Seeing red? The red wash may just be the most dreaded treatment to ever grace the stage in the eyes of the concert photographer. Here are some suggestions for dealing with excessive red lighting for gig photography.
I just shot a show where the over abundance of intense red lights resulted in incredibly red cast on all shots. As I now know the red lights are the bane of all concert photographers, what do you do to offset this issue?
You're not alone, Lewis. The problem of red lighting is a persistent hurdle for many concert photographers, and for not only more intimate venues, but larger shows as well.
With conventional digital sensors, the image is data is comprised of three separate channels: red, green, and blue. The main problem with shooting under red lights is, naturally, an excess of red light and and a deficiency in the other two channels. As a result, it's very difficult to achieve a natural look to the images, as the image quickly loses detail and acuity due to an oversaturation of the red channel.
Here are a few approaches for taming the big red:
While it's simply good technique for the the concert photographer, careful exposure under red lighting is key. I generally aim for slight underexposure in the most difficult mono-color washes to preserve the fullest range of values in the dominant color channel. While the other channels will suffer (blue and green, in this instance), this underexposure ensures as much separation as possible in the tonality of the image, which would be lost with more exposure.
In addition, I suggest manual exposure for most concert photography scenes due to the huge variances in lighting, and red washes are no exception. Manual exposure will provide the most control over establishing the priorities for the red channel and maximizing image quality.
White balance is a great tool for helping subdue extremely red lighting, as it can be done at the time of shooting and doesn't necessitate too much guesswork. In addition, white balance can be set in post, but the image may take a hit in image quality compared to a file that was preset at the time of shooting.
A manual setting between 2000-2700K will give a cooler bias to the images and help in differentiating tones. If your camera has a setting for Sodium Vapor Lamps, this preset also works well for helping achieve more separation in the image. In practice, these cooler WB settings will help create separation of the red tones by letting more yellow and orange elements come through.
One way to help cut an over-abundance of red light is simply to introduce your own light source: flash. While this approach isn't always an option for all events, flash is an effective way to dramatically change the treatment of one's subjects.
With proper exposure and technique, it's possible to create separation and definition in the subject with flash while still maintaining the background ambience of the scene.
If you want to cut the problem before your sensor even registers the light, a blue filter such as an 80d or 80c will work to change the color balance of the scene. The downside is that you'll lose 1/3 to 1-full stop of light for these options, respectively, or more with stronger filters. This solution is best for concerts with slowly or non-changing lighting treatments.
You can always start buying the lighting tech drinks. As a short-term solution, you can also try self-medicating for your lighting sorrows as well.