Shooting black metal with 85 mm f/1.2

In Concerts

Black metal photography

Black metal photography is something I’ve been doing for the past five years. In my opinion, it’s one of the, visually, most interesting kinds of shows to photograph, but also perhaps the most challenging. The lights change and move – almost as rapidly as the bands themselves. And the smoke. Oh, the smoke. I prefer to have fairly punchy blacks in my concert shots. By all means, smoke looks great when used within reason. Adding too much smoke to the scene, though, is like turning the contrast down. Way down. But, you shoot and you learn. And I always want to learn.

The black metal band Taake is without a doubt one of my favorite acts to shoot. I’ve shot them a few times before and they’ve never disappointed. Last friday I went to cover their gig at the venue Hulen. Being the first gig of 2015, I couldn’t have been luckier. Covered with LED lights, it’s quite a difficult venue to shoot; especially fast-moving bands like Taake. LED lights demand a slower shutter speed than I’m comfortable with (to avoid annoying banding across the frame). The band more than makes up for otherwise disappointing conditions, though. Honestly, Taake is a sight to see, even if you don’t like black metal or any kind of extreme music, it’s truly an awe-inspiring experience.

Having shot Taake before, I went through all my previous galleries of them before the gig. Frontman Hoest is one of the most active frontmen within the genre on-stage. In the very least the most vicious looking. Looking back, I felt I needed to get more close up shots of his face and eyes this time around. Seriously, look at that face. My go-to lens in such circumstances is my trusty 70-200 mm f/2.8 IS, and I used that for most of their set, crawling around on the floor trying to not get hit by neither the band nor audience. However, I wanted to do something different as well, as I’ve felt that I did the last few shows of 2014 on auto pilot. Since I rarely re-pack my bag, I still had my 85 mm f/1.2 lens from an earlier photo shoot lying around, and I decided to shoot half of the set with that.

The dream lens

The 85 mm f/1.2 is photographer porn a beautiful lens. The look it gives your shots is unlike anything else. Soft and dreamy, and with a depth of field (DOF) to die for. Now, I have to admit that I only ever use it wide open at f/1.2. It’s not razor-sharp at that aperture, but if that’s what you’re going for: use another lens. Now, while the dreamy look and super fast aperture is great, there is also a payoff. And it’s a big one in regards to concert photography. The autofocus is slow. Excruciatingly so. It would have trouble following a slug in a salt maze.

Of course, this is mainly a portrait lens, so speed isn’t really a concern in most cases. Merging that look with a concert is a whole different matter. I’ve used it a couple of times before at singer-songwriter type shows with some success, but never at a metal concert before.


Black metal photography

And it works. Kinda.

With the 85 mm I found myself shooting more in between songs when the lights dimmed a bit. The two stops of extra light f/1.2 gives you compared to a f/2.8 opens up a myriad of possibilities. My goal is always to get the shots that nobody else gets, and the 85 mm definitely adds another dimension to what I’m able to capture. Was I able to get tack sharp focus? No, not really. But I don’t think it matters either. The 85 mm gives you a particular look. Great sharpness isn’t really part of that look. It’s soft and mushy, and I found myself, to my own surprise, even dropping down the contrast to match what the lens was giving me. That look fits the band quite well in my opinion.

Did I get better shots with the 85 mm? No, probably not. But I like these shots way better. It feels fresh and new. It’s a new challenge. And I like it.

Too see more shots from this concert, most of them shot with anything but the 85 mm f/1.2, click here.

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