I was invited along to the Midsummer Music Festival in the nearby town of Gatehouse of Fleet to take photos of the bands performing last weekend.
In the studio, I can interact with the sitter, ask them to move this way or that, adjust the lighting and alter the background. But when it comes to musicians on stage, I have no control over any of these things. They move about, the lighting is often poor and constantly changing, the background usually interferes rather than compliments, and when there are more than one of them on stage, they tend to either spread out – leaving huge uninteresting spaces between them – or obscure each other with bits of instruments or entire bodies.
Performance photography, then, is about as far removed from portraiture as you can get while still pointing the camera at people.
In fact it was at the Midsummer Music Festival this time last year, when at I first tried out photographing musicians on stage and discovered these difficulties. Since then I have photographed The Sex Pistols Experience and Cash From Chaos playing live, but I’m hardly a pro in this department.
Still, I have learned a few tricks over the past year. For example, taking photos from closer to the side of the stage will help bunch up spread out musicians. If you move about a bit and use a zoom lens, sometimes you can isolate the head of a singer against a less busy part of the background. And when the lighting is poor you can compensate by increasing the ISO setting on the camera. Unfortunately, this has a side effect of making the photos “noisy”. However, if you drop them into black and white and play with the contrast levels afterwards, the photos can take on a “grainy” quality, reminiscent of old music-press photos, which add mood and atmosphere.
For me, then, it seemed a reasonable exchange. I get a free pass to the event and the chance to develop my skills in this area, and the organisers get some free photos for publicity if I manage to get anything halfway decent.
I had also been asked if I could supply the local paper with any halfway decent photos for post-publicity purposes, which, if they took, would also get my name spread a little further. And while this seemed like a great idea at the time, it ended up interfering with my photography.*
For the first 2 bands on the Friday night – The Ideal Crash and Sweet Relief - I was thinking about camera angles and shots that might make a reasonable newspaper image – nothing too fancy, just something that reports what’s going on.
It was about half way through the third band – a superb group called The Inflictors – that I stopped thinking about the newspaper and started thinking about what kind of images I would like to see. And then everything changed. I started enjoying myself much more, I tuned into the rhythm and movements of the musicians so I could start to predict where they were going to be by the time I clicked the camera, and the quality of the photos improved.
By the time I was onto the 4th act, John Otway, I was in my element and I shot some of my favourite performance photos to date.
The following night I started warming up with the first guy on, Dave Sutherland; I got into my stride with Quirkus and carried that through with The Geese (now a 5 piece band – they were only a 3 piece outfit when I photographed them for their CD cover last year), again, producing photos I was dead chuffed with. However, by the time King Creosote came on stage, my CFS tapped me on the shoulder to remind me it was there and my energy deserted me. I took a few photos, but my heart was no longer in it and I had to leave before the end to ensure I could make the 15-mile drive home in safety.
Below are a handful of my favourites from the evening, but you can find the full set of 50 or so images on my Facebook or Flickr pages.
As usual, click on any of the images for larger versions.
Cameron of The Inflictors
John Otway with his 2-headed guitar
Nicola of Quirkus
Blue of Quirkus
Michelle and Richard of The Geese
Links of interest:
The complete set on
Friday line up
The Ideal Crash
Saturday line up
* and it turned out the newspaper weren’t interested in the photos I submitted after all, because they were all black and white and the paper prefers colour images