You’re playing a show and you see a photographer in the audience. You want to get good photos of you and your band on the internet, and chances are the photographer wants the same thing. What can you do to help the photographer make those shots? How can you look good?
After 4 straight days with my camera stuck to my face at Surfer Joe, I wanted to write this article because some bands were so good at this, and some were so bad. And some of them I could even tell really wanted to give me some good shots, but didn’t quite have the right idea. So here’s helping you help me.
A note: I’ve been an amateur photographer for a long time and plenty of that has been concert photography, but I’m certainly an amateur and I’m always growing as a photographer. I don't think I'm phenomenal, but I do think I turn up good stuff. I also have my own tastes. If you’re a photographer and you have something to add or dispute, I encourage you to do so in the comments. I did go to art school, it wasn't for photography, but it does mean I know how to take criticism (or at least how to convincingly bullshit justification for my results).
These tips are for surf bands, but they could be applied to other bands a lot of the time. Surf bands do have it a little different though, because when you shoot a band with a vocalist that person has a lot more priority, and a close-up of their face singing is often good enough if you’re just looking for a few good shots. Not as simple for surf. But there’s also a lot of things in surf that make taking pictures uniquely fun.
I know you’re busy up there on stage and you focus on your music. Some of these are pretty simple and won’t take much thought, some of these you may need to work on over time.
Let there be light
Photography is nothing more than the practice of capturing light, and concerts can often be challenging because we simply don’t have enough light. Without enough lighting, we have to work extra hard to make our pictures less blurry and often that means more noise and less definition. Without interesting lighting, pictures aren’t very interesting. So if you have any control over lighting, please exert it! Crank it up! Concerts are rarely too bright, especially when using colored light. Speaking of colored light, if you can do something different than the other bands, please do. It keeps things fresh for us and helps us feel like each band isn’t the same.
Take note about where the lights are before you start. Photographers tend to prefer standing to the guitarist’s right because we can see the front of the guitar and it’s probably catching more light. This is especially true when there are side lights.
Fog machines are fun because they change the way light works, letting color fill negative space and sometimes casting “god rays” with shadows, like in the shot from the Tremolo Beer Gut above. It's not my favorite shot, but it's a good example of what fog can do.
Flash. I'm not going to talk about it much because I hate using it and so I rarely do. I feel like it's distracting and I prefer to be as unintrusive as possible. But photographers do it because we need light! But even when we do, it's hard to get right without doing it multiple times (even more obnoxious!) and it often won't even work if the subject is far away (unless they set up remote flashes for more interesting results).
Daytime outdoor festivals (such as Surfer Joe!) can be nice because we've got soooo much light that we have free reign over our camera settings. But there are drawbacks to that as well, such higher contrast (darker) shadows, blown out highlights. You won't have as much colored light, so the photos might be a little less dramatic. The average photo will still likely come out better, at least on a technical level, and it'll look WAY better for the cell phones.
It’s all about lines
Guitars are fun because of the necks. They’re one big line (with smaller lines on it) that can point your eye in certain ways. Your body is a bunch of lines, think of a stick figure. The typical guitar pose, head-on doesn’t really take advantage of any of those lines, not to mention we’ve seen it a million times.
Here’s a boring photo. It’s not Ralf's fault, I’m the one who took the photo, and even when you're dressed as the Pope you can't look awesome every second. I was just trying to find a pretty standard guitar pose. What are the noticeable lines within the frame, ones that catch your eye? Aside from the door frame in the back, it’s just the guitar pointing in a direction. If you blur your eyes, it barely even sticks out from the white blob of his body. That line isn't really doing anything interesting.
Here’s a photo I really like. One line points up. One line disagrees with that line. The guitarist’s body curls. My eye is going places!
They didn’t know I was going to take this picture. They weren’t staging it for me. They were simply moving around and pointing their guitar in different directions and I was shooting enough photos that something cool came out of it. If you’re not moving, you’re not creating opportunities. Thankfully, the crowd likes it when you move too. A lot of these suggestions will have a nice effect on the crowd. It’s convenient that it works that way.
When two players play up in front of each other’s face, I feel like it’s like cutting the wedding cake at a wedding. It’s basically pointless, but it’s great for the photographer. This simple act made a bunch of zig-zags between arms and guitars.
Doesn’t have to be zig-zags. Surf carries on the wonderful forgotten art of synchronized guitar movements, and when they line up guitars can look awesome with repeating patterns.
Photography is 2D and we’re used to 3D, so often things that look great through our eyes don’t look great in a photo. Ever taken a picture of a forest? It looks like a jumbled mess because your brain can’t separate trees from the other objects very well without stereoscopic vision. So we photographers love photos that give depth cues otherwise. This is hard for you to figure out for us, but this is why it’s cool when you angle your guitars in different directions.
Move to the front. Not only are you creating depth on stage, but you’re close to the photographer (and the audience) and we can get a better sense of your depth (telephoto lenses flatten the image, though it’s hard to explain why quickly).
This is why a lot of people use fish-eye or ultra-wide-angle lenses. They do a great job of exaggerating depth on a 2d surface, not to mention they make guitars look even longer, which is more fun. You can identify them by looking at a lens: if the glass is round instead of flat you’re probably looking at a fish-eye.
When you walk up to the front of the stage so that you’re right up near the audience, you’re helping depth and giving us a good opportunity if we’re using a fish-eye. If you see a fish-eye lens, you can get up pretty damn close. I would guess that I was less than a foot away from... a foot in this photo. In general, you shouldn’t worry about being too close to the photographer, it’s our job to adjust if you are. And guess what: most phones are pretty wide-angle too, so you’re probably helping the casual photographers as well.
Make a face. No, not that one.
That dude in Mullet Monster Mafia is a fun face machine.
I get it. You’re not insane enough to be that guy. But when I take a picture of you and your guitar, people’s eyes aren’t instinctively looking at what chord you’re playing, they’re going to look at your face first, so it’s very good to emote in some way.
Except the o-face. I hate the o-face, where guitarists look like they’re orgasming to what they’re playing. If you've ever seen that meme where they replace guitars with slugs, that's basically what they're actually mocking. It’s very private and it feels like the guitarist is hearing something we’re not. Plus it usually means putting your head back, chin up, which is just not a great look. Look confident, smug even, look like you know you’re dishing out something spicy. Or just smile, look like you’re enjoying it.
It's OK to wear shades too. Believe it or not, humans can still deciper emotions without seeing pupils, thanks to such things as eyebrows and mouths.
While we’re here, if you catch yourself looking at the camera, either look away or commit to it and give us a face. If I get a photo of you awkwardly looking at me, it’s going to look awkward.
That shot you wanted? We didn’t get it.
When I take photos a lot of what I’m doing is adjusting for a general shot, then waiting for something to happen. If you do something particularly cool for just a second, it’s awesome if I get it, but most of the time I won’t because I wasn’t prepared. By no means change what you’re doing, it’s worth it for the 25% of the time it works, but don’t expect it. If you really want it, keep doing it for a little longer than you'd expect.
I will sometimes linger a little bit after you do something in case I think you’re going to do it again now that I’m ready, so it can pay off to be predictable in that way.
Also sometimes it just doesn’t look as good as it did in your head. It’s always fun to try to get a good shot of somebody in mid-air when jumping, but the result is rarely as cool as you’d think unless you’ve got some negative space underneath. I felt great managing to get the shot above, and his body is posed in an awesome way, but everything below his body is a mess and I don't really like the photo much as a result.
One extremely frustrating thing is when a band takes a large stage and think they need to take up the whole stage, so it’s extremely hard to take a good picture with 2+ musicians in it. Two musicians is always more interesting. More going on, more to read into, more lines, more obvious depth. I often have to cheat by using a longer lens, flattening the image and creating the illusion that you're not as far away. It works sometimes but it's not ideal and really makes things difficult in low light.
Get closer. Act like ya like each other. This still applies to larger groups! If you have four people in the front of the stage, don't section yourself off into four little evenly-spaced zones! Move around, pair off. Switch around if you can!
I’m sure monitors are a factor here, but I always think it looks ridiculous when band members are playing 20 feet away from each other, just as a spectator. I don’t know, something to consider.
most of this article is about you. In a surf band you’re probably what people are going to take a picture of most, and thankfully your instrument is attractive, but it can be hard for you to look up. Move your guitar, get big with your gestures. Milk the easy notes. If you hold the guitar in an extravagant way as your last note reverberates into silence, that person looking at the photo has no reason to believe that guitar isn’t making much noise. Take a look below -- dude's fingers are on the edge of the guitar, but it looks loud!
You’re rarely the star, but you have an advantage: the bass is really long and looks pretty cool when you’re doing good things with it. That part earlier about lines? Your line is awesome.
You’re in a great position to enhance everybody’s photos. You can move around to the musicians that are a little more busy and enhance their photos just by being in them. BE MOBILE!
Yeah we’re gonna take a picture of that thing because it’s fucking big and huge, and you’re probably already moving your hands a lot just to play it. You basically don’t have to do anything.
Every 5 year old knows that the saxophone is cool. It’s shiny, it’s in a cool shape, people can still move with it. So long as you’re close enough, you do you, we’ll take some photos. That said, you can always help somebody out by looking cool next to them.
Let’s sit down and talk. We’re probably not going to take pictures of you. Most of the time the drummer is in the back, which means less light, and a flatter image for an otherwise very dynamic instrument. A lot of the cool stuff you do is obscured by the instrument itself.
If you want to fight this, here’s what I suggest. Make faces. Stand up. And if you can, move the drums forward. No more hiding in the darkness, we can get in there and take a picture that might have some actual depth. One thing that I rarely see but I think is fucking awesome, is abandoning the standard setup of drums the the middle in the back and putting it front and on the side. Photographers can get up close, and everybody can see angles they can’t usually see.
I’m guessing you’re not gonna go Mummies-style, in which case this is tough. It’s a bummer that we usually can’t see your fingers, which are the visually interesting part of the keyboard, and people’s poses are usually pretty boring. Even exaggerated motions like sweeping your arms don’t really come across. Do whatever movements you can, maybe even with your feet. Make faces. Invent a reason to point at something or somebody. Move the keyboard up if possible. And don’t get your hopes up.
Theremin is cool. I mean it, it's unexpected and interesting. Unfortunately, if you're actually playing it and not simply freaking out on it, you have to be pretty stiff. I have yet to take a picture of somebody legitimately playing a theremin that I like (and I've done it at least three times!). The best thing that you can do is be in a where I can get close and get a little depth. Below is a photo from SG101 vs Surfer Joe, where I was able to at least get closer and get an angle on it. SG101 I tilted to the camera to cheese some edginess into it. Sorry to single you out, Stephen, I just don't have many other theremin models.
Doing it right
I thought about writing this article partway through Sunday at Surfer Joe, then Les Agamemmnonz came on and despite their goofiness, nailed it in so many ways that I think they’d already learned a lot of these lessons.
My spot wasn’t great. I was in the corner of the stage and it was too crowded to do much better. I wanted to be Pablo over there taking that photo. Because of the way they did things, I still got tons of great photos. Remember what I said about drums? They had the drums taking up the left side of the stage, brought to the front. I got a decent shot of the drums before they even took the stage!
And look! This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a drummer do this and I don't think this photo is great, but it was the first time I was able to take a shot of it that wasn’t total garbage!
They were constantly in motion, which gave me a very diverse array of shots, but they also had occasional uniform movements, which allowed me to get this shot with three of them facing the same direction. Also, you see what I was saying with smoke filling in negative space with colors?
They even switched up their placement on stage a few times, which is super nice for me, suddenly able to get shots of different people without having to move.
Hey look! Faces! Compositionally this shot is OK, not amazing, but it makes me happy to look at it because of the fun looks on their faces!
That’s it for now
Hope this was helpful!