Sunday, August 29, 2010

Some thoughts on concert photography

Del McCoury in concert, outdoors, Stratton, Vermont - Aug 28, 2010

People sometimes look at my photos and say things like, “I wish I had a camera that could take pictures like yours.” I always answer that it’s not the camera, it’s how you set it and how you use it that gets the results. Last night I found myself outside a Del McCoury concert with nothing but a Canon point-n-shoot. For those who don’t know him, Del is one of the greats of bluegrass music. He’s been playing since before I was born, but he’s still vital and dynamic and full of zip. Nowadays, he’s joined on stage by his sons as he performs all over the country.

I had a choice: Drive back and get a “professional” camera, and miss most of the show, or shoot pictures with what I had. I chose the latter, and in making that Canon camera work, I recorded what I did for those of you who want to shoot your own nighttime concerts.

I began by switching off the camera flash. Flash on small cameras is meant to provide supplementary illumination for subjects five to ten feet from the camera. If you use flash to take a concert photo from the audience, the light will not even reach the stage, and the image will be black. If you are lucky enough to be really close, the flash may hit the closest performer, bathing him in an ugly white glare and leaving everything else black. The colors and shadows cast by the stage lighting are an integral part of most shows; you lose that when a flash is used.

Next, I selected manual metering mode and used the dials on the back of the camera to set film speed and exposure. For my Canon G10 I chose a sensitivity of ISO 800. I set the widest available aperture – f4.0, and a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second. That’s a reasonable rule of thumb set of settings for most cameras and most concerts. You can shoot a few shots with those settings and adjust as needed to get the exposure right for your particular venue.

I usually shoot concerts with daylight white balance, which gives a reddish cast to the images, because that’s how they seem to me in real life. You can try incandescent white balance and see what you prefer. There’s no exact answer because you are shooting performers under colored light so the shading is a matter of artistic interpretation, as opposed to absolute color accuracy.

Point and shoot cameras are notorious for being really slow to respond when you push the shutter button. However, I find that my Canon responds quite a bit faster when it’s in manual mode; probably because it does not have to do a bunch of exposure calculations before each shot. The faster your camera responds, the more likely you are to catch a good shot.

That covered the setup; next comes composition.

I try to shoot a mix of vertical and horizontal compositions. If you are shooting one person, up close, a vertical (portrait) composition is often best.

If you want to back off and shoot the whole stage you’re usually better off with a horizontal (landscape) format.

When you shoot verticals from up close pay attention to the performer’s position relative to the microphone. Try to find a shooting position where you get a clear shot of the face without a big mike in the way.

In the example above the mike is in a pretty unobtrusive place. Having the mike in the frame gives the shot context but I've learned to keep it away from the faces as much as possible.

Another thing to keep in mind is the instrument. If the performer is playing a guitar, it’s usually best to try and keep the whole neck in the frame. If you have a shot where the end of the neck is cropped out of the frame, it’s sort of like a shot where the person is cut off at the knees . . . it just looks wrong.

Think about where to shoot. At most shows the best shots are had from right in front of the stage, and if there’s no security, you may be able to just edge up there and shoot away.

Consider alternate locations, too. For example, you can get interesting shots from the sides of rear of the stage.

It’s a lot to think about. You have to pay attention to the exposure settings all night. If the light changes, you have to adjust your camera. You have to remain on the lookout for good shots; the best results come when you stand and wait for the good shots to come to you. That’s what I do. Lots of times the performers see me and they begin to play to me, leading me to better and better compositions as the night goes on. Of course, this isn’t always the case. Some performers don’t like being photographed and they’ll become nasty or obstreperous.

The last step is post-production. I download my images into Adobe Lightroom where I catalog my images with keywords and make adjustments to exposure and framing. I can also correct color balance there.

Most of these tips are relevant no matter what kind of camera you have. As you can see, I got pretty acceptable results with an inexpensive pocket camera; they would have only been better with better gear. But that’s not always true . . . many times they will not let you in to concerts with professional looking gear but you can walk in and shoot all night with a camera like the G10 (or its successor the G11)

Try these tips next time you’re at a concert and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reflections on Brain Stimulation and Communication

Regular followers of this blog know I’ve been involved with the TMS lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Scientists at the lab are using high powered magnetic fields to induce tiny electrical currents in the brain, thereby changing the way we think. The changes introduced by TMS are temporary, but for some of us, the are providing a foundation for lasting beneficial brain change.

This is an account written by one of the study participants last week. W__ is a single female professional, about my age, with Asperger’s. Why do I describe her that way, you ask? I say she’s single because she lives alone. That means the changes she experienced had to be obvious enough that a person would feel them all by themselves. I point out that she’s my age because older people seem to get more from these TMS experiments by their own accounts, even though the test results from the lab show young people improve just as much or more. Why would that be? I don’t know.

I think her insights are fascinating. I hope you find them interesting too. Anyway, on with her story. . .

Last week, I had an opportunity to participate in a study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center with Dr.'s Lindsay Oberman and Shirley Fecteau. They were stimulating certain areas of the brain that affect communication.

I had a remarkable revelation during the study. I was actually able to see and hear what it is that neurotypical people see and hear during social interaction. For the first time, I was able to understand what emotions people’s facial expressions were conveying. I was able to understand the tone of voice that the person was using, and what it really meant. For example, I was able to understand sarcasm, which I normally do not pick up.

This week, I see the world completely differently. I was able to understand the facial expressions and meaning behind the expressions. I was able to hear the subtleties in the tone of voice. I was able to understand that the words being spoken were not literally true, but that their true message was still clearly conveyed. I usually hear the literal meaning of the words as the main message. However, I now recognize that the literal meaning of the words was not the main message. There were many more layers of meaning in the conversation which were conveyed by expressions and tone of voices, which I did not pick up at all last week.

The best way to describe the experience this week was that it was congruous. It felt right. It felt comfortable watching people interact, and I felt like I understood what was happening. Last week, there was anxiety while watching an interaction and then trying to answer the questions about it. This week, although there were a few interactions that I wasn't clear about, overall I felt like I really understood what was going on.

After seeing how differently my brain was working after the stimulation, it was clear that my brain usually focuses about 90% of my attention on the literal meaning of the words being spoken. Before this stimulation, I thought that I was able to understand people's facial expressions and their tone of voice fairly well. However, after seeing the difference following the stimulation, I would say that I miss at least half the real content and meaning of ordinary social conversation.

If somebody says something sarcastically, I may completely miss their intention. When people are being sarcastic, my mind tends to focus on the literal meaning of the words. If they are being blatantly sarcastic, I can understand that they don't intend the literal meaning of their words. However, my mind still tends to focus on the words said, even though I understand that's not their intention. In most cases, this feels quite uncomfortable.

If people are not as blatantly sarcastic, I think I sometimes pick up something in the way they are talking which doesn't sound quite right. The tone of voice doesn't quite match the literal meaning of the words which my brain is interpreting. This also causes confusion and unease.

If someone is being sarcastic, but is speaking with a very straight face, I simply hear the literal meaning of the words and don't understand their intention at all. It seems to me that this is one of the main problems with a social interaction where someone is kidding me. I hear the literal meaning of the words, which sound as though the person does not like me, or does not wish me well. I don't hear the intention behind it, which is being conveyed by their face or their voice.

After seeing so clearly all of the aspects of communication which are conveyed by facial expression and tone of voice, I certainly understand why many people with Asperger's have social anxiety. In some ways, it is as if you are in a foreign country, and aren't completely fluent in the language. The people speaking to you don't know that you don't speak the language, and they expect you to understand what is being said. Your experience is one of trying to understand what is being said, and having to translate what is being said so that you can understand it. It can be anxiety provoking when people expect you to be able to react in a way which you are not able to do. There's certainly a lot that gets missed or misunderstood. It's also very tiring to have to constantly try to figure out what is being said, and to be wrong too much of the time.

I have great hope now that the researchers are finding some specific areas of the brain which are affected in autism spectrum disorders. As they are able to refine the stimulation techniques, they may be able to influence the brain in ways that can permanently improve communication. As I have just seen, this could be a life-changing experience for many, many people.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Affluence and Autism. Does one cause the other?

Have you seen this new University of Wisconsin study that correlates an increased prevalence of autism with greater household affluence?

This isn’t the first study to reach that conclusion. But what does it mean? Many researchers dismiss research like this by saying wealthier people have more resources to get an autism diagnosis. They say more educated people are more likely to pick up subtle differences in their kids. And perhaps they’re right.

Does that account for all the difference?

The incidence of autism combined with intellectual disability is not strongly (1.3 to 1) correlated with affluence. It’s only the less severe forms of autism that are more common in wealthier homes. Is that because autism combined with ID is obvious, but the less severe condition is not?

Maybe . . . but maybe not . . .

Researchers note that intellectual disability by itself is inversely correlated with family affluence. That is, the more prosperous the family, the less likely they are to have an ID child. Knowing that, even a 1:3 to 1 correlation in the opposite direction may be suggestive of an unrecognized autism-affluence dynamic, even for the most severely affected kids.

The difference in non-intellectually-disabled kids is truly striking. For kids with autism, but without ID, there was almost a 3:1 ratio of autism in the highest socioeconomic group versus the lowest group. That’s a pretty shocking ratio.

This study has some pretty profound implications.

If it’s true that most of this 3:1 difference is due to more aware parents with better resources, then it follows that two out of three poor children with autism are going undiagnosed.

Sobering thought, isn’t it?

Seen in that light, I find it hard to jump to the conclusion that we’re failing to diagnose two out of three kids with higher functioning autism. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle . . . there is some unknown reason that high functioning autism is associated with affluence, and we are still failing to diagnose a significant chunk of our less affluent population.

The researchers in this study seem to feel the same way.

This newest study attempts to address the question with some new methodologies. They looked at roughly half a million kids in a database compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, some of whom were diagnosed by doctors while others were diagnosed through schools. Some children had a pre-existing autism diagnosis, while others’ records were evaluated as part of this study.

Here’s the interesting thing:

No matter how you cut the study results, there is always a significant correlation between the incidence of autism and family affluence, even for kids who came into the study with no diagnosis. That sure suggests that there is some underlying reason that more affluent people are more likely to have autistic kids.

Do you remember Steve Silberman’’s Geek Syndrome article from Wired Magazine, some years back? It looks like he had it right . . .

I had actually not thought about that story recently, but my son and Alex Plank interviewed Steve about that at this year’s Autreat conference. You can see their videos of Steve here:

Autism Talk TV

Why might affluent people tend to produce autistic kids? What do you think? Why might more affluent people be more likely to have kids who are “different?”

A significant percentage of our affluent population became financially successful by thinking differently. Some of those people invented new things. Others solved problems that defied solution. A few devised novel strategies to analyze markets. What do those people have in common? They think “differently.”

Some people who think “differently” are just ordinary folks with a different thought every now and then. Others, however, are different all the time because their brains are different. Fifty years ago, such people were called eccentric. Today, more and more of those individuals are called autistic, or Asperger’s.

It’s an interesting thought . . . most adults with autism are not successful financially. They are disabled, and poor. Yet a significant percentage of highly successful people in engineering, analysis, and the sciences have autistic traits. Does a little bit of autism make you exceptionally successful, while a lot makes you exceptionally disabled?

I think so.

At the same time, our society has created institutions where geeky people with autistic traits congregate. Biotech companies. Electronic design firms. Research labs. Even Wall Street firms with their rooms full of mathematical savants. It should come as no surprise that males and females meet in those environments, and children result. To the extent that autism is genetic, we have created a unique environment for genetic reinforcement in those institutions.

What else is different, for affluent kids, and how might those differences lead to autism?

And what about the less affluent kids who are going undiagnosed? That is the less discussed but equally important finding of this research. How are we going to identify these kids so we can get them the help they need, and more important, where are we as a society going to get the money to pay for it with schools and autism service groups nationwide in a state of fiscal collapse?