How I shoot New Music

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The local music label Tone List recently put out their first zine, and I am very privileged to have my photographs feature prominently throughout. Seeing four years of my photography in the zine made me stop and think about the music I have photographed over this period and this in turn got me thinking about the strategies I use when shooting music: Strategies which I take for granted at the time, but which have emerged over gig after gig of experimentation, mistakes and failures, triumphs, and happy accidents. This is no definitive list, nor am I a definitive photographer in this field, but these are the concepts I have stumbled into when trying to photographically interpret the multifarious, wildly experimental, and sometimes quite daunting genres which make up New Music.

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Dan O’Connor at the Tone List Launch, Bar 459

 

So what is New Music?

For the purpose of this post, I’m using New Music to refer to the gigs of Noise Music, Improvised Music, Experimental Music, Contemporary Classical and so many others which make up a fairly robust scene in Perth. Tone List is an excellent place to go to for some local and curated New Music, and some of my personal (international) favourites in the canon include Erik Griswold, Will Guthrie and Richard Dawson.

Interestingly, I’ve been told it’s only in Perth that New Music is used as a catch-all for all of these genres. Tone List themselves call their work exploratory music, which works perfectly for that they do.

Onto the concepts I employ when shooting New Music:

People & Place

There is a monthly gig at the Perth Artifactory called Noizemaschin. It’s about as close as Perth’s New Music scene gets to an open mic, and as such it’s become a bit of a stomping ground for students and for more established musicians to experiment with new ideas and content. The vibe is informal and the light during these sets is more or less nonexistent. And now, in every shoot there are a number of photographs I just have to take: I will get a shot of the bride’s dress in full no matter how logistically or inspirationally difficult. And in music these shots are general, sharp, frozen motion shots of the band performing from each side of the stage. Once these shots are out of the way, I get to have a bit of fun. I look for movement, for how the musicians move and act, I take cues from the music itself. In all live music my biggest priorities are form and light: When there is very little light I look for the little lights on the band’s equipment, for the glow from a laptop or for ways to silhouette the musicians against the background.

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SexySexyManJoyPeoplePower at Noizemaschin, Perth Artifactory

 

The venue is a great place to start when planning the tone of a shoot. Any experienced musician is going to know the venues in their area, and patrons are generally going to know what to expect at each of their favourite venues. In Perth, The Bird, Mojos, and  459 Bar are generally well regarded indie bars, which host big nights with a lot of different acts to crowds of both loyal patrons and enthusiastic punters: The entry fees are low and shows have an informal diamond in the rough type feel. University auditoriums, the State Theatre and PSAS have a more deliberate, concentrated energy. The ways I convey these feels photographically are in my use of light, composition and editing.

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Akousmatikoi, Western Australian Museum

 

Light

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Christian Meaas-Svendsen at Audible Edge #1, Babushka

Most venues will light the musicians, and this can be a blessing and a curse. Auditoriums are usually lit with overhead halogens which are even, flattering bliss. Dive bars and live music venues are a mixed bag, ranging from thoughtful, well designed light at some of the bigger live venues, to a single, usually red, often incredibly bright light at the bulk of the smaller venues. When I arrive at a venue, the first decision I make is if I will be lighting the musicians myself, or relying on the venue’s lighting. When lighting myself, I place a flash behind and to one side of the musicians, to accentuate form and provide some highlight. It works wonderfully against busy backgrounds and adds production value, but it can be distracting to the musicians and patrons. When I’m not using my own lighting, I pay attention to angle, to colour and to how the light spreads (or doesn’t) across the stage.

 

Dealing with the single, intense, red light.

The single red light used to make my heart sink. I’d sheepishly tell the band that their options tonight were red, or black and white. More often than not I’d just offer a reshoot at a different venue, and I’d remember which venues used the SRL, and refuse to book shoots at them. Over time I’ve developed a few strategies for the SRL: Digital cameras tend to hold details in the shadows much better than in the highlights, so I spot meter and underexpose by a stop or two. I ignore the discouragingly dark images on my camera’s LCD, and when editing I bring the light back up, desaturate by up to 50%, and colour balance out the bulk of the red. This approach also works wonderfully for other coloured lights.

Composition

My compositions are informed by light but they also differ greatly depending on the setting and the tone of the band. I use three lenses, a 24mm, 50mm and an 85mm. These are notably wide lenses, especially for live music, and they force me to move around and get in amongst the music. I usually get each available angle with each lens, and with each shot I think about whether I am composing for isolation or for context.

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Question Time at Outlines 5, Satchmo Cafe

 

When I compose for isolation, I try to create a graphic and striking image with a focus of the musician and their instrument. Whilst these compositions often make use of a large portion of negative space, they don’t have to. The primary defining elements of isolated compositions is that I use of lines and triangles from instruments, microphone stands, other musicians and the background, to frame the interaction of a single musician and their instrument.

When I compose for context, I still compose for a striking image, but documentation takes priority. I make small sacrifices in lighting and cohesion in order to capture all of the musicians in together or to capture all of the musicians within the location.

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Feakes-Myburgh-O’Connor-Reid at Incidental #1, 178 William St

 

Editing

Because musicians are generally creative people, I tend to be given more leeway for bold editing in music than in any other type of shoot. I’m always very keen to take advantage of this, because I love editing. The personal distinction that I make, is that I edit to make my good images great, not to make my average images good. One of the best ways I’ve found to keep this mindset is to think about the finalised image whilst shooting. Sometimes this is as simple as shooting multiple images to stitch into a panorama or framing distracting elements in the frame in a way which will make them easy to clone out. Other times I’m looking for dramatic bits of lighting with the knowledge that I will be able to adjust to make it even more striking, or I try to balances two levels of illumination at the absolute edges of my camera’s dynamic range, knowing I will be able to bring them in to a cohesive whole whilst editing.

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Christian Windfeld at Audible Edge #3, Callaway Auditorium

 

Abstraction

Because New Music is inherently a little abstract, I try to convey similar ideas in my photography. Amongst the techniques I use to add abstraction are finding frames, dragging the shutter, freelensing and throwing objects in front of the lens.

Frames can be as simple as microphones and instruments. Walls and cables work a treat. Frames can take up both negative or positive space, and as I progressively try to keep my compositions to standard aspect ratios (2:3 or Square, sometimes 16:9) frames are a great way to make use of space within the composition.

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Steve Paraskos at Successor States, PS Art Space

 

takes awareness of the musician’s movements, but rewards you with a shot which is abstracted and yet provides it’s own context. If this were one of my usual articles I would go on about how blurred motion works because it takes a natural effect of the human eye to it’s extreme. There are two ways forms of abstraction when dragging the shutter: That which comes from movement within the frame, and that which comes from movement of the camera. I try to stick to one or the other, which gives just enough context to tie the image together.

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Jameson Feakes at the Tone List Launch, Bar 459

 

I don’t carry objects in my bag as some photographers do, but there’s no shortage of things to throw in front of the lens, and in bars my favourite common item to use is a beer glass. It’s important to get the focus before adding the glass, and to keep aware of how light (especially if using an on-camera master) might reflect inside the glass. Sometimes these work out and create happy accidents, sometimes not so much. The easy thing about throwing objects in front of the lens is that you can get a good impression of how things will turn out through the viewfinder. Some photographers compose and then find and fill negative space with a foreground element, but when I work I usually find it easier to start composing once the element is present, which allows me to work the composition around the new element, rather than simply filling space.

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A.R. Jones at the Tone List Launch, Bar 459

 

Impression

At the very end of this article, there’s something I can’t really teach or try to write rules about, but once you’ve considered the people, the place, your editing and your camera, all you’re left with are your own instincts as a photographer. Sometimes these come easy: A sparse and dark song will come on, and you’ll be able to frame the musician in the corner of the frame, against a sea of black. Sometimes the musician will the venue organisers to have only one blue light for their performance, and you’ll just have to make the most of that. I think when I photograph New Music I try to remember that not only is very creative music being made in front of me, but I’m being invited to create alongside. I think it would be a shame to ignore these two things, and so they are base assumptions around which I structure all new music photoshoots.

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