My love affair with live music photography: Alison Goldfrapp

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I can still recall the initial moment that inspired me to pursue photography on a more serious, professional level. My friend, Julie Melton, had taken the most exquisite pictures of Tori Amos and PJ Harvey at the music portion of SXSW in 2009 and, upon gazing at those images repeatedly, I had only one recurring thought; “I would like to possess the ability to create something of this caliber for music fans such as myself to enjoy.”

Sometimes when you put a wish out to the universe, circumstances magically fall into place. In a period of three short months following the above thought, friends who had seen some of the photos I took at Coachella with my Canon PowerShot SX110 asked if I wanted to accompany them to festivals and/or shoot their bands. Of course, I happily obliged but I knew I would need access to a professional-grade lens (read: not a standard kit lens) and DSLR body if I ever wanted to evolve.

Luckily, I have some amazing friends as both Andrei and Terry generously lent me a Nikon D70 body (I have since upgraded to a D200) along with a Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 VR lens to help initiate me into this expensive hobby. At first, I was quite overwhelmed since I had a large festival to shoot three weeks out. However, I took a deep breath and started browsing through some photos that Andrei had left on a memory card in the camera. They were taken in a myriad of environments (daytime, nighttime, overcast weather) and covered a diverse range of subject matter. By looking at the settings on the LCD screen, I began to understand how the three most important elements – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – were properly combined in these situations to capture plus optimize an image.

Fast-forward to one year later and I found myself in the photo pit at Fox Theater, Oakland, to shoot Goldfrapp. Their lead singer, Alison, is an icon on par with Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and similar divas known for their flamboyant style and magnetic, captivating stage presence. To say I was excited to have this opportunity is quite the understatement. There are a few set rules when photographing established artists in music venues large enough to accommodate their fan base:

1) Absolutely, under no circumstances, are you allowed to use the camera’s flash.

2) You get the first three songs in the set to take pictures and then you’re done.

3) Agree with whatever the security guards say (I’ve seen other photographers get escorted out of the building for arguing/copping an attitude).

Shooting artists in a narrow, crowded space right off the stage is difficult and, in general, unrewarding. However, as with all forms of photography, there are few things in life more gratifying than capturing a unique moment that encapsulates the mood of an artist connecting to a devoted audience through their art.

Usually, most venues don’t have the best lighting (I only shoot in manual mode as opposed to shutter or aperture-priority). Therefore, I alter my settings for an ISO of 800 (anything above usually turns out extremely grainy if it’s dark), an aperture of 2.8, and shutter speed ranging from 1/30 to 1/80. What’s most important is having a lens with similar capabilities to a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR. There are several reasons for this. First off, it’s extremely fast which is beneficial considering you don’t have a flash to freeze the moment and most performers are constantly moving (which is also why Vibration Reduction, while frowned upon my many pros, is actually quite helpful).

You’ll also want to carry a memory card that contains at least 16MB of storage (preferably 32MB) if you’re shooting several bands during the course of an evening. If one thing is certain amongst the numerous live music photographers I’ve traded tips with, you’ll always fire off around 300 – 600 shots per 3-song set and find that only 10 – 20 of those are worthy of the post-production process.

Back to that warm, late-June night in Oakland: I stood in the pit with photographers from 7×7, Getty Images, etc. and listened as they both discussed the fact that Goldfrapp preferred an elaborate lighting scheme to complement the grandiose stage props (a gigantic, inflatable metallic arc for that particular night). I mentally made a note to turn up my shutter speed to 1/500 and set my aperture to 3.3. Most of the shots from this set found Alison bathed in the strobes of several intense, if not icy-tinged hues of light that emanated a classic disco ball – much like a majority of the band’s album artwork.

However, there was one intimate moment, while she was belting out the slow-burning hit “Number One,” where the lighting completely dimmed to match the song’s tone save for one subtle side lamp that gave me the image discussed in this post.

By playing around with basic Image Adjustments in Photoshop CS4, there were a few slight potential changes that seemed risky but actually worked in completely transcending what was initially captured. I altered the Color Balance so that a higher level of magenta and yellow hues softly enhanced Alison’s features. This warmed up the entire image and gave it a ‘70s vibe that evokes much of the music Goldfrapp makes. Combined with some slight fixes with brightness, contrast, vibrance, and saturation, I had created a final image that was atypical to any other live music photograph I had ever taken and that thrilled me to no end.

It’s also worth mentioning, first and foremost, that it’s absolutely critical to get the settings in the camera right so you do as little editing on the back end as possible – regardless of the environment you’re shooting in at the moment. That’s what good photography is really about. Finally, for those wanting to get into live music documentation, contact your local blog and ask. Most won’t pay but the benefit of free music tickets to your favorite shows plus exposure to readers is great compensation if you’re truly a fan.