Notes on jazz photography – Part I

Notes on jazz photography – I

Introduction

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*

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Kasra Yousefi

My name is Kasra Yousefi. I’m a graphic designer, teacher and photographer, living in Canberra, ACT.

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