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Peter Neill: a journey into stereo

Peter Neill: a journey into stereo

© Peter Neill

July 2015

Irish music photographer Peter Neill has a client list that reads like an A to Z of rock and pop but he recently got the unique opportunity to shoot his childhood heroes Queen live in concert using a stereo set-up. In an exclusive interview he spoke to CPN writer Steve Fairclough to reveal how the stereo photography shoot of rock legends Queen came about and how it was shot on with Canon EOS DSLRs and EF lenses.

The project saw Peter working with a band he had admired for some time: “From a very young age I idolised two bands – Queen and U2. I’m the youngest of three brothers and that was what the other two listened to. As the youngest, who looked up to his two big brothers, I listened to those two bands. I didn't develop my own taste in music until my teens, but I always kept following U2 and Queen.”

© Peter Neill

A virtual experience showing what you see when looking at one of Peter Neill's lenticular prints.

Peter adds: “When Queen went on the road with [singer] Adam Lambert I spent a year, before their New Year’s gig they did last year, every couple of months e-mailing their management to see if I could do some photo work on the tour whenever they eventually came to the UK. Out of the blue I got a reply last November and then I ended up shooting their concert in London on New Year’s Eve in Westminster.”

Parts of the epic live concert were broadcast live on BBC TV and Peter recalls: “I loved that concert – it was an amazing experience. They [Queen] liked the [photographic] material from that, so they asked me to shoot another four or five concerts and that was fantastic. I didn't have a huge amount of interaction with the band at that point – it was such a tightly run ship and they didn't need to interact with me much.”

The stereoscopic connection

But Peter had an idea in mind, as he knew that Queen’s lead guitarist Brian May was an avid lover of stereo photography. In fact, in 2008 Brian May had resurrected The London Stereoscopic Company (The LSC) – a company originally set up in 1854 when Victorian stereoscopic imagery and viewing was very much the rage. Since then Brian May has published a number of stereo imagery books with collaborator and co-author Denis Pellerin – who is also curator of Brian May’s photographic collection – as well as inventing his own stereoscopic viewer, known as ‘The Owl’.

© Peter Neill

A colour image of lead guitarist Brian May during the Queen concert at the Liverpool Echo Arena, Liverpool, England, February 2015. Taken on a stereo rig of two Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLRs with two EF50mm f/1.4 USM lenses; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/2, ISO 250.

Peter explains: “I really wanted to get to know Brian [May] a bit more because he had a big interest in photography and he’s written books on Victorian stereo photography. They used to have them in antique shops – these little, handheld viewers where you slide two photographs in; they were probably taken with old, dual lens cameras. I chatted to him [Brian May] a couple of times and mentioned this [stereo] idea to him during these first few concerts I did with them. He thought it was really, really interesting so I said: 'What about if we look into shooting a Queen concert this way?’”

Peter let the idea sit with the band for a while whilst continuing to shoot some of the gigs on Queen’s 2015 UK tour, which saw US singer Adam Lambert fronting the band. Peter reveals: “Then I got an e-mail saying ‘yes, we should talk about doing this’, and then he [Brian] chatted to the management and I was cleared to shoot the Liverpool concert. At that point I chatted to Canon and we figured out what equipment I was gonna use – it had to be a duplicate of whatever I was using on the night. So, I used an EOS 5D Mark III with an EF50mm f/1.4 USM lens on and then Canon lent me another 5D Mark III and another 50mm [lens].”

Building a stereo rig

With the ‘green light’ to shoot Queen in stereo Peter had to work out the logistics. He reveals: “I built a kind of a homemade rig with two cameras attached to one strip of metal with a couple of handles underneath. Then I got two shutter release cables and wired them together so I could trigger both cameras at the same time. Focusing was done manually but, because I knew the show so well at this point, I kind of knew where different people were going to be on the stage at different times… so, instead of trying to chase them and focus on two cameras separately I kind of waited for them to step into where I knew they were going to get the shots. That was the genesis of it.”

Brian May provided Peter with some advice on the spacing of the cameras on the rig and Peter reveals: “Brian advised me to go wider than the human eyes but the spacing of the cameras wasn’t a mathematical calculation. When I arrived at the gig the first thing I did was show the rig to Brian to make sure he was happy. The most important thing was to keep the cameras on an even plane.”

Peter adds: “It was great to use the Mark III for it because it was so good in low light, which is kind of key for concert work, and it’s such an easy-to-use and versatile camera that it made a lot of sense. It’s not too heavy – you could have picked two much heavier models for that [shoot], but that really would have limited my ability to get shots with the kind of rig I was using; the weight would have been killing.”

As mentioned above the gig selected for the stereo project was at the Liverpool Echo Arena in February 2015, although Peter freely admits: “I went into this not knowing if I was going to get a single stereo pair!” Of the shoot he explains: “I went all over the place, so I was around different parts of the stadium – it was full gig, go wherever I want, triple A pass.”

© Peter Neill

An image of guest singer Adam Lambert performing during the Queen concert at the Liverpool Echo Arena, Liverpool, England, February 2015. Taken on a stereo rig of two Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLRs with two EF50mm f/1.4 USM lenses; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/2.8, ISO 640.

Peter reveals: “I was always shooting full manual [exposure settings], with focusing manual as well for obvious reasons. When you’re using a prime lens one of the nice things about primes is that generally you can get wider apertures and shoot closer to wide open, so then your ISOs are nice and low. I don't think I went above ISO 400 – maybe a little bit more than that but not much more, so noise is a ‘non-issue’. I kept shutter speeds fairly high – as high as I could because when you’re carrying that heavier rig and you don't have a dedicated chest support to keep it stable you want high speeds so you're not getting any kind of shake from your own arms etc. My arms were pretty tired as the evening went on!”

With two 50mm f/1.4 USM lenses attached to the two 5D Mark III bodies Peter explains: “Aperture-wise most of the time I was between f/1.8 and 2.2. I like playing with a shallow depth-of-field and also, given the nature of the stereo images, having this slightly shallower depth-of-field meant that the distance effect of stuff being further back was really magnified in the final product. If I end up doing this again – which I hope to – I’ll definitely keep the apertures nice and wide like I did this first time.”

Difficulties during the shoot

But did Peter encounter any difficulties during the shoot? “Oh, yes! The biggest headache by a long way was the focusing. I did try and wait for the people [in the band] to be in shot as much as possible, but I’d say that with manually focusing two cameras when people are jumping around stage like bananas all over the place often by the time you’ve got the focus right the people would no longer be where you want them to be. So, that was definitely the biggest issue. I’d say around one in every four shots worked out with focus right. It was only about a 25% hit rate.”

Peter admits: “I did look at a couple of options so if I could focus one lens it would focus the other using a kind of a cog system with the treads on the lenses. I put something together with a friend who’d built a couple of follow focus systems for doing video on DSLRs but we couldn't get it to be 100% reliable. There is always that little bit of differential between two different lenses – you'd set them both initial with the focus correct but then the relationship between the focus ring and the mechanics inside wasn’t identical between the two lenses, so if you focused out and in a couple of times suddenly there’d be a little bit of discrepancy – it didn't turn out to be practical to do it like that. As painful as manual focusing is… I might just go that way again next time.”

He focused by viewing through the viewfinders of the two 5D Mark III cameras and although this could be a tad time consuming, and he wishes he could develop a system that might facilitate quicker viewing for composition and focusing, Peter notes: “I went into this not knowing if I was going to get a single stereo pair so I ended up with 88 [pairs] and was more than pleased that I have 88 shots that really worked.”

He adds: “The second issue was the weight of the cameras and I wasn’t using any kind of chest rig, so by the end of the gig my shoulders were almost quivering (laughs). If I was doing it again I’d definitely get a chest-mounted rig to help to take the weight.”

Post-shoot editing and workflow

Once all of the gig images had been shot Peter had to review and edit them. “That was tricky. What I did was I had camera A and camera B and stuck all of camera A’s images on the laptop hooked up to an external monitor and put it beside my iMac which had all of camera B’s images. I literally went through the two image catalogues side-by-side with the keyboard on the laptop and the keyboard on the iMac.”

Peter estimates he shot about 700 images on each camera and notes: “Some of the image sets I didn't reject for focusing – some of them I rejected because of the look on someone’s face or if the composition wasn’t good. The 25% ‘hit rate’ related solely to the focus issue so what was left was maybe 30% of those that were selected. The thing that knocked ‘the biggest piece of the cake out’ was definitely focus.”

He explains: “What was critical was making sure the clocks on both cameras were synchronised exactly so the times stated on the images were reliable for me. Then I went through each image pair and, using Lightroom, I would give it a five star rating if it was a good stereo pair. After I had the good stereo pairs I eliminated the ones that didn't work – I then went about picking which were the ones to use. Finally, when I had that final 88 [pairs] identified, I exported them from the laptop and brought them all into the iMac.”

“Then, in Photoshop, I would play with them and overlay one over the other to make sure they truly worked as a stereo pair and do anything that was necessary. It took countless hours – shooting the gig took three hours but the work on the images probably took about 30 or 40 [hours].”

When he is editing his pictures Peter tries not to do much to the original images but says: “A lot of images work very well with black and white and sometimes you might do a colour tone on them. I never Photoshop images in the sense of putting stuff there that’s not there or taking stuff out or anything like that. The most I’ve ever removed from an image was a bottle beside a drum kit but sometimes you play with colour toning… maybe putting a hint of blue in the shadows; really the changes are only ever really about toning.”

Peter reveals: “I ended up sending a set of 88 stereo pairs to Brian [May]. It took me a couple of weeks to go through all of the images and pair up the best ones properly. So, we came up with 88 final [pairs].”

The lenticular printing process

With the image edit done the next step was to see how some of the stereo pairs would work when produced as lenticular prints. Peter was advised to go to the specialist printing firm Riot of Colour, which is based in Greenwich, London. Andrew Roblett, Owner and Director of Riot of Colour, explains: “What was so unusual about Peter’s work was that he’d shot stereoscopically, which is the first time we’d ever been approached to produce work from a matching pair of photographs shot from slightly different angles.”

© Peter Neill

Please click on the video above to watch the stereoscopic effect of one of Peter Neill’s lenticular prints.

Andrew explains: “We went through what Peter had supplied – some images do make better 3D [prints] than others; not every image will reproduce well as a 3D image… particularly long distance shots, which quite a lot of these were because it was a stage show. What we tended to do was pick the imagery where he’d got in closer so you get more detail, more layering effectively.”

He adds: “Our process is what’s called ‘auto stereoscopic’. What you can’t do is print using two images – it just doesn't work. So you need to create an auto stereoscopic view. What we did is we took Peter’s stereo view and it gave us enough information for us to generate an auto stereoscopic view, so we turned his two images into 15 images. The software we use for our work is stuff we’ve developed ourselves. Interlacing is the process of bringing all of those [15] images together as one so you print a single file.”

Andrew explains: “The 15 [images] is really maths – in that we have to look at the resolution of the print device… the Canon [Océ Arizona printer] is 600dpi and the particular lens that we used for this is a 40lpi lens, so if you divide the two into each other you get 15. That seems silly but it’s actually incredibly important because if you don't get the synergy right between lens and frame you get banding where it’s trying to slightly adjust itself every inch or so to stay within the resolution that you set.”

“Then we look at the lens media we want to use – that’s the special plastic that we print on to. What that refractive piece of plastic does is it, in essence, merges all of those 15 views back into one again and your two eyes – the distance between them; very important that gap – will then ‘project’ a 3D image or the feeling of a 3D image.”

© Peter Neill

A colour image of drummer Roger Taylor (left) and guest singer Adam Lambert (right) during the Queen concert at the Liverpool Echo Arena, Liverpool, England, February 2015. Taken on a stereo rig of two Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLRs with two EF50mm f/1.4 USM lenses; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/2.8, ISO 320.

Andrew adds: “Then we print using the Canon Océ Arizona, which is direct to media – that’s very important because the plastic has got a focus point which is the back of the plastic. In the olden days you used to laminate your print to the back but when you put a fine glue layer in there it will actually effectively take your imagery slightly out of focus. So the important, revolutionary, step was putting your ink straight on to the back of the plastic, therefore getting a much better focus and a much better quality piece. We then seal that and trim it ready to go to the framers for framing.”

“The way 3D works is a bit like putting a tin of beans in front of you and moving around it. If you actually looked behind the tin of beans, or when you close one eye, you're obscuring data in one direction and the other. The problem with 3D is knowing what that data is behind. With a stereoscopic pair, because when that’s shot those camera lenses are only effectively four inches apart, you can't get very much of a view around something, particularly at distance when it’s only that far apart.”

Revealing one of the ‘tricks of the trade’ Andrew says: “What we do when we do our manipulation into auto stereo is we exaggerate that quite a lot. When you exaggerate that what you actually end up with is areas of background where there’s absolutely no data at all. What we have to do is painstakingly paint in the background to trick the viewer into that that is a totally realistic set of camera frames that revolve around an object and take a 360 view, but of course people can't carry around four foot wide cameras systems with multiple cameras so you actually have to do it in the software stage.”

Of the prints Peter Neill says: “The final product looks particularly amazing – one goes from colour to black and white if you move your head. The other one is a big portrait orientation picture, one metre 20 centimetres tall by 80 centimetres wide. It shows Brian [May] standing in front of the drum kit with his guitar – in the picture his right leg is obscuring half of the Queen logo on the drum kit but the ‘mental’ thing is as you move your head to the right you can look behind his leg and see the rest of the logo! It’s crazy!”

Peter has plans to feature some of the lenticular stereo prints in an exhibition he is putting together to show in a yet-to-be-decided venue in central London during the autumn of 2015. The showcase of his live concert imagery will also feature many of the other artists he has worked with during his career, including U2, The Script, Justin Timberlake, Ennio Morricone… and many more.

The next steps...

© Peter Neill

A colour image of Queen and Adam Lambert on stage during their concert at the Liverpool Echo Arena, Liverpool, England, February 2015. Taken on a stereo rig of two Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLRs with two EF50mm f/1.4 USM lenses; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/2, ISO 160.

As to the next steps for the Queen stereo project Peter has offered all of his pairs of images for possible inclusion in a stereo book project – ‘Queen in 3-D’ – that Brian May is working on. Peter reveals: “He is going to use some of them in a Queen 3D photo book he’s got coming out. I’ve said that he can use any of these 88 stereo pairs in the book.”

Of Brian May’s involvement Peter says: “We’ve exchanged countless e-mails on the subject; samples of the images and he’s been looking at images for the book. He’s an incredibly busy man but an incredibly kind individual – a lovely guy. It’s been great to get to know him a little and it’s not something I ever expected to happen.”

But even though Peter has already shot probably the biggest rock band in the world in stereo he doesn't plan to stop there… He reveals: “This is something that I’m very interested in doing with the other artists that I work with – I do a lot with The Script and I showed them a little video of one of the [lenticular] prints with Brian [May] in front of the drum kit. I was showing Mark, the lead guitarist of The Script, the other day and he would like to do that sort of thing with a couple of the concerts on the next tour.” So, it seems that Peter Neill’s journey into stereo still has some way to go yet...

Technical – Peter Neill’s kitbag:

EOS 5D Mark II

EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
EF35mm f/1.4L USM
EF50mm f/1.2L USM
EF50mm f/1.4 USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF85mm f/1.8 USM

Biografie: Peter Neill

Peter Neill

London-based music photographer Peter Neill was born and grew up in County Mayo, Ireland. Since getting his big break with a commission to shoot U2 in 2009 he has photographed many of the world’s top musicians. He specialises in producing high quality live music photography that retains the excitement and atmosphere of the moment. His clients have included Queen, Justin Timberlake, The Script, U2, Ennio Morricone, Gary Barlow, Steve Averill (U2's Art Director), Billboard Magazine, Coldplay, Bruno Mars, Alice Cooper, Christy Moore, Rubyworks Records, Vladimir, Foy Vance, Rend Collective Experiment and many more.


An image of lead guitarist Brian May during the Queen concert at the Liverpool Echo Arena, Liverpool, England, February 2015. Taken on a stereo rig of two Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLRs with two EF50mm f/1.4 USM lenses; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/2.8, ISO 640.