either, which bothers me slightly, but it’s not so close that it looks unintentional and since it gets Feuchtinger’s head and Parker’s feet in the frame, I like that. I wish Parker’s right foot had gotten a tiny bit more light on it.
The third frame shows just Feuchtinger — and not even all of him. That’s what 50mm looks like when you’re kneeling about three feet from the stage and the bassist doesn’t stand still. No flash on this shot, so it’s full of motion blur. What I like about this frame is the contrast and the feeling of motion.
The grain in this photo really works for me. That’s actually true across the board — the Tri-X pushed to 800 with basically no change in grain quality, which I’m really impressed by.
I was also quite impressed by Accordion Crimes. I hadn’t ever heard of them prior to that night, but headed their way based on a recommendation from YourHub and Reverb photographer Seth McConnell. Their set was fun and energetic.
The next day was a bit overcast when I ran into Joe Murphy in the crowd. The clouds gave way to a really lovely golden hour as Hockey took the main stage. I kind of wished I had color film.
Hockey was another new band for me and I really, really enjoyed their set. Their sound is a tight mix of 80s influences and they wouldn’t sound out of place in a lineup between The Cars and INXS. Sadly, a great new band playing a great set to an attentive audience doesn’t mean I made a lot of great frames. I was mostly stuck on the east side of the stage, looking into the sunset.
Hence the very dark photo of the band with the blown-out sky behind the stage, left of center. In spite of that, I almost like the framing on this one. All five band members are visible without their instruments blocking each other’s bodies and so on. The only instrument not clearly visible is the drum kit. Well, and the top of the headstock on the bass is cut off slightly.
What I did see during Hockey’s set, though, was a lot of fans looking almost contemplative. The energy in the crowd wasn’t openly excited, but it had a thoughful, appreciative energy. Just before sunset I felt I was able to capture a little bit of that.
This fan, a girl whose name I wasn’t able to get, spent a good chunk of the show leaning against the rail, looking up at the band as they played on. I don’t know if she was enthralled, but when I saw her I felt she looked like it. The sun was far enough down in the sky that the only light making it into the audience fell right on her face.
Out of the whole weekend, I think this is by far my favorite frame, and the only one I feel like I really nailed. She’s in focus, the light is even, the framing is what I wanted it to be, showing the rest of the crowd around her and her isolated in the sunlight.
Even a blind monkey finds a banana once in awhile.
Later in the evening after Hockey’s set wrapped, we headed up Broadway a ways to Moe’s Original Bar B Que and waited as the crowd milled and started to build up. We caught the last song or two of someone’s set…
The band I wanted to see, though, was Denver’s performance artists turned minimalist punk-pop rockers Safe Boating is No Accident.
I don’t remember how it happened, but I wound up following them on Facebook and enjoyed the stuff they had posted on Bandcamp a lot. Their tight, minimalist sound is reminiscent of Elvis Costello, Lou Reed and early Police. They aren’t as peppy as Hockey was, but they’ve got great energy and a smirking humor in their lyrics.
So yeah, I was excited for their set. Fortunately, so were other people. By the start of their set the crowd filled Moe’s from wall to wall.
The first of my Safe Boating shots actually came out pretty well. The light is even on singer/guitarist Leighton Peterson, and lower but still even on bassist Neil McCormick. It’s sharp and I like the framing. The door frame behind McCormick is very bright and his face isn’t quite bright enough. Peterson’s eyes are shaded a little and awkwardly blocked by his glasses. But his glasses don’t have any deadly reflection, so there is that.
The second Safe Boating frame is another of my very favorites. I got around behind the band so the windows and that door were guaranteed to be out of my frames. I directed the flash almost straight up. The only thing I could ask for would be a better look at Peterson in the distance, under the headstock of McCormick’s bass. And maybe to have been a little closer.
McCormick strutted like this several times during the show but I never managed to time my positions just right to catch a strut like I wanted. This is close, though. I love how animated McCormick was during the show and wanted to capture it if I could.
The last Safe Boating frame is similar to the first, but at a different focal length. The first shot of Peterson and McCormick was taken with a 105mm standing back a bit from the band. This one was taken with a 50mm, standing much closer to the stage area. Consequently, it also has a lot more flash in it, and it’s harsher.
The bottom of the frame is really pretty dark, and the reflection from the window, which I though I’d miss, was bad. I was able to dodge it down a bit here, but I’m not sure I like it any better than when it was at full brightness.
I’m mostly okay with the framing here, but it’s a split-second late. I’ve got Peterson’s headstock front-and-center like I wanted. McCormick was moving down and I missed making the frame in time before the neck of his bass moved out of frame. At the same time, the drummer looked up and I captured him with the mic in front of his face, instead of just above his head.
Safe Boating was a great show. In fact, I’m hoping to get myself down to UMS this year for their set again, even if I don’t see any other band. Well worth a listen. In case you haven’t clicked on the link above, here’s another link to their Bandcamp page.
The next day, Sunday, July 21, I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time at the festival and wasn’t happy with many frames I made, though I did find two scenes I liked of fans resting or waiting. No flash on those, obviously.
So what I have here is a collection of learning experiences. Timing, framing, lighting, positioning — all figure into the list of lessons I’m working to learn.
And patience. I’m generally pretty patient about waiting for the shot I want to appear, and sometimes it never does. That’s okay. But sometimes I make a frame I think is the one, move my eye or drop my framing, and miss making an even better one.
All are important, and some might say basic. I’m the first to admit I’m no expert; I’m just trying to learn to put on film what I see in my head. If you’re reading, thanks for coming along. Leave me your suggestions or thoughts in the comments below, if you have any.