Photographing Madrigal 75

I was asked to photograph the Cork vocal ensemble Madrigal 75 during their lunchtime recital at St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh on March 23rd.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from photographing the East Cork Early Music Festival during the last couple of years is that the lighting at venues is rarely ideal from a photographic perspective. Low lighting appears to be the norm probably, in the case of some of the ECEMF concerts at least, because of the effect that harsh, bright light might have on the tuning of the period instruments.

And even though there were no instruments involved in the Madrigal 75 recital – just their pristine, glorious voices – the lighting on the singers, as expected, was muted. The use of flash, of course, was out of the question as it would have been distracting both to the performers and the audience. Another consideration is to be careful when releasing the shutter – one has to make the exposures during the louder versions of the performances: there is nothing worse than hearing “click, click, click” during a quiet passage.

You also have to blend in. Dark clothing is pretty well de rigeur – walking around (and you mustn’t do much of that either) wearing a loud shirt and bright jeans would only serve as another distraction. One has to be respectful of the performers and the audience at all times.

I arrived about an hour before the recital and, luckily, they were rehearsing. This afforded me the opportunity of checking the optimum camera settings as well as the best vantage points.

The altar in front of which they were singing was brightly lit whereas the light on themselves was, as I say, muted.

This is an unprocessed RAW shot showing the relative brightness levels:


The exposure chosen results in a brighter scene than it was in reality.

In order to expose them properly I needed to use an ISO of 6400 and shutter speeds of  between 1/160 sec and 1/60 sec depending on whether I was using the Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 or the Canon 400mm f/5.6. 1/60 sec is a bit slow when using a 400mm lens but I had no choice. Naturally I shot in RAW in order to (a) not worry about the White Balance and (b) give me plenty of exposure latitude. I used a monopod throughout.

When I processed the shots in Adobe Camera Raw I adjusted the WB to Fluorescent as it gave me the most pleasing results.

ISO of 6400 is a frightening speed to someone like me who cut my photographic teeth with film. Back then ISO 400 was pushing the envelope and it resulted in gloriously grainy shots (remember Tri-X?) Some artistic  photographers like Sarah Moon in the 1970s used GAF 500 slide film – then the fastest available – and the results had grain as big as golf balls.

Now we can use ISOs of 6400 and greater and the “noise” – the digital equivalent of film grain – is so well controlled and almost imperceptible as to be nothing short of miraculous. There are even methods of reducing noise in post-processing such as the native ACR one or third party software like Noise Ninja. Personally, I like a bit of noise when using high ISOs. You can easily reduce noise to such an extent that the skin of the subjects begins to look “plasticky”.

Here is a 100% crop of one of the performers before (on the left) any noise reduction and (on the right) with the Luminance slider in ACR set to 35:


You can reduce it still further of course but you are risking the plastic look. Don’t be afraid of grain/noise – not all images have to be crispy clean.

This is the colour straight from the camera:

Madrigal 3

And this is with the White Balance set to Fluorescent and other adjustments (Clarity, Vibrance, Saturation) made in ACR and then cropped in Photoshop:


It was a pleasure to photograph such a wonderful group.

The photos can be seen on Madrigal 75’s Facebook page:

For more information check out: