The blog of photographer Kim Ayres

Midsummer Music Festival 2011

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

The Inflictors

John Otway with his 2-headed guitar

John Otway

Nicola of Quirkus

Blue of Quirkus

Michelle and Richard of The Geese

Links of interest:

The complete set on

The Bands
Friday line up
The Ideal Crash
Sweet Relief
The Inflictors
John Otway

Saturday line up
Dave Sutherland
The Geese
King Creosote

* 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


Alice said...

You are so right with taking picture at an angle to the stage. Makes perfect sense, yet I never would have thought of it. As evidenced by every concert picture I have ever taken. (note: probably doesn't help that i take my pictures with my phone)

Pat said...

You've learned some valuable lessons and it shows:)

Kim Ayres said...

Alice - most of these things you discover by chance, but that's how we learn a lot of the time. Over the weekend I kept seeing this young girl and her friend moving all over the place trying to get interesting photos with her camera. Every photo she took, they would then study intensely on the screen at the back of the camera, then she would change position and repeat the process.

I chatted with her later in the weekend and she'd only had the camera a month, but she was so committed to it. I'm sure she'll put us all to shame in a few years :)

Pat - every shot I take is practice so I'll be good enough to take some decent photos of you next time we meet :)

A Daft Scots Lass said...

I just adore the last image. Such a contracts from the violinist to the bloke with the mohawk!!!

Great Job, Kim

Eryl said...

I love reading about your learning process. That you managed to get such brilliant shots in such difficult conditions is a testament to your willingness to keep at it. Love the bottom shot, I'm going to pin it to my Pinterest board 'Artful Snappers.' Anyone who clicks on it from there will be automatically brought here and, obviously, I will name you directly: "Shot by Kim Ayres." But if you'd rather not be pinned let me know and I will remove you.

Kim Ayres said...

Gillian - thank you :)

Eryl - thank you - and I'm honoured to be pinned on our Pinterest board :)

Eryl said...


hope said...

Not having time yet to go check out the rest, was Michelle the lovely red head from your first show of facing staring back?

Well done as usual!

neena maiya (guyana gyal) said...

It's true, filming stage is difficult. I used to do the 'culture' segment as tv producer, and I'd pray to get the good / talented cameraman.

So...I was reading and reading and wondering what kind of photos you'd get after all the difficulties...I kept picturing poor lighting, uninteresting spaces - the mind works like that, y'know.

Then...tah dah...some wonderful shots!

Well done, Kim.

Anonymous said...

These are fun! The photos of John Otway are particularly cool.

Unknown said...

Wow, those pictures are great. The newspaper is dumb, they probably just didn't want to pay you.

Kim Ayres said...

Eryl - :)

Hope - well spotted! Yes, Michelle is indeed the red-headed fiddle player from the Staring Back exhibtion :)

Guyana-Gyal - well, the shots I have put up on acebook and Flickr only represent less than 10% of the ones I actually took. A lot were repeats, but many had bad lighting, uninteresting spaces, band members being obscured by bits of other members instruments etc...

Allen - John Otway was very entertaining and had a very expressive face. I'd love to have a proper photo session with him :)

Carole - they weren't going to have to pay me - I'd already agreed to let them use the images in return for being credited. It was colour they were after. And the paper came out today and features the colour photos of another photographer who was there.

But I actually don't feel bad about it. In many ways it has helped me realise that I am not a press photographer and I shouldn't get distracted by trying too hard to get my photos in the local newspapers :)

Mary Witzl said...

Your photographs are better than anything I've seen in the papers. They can keep their color shots too; give me black and white every time.

neena maiya (guyana gyal) said...

Yes, that's how I remember it...I had to go through shot after shot to pinpoint the good ones so that afterwards, when I was working with the editor, I was able to choose only the good ones.

Maybe it's a good thing you didn't get into the papers...because now you've realised you're not a newspaper photographer and you can work on what you truly love, what you do best. These photos are really good, man.

I love talking about the media. I think I miss it in some ways. Not too much though.

Kim Ayres said...

Mary - thank you :)

Guyana-Gyal - thanks for your kind words. I think you're right - I was discussing this with Maggie - I'm not a natural press photographer, and I shouldn't get distracted by trying to be one

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