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How To Guide: Shooting Band Photos by Mike Margol (Part 3)

August 27, 2009

How To Guide: Shooting Band Photos by Mike Margol (Part 3)

Hello out there, you lovely PhotoEdit blog readers. Mike here once again to brighten up your week (naturally) with another amazing post about life through the lens. Since a month has passed since I did my second entry in the band photos tutorial, I thought I would wrap it up today at the end of summer before September sneaks in. In my last guide, I believe I said that in the final installment I would be focusing on outdoor band photos, networking, and possibly some framing issues, so let’s get to it. Should you have any questions and you don’t want to comment directly on the blog, you can always feel free to email me about anything I discuss on here and I will get back to you in the same business day, notwithstanding (1) imminent asteroid impact, (2) viral zombie outbreaks, or (3) Star Wars marathons on the SyFy Channel (does anyone else think the new brand just sounds like “Siffy”?). Anyway, you can email me by clicking this link. Go for it.

Before we get into today’s topics, I wanted to briefly touch on something that I forgot to include in the last installment: ISO usage. This is one area where hardware is really going to determine what you can and cannot do, because the better your camera, the better your noise reduction will generally be. I’ve seen noise on photos I’ve reviewed at ISOs as low as 400-600, but higher-end cameras can hit upwards of 3200 or even 6400 ISO without horrible noise, at least at smaller resolutions, so you may want to invest in a better camera if you find that noise is a constant problem for you. A faster lens can also help in the sense that your ISO doesn’t have to be so high if your aperture can go down below f/2.0, but either way, you’ll have to spend money. I regularly shoot at 3200 ISO and above, so if you really like band photography, it may be worth it to spend some extra cash on new equipment, because even if you don’t make a lot of money doing this kind of thing (and not many do, myself included), you can almost always find other applications for a camera or lens outside of the band world.

Now that that is out of the way, let’s talk about framing a little more. In general I say frame how you want and be done with it, but one thing I wanted to briefly mention is the framing of lights. Lights are going to be in a lot of your indoor shots, obviously; they cannot really be avoided unless you’re taking super tight close-up shots all the time. My particular taste when dealing with lights is that I try to move so the subject does not appear to be “touching” a light or row of lights. See below:

Compared to:

It looks like poor Jake has a green light growing out of his neck and that he is about to eat a magical, floating blue disc of some kind (delicious, I’m told). This doesn’t mean the photo is ruined, necessarily; I still like it and most people who aren’t photographers would never even notice this kind of nit-picky stuff, but it bugs me, so I thought I would mention it. It’s not always something you can avoid due to the angles of the lights, height of the stage, position of the subjects, etc., and if not, don’t worry about it. Otherwise, there are almost always a lot of different opportunities for framing your subjects in all kinds of cool ways–perhaps in a corner of the shot with the audience’s hands reaching up from the other side, things like that–so try as many things as you can think of. With digital, you don’t have to pay to try out new ideas, so go crazy and do everything.

All right, so you have a camera and a proper lens and you want to take some photos, but don’t know where to start in contacting bands. How do you become a band photographer in terms of finding bands and talking to them? To be honest, it’s a pain and takes forever, usually. There are generally several photographers at every show trying to shoot the best photos of each band, so competition is stiff. Use your MySpace account to get in touch with the band prior to the show if possible. Let them know who you are, that you’re working for free (asking for money from a band, especially a smaller one that may be strapped for cash after dumping thousands of dollars into equipment, recording an album, and buying a van and trailer so they can tour means you’re just asking to be ignored), and that you will send your shots to them afterward. Bands appreciate this and if they respond to your message, all the better. Now you have a contact in the band.

If you have a certain band you really want to be the photographer for, you will obviously have to go to a lot of their shows. I have done a billion photos for a punk band you may know of (Strung Out), but when I started, I didn’t know them, so I just went to as many of their local shows as I could. I also joined their message board so I could share my photos with the Strung Out community. Eventually, the band started to recognize “that one guy with the camera” who kept popping up and sending them photos, and once you’re recognized and the band knows you shoot good photos, you’re in. At that point, you will have an easier time getting press passes so you can really get some amazing shots, because we all know that shooting from the crowd sucks.

Another thing you might want to try is finding a small, relatively unknown local band whose music you enjoy. These bands usually don’t have their own photographers and they appreciate the attention much more than a bigger band, so in most cases they will be more forthcoming with press passes (and of course it is easier to get to know these band members because they may sell their own merch and not hang out backstage quite as often) and they’ll use your photos more often than a more well-known band. To give you another example from my career, I saw a band open at Chain Reaction once and I really liked their tunes, so I added them on MySpace and started going to their shows. They had no photographer at the time, so they were grateful I’d pay $5 or $10 to see them play a bar or other small venue, and also take photos for them. Eventually, this band got signed to a label and by that point I didn’t have to pay for their shows anymore because they would put me on the guest list as their photographer. If you live in southern California, and more specifically Orange County, you may have heard of them: A Kiss Could Be Deadly (and now Electric Valentine):

Either way, it’s a lot of work trying to get “in” with a band, but if you work at it, usually you can get something going even if your favorite band plays larger venues and has many photographers already. Better yet, if you make contacts in one band, that may lead to making contacts in another band with almost zero effort (side projects, referrals, etc).

This is turning into a really long post…but we have only one more thing to talk about, and it’s an easy one, so I will shut up soon! Yay! I can hear the rejoicing from here. So: outdoor band photos. These are infinitely easier than indoor band photos for about a billion reasons, most obvious of which is the fact that IT IS ACTUALLY LIGHT OUTSIDE FOR 12 HOURS A DAY. Toss that fancy high-speed prime lens into your camera bag and pull out whatever you use most often, because chances are that it will perform perfectly fine in blinding sunlight. You can use a low ISO coupled with a lens that isn’t even that fast, too. For instance:

200 ISO, f/4.8: settings you would never get away with inside, but outdoors, it’s a whole new ballgame. It’s actually pretty rare that you will get to shoot bands outside because this generally only happens at festivals or other large events where securing a press pass is a lot more difficult than at a normal show, but if you get the chance, make the most of it, because odds are that you will have plentiful opportunities to get shots you’ve always dreamed of (like above, Marta from Bleeding Through). In general, shooting outside frees you from the constraints and struggle of worrying about lighting and camera settings, meaning you can put all your attention on getting the perfect framing and pose from your subject. Hopefully your band doesn’t show up wearing white shirts, because it’s easy to wash out white clothing in direct sunlight (avoid at all costs), but white is generally not the most popular color for bands to wear, thankfully.

I think that’s all I really need to say regarding outdoor band photos. They’re easy, they’re fun, and you’ll have many more chances to get ideal shots than you ever will inside, so enjoy it. Many times while doing band photography, you have to sacrifice enjoying the show in order to get good photos–I’ve been to entire shows and maybe only remembered two or three songs from a set list because I just wasn’t paying attention to the music–but in an outdoor setting, you can really have a good time and focus less on photography as work, and more on photography as a way to experience music in an entirely different way.


Thus concludes the longest blog post about band photography in the history of the universe. Hopefully I haven’t caused anyone to get a migraine. Anyway, I do believe this was my final post in the “how to shoot band photos” guide, so I hope it was informative and semi-enjoyable to everyone who took the time to read it. I do have a personal portfolio where I keep all of my band shots, so if you want to take a look, just email me and I can forward you the link. Questions about band shots? Need more advice or have a critique of my techniques? Email me that stuff, too. Don’t be shy. The PhotoEdit blog will return next week, so keep a weather eye on the horizon!

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