On the heels of the release of their new album, “Dance Devil Dance,” Avatar brought their signature brand of metal circus extravagance to New York City’s Webster Hall last week with support from Veil of Maya and Orbit Culture. The reputation of Avatar’s live performances precedes them and I was excited to finally experience it for myself. Even more so, I was excited to have the opportunity to shooting the show too. With such a solid undercard to boot, it was shaping up to be a great night.
Swedish metalers Orbit Culture kicked off the show with an incredible set. A few songs in, frontman Niklas Karlsson demanded the crowd open up the pit before playing the next song and afterwards, upon seeing the intensity with which the crowd had obliged by his request, said “that was really fucking cool. Are you ready for another one?” They definitely were.
Orbit Culture gave fans a taste of what’s to come by playing two tracks from their forthcoming album, “Descent”, including their ultra-heavy new single, “Vultures of North.” They wrapped their set with “Saw” from their 2018 album, “Redfog” before walking off the stage to an increasingly loud demand from the crowd for an encore. Though time would not allow for one, the significance of the request was not lost on the band. I for one cannot recall the last time I’ve seen an opening act get a true call for an encore. It was well deserved; I for one wouldn’t have minded seeing them play another song or five.
Veil of Maya kept the momentum going strong with a set of epic metalcore anthems. The band released their new album, “[m]other,” earlier this month and showcased a few tunes from the highly anticipated record, treating fans to “Red Fur,” “Synthwave Vegan,” and “Godhead.”
Frontman Lukas Magyar has an impressive ability to transition seamlessly from clear, impassioned vocals to gritty, thrashing screams, further elevating the band’s equally impressive (and incredibly heavy) instrumentation. The energy was high throughout Veil of Maya’s set and it was brought to a peak with the band’s set closer, “Mikasa.” Phones and crowd surfers were raised to the sky in excitement, and Veil of Maya turned it up to eleven to take it home and set the stage for Avatar.
The crowd was fired up when the house lights went down for Avatar. Drummer John Alfredsson took position behind his kit and played a dramatic percussive intro as each band member stepped out of the darkness and into the stage lights. The last to emerge was singer Johannes Eckerström. Standing tall and statuesque with cane in hand, Eckerström sprung to life as soon the band launched into “Dance Devil Dance.”
Avatar lived up to their theatrical reputation, blurring the lines between a metal show and a broadway musical. Every member performed with a confidence that garnered attention, knowing when to step forward into the spotlight and when to step back to let it shine on another. We’ll get into this in a sec, but the performance, which I’m sure comes as no surprise, was a lot of fun to shoot.
Avatar played a two hour, 18-song set and didn’t let the party stop until they took their final bow. The band’s career-spanning setlist was a mix of new material and old favorites, drawing from 2014’s “Hail the Apocalypse” and onward. While it was my first time seeing Avatar, it won’t be my last; the show is an experience that you just don’t want to miss.
For months now, I’ve been using roughly the same camera settings for every show. I set my Canon R5 to Shutter Priority, set my ISO to 800 or 1250 and my shutter to 1/160. If there are any sudden blasts of stage lighting, the Shutter Priority kicks in to adjust my aperture, and most of the time it just blinks at 2.8. The images are underexposed, but I know that I can boost them afterward in Lightroom.
Such became my workflow, and it’s been mostly successful. But there were a lot of times that the photo was too underexposed to recover. I was prepared for the relatively infrequent moments of bright lights but was seemingly underprepared for the low lighting that is utilized the majority of the time. I was putting myself at a disadvantage by default, relying too much on fixing my shots in post. I decided to shake things up a bit for this show and try some new settings.
You might be wondering why I wouldn’t have just adjusted the settings the moment I recognized that my photos were being underexposed. The primary reason, and I’m indeed seeing the irony of this, is that I wanted to keep the ISO as low as possible so that I could have the flexibility to boost and edit in Lightroom without running into banding issues. The noise and decrease in dynamic range that comes with a higher ISO limits the amount of work you can do in post. I was worried that boosting my ISO too high would put me at a disadvantage when starting to edit the image. For whatever reason, I didn’t consider that the benefits provided by a higher ISO could, and often do, offset the need to edit the image in the first place.
For the Avatar show, I first switched from Shutter Priority to Manual. I set my aperture to 2.8, my shutter to 1/250 (to give myself extra help with the fast movements of metal), and my ISO to Auto. The Canon R5 has an ISO range up to 51,200. That would be too drastic of a departure from the comforts of my 800-1250 range, so I set the ISO to cap at 3200. Now, instead of the camera reacting to light by adjusting aperture, it would adjust ISO, but not so much that I’d risk dooming myself from the start.
When Orbit Culture hit the stage and I took my first few shots, I almost felt stupid when I reviewed them and saw how great they looked in-camera. For so long, I have subconsciously been giving myself more work to do in Lightroom, relying too much on that part of the process to do the job. It was exciting to realize that if I put more confidence into the shot upfront, I’d save myself a lot of time in the long run.
With this newfound (and admittedly obvious) solution at my disposal, I had a blast shooting the entire show. Both Orbit Culture and Veil of Maya worked the stage well and provided plenty of opportunities to grab some epic shots, while Avatar’s set was a photographer’s dream.
The band members, frontman Johannes Eckerström especially, were photogenic in their poses and movements. Eckerström’s facial expressions in and of themselves warranted a bunch of shots, while guitarist Jonas Jarlsby’s tossing of his long dreads into the air with every bang of his head gave me some solid action shots. As great as the band was to shoot individually, so too were they to shoot all together.
I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better band to shoot while testing my new settings approach. In hindsight, the lighting was pretty solid throughout the night and it will be interesting to see if this approach still works in low light situations. Given that I primarily shoot metal acts, I imagine that I won’t have to wait long to put it to the test.