Rock n' Roll Location Lighting

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Shooting on location always comes with a certain amount of challenges. Shooting in downtown Los Angeles in the middle of the night with a bunch of rock stars is an especially unique challenge.

Before we get into the lighting and the tech parts of this lesson, I want to say that most of the hard work was already done before the shoot even started. When shooting on-location in Los Angeles there are a number of barriers to clear. Even though this location looks like a gritty urban city landscape (because it is a gritty urban landscape) permits are required to shoot in the city streets of downtown LA because of the movie industry. Any shoot in LA can be shut down at the tip of a hat if you are not careful.

Booking a band is no easy task. Depending on the band and the label they are signed to, there could be any number of restrictions. Some restrictions may include how you actually compose, crop and light the band. Lucky for us, our band was in town to play the Viper Room that night and I consider them old friends. I called in a favor so we would not have to deal with the red tape or the band’s publicist who would normally be hanging over my shoulder for the entire shoot.

The Group Shot

I saw this shoot as being a gritty night shoot downtown. One of the biggest problems I face on-location is the lack of electricity, so I use Speedotron Explorer power packs. I like the Explorers because they offer a full 1500WS burst on full power. Mix that 1500WS burst with today’s high ISOs and you have a massive range of creative options at a very reasonable price. Plus the Explorers rarely break. 


I also use Photoflex light modifiers on-location because they are not just well made but because they are made smart. I can control contrast, softness, wrap and the color cast of each modifier. Photoflex light modifiers also pack well into all my travel kits, giving me lots of options for the road. 


Moving into the shoot, I used the OctoDome: Medium as my key light and placed it high and to the right of my subject. Because it was nighttime, I wanted to give the effect that the band was being lit by the street
lamps. Sometimes the best lighting choice is to simply enhance what is already being provided at the scene.

To further accomplish this I placed a HalfDome: Medium soft box on each side of the band (slightly behind) and set the power to one full stop hotter that the OctoDome. I added grids to each HalfDome to create highlights that help separate the band from the background.

My camera settings for this group shot were f8 with a shutter speed of 1/250 at ISO 400. I used my Nikon 24-70mm lens with my Nikon D4.



The Individual Shot

For the individual shots, I moved the HalfDomes in much closer to my subjects and the OctoDome down and to the left. I exposed not for the face of my subjects but for the highlights, strategically underexposing with the OctoDome. With the use of Adobe Photoshop I knew this would give me a lot of control in post-production and a chance to blow out the highlights. This was the look I wanted to achieve.

My camera settings for the individual portrait were f22 with a shutter speed of 1/200 at ISO 200. I used my Nikon 24-70mm lens with my Nikon D4.



Working in Adobe Photoshop, I cropped the photo to work with Instagram, cutting out the soft boxes and adjusting the contrast and brightness to my vision for the shot. I love the softness in the faces of the band members being provided by the OctoDome mixed with the hard highlights from the HalfDomes on each side.


After some tweaking of the exposure and contrast, I used the burn tool to darken the corners of the shot to bring the viewer’s eye to the band and to bring out the colors of the graffiti in the background. I spent a lot of time in the darkroom as a kid, and although I do not consider myself a Photoshop professional, I was really good in the darkroom back in the day and I use Photoshop in post as my digital darkroom.


For the individual shots I underexposed the face on the original shot and exposed for the highlights so that when I brought the images into post to brighten them up, the highlights would be accentuated. Again, I used the burn tool to darken in the background of the shot and the healing brush to clean up a few of the blemishes.


I try to keep most of my shoots with artists to under an hour. Most of the time I only get about 30 minutes to shoot, so it’s important to do as much of the work as you can before you get there.

I use certain creative visualization techniques to try and see the shot before I do anything. This gives me a certain goal to work toward with each artist as each project is unique and comes with a certain set of guidelines. Of course it’s important to do your best to please your clients but keep in mind that it is important to please yourself as well.

A few things on my checklist are:

  • Scouting the location

  • Crew
  • Parking

  • Electricity

  • Permits

  • Assistants

  • Food

  • Emergency Services

  • Assessing potential problems
  • Coffee!!!


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Written and photographed by Robert Downs.