Rehearsals are unpredictable, if not for the musicians, but for the photographer. Light is seldom ideal, and you can find yourself in a dimly lit room with yellowish light, no shadow or highlight to work on and a very busy background of note stands, chairs, microphones, and cables. Take these samples, — a rehearsal at ANU,‘s Peter Karmel building ‑which I tried to work my shots in a very small room with a mixture of fluorescent light and a single window of harsh natural light. While some may be disappointed by the harsh backlight, there’s always room to explore creative possibilities. The quest for expanding dynamic range in digital cameras, while worthwhile in many cases, can be deceptive. Camera maker’s goal is to record as much detail in the most accurate manner and not wasting a single photon that passes the sensor. However, aesthetically, the results — recording everything that exist in the frame- may not be ideal. The camera doesn’t know where to look, what to exclude, how to compose, and realise what’s important in the shot. When a scene is beyond the dynamic range of the camera, one can either try to bring their own light, which is almost impossible in the case of photographing musical rehearsals, or decide to intentionally take out parts of the scene and use the contrast as a compositional tool. A high contrast scene can be a curse, especially if you are shooting a corporate portrait or a landscape. But as your creative latitude increases in the project, it can be a good thing.
Appollo’s Echo is a new music project created by Mark Levers, making soul and 70s pop-fusion music.
Jazz photography is an unending experience in discovering motion, feelings, light and interconnection of the human form with musical instruments and each other. Some rules of photographing a portrait apply to it, but the unpredictability of movements, emotions and the need for working with available light make it more similar to the practice of candid photography. Also, the human aspects of it – who to shoot and when, the question of photographer’s courage to cross boundaries and get close, invisibility, visibility, and the speed – make it similar to street photography and social documentary.
This post is a summary of author’s experiences and lessons learned through photographing various rehearsals and live performances, mostly in artificial, low-intensity light, no flash and equipment that’s hardly can be categorized as semi-professional. Of course, having inadequate equipment for a job is not a good thing in itself, but it teaches you what is critical in your future choices of tools.
As I explore this subject, I will write about musicians and their instruments as the central part of the mise en scène*, light as a subject, the audience, camera angles, camera settings, and some technical aspects of the workflow in my upcoming posts.
Part I – the human factor and the mise en scène*
The need to have a rapport with performers as they play is not as essential as in portrait photography — which is paramount — because they need to focus on their own task and you should focus on your own. Trying too hard to maintain eye contact with them is not productive because will distract them from their work. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on your work and not trying to look “nice”.
Rangefinder cameras, which can be helpful for photographers who have difficulty creating rapport with their subjects — when their face is hidden behind the SLR cameras — are not necessary, because maintaining eye contact is not essential in photographing musicians.
Ask artists to change positions during breaks
If it’s possible, ask the band to change positions during breaks. Usually, some performers can get behind others, equipment, microphones, music stands, or simply positioned in the depth of the stage, in an unsuitable location, or without good lighting. Some examples are when there’s a busy or visually unpleasant background behind them when they are sitting/standing alone without any props or people to help the composition. Bad lighting can be either poor light, uninteresting, dull light or coloured light from stage lighting. The whiteness of sheet music, the backlight of tablets used for reading sheet music, computer displays, phones and other electronics can either ruin a composition, scene tonality (think a triangle of extreme highlight in the intersecting one-third of the frame) or confuse the spot meter. Also, open doors or emergency exit lights can be a problem.
It’s not always possible due to wirings and the performers’ preference on maintaining eye contact with the conductor, drummer, singer or other members of the band, however, sometimes all these problems can be reduced or eliminated by simply asking a musician to put one step forward.
Take photos when the band looks fresh
Physical activity, heat, sweating and getting tired alters the makeup, skin tones, clothing, hair and eyes of the performers. It’s a good idea to take some group shots in the early stages of performance, like the first break, when everyone looks their best.
Behind the scenes, drinks and breaks
Documenting the behind the stage activities, drinks and conversations while waiting for the call to the stage can be even more pleasing than the performance itself. Of course, all these should happen naturally and within the flow of events. I personally dislike being visible in the backstage and make people uncomfortable when they are having a meal or concentrating. Photography must be done in a relaxed and invisible manner.
Jazz rehearsals are a distinct and entirely different photography experience than the live performance that can be subject of another article. One can spend years attending rehearsals and learn. However, when it comes to photographing the live jazz performance, rehearsals can be as an essential practice for the photographer as the musicians themselves.
Understanding timings, who’s playing what, where to turn the camera to, possible good angles and knowing the timing of interactions between band members, can make live performance photography a more constructed, planned and effective session. You know which lens you need and when you need it, the time gaps that can help you change position, focal length or camera, and who to frame and exactly when.
Attend sound checks
Not attending sound checks as well as getting as much information about the venue (lighting, light temperature, access level, stage dimensions and position) can break the best-rehearsed photography sessions. So many unpredicted factors are in play in the live performance, and sound checks are the best opportunity to prepare yourself for the unpredicted. Also, it gives you the best opportunity to do metering, check the shutter speed and make the last-minute decisions about which lenses you are going to use.
Usually, you can find information about the venue on the web, looking through online photo galleries to get an understanding of the stage, capacity, lighting, and access. Of course, the best way to know about the venue is going there before the performance or making a phone call and ask.
(To be continued.)
* I’ve intentionally used the mostly cinematic term mise en scène, because I want readers to re-imagine the Jazz photography more as a story, being performed in a scene, and less as a collection of successive cutaways of musicians using an instrument.
The Canberra City Band Inc. is the leading community music organisation in Australia’s capital city. The organisation has several ensembles that all contribute to and serve the Canberra community. In addition to the original concert band, the organisation includes Spectrum Big Band and the John Agnew Band. The organisation also includes a number of small ensembles.
CCB is one of Australia’s oldest community concert bands and Australian National Eisteddfod Band Champions 2009 – 2015. Also, CCB was runner-up National Band Championship 2015.
I had the privilege to photograph the Canberra City Band open day 2016. Here are a selection of photos. Many thanks to CCB members, organisers and music directors for their kindness, patience and support.
Belle Whyte is an Aboriginal descendant of the Murawari people of North Western NSW. Belle comes from a musical family so she has been involved in the performing arts from a very early age. Regularly performing in various genres including jazz, blues, soul and pop.
Before enjoying their energetic performance in Great Hall, Parliament House back in 2015, I had the chance to attend one of the Big Boss Groove’s rehearsals. Lenses used in this photo shoot: Sigma 70 – 200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM, Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 18 – 105mm f/3.5 – 5.6G ED VR and Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G.
The Method is one of Canberra’s popular bands, comprises nine top grade Canberra-based musicians.
The Method’s repertoire includes all the jazz standards, popular dance rock and pop songs as well as funk and soul. With two vocalists, a horn section and a rhythm section The Method perform as a full nine-piece band or as a smaller jazz ensemble.
I had the opportunity to accompany them both in their rehearsals and on stage.
*This post originally published after the festival, however, because my of a problem with my hosting company database, they had to restore my blog to an earlier snapshot so I lost the original post.