One of my favorite DJ/Producers, Mark Knight, stopped in at Space this past weekend for a little eight-hour set on the decks. He’s got the idea of being a DJ down pat. He mixes in his own material and edits, with a good dose of anything that will make the crowd move. Throughout the night I heard everything from classic Underworld to even an INXS-inspired white label track. And he’s always down for a wacky photo or two, like the one above. And, of course, I get asked ‘how did I do that’?
In this case, it wasn’t just a random happenstance of the lighting and the photo coming together…
You have a vision and you wait for the world to fall in line and then you capture it…
Generally that is how I work. I wait for things to happen, as I’ve explained before, then I document it. However, in club life, an interesting ‘counter’ to my little tagline happens, in that the friendly local lighting techs will set up a specific cue, so I can capture the moment. So, I have to wonder, am I waiting for the world to fall in line if someone kind of knows what I would like to see?
I do appreciate the help, obviously, and it is actually not a hard feat for anyone to accomplish if they are out shooting nightlife. The trick here is, to get to know your light techs and the equipment they employ on a nightly basis.
When I first got started in this, I used to be a part-time light tech for my friend John’s sound company. John and I, at the time, were both students over at UM, and to make ends meet, and also for the learning experience (his major was audio engineering), John ran a small sound and lighting company on the side. And I was his unofficial-official light tech, due to my experience with lighting in general, and also no one else in our crew knew the concepts. We didn’t get paid much, but at the time, half the fun was just being able to get out there and do shows. We mostly did rock shows, but we also did a few dance-oriented events here and there. Nonetheless, I got to learn the basics of stage and nightclub lighting. As time went on, even after John moved back to Aspen to kick off his massive production company, I would stay current and always converse and on occasion, fill in as a tech for a lot of the local guys when they were sick, away or “otherwise indisposed”. At this time (early to mid 2000s), lighting was moving from a “dedicated console” world, to a PC-driven sort of affair, especially in the nightclub industry. A $300 PC and $700 USB-DMX widget could take the place of a $20000 console in a nightclub setting. The most popular product was LightJockey by Martin. In a nutshell, after you installed and connected all your fixtures, you used this piece of software and supplied USB-DMX widget, and could program and control your lightshow from any commodity PC. It is all very graphical.
There’s several competing software packages out there nowadays, but Lightjockey is the most common one. The concepts are the same though.
Entire blogs and sites are devoted to lighting. Obviously this one isn’t. But, you don’t have to be a light tech to speak the basics. The key, I’ve found, is to know what the fixtures are (spots, washes, scanners, strobes - all kind of self-explanatory), and the right terms for what the fixtures do (If you say ‘CTO’ you’ll usually be taken a little bit more seriously) and what the colors and filters are, and also the basics of how a lighting scene is constructed. Also, if you don’t know the tech, get to know him or her (yes, her - one of the best in the biz is a girl.) and develop a rapport. If it’s early in the night, the tech is usually just running through the motions, and will probably be up for a break in the routine. Use the opening DJ as a “practice target”, and get some cues set up for yourself.
Now, this all kind of reeks of cheating. And, maybe it is. However, the way I can ethically justify it is now, in a lot of places, the tech will actually bring up “my” cues, without me even asking. At Space, I don’t think I’ve asked Dennis or Gabriel for a specific cue in months. It just all falls into place. They know what will make for a great image, and more importantly, when to deploy those cues, for maximum effect on both the crowd and my image capture. We work together on it.
Plus, a good tech will know the flow and rhythm to the music and crowd, and having specific cues becomes less and less necessary, since the lighting will just happen. When a song peaks, you know there will be a sizable amount of strobing, for example. Or when there is a lull in the track, it could go dark, or a nice blue wash from the Platinum Beams will kick in.
Of course, the assumption being made here is that you are shooting in a venue that is equipped with a decent lighting rig, and, beyond that, a dedicated lighting technician. Some smaller venues still run their lighting systems on autopilot, or according to a preset schedule (Lightjockey allows for scheduled cues based on the time of day, even), depending on the needs of the venue. That being said, most places of that nature actually have a lot of practical lighting, or a good dose of ambient light. There’s a lot of light out there if you know where to find it.
But, if the situation allows for it, definitely get to know and work with the light techs in a venue, the resultant images will be much more “meaningful” than your usual run-of-the-mill flash-and-dash captures.