Most experienced photographers have a preferred camera/lens combination for specific situations. Landscape photographers, for instance, require wide lenses for sweeping vistas. Traditional portraitists use long lenses (minimum 85mm) to capture intimate close-ups without straying into their subjects’ comfort zones. For live shows in small venues with no flash restrictions, my go-to setup is a Canon 5D with a wide lens and an external flash. No flash allowed? The Canon 60D with the 50mm f1.8. The last thing I ever expected to use was an Olympus PEN E-P2 outfitted with a $20 CCTV lens C bought on eBay, but that’s exactly how I caught Iggy Pop, James Williamson, Scott Asheton, Steve Mackay, and Mike Watt ripping through the Stooges’ catalog (including Raw Power!) at the Warfield on December 6.
And to think I almost took my uber-lofi Digital Harinezumi, which is practically useless in the dark but so tiny I could stick it in my jeans if necessary. In this age of phones with built-in HD cameras, large concert venues can only reasonably place restrictions on “professional” cameras with interchangeable lenses (i.e., dSLRs). Luckily, my Olympus PEN E-P2 performs like an entry-level SLR but, with its “woodgrain” skin and the low-tech lens, looks unassuming to anyone but camera geeks.
I had absolutely no expectations with this lens/camera pairing. First, the E-P2 suffers from shutter lag and terrible autofocus in low light. Second, the lens (the equivalent of a 50mm on a 35mm camera) was of questionable quality (glass? plastic?), manual focus, made for CCTV cameras, and untested by me prior to the show. Third, I was one row of people back from the stage barrier, which itself was a good five feet from the edge of the stage.
I snapped a few practice shots of the opening band Le Butcherettes. Its members more or less kept their distance from my side of the stage, and these initial photos looked like they’d been taken with an iPhone—fine for documentation purposes but nothing to blog about. It wasn’t until I captured Teri Gender Bender running straight at me for a stage dive that I realized I had an enchanted box in my hands.
Focusing was a challenge at f1.4 (when isn’t it, really?), but the results were magical when I nailed it—everything but the in-focus point was rendered a creamy wash of color or light. The lens devoured the intense stage lights, warping them into swirling halos, heavenly beams, or silky brushstrokes. In effect, it transformed the E-P2 into a digital Holga or Diana camera, complete with vignetting and smooth, film-like “grain.” It was wholly unpredictable and totally fun to use. I highly doubt either of my SLRs would’ve done as well amid the crush of bodies dancing to the beat of the living dead.
Here’s a smattering of the 200 photos I took that night. You can view more of them here.
As for the show, it, too, was unbelievable. Happily, the band didn’t “polish” the songs like many recently reunited bands do; every classic, from “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to “1970” to “Search and Destroy,” sounded as primal and raw as when it was first recorded. Iggy, at 64 years old, flaunted his trademark lean physique and boundless energy, gyrating across the stage, diving into the audience, and climbing onto speakers with the same exuberance he had in live Stooges videos from the late 1960s. He even rallied the rest of the band to play two encores (including “Cock in My Pocket,” “Death Trip,” and “Louie Louie”), more than their previous shows. The entire floor of the Warfield shook with the weight of the pogoing audience. I was amazed there wasn’t a riot when he invited the crowd to occupy the stage during “Shake Appeal.” The show let out by 11pm, but I was so amped I couldn’t sleep until well past 2am. This was, by the far, the best concert I’d seen in ages.
Back to the lens: The lens requires a C mount adapter in order to be used on Olympus and Panasonic micro four-thirds cameras; it needs a different adapter for the Sony NEX. The lens (for Olympus and Panasonic only) is available at Photojojo for $90, or you can search for it on eBay (type in “25mm f1.4 micro 4/3 CCTV”; some vendors include a C mount adapter) and Buy It Now for roughly a third of the price. Mine came with the adapter as well as several macro rings I’ll probably never use.
I suppose you could group it with the Lensbaby, but it’s more straightforward and way cheaper. I like that I can control both the aperture and the focus, although there aren’t any notches to keep the aperture ring from slipping from f1.4 in one shot to f8 in the next. That’s just a minor inconvenience. Frankly, I can’t wait to try it out at another big concert with professional stage lighting. If only I had it and the EP-2 when I saw one of the New York Dolls’ first reunion shows at the Fillmore in 2004. David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain, and Hanoi Rocks’ Sami Yaffa (Arthur Kane had died that July) shared the stage, and it pained me to not have a photographic device of any kind in hand—especially when everyone around me had somehow snuck in slim point-and-shoots (iPhones had yet to be invented). I know you can’t put your arms around a memory, but sometimes you can still look at it, with or without a TV eye.