How To Photograph Musicians

How To Photograph Musicians

I captured this photo of Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth singing at Nassau Coliseum in 1980 on film using a long telephoto lens that lacked image stabilization on a Minolta SLR. Today’s technology would have allowed me to get a lot more detail and better color accuracy. Yet I accurately captured the right moment, when the singer connected with his fans in the front row.

Growing up, I plastered the walls of my room and basement with vivid rock posters and pages I had cut out of rock photography books of bands in concert, including the Sex Pistols, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

As a musician, I used these visuals to help me cultivate the somewhat ridiculous histrionic poses that I used when playing on stage, much to the embarrassment of friends and family. However, it served another purpose: These posters showed me some key moments to capture during a performance, particularly when trying to compose an image. So, when I was ready for my first concert, which was Van Halen back in 1980, I “borrowed” my dad’s film SLR with a non-image-stabilized telephoto lens and snuck it into Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. (Note: I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get such a large telephoto lens past security today.)

A lot of my early attempts at shooting bands were trial and error on film SLRs, but these days you have digital cameras to instantly show you how your image turned out and how to improve it more quickly. But to help you take better images of all types of musicians, whether they’re performing “Roll Over Beethoven” or van Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” use the following tips to make the most of your images.

How To Photograph Musicians
One reason I was able to get such a nice shot of singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile is that a few years ago, I was invited to a special event by a photo organizing software company, which invited Carlile to sing at the event. So although it’s always important to get close to your subject, it’s also important to make connections in order to get closer access to your favorite singers and musicians.

Get Close To The Band 

As you can see in the photo I took of singer Brandi Carlile, which I shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III using Canon’s EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, I was able to fill the frame with my subject. That’s because I was at a special event that took place a few years ago for the photo industry. But the point is, I had very good access to Carlile. In fact, I was so close I could even see her subtle expressions.

Yet because I had just a short time to take my photos—Carlile only performed a few songs—I didn’t get as much time as I’d hoped. So even when you get a good spot up close to your subject, you’ll want to be prepared for all that can happen—whether it’s bad lighting, obstructions blocking your view or unruly fans. Try to think ahead and plan for worst-case scenarios.

Lastly, make sure you’re allowed to bring the right lenses with you to your concert. The further away you are, the longer the lenses you’ll need. Call ahead and check with security that you can still get access to your event with a large-sized lens. Some security guards may not let you enter.

How To Photograph Musicians

Look For Gestures And Expression In Faces And Body Language

Not all bands you go to photograph will be very expressive. Some musicians may even look stiff and awkward on stage. That’s why it’s important to do research on how your subject plays music and how expressive he or she might be.

If the performer or band you’re photographing is rather serious and not very expressive, you might be able to include more of the stage setup in order to add additional compositional elements into the photograph.

And remember to look for important moments in a performance. Here’s a case in point (which you can easily find online): It’s the duet of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper singing “Shallow” at the 2019 Oscars. The moment just after they finished singing and looked at each other and smiled was a fantastic moment that I believe every photographer wished they could have captured.

Look for musicians who are interacting on stage with each other, whether they’re smiling or growling at each other. And be prepared to get those shots.

How To Photograph Musicians
Aside from conductors, most classical musicians don’t move around all that much when playing. However, if you’re observant, you can get some wonderful expressions on the faces of your performers, like this harpist. 

Compose Carefully When Shooting Classical

If you’re looking to capture musicians playing classical music, whether at a local recital or in a concert hall, you’ll most likely run into some issues since often the venues won’t allow you to capture images because of the noise of the shutter firing. However, if you own a mirrorless camera, you might try telling the venue that you own a camera that won’t make any noise when shooting.

If you’re allowed to capture images of a classical performance, you may want to focus on composing more of an environmental portrait, since classical musicians don’t often move around very much. And they tend to be focused on the sheet music in front of them. Nevertheless, look for interesting facial expressions. Also, try to make the most of the lighting—if it’s very traditional lighting, you might not be able to do much with the composition, but if the lighting changes during the performance, try to look for dramatic moments that give your subject a more unusual look or appearance. 

How To Photograph Musicians

Convert Photos With Noise To Black And White

If you choose to shoot up-and-coming musical acts, you’ll often find yourself capturing images in rather low-light situations. That was the case on a recent Panasonic trip, where I got to photograph Belcurve, a wonderful local band out of Austin, Texas, using the new Panasonic Lumix S1, a full-frame mirrorless camera, and the Panasonic Lumix S 24-105mm f/4 Macro O.I.S Lens.

Although I didn’t have much time with the new Lumix camera and lens, I was pretty impressed with its quality and feature set. Yet despite the robust glass and powerful system, I still produced some images of the band with too much image noise. (By the way: If you do shoot rock bands in bars and small venues, you’ll most likely not be allowed to use your flash, although there may be exceptions for some shows.)

However, there’s one way to salvage your music photos if you find they’re a bit too noisy: Simply convert them from color to a black-and-white shot. In Photoshop, Lightroom and other image-editing programs, there are several ways to do this. I converted the original color image using a black-and-white adjustment layer in Photoshop and decided to change my image of the lead singer, Sarah Castro, into a sepia-toned shot.

How To Photograph Musicians

Dragging The Shutter For A Sense Of Motion

One way to add some energy and motion to your music photos is to use a slow shutter speed, which allows you to drag your shutter and create some intriguing blur effects in your subjects.

I tried this out near the end of my photo shoot with the band Belcurve in Austin. After I set the camera at around 1/8 second shutter speed, I then focused on the drummer for several shots, since his head was often quite still, but his arms were moving quickly. You can see (on page 48) how this technique can provide some creative motion to your shots. It can be a hit-or-miss technique, though, and I found myself missing most of the time. But I managed to find a few images that really captured the movement of the band.

One extra tip that’s worth mentioning for any type of photography, but particularly shooting musicians, is this: Because lighting can vary so much in a rock or pop show (less so at a classical concert), it’s really important to know all the finer points of your camera system, particularly in regards to its autofocus.

For example, if you’re photographing the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band that loves to jump all over the place, it might be helpful to use Continuous AF in order to track the performers and keep them in focus. So crack open that manual (or open the PDF on your computer) and learn the finer points of your camera system.

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