I first heard the name Dan Patlansky about 5 or 6 years ago from my friend John, who sold me my first guitar and told me that if I enjoyed the blues I really ought to go and see Dan playing live. I didn’t think much of it at the time and in passing I mentioned it to my then guitar teacher, who being something of a maestro himself, also suggested that I should go and see him play. It took another two years before that eventually happened, but when it did I swear I thought I was hearing Stevie Ray Vaughn reach back into this world from the other side. Oh my, this boy can play!

A year or so after my first Dan Patlansky gig I got to take some photos of him playing an in-store set at the opening of my friend John’s music store. The lighting was God-awful (fluorescent tubes) and the store was packed with fans who’d pushed aside the regular drudgery of a Saturday morning to come and see this blues prodigy play a few numbers. Despite the throng of people I somehow got myself near the front and armed only with a D2H, SB-800 and 18-200mm VR lens I managed to get some shots of Dan that I was pretty happy with. Dan must have liked them too as I see he is using a couple of them on his Facebook profile! :)

About two weeks ago Dan sent out a message to all his fans on Facebook telling them about some shows he was performing at the Catalina Theatre down at Wilson’s Wharf in the Durban harbour. So I wrote back to him and asked if he would mind me taking some pics of his show, coz see, I gots me this new shoot-in-the-dark Nikon camera and I’d really like to put it to the test in a theatre situation (you has to speak like a Bluesman if you wants to be heard). No problem, said Dan. He’d put me on the list.

This past Friday rolled around and I called up the Catalina to find out if I was on this “list”. Turns out there was no list, but on enquiry at the ticket booth I was told to go upstairs into the theatre and ask Dan if it would be alright for me to take some pics. I’d never been to this particular theatre before, so I had no idea where to go, but I soon found myself walking down a dark and skinny corridor towards a light and the smell of one of those little cigarello cigars. Behind a closed door I found Dan and his rhythm section (Andy Turrell & Smelly Fellows) warming up for the show. I introduced myself and Dan’s face lit up. He remembered me and seemed genuinely pleased that I had come to photograph his show, told me to go back down to the ticket booth and tell them that it was a “Done deal” – they must give me a front row seat. Sorted!

The Catalina is a small intimate venue with about 8 long rows of 20 seats or so. The only one available was right at the left end of the front row, so fortunately I had the isle to put my bag in. I had about 5 minutes before the show started to get myself prepared. My longest lens is a Nikon 105mm 2.5 AIS. The others don’t go further than 60mm. From my seat I took a few test shots of Dan’s microphone and guitar stand. I had the legendary D700 ISO cranked up to 6400 but I was still getting the “Lo” reading on the shutter speed even with my lens wide open. I made sure the lens cap was off. Uh-oh… The ceiling of the theatre is painted black, no surprises there, and I didn’t really want to start bothering the band or the patrons with a flash. Dare I enter the unknown world of Hi-1 or even Hi-2?

Now, I’ve only had the Nikon D700 for about three weeks and most of that time I’ve been restricted to shooting purely in studio or messing around indoors trying to come to grips with the seemingly endless menus and shooting configurations. The shots I took of the microphone were not good – shutter way too slow – and to make matters worse the main theatre lights were still on, those would be turned off once the show started. I calmly reminded myself that I only needed to get about 5 shots worth keeping and that panic would not be a viable option if I was going to achieve that. Besides, I wasn’t shooting for anybody who was actually paying for the shots and the only people apt to be disappointed were me and (maybe) Dan. At least he could take out his blues on a guitar. Me? I was thinking of heading to Zack’s Pub & Grill downstairs to wash away my sorrows with whatever they serve that doesn’t cost more than a buck a shot. You don’t want to hear my 12-bar blues.

The lights dimmed and Dan, Smelly and Andy walked out onto the stage to enthusiasic applause from the small crowd of afficiandos gathered to see them play the Blues. My first few shots during the opening number had me very confused. In the review panel they looked like some kind of posterised, 60’s day-glo pop art. WTF? The predominant light sources were a couple of red and blue spotlights and clearly these were having a weird effect on the D700’s sensor. I’d never seen anything like this coming straight out of any sensor. Kind of cool, but unless the world’s Blues fans all start dropping acid and praise me for some kind of art fusion, it was going to be a very boring series of images. Dan finished up the first song and launched straight into the fastest version of “That’s Alright Mama” that I’ve ever heard. Elvis would have dislocated something trying to keep up, that’s for sure.

Around about the third number the lights finally changed and a more soothing, brighter, warm light hit the stage. Things were suddenly a lot easier and the pics on my review screen went from Andy Warhol to reality bites just about immediately. Phew!

The trick to doing this kind of photography is to lower your expectations. Expect the worst, but hope for the best. Don’t expect every shot you take to look like it could make the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. It won’t. High ISO’s aren’t always going to save your ass either. You’re still going to have to employ just about every trick in your bag to come away with your handful of good images. If you’ve got the time, experiment and find the camera settings that work best for you. The D700 is ridiculously good at high ISO’s, but you’ve still got to get some good light onstage otherwise you’re way up the creek without an oar.

I know all about the frustrations of shooting performers onstage. Back in my D70/D2H days I’d tried and failed often enough shooting at ISO 1250/1600 even with fast glass and VR. You could get good shots, but they were just very hard to come by and post processing them was like Chinese water torture. With the D700 it’s a whole different animal, but it’s still not point ‘n shoot. Shooting at between 1600 and 6400 ISO, mostly with a -1 compensation and a narrow centre-weighted meter (8mm) I managed to get these shots. They’re not awesome, but I think they’re good enough. I found myself metering off the brightest part of the guitar, using the AE-Lock button which has a fantastic “sticky” option on the D700 to keep the values locked in until your next shot.

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These are probably all shot with the manual focus 105mm 2.5 set to various apertures between 2.5 and 5.6. Fortunately Blues guitarists tend not to move around a whole lot on stage, which makes using old lenses like this possible. Ever see Eric Clapton live? Yup, same thing with Dan. He has one hell of a “guitar face” to make up for lack of Eddie Van Halen type jumps though! :-)

Take a listen to Dan Patlansky on his MySpace page