on Photography: Live Music

November 9, 2011

Brandi Carlile | Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

My love affair with music began when I was very small. My father used to take me to the record store with him to buy albums every weekend. He kept me adequately steeped in some of the greatest classic rock music in history. I would pour over the elaborate album jackets on the living room floor on Saturday afternoons which would later help inspire me to major in illustration in college. Led Zeppelin’s most sinister track Kashmir would put the fear of Hell in me on hot summer nights when the electricity would threaten to go out. The Cars and E.L.O. would have me dancing around our small house in my footie pajamas. And I’ll never forget eating t.v. dinners to most of the Doors and Fleetwood Mac albums. I grew up on everything from Allman Brothers to Zappa and most everything in between.

After a stint in news photography that ended with an event that caused me take a lengthy hiatus from the camera, I was urged several years later to return for the sake of a music production business someone I once knew wanted to start. I began photographing bands around my tiny city in order to get up to speed with a digital SLR. From there I’ve been fortunate to graduate from the small town local band scene and cover national acts from time to time though my photography is no longer music industry centered.

I love these shots I’ve posted because each one conjures the song that was being sung when the frame was made and gets stuck in my head. I also studied film making in college and my mind works cinematically as opposed to in stills. This made it difficult for me to slow myself down to steal a moment out of the air that conveys the emotion of a full performance. It’s a bigger challenge as I am not afforded sound and several minutes of footage in order to capture the ambiance and motion of a performance.

At first the transition was extremely difficult, and while the advent of digital photography made many things easier than the film days where I got my start, I was very challenged to find expressions and compositional elements that could tell more of a story than just to set out to make a “pretty” picture, though of course that is important too. I had to rely on intuition, look deeper, and seek out a compelling element, a magnetic detail. Motion-swept hair, an expression of pure glee, the particular arrangement of band mates as they perform in close proximity, a moment of bliss, a note of anguish, the way the light falls in a particular moment, an interesting instrument, a guitar strap with personality, in front of the crowd, through the crowd, for God’s sake – move around!, always look for more.

Dawes| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

One thing is for sure, it pays to work for bigger acts as the lighting quality is most often professional. This means I’m no longer fighting the awful lighting of a dank hole-in-the-wall where some beer-breathed bar star is performing and thus am not wasting my precious camera actuations on images that will not do my talents and technical aptitude justice, the results of which can actually blemish a sound (so to speak) reputation and make one work harder in post trying to make chicken salad out of chicken crap. I used to like to carry my camera along to local gigs convinced it was helping me “keep up on my chops” but I realized what a waste of my valuable time it became. As acquaintances and their broke bands would expect to grab images off of me for free, I realized what a waste of time, money, and equipment maintenance it was for me.

A lot of photographers I know are spoiled by the digital technology, get lazy, and over shoot. I still have a film photography mindset and tend to shoot very conservatively, lining everything up and making each frame count. Film was not only expensive to process, but you had to know your exposures by memory as there was no way to make any adjustments before taking the film into the darkroom and seeing what you had. Many photographers (and clients, too!) today wrongly think that digital affords them unlimited shooting however a camera body is only good for so many presses of the shutter button (500,000 seems to be the standard) before it begins to fail! It still behooves you to be on top of the technical aspects of photography and make each frame count!

In live music situations razor sharp, fast glass and a high ISO sensitivity (big sensor) are absolutely key. Few things get under my skin more than skimming through my files after a performance and finding facial features a little soft in an otherwise stellar capture. For an example, note the image of the lead singer for the UK band James below:

JAMES| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

It’s also important to do your research. If you’re covering an act whose music you are not familiar with, look them up and get to know at least two of their hits. You shoot differently when you’re connected to the music because it’s a song you’ve heard and that comes across in your images. The connected energy translates over because suddenly not just your sight and mind but your hearing and heart become engaged with the way you are seeing. Most likely when you’re processing your images the ones that were captured during a song that you knew will be your strongest. Even if nothing stands out visually an image (or several) will have an alluring quality to them for seemingly no reason at all! In photography and in any situation in life the end result is a thousand times more successful when your heart is engaged.

One of my most favorite acts to have covered this past year was Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. A great pro music photographer friend invited me along to experience the Electric Forest Music Festival up in Rothbury, Michigan over the summer. I photographed anywhere around five to fifteen great bands and music acts a day over the course of four days but I got most caught up in the lead singers Alexander and Jade’s incredibly tender relationship toward one another on stage. I’d seen them perform on the Letterman Show, on NPR’s YouTube channel, and in several music videos with such a clear love for one another but to have seen the way she lights up around him in person expanded the hearts of everyone in the audience that afternoon. Also, Alexander was extremely personable with an audience of more than 25,000! He somehow made such an enormous outdoor event as intimate as a living room set.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| The infamous "pre-show band huddle". Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

 

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros| Copyright Alessandra Nicole, All Rights Reserved

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