Dec 072013

Raine Maida Montreal BTS from Jon Blacker

Having worked with his management company while making portraits of a couple of the members of Finger Eleven (James Black and Rich Beddoe) for my Musical Ink book, in February of this year I had the great opportunity to work with Our Lady Peace singer Raine Maida on the set of the shooting of a music video for his new single Montreal.

We arranged to work together to shoot a full day behind the scenes project with Raine consisting of stills and time-lapse segments while they shot the music video.

The day started early with me arriving at 7:00am before the crew started loading gear into the venue; Victoria College at the University of Toronto.

First on my hit list was setting up the time-lapse camera. I was using three Nikon D600 bodies for this project and dedicated one of them to shoot one frame every 10 seconds to capture the entire day from load-in to load-out and include several segments into the final piece. Of course there was no power at the back of the room where I set up the time-lapse body with an AC adapter (it was going to be a long day and running on batteries was simply not an option). Fortunately I brought a 100’ extension cord and plugged in next to the stage then taped the cord to the floor all the way back to the tripod; the LAST thing you ever want to happen is have someone trip over your extension cord! I set the interval to fire every 10 seconds and dialed the exposure in to ISO 800, f/5.6 and Aperture Priority; during the course of the day, the lighting was going to be all over the place, and I was not going to be able to constantly make adjustments.

With the time-lapse up and running, I was able to step back and slow down a little, shooting the room as the crew wheeled in road case upon road case and started setting up the show. Everyone had their task and this crew really worked well together to put this set up. I did my thing while they were doing theirs; shooting the entire production as some were setting up lighting while others set up instruments while others still were running cable upon cable from amps & microphones to the mixing board.

Once the stage was set, Raine and the band took their positions and pixels started rolling (the entire music video was shot using Nikon D800 bodies and Nikkor lenses – a deal that I arranged between the production company and Nikon Canada). I had free reign to be anywhere I wished during shooting (provided I wasn’t in their shots of course) to make the images I wanted, providing me many unique angles as they played Montreal live over and over…and over again. It was when the smoke machine started up that the truest technical challenge of the day presented itself. The contrast fell out of the light almost completely. Focusing was tough at times when the smoke was at its thickest and the color temperature of the lighting changed dramatically.

In the end, after filming was completed, both with and without a live audience, I felt I came away with same really great images that would tell the story of the day, from empty room to empty room.
My decision to convert my entire piece to black and white stemmed primarily from an aesthetic perspective; I felt it not only paired well with the song, but it gave a gritty feel to my images, a peek back stage through a dirty window, that I think would have largely been lost in color.

At the end of the day, this was a great project to shoot, allowing me to show the entire process of a video shooting day from start to finish. It also sparked an idea that I have since pithed to a number of bands on tour; A Day on the Road With…

A Day on the Road With is not unlike what I’ve shown here with Raine Maida; full day coverage of every move the band makes from the time the tour bus shows up until they’re back on the road to the next show. I’m talking with a couple of bands already; stay tuned.

Nov 052013


I have been shooting lit portraits for a long time. When I first started working in the news media so many years ago, those portraits were lit with one, sometimes two Vivitar 285 flashes. As my work gravitated into a slightly more commercial realm, I needed bigger lights. I bough a couple of used (abused, really) Speedotron 2400 w/s packs and a few 102 heads and they skies opened. Softboxes and umbrellas and scrims, oh my. The difference in the power and the quality of light compared to the 285s was, well, night & day. The Speedotrons were bulletproof, but they were also very old and very heavy.

After a couple of years, I replaced those old faithful packs and heads with some Profoto gear. That system was pretty. Faster and lighter than the Speedos, it was also much more expensive, however the higher cost gave me beautiful light. With the exception of the stands and softboxes, I could fit the entire system into a large Lightware case. Sure I still needed to haul it around on a two-wheel dolly, but it was all in one case, unlike my previous system which typically needed three or four trips to load into a location.

Having used the Profoto system to a point where I didn’t really even have to think about the controls when making lighting ratio adjustments, I began work on my Musical Ink book project shooting very, very fast portraits of musicians. If I was shooting locally in Toronto, I could load up the car and, with a third arm, make it inside the venue/hotel/office where I would be setting up in just one trip with a fully loaded UPS dolly. It was still a ton of stuff to carry though, so I began to reevaluate my lighting system.

I owned a couple of Nikon SB-900 Speedlights at the time and gave serious consideration giving up my Profoto system and going all small flashes. Joe McNally does it. So does David Hobby. Why couldn’t I do it too? So, I picked up another four SB-900s and after hanging onto it for a few more months, sold off my entire Profoto system (except, strangely, one speedring which I recently discovered in my office).
I McGuyvered a couple of Lastolite brackets and was able to use my same old softboxes to light my portraits. I triggered the lights with Pocket Wizard TT5 radios and as a whole the system worked great. It wasn’t cheap to be sure, but I could travel with two carry-on camera bags; one with my flash system and one with my cameras and laptop. If my checked luggage was lost, I was still able to work. For the next four years, that was my entire lighting kit and it was great…almost. The one single down side had always been battery power. At full or nearly full power, the recycle time was long and shooting with ‘my’ rock stars, I had to maximize my frame count in the minimum amount of time.


While I know now that they have been around for several years already, I recently discovered the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra system. I tend not to be much of a gear hound, never really caring about having the latest and greatest shiny new toy. When I stumbled upon the Quadra, I knew I had finally found the perfect system for my needs.


The Quadra system consists of a battery-powered 400 watt second pack and will run two heads asymmetrically (66%/33%). As shown here, the heads are actually smaller than the SB-900s I was using and at full power with a single head, put out out roughly 4 times the light of one SB-900. The system includes a SkyPort radio transmitter and the pack has a built-in receiver. Working together, that radio system allows adjustment of the power output right from the camera, not unlike the Pocket Wizard AC3 or the Nikon SU-800


I still have a pair of SB-900s to use for my news work and a couple of Pocket Wizard TT5 radios that I employ when I rig a remote camera, but for location lighting, the Elinchrom Quadra system is my ideal. Two packs, three batteries and four heads (plus the awesome, light ECO ring flash) all fit into a carry-on legal Lightware case and the whole kit weighs in at just under 29 pounds – a Speedo 2400 w/s pack all by itself weighs…29 pounds. Before you start yelling at your computer, I’m well aware that the comparing the two is apples to amplifiers, however, for the vast majority of work I do, I’ll take 2-400 w/s packs & four heads that weigh the same as a single 2400 w/s pack every day, especially when I’m working on location where I’d rather not have to hunt for power, without an assistant, shooting a subject who has about two minutes to give me.


The above image of Buckcherry’s Josh Todd is a perfect example of one of my backstage portraits; shot backstage at Toronto’s Phoenix, I had him in front of me for about three minutes and had to be set up and torn down in twenty because the space I was given was quickly turning into the merchandise area and would soon be filled with fans buying t-shirts. The output is beautiful, the system sets up faster because there are fewer moving parts to the system and it’s compact.

I have seen the light…so to speak.

Mar 252012

Over the past couple of years I’ve exchanged a long string of emails with the manager of rock guitar legend Slash.   I wrote recently that I was able to spend some hands-on time with a pre-production sample of Nikon’s brand new flagship DSLR, the D4.  While those two statements may seem entirely unrelated, a few days ago they came together in a most outstanding way.

Slash’s manager Jeff and I had been discussing the possibility of setting up a quick portrait session to include Slash in my Musical Ink book project.  Ultimately it was not meant to be as Slash really prefers not to talk about his tattoos; I’ve long subscribed to the edict that if you don’t ask, you don’t get.  Asking doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get, but not asking pretty much assures you won’t.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, etc., etc.

Canadian Music Week just wrapped up and one of the week’s keynote speakers on Friday was Slash.  With his new record ‘Apocalyptic Love’ set to drop on May 22, it seemed a perfect opportunity for a show.   That show, at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre had apparently sold out in under twenty minutes.  While Slash won’t be in my Musical Ink book, Jeff was happy to let me shoot the show.

Cue my good friends at Nikon.  A live show by one of rock’s iconic guitarists seemed an absolutely perfect place for a real world test of the D4 and Amanda, Toronto’s Nikon Professional Services manager agreed.

I picked up the camera on Thursday and ‘made it my own’, adjusting some settings and tweaking a few custom functions to my preference, things like using the AF-ON button rather than the shutter release for initiating auto focus.  I really wanted to give the high ISO capabilities of the D4 a workout, along with the autofocus, metering and overall handling of the camera while doing what I do.

Slash & his band were going on at 11 o’clock Friday night and it turned out that media access to the packed house was extremely restricted with only 5 photographers being permitted into the unusually spacious pit to shoot the first three songs of the set.

Three songs always seem to fly by but they really do afford plenty of time to come away with images.  Friday night, using the D4, I was able to come away with nothing I could have imagined.  Wanting to really see the D4 could do, I set the ISO to 12800, the highest setting in the camera’s ‘native’ ISO range before leaving for the show.  The D3/D700 bodies I regularly shoot live music with are generally solid up to 6400 if the exposure is tight, and noise can be managed fairly well in Photoshop’s Adobe Camera Raw before actually opening the file.

I always shoot live music in RAW to allow more control & adjustments later if necessary.  The drawback of shooting RAW is the buffer size of the D3/D700 bodies; if you go on a long burst, they start to hiccup around 15 frames.  Loaded with a Lexar Professional 600x 32GB UDMA CF card, I wanted to see what the D4 could do so at one point I just hammered down…and it kept shooting.  And shooting.  And shooting.  Recording 12-bit lossless compressed RAW files, the D4 has a buffer capacity of 92 images.  Far, far beyond any reasonable or practical use I can think of, but plenty of head room even if you go on a 20 frame run.

The images you see here, all shot with the D4 (at ISO 12800, remember?), with the exception of a little bit of toning and a bit of sharpening, are straight out of the camera (they were converted to jpg in Aperture and toned and sharpened in Photoshop CS5).  The noise is…well, there isn’t any noise.  I applied no noise reduction to any of these; not in the camera, not in the computer. In terms of handling, the ergonomics are bang on, particularly that vertical AF-ON button; my hand just falls right on top of it.  The autofocus is incredibly fast and insanely accurate.  All of these images were shot with my AF-S 24-70/2.8, one of the sharpest lenses I own.  I shot about 95% of the images I made Friday night with that combination (the rest were with a D3/AF-S 70-200/2.8VR, and a few with a D7000/10.5 fisheye).

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…