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Photographing Musicians

By Chuck DeLaney on November 30th, -0001

Editor's Note: August 16 marks the 25th Anniversary of the passing of the King — Elvis Presley. There will be lots of Elvis tribute bands playing around the world. We also know that many of you love to photograph rock concerts, and will certainly want to be on hand for your local Elvis presentation. (Of course, if the original Elvis shows up, you really have a photo-op!) Since, few photographers have spent as much time around musicians of all sorts as NYI Dean Chuck DeLaney, we asked him to write this Special Report to let you in on the tricks and techniques he's developed over the years.

© Chuck DeLaney
© Chuck DeLaney

I've been photographing musicians since I picked up my first SLR in the 60s when I was in college. At first, it was a way to preserve memories from the rock concerts at the Fillmore East and other hot showplaces in New York City. In those days, there were no restrictions (or none that were taken seriously) about bringing a camera with you to a concert. I photographed a lot of the big acts from up-close seats — the Who, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead were among my favorites.

I wish I had photographed the King, but I never had that pleasure. These pictures? No, they're not of Elvis, they're of the lead singer in a group called The New Memphis Mafia, an Elvis "clone" band that I photographed a while back for their publicity campaign.

© Chuck DeLaney
© Chuck DeLaney

Well, during college I took rock pictures for personal pleasure. After college, I started freelancing. What a difference! Magazine writers would contact me to take photos of upcoming gigs. This gave me two big breaks — better access to the musicians, and more importantly, a chance to broaden my exposure to lots of other types of music.

For the past 20 years, one of my favorite freelance clients has been the New York Chapter of the musician's union, Local 802, AFM, the largest musician's local in the country. I shoot for their monthly newspaper. (Since their newspaper is in B/W, so are many of these photos which were taken on assignment for them.) These assignments have given me the chance to photograph all kinds of musicians.

Why do I like photographing musicians so much? There are three main reasons. First and foremost, I like working with musicians. I find musicians interesting company, and for the most part very talented in many areas, not just music.

© Chuck DeLaney

Second, music is power. Local 802 often lends its musical outreach (or is it muscle-power) to the picket lines of other unions in the New York area. There's no better way to fire up a crowd than to provide pulsating music. The above photo was taken at a rally to support the Philadelphia Orchestra during their long strike a few years back. From lots of time on picket lines, I know firsthand why armies have marching bands.

The third reason I like photographing musicians is that you don't need a lot of fancy equipment. A regular SLR (and occasionally an on-camera strobe) is best, but in a pinch you can get good results even with a pointand-shoot. It's also a relaxing, rewarding type of photography. And you get to listen to lots of great music while you work!

I've purposely chosen to illustrate this piece with photos of working musicians rather than superstars so we can concentrate on the photographic challenges you'll encounter without getting distracted by the aura of fame.

There are ten tips I offer, and I guarantee if you follow them you'll be able to take great photographs of your favorite musicians in performance, whether they're world famous or still paying their dues.

© Chuck DeLaney
© Chuck DeLaney

Tip 1. Gaining Access:

If you offer to let the musicians or their agents look at your photos, and promise to make copies available to them at reasonable cost, you'll be surprised how much cooperation you can get. Naturally, if your work gets used, although you may not charge a lot of money, you should insist that you get a photo credit. Photo credits are always helpful.

If the musicians are marching in a parade, access is usually no problem at all. Since the streets still belong to the people, you don't need to worry about releases or permission. Also, since my work is for publication in newspapers and magazines that are protected by the First Amendment, releases aren't usually necessary. (You'll find a basic model release in our Tech Tips Section.)

At a small club or outdoor concert, approach the musicians at a break and ask their permission informally. You'll rarely be turned down, and they usually appreciate your asking. But in order to avoid having that permission hastily revoked, make sure your read — and abide by — the tips that follow.

© Chuck DeLaney

Tip 2. Use Available-Light Photography:

I rarely use flash when photographing a musical performance. There are three obvious reasons I avoid it: 1) Flash distracts the musicians; 2) Flash distracts the audience (we'll talk more about the audience later), and 3) Flash distracts from the photograph (more on this, too, later).

Whether it's a smoke-filled dimly-lit club or a stage with bright spotlights and colored gels, I prefer to use the existing lighting, or what photographers call available light. Most of the time, I trust the auto-exposure meter in my camera to get a proper exposure. Since I usually use negative film — B?W or color — I try to make sure the musicians' faces are in whatever light exists and then just fire away. If there are bright spots on the performers' faces, then I use the spot meter setting in the camera to make sure that I don't grossly overexpose the faces.

© Chuck DeLaney

Here's a rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic. These rehearsals are open to the public, there's no charge, and they're the only time that photographers are permitted to photograph the orchestra. The first fifteen rows are kept empty, but Philharmonic Hall is usually filled with senior-citizens and other interested folk who have the time to attend these daytime rehearsals.

Tip 3. Use Fast Film:

In a way, this follows from Tip 2. If you are shooting without flash, unless you're dealing with a brightly lit stage with high-intensity spotlights, you need fast film. I usually use ISO 800 or 1000 films. Both Kodak and Fuji make good color films in this category. For B/W I use T-Max 3200. It's a great film for available light work and much better than the old technique of pushing Tri-X to ISO 5000, which I used to do using a secret formula. (However, if you love Tri-X and want to know my secret formula, send me an e-mail and I'll be happy to share it with you.)

© Chuck DeLaney

This picture was taken from the darkened orchestra pit in a Broadway theater. Since the musicians' union was my client, I concentrated on getting an interesting shot of the musicians, and I let the figures on the stage burn out. In case you can't recognize him, that's Robert Goulet on stage in a Camelot revival a few years back.

Tip 4. Learn Stealth Photography:

Be quiet and keep a low profile. When I'm going to photograph a performance, I dress in black and wear either running shoes (sneakers) or rubber sole dress shoes. I won't take a shot if it's going to distract the musicians or be audible to the audience during a low volume passage. (For this reason, it pays to know the music so you can anticipate the louder passages.) When I'm in the orchestra pit, whether I'm at the side or front and center, I crouch down low. Except when I pop up to take a picture, I want to be out of the orchestra's sight and mind. I always carry a small flashlight to check gear or find something in my bag. It's dark in an orchestra pit!

When I'm out-front, so to speak, I try to stay out of the audience's sightlines as much as possible. If I do need to block someone's view, I quickly move to the spot, give an empathic nod to the people whose sight I'm blocking, take the photo as quickly as I can...and get out. Usually, I'm out of their way before they have time to react.

Tip 5. Wait for loud passages:

I already alluded to this. When the volume is loud, I can shoot with no concern about shutter sound irritating either the musicians or the audience. Whether its a rock concert or a symphony, when the drums kick in, I can shoot with abandon. So too when the horns are cooking. But when there's a vocal solo, a plaintive violin or harp, or a slow, quiet piano passage, my SLR sounds like a cannon and I refrain from using it.

Waiting for loud passages, brings another point to mind. I also keep a pair of ear plugs in my bag so that if I'm going to have to camp out near a big loudspeaker, I can avoid a headache and potential hearing loss.

© Chuck DeLaney

With the Emilo Reyes Latin Band at Roseland there was enough loud sound that I didn't ever have to worry about bothering the players or the dancing audience. By the way, here's one case where I violated Tip 2. The lighting was so poor I had to use a flash. You can see the heavy shadows on the wall behind the players. At Roseland, no one cared.

Tip 6. Anticipate Pauses:

Without a flash, you'll find that most of the time your camera's shutter speed will be very slow - like 1/15, 1/30, or 1/60. If a performer is jumping around or wildly blowing a saxophone, you're likely to get a blurred image. To combat this, I watch the musician. I try to anticipate when he or she will pause. That's the time to shoot. (Again, it's best if you're familiar with the music.)

I usually don't use a tripod or monopod because I have to move around so fast. It's hard to jockey for the best angle with my camera on a tripod. So I shoot a lot, toss out the images that are blurry because of my slow shutter speed, and select the best of what's left.

© Chuck DeLaney

Here's an example of one reason to throw out a picture. The Big Band has been performing for thirty years at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. I thought I had them all their saxophonists lined up when I snapped this shot, but as you can see one of them ducked his head and the microphone got in the way. Result, the photo isn't good enough for publication. Not to worry. I shot a lot, and also got some very good shots too. In this respect, musical photography is a little like sports photography. Not everything you shoot is going to produce a usable photograph, and a lot of times there will be great shots that you're just not in a position to take. Don't worry, there are plenty of opportunities...if you keep shooting!

Tip 7. Use Prime Lenses:

What's a prime lens? It's any lens that has a fixed focal length — like a 28mm or a 105mm or a 300mm. In it's simplest form, it's any lens that's not a zoom. What's the big advantage of a prime lens? Usually, it's faster — that is, it opens to a wider aperture than the equivalent zoom.

When there's plenty of light, my 28-80mm f/4 zoom is OK, but in low light, I want to have my 24mm f/2.8 for wide shots, my 50mm f/1.2 for medium shots, and my 85mm f/2.8 for tighter shots. If you use an f/4.5 or 5.6 zoom lens, you're going to have to use a very slow shutter speed, and you're going to end up with too many blurred images.

Tip 8. Dress The Set:

No, this doesn't mean wearing a tux like Fred Astaire. "Dressing the set" is an old movie term meaning to get all unnecessary junk out of the frame before the cameraman rolls film. It's an even better principle for still photography. Remember NYI's Three Guidelines. Guideline Three — Simplify — tells you to look around the frame and eliminate anything that will distract the viewer's eye from your subject.

Musicians, except at really big concerts, don't think about the appearance of the stage. They're focused on the music. That means you're likely to encounter lots of paper cups, beverage bottles, towels, and other junk that will take away from your photos. If I know the band, I'll just reach over and get that stuff out of the way, or when there's a pause in playing, gesture to a friend-musician to move something. If I don't know the group, I'll wait until the break and then discuss it with them.

© Chuck DeLaney

Of course, sometimes you have no choice — you must include the junk if you want to get the picture. Here's an instance. I shot this for a newspaper. The editor wanted the whole band at this free summer concert series, and the stage is amok in signs and logos. Maybe I could have cropped the spare drums on the right, but then the sign gets cut off. Of course, this is the full frame. The editor cropped out all the signs at the bottom (byebye "Whirlwind") when he ran the picture. I think the picture looks much better when cropped. What do you think?

© Chuck DeLaney

On the other hand, the stage is always neat at the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. There's one number when the entire orchestra pit elevates, and the orchestra rises up over the performers and then settles behind them as the Rockettes take stage. The audience goes wild. This is one shot where I use a tripod.


Image

Tip 9. Show Relationship Between Musicians:

If I have two or more musicians in the viewfinder, I try to concentrate on the relationship between them. Can I show them exchanging glances or smiles? (A good example is the picture you saw a moment ago taken at Roseland.)

If I see this type of interaction, I work my way into position for the right angle, pick the right lens, and wait for the right expression. Then I fire away. Sounds easy, but I've got lots of shots that don't work to prove that it isn't.

Tip 10. Shoot for Stock:

I know, you're not a professional with a stock agency, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't invest a few frames of film into recording where you are and what's happening. You can keep your own stock file. You never know when it's going to pay off. If I'm shooting at a new auditorium where I haven't worked before, I'll shoot an exterior, some details of the hall, and also shoot the musicians warming up, at break, and schmoozing with members of the audience during breaks. And I also shoot some reaction shots of the audience enjoying the music. I can't tell you how often I find a use for such photographs at a later date.

© Chuck DeLaney

So these are my Ten Tips for taking concert photographs, based on my lifetime experience. I promise...if you follow these tips, you'll take great photographs of your favorite musicians in concert, whether they're superstar pros or your kids at the school recital. Except for the permissions required, photographically it's all the same.

Good luck!


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