Getting good photographs of musicians requires more than just enjoying the music and snapping the shutter along the way. These people work hard to deliver a good performance and, for most, that work includes more than just the sound. They endeavor to connect with their audience by their music and "stage presence." It's that presence, their stage movements and expressions, that connects them with the feeling of their music and, if successful, helps connect them and their music with you. Their stage actions complement the energy and mood of the music.
A successful concert photograph will address the energy and mood of the performance. What you would like to avoid is another "plop, here's George on the guitar" photograph, which everyone else with their digicams and other hardware are routinely getting. Frozen. "Plop." Stagnant. "Plop." No emotional content. "Plop." Better to have an image that conveys some emotion, whether frenetic or introspective and calm.
The first time you try to make a photograph at an indoor venue, you'll probably be surprised at the low light levels. It won't seem so dark to your eyes, but your exposure meter will reveal the news: you'll need a high ISO rating and/or fast lenses. High ISO films/digital settings get grainy/noisy. A bigger film frame or more pixels can mitigate this. I like shooting the big RZ67 (the film frame is over four times the size of 35mm) in low light situations with 800 ISO film or faster, but it's impractical in nearly all concert situations.
And there lies issue #2: you'll probably need to be able to move fast and respond to changes on stage. Musicians may move together for a duet, trading fours, or other reasons. They may turn to face one musician, and then turn again to face another. Ignore these changes to your loss. Musicians "playing to each other" are often very expressive. Watch their eyes. So, generally, big cameras are out. You'll want something light and fast.
Of course, if you're stuck in the wings or a fixed position sixty feet from the stage, you may not be moving much. You'll probably need a long lens, and faster is better. In that case, a tripod is helpful. Set the camera on the 'pod, set up the shot, and wait for a decisive moment of movement or expression. If you know the band well, you can anticipate when and where those moments will occur. Knowledge of individual habits is a huge plus, and can have you ready to capture a fleeting moment that reveals the nature of that person's performance. If you're not stuck in one position, and are free to move around, you'll nearly always still want small, light and fast gear. You'll also still want the long lenses if you're unable to get close to the band.
But getting close is what you really want. The closer you get, the fewer people you'll have between you and the band. The more people there are, the more likely they are to be in your way. Your best situation is to have access to the area directly around, and even on, the stage (a rare opportunity). You may be given that kind of access if you talk to the band ahead of time, but don't bet the farm on it. And if you do get it, don't blow it.
Stay out of the way. As you get closer to the band, you are more likely to be in the way. Remember that the audience came to watch the band, not to watch you make photographs. The band is eager to connect with the audience, so they don't want you in the way, either. You'll need to evaluate and plan your shots, from a position that doesn't interfere with the line of sight between musicians and audience. Move in quickly, get the shot, then move out. In some situations, such as street fairs and community music festivals, the situation is pretty "loose," with the band and spectators more tolerant of your activities. I've occasionally gotten permission to move onto the stage for some "in-your-face" wide-angle lens photography. When I have a sense that a musician might be agreeable to close work, I'll ask "how close can I get before it honks you off?" If you communicate your interest, clearly demonstrate an understanding of their needs and the desires of the audience, and stay alert to the dynamics of the event, then you'll have more opportunities. It's impossible to be unobtrusive when photographing close with a wide-angle lens, but be respectful and move as quickly and discreetly as possible. And absolutely watch out for the electronics and all the cords!
If there's sound reinforcement and you're up front, you may want ear plugs. Many times I've found one of my best positions for a concert to be next to the speakers. One thing about it, you won't miss a single note there, but the risk of ear damage is real and high. I wear ear plugs during most concerts that I photograph. The high frequencies take a bit of hit, but it's safer for my ears and I can move anywhere without risk to them. I can still hear the band and enjoy the music, so I don't feel I'm giving up much.
Your first consideration is the light. You've got to know how much there is, but that's only an issue for making the exposure. The big issue is making the photograph: an image with impact, mood and character. Light is frequently the most important element toward that end. What's it doing? Where is it coming from? Back lighting, front lighting, side lighting - each has a unique effect on your subject. From the back, you can put halos and stage lights into your frame. Side lighting may permit you to compose with a rim of light outlining the performers and reflections on strings and brass can add sparkling dynamics to the image. Front lighting is frequently flat, but if it's soft without a lot of contrast it can be effective in some situations.
If you've got stage lights on the band, try to capture the unique and defining look that they generate. Multi-colored stage lights, even if we only see their effect on the band and don't see the lamps themselves, tell us that it's live and not Memorex. Avoid flash unless you've got strong back or side lighting and can judiciously fill shadows without overwhelming the affect of the stage lights. Rim-lighting around a performer is a nice touch, and often such situations benefit from some front fill. Just don't overwhelm the light coming from the side or behind. And remember that if your position is nowhere near the band, the flash will have no effect except to blast any foreground elements into annoying bright blobs in your photograph.
You'll have plenty of light at daytime outdoor performances, unless the band is in deep shade from canopies or other structures. That's the good news. The bad news is that the light will be harsh and unidirectional. You'll have high contrast on your subjects, with strong highlights and dark shadows. You can use flash to reduce the contrast, but you'll need to determine how much flash to apply in order to open the shadows but not overwhelm the highlights. Meter the sunlight, and set flash for at least one stop less light. You'll also want to compose the image so that the flash doesn't create shadows on the background. Light-colored backgrounds and those close to the performer are more likely to have shadows than dark and distant backgrounds.
In addition to considerations of light, the background elements and the relative positions of the musicians will dictate where you need to be. You want a position that takes advantage of the light, and you want a position that gives an uncluttered view of your subject. It is a position from which the light makes a positive contribution, the microphones aren't between you and your subject, and the background isn't a distraction. You'll have to move off to the side if the microphone is on a stand. A handheld mic will leave you with more opportunities, but you'll need to be ready to trip the shutter when the mic is moved clear of the face.
You'll not have much control over background junk, and at street fairs and most community concerts there will be lots of it. Trash cans, people and advertising will seem to be everywhere. But a long lens, with its narrow field of view, can frequently be used to crop out the junk. For instance, if there's a lot of P.A. equipment on stage, you might be able to use a long lens to tightly frame a head shot - or more - against a big black sound box. If the light is good, your subject will really pop against that black background.
Sometimes the distracting element is another musician, but if you can show interaction between performers, go for it. Look for expression and body language that shows their communication. Be ready for the possibility of a direct look to the audience from them when they move apart. Zoom in and track for a head shot so that you don't miss it; it will usually be brief.
Watch for posture. A performer leaning into or away from the instrument (or another performer) conveys energy and emotion. Watch for facial expression. Nothing says "fun" like a big grin and wide-open eyes. And the eyes: sometimes it's difficult to photograph the eyes well, and you just have to set up your shot and wait for "big eyes" with your finger on the shutter release. Look for a situation and position that's likely to put highlights in the eyes.
If you're allowed to move close, put the wide-angle on and use the lines of instruments to advantage. Diagonal lines impart energy. Guitars are naturally suited to this, but you can compose horns and other instruments for diagonal impact. Often, you can use instruments to create leading lines to the performers, and the short lenses can sometimes enhance the effect.
Plan on making a lot of exposures to get a few good images. If the action is fast, you may need to get lucky. But you can improve your odds during promising moments by firing off several frames in rapid succession. Perhaps one will have catchlights in the eyes and the smile that says "oh, yeah!"
The Last Step
Once you've captured the essential moments, you're ready to make some music of your own. Photographer Ansel Adams, an accomplished pianist himself, compared the negative to a musical score and the print to a performance. You must now interpret the images that you've captured. You'll need to consider color balance, contrast and density. If you're printing digitally, you can also adjust the gamma - the response curve of light to dark. When you're done, your photographs should do more than document an event. Good music elicits a response from us. Good photographs do the same.
Images Copyright © Ed E. Powell
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