Live Music Photography – 7 things worth knowing

by

Katy Gunn (New York, USA)

Live music can be an immersive experience for all, for those on the stage, and even more importantly, those in the audience. Capturing  moments in music performance, is a passion for me that is almost as strong as my passion for creating and performing it music itself. It is where art captures art.

Sahra Da Silva at the Copenhagen Songwriters Festival 2013

Sahra Da Silva at the Copenhagen Songwriters Festival 2013
Photography: Jomar Reyes

(Cover image: Katy Gunn from New York, performs at the Copenhagen Songwriters Festival 2013)

For musicians, producers, A&R and promoters, the power of the image is stronger than ever before, and something we need make sure we work with. To be seen is to be heard.

Whilst shooting at the Copenhagen Songwriter’s Festival 2013, here are some things it thought about that are well worth knowing when both in front of and behind the camera in a live music environment.

Reminder of the Unforgettable Moments

Imprinting an unforgettable experience or moment in your audience is something any music artist should be aiming to achieve. Well beyond that ‘unforgettable’ moment, it is often a photograph that can trigger those memories. So much emotion can be captured in one frame that is created from a fraction of a second. As a musician, artist or promoter you need to appreciate and understand the power of the image.

A Musicians Fan Relationship Building Tool

The image can be replicated, re purposed and in the digital age of today it can be spread around the world in a split second. But don’t forget the traditional media such as posters, postcards and photos used for autographs and souvenirs. If your performance provides you an audience that fall in love with your music, they will also in a way, fall in love with you and want to take a reminder of you with them.

Sahra Da Silva at the Copenhagen Songwriters Festival

Get to Know the Camera

‘I’m a musician, I know nothing about photography’. FAIL.

I’ve heard this said many times, and it is something worth addressing. It is like saying ‘I’m an artist, I know nothing about art’. As creative souls, we do have an affinity with all art forms whether we know it or not. As artists, it is our work, our creations that we produce to have an audience, and the camera will provide the greater audience, beyond those not in the room.

I’m not saying that every musician should be a professional photographer, but if you progress in the field of music, you WILL be dealing with professional photographers. Get to know that piece of equipment that plays a crucial role in capturing you doing what you love. Work with your photographer, or the photographers that appear at you gig.

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Trusty partners: The Canon EOS 650D – Light on the hands, which makes it easy to carry two around in a rough live music environment. MacBook Pro in the background.

A Bit About the Camera

Essentially there are two types of cameras that you’ll see at a gig. Most fans or people in the audience will use their mobile phone. Whilst the quality won’t be fantastic, keep in mind that the images they capture can be transmitted all their friends, around the world whilst you are still playing.

The other kind of camera you will see is the digital SLR (SLR stands for Single Lense Reflex, just incase you were ever wondering). This means that the photographer has made a bit more of an investment (In time and and energy), and is aiming capture as close to professional quality image as possible.

Lighting at the Live Venue

For many pubs and small cafes, stage lighting can be non-existent. If you are planning your next gig, make sure that there is good lighting available, or look at making it available. Personally, I’m not a fan of flash photography, and in the live music stage it is absolutely taboo.

At some venues, there will be lighting equipment, but there are little chances are that a qualified (let alone an experienced) lighting director will not be on hand. But do your best to make sure that a spotlight is on the vocalist. The person in charge of the lighting may even think that putting a colour gel/filter on the main stage light looks ‘cool’. Do your best to remind them that it doesn’t, and it will actually detract from people taking good photographs.

The 50mm, Low Aperture Prime Lens

This is my secret sauce in live music photography. It does not look sexy, but it capture stunning images in a tough live music environment. A couple of things to know, that it a lens NOT for someone who does not know how to use it. Here are a couple of things to be aware of.

  1. ‘Prime’ means that it doesn’t zoom. This also means that the photographer has to be at the right place at the right time.
  2. It has a narrow focal range. If the photo is even slightly out of focus, the only thing you can do is trash it. This is where photography becomes a sport, as the subject on stage will NOT keep still for you.
The 50mm prime lense with 1.8 aperture setting. Also known as a portrait lens, with great colours, definition and works well under low light conditions.

The 50mm prime lense with 1.8 aperture setting. Also known as a portrait lens, with great colours, definition and works well under low light conditions.

When you come to grips with the challenges, the rewards are addictive. You will get images that are sharp and full of rich colour. You’ll also be able to capture images in much lower lighting. Remember to adjust your white balance, stage lighting needs the camera to be set to Tungsten blub lighting. (See the manual on your camera). The other thing to remember is to set the aperture (Also known on most DSLR cameras as the AV) to it’s lowest position. In a 50mm lense, it will usually be either 1.4 or 1.8.

Once Taken, Time is of the Essence

Don’t wait to get the photos online. If you’ve arranged for someone to take the photos, make sure that you’ve arrange for someone to upload as soon as they are taken. Being a well prepared live music photographer (Amoungst the many other creative hats I wear), I’ll have my back pack armed with the Macbook and a mobile broadband dongle to upload right after the images are taken. In the case of images shown here, Sahra Da Silva’s images were online on Facebook whilst she was still performing her set.

Keep in mind, that if the audience love what they heard and saw, the will want to share what they can with their friends.

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