How to Photograph a Live Concert: Minutes With The Brilliant Sarah Jackson-Holman

Everybody wants to photograph weddings, models and musicians. When your Uncle Louis shows at an event with his new Nikoncanon Rebel D5012 and a giant flash, you know you are in for a gauntlet of pain. He will blind you with the flash, cut off your head in every photo, blur his one good composition and then get in the way of your paid photographer. Concerts are often the same, but this time your buddy from work, Stan, decides to capture the entire concert with his iPhone, and backlights the event while making your fans angry. But still…everyone wants to be the guy who captures the next Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar or Elvis wearing the white jumpsuit. They really, really do.

I have a slightly different perspective. I love to play music, but hate the stage. I also know that what a musician wants from his or her stage photos is to be emotional, to look cool, to be shown connecting with the audience and never appear fat in any way shape or form. Musicians want timeless, they want shots for promo use and they like to see how the gig went. As noted in my previous blog, I decided to cover an event in Portland without any direction to do so, because the young songwriter seemed truly cool and at the stage in her career when a few extra photos might be useful.

What does it mean to cover a concert, and what gear might you need? I only had one lens [Canon 50mm f.1.2] and one camera body [Canon 1DmkIII], and I did a decent job. I might have benefitted from my 135mm f.2 lens for close-ups, but remember that I had no idea whatsoever that I would be taking any photos that night – I went downstairs for a pint of Fat Tire and to hear a band. Flash cannot ever be used. Flash is the anti-christ of concert photography. It will disrupt the flow of the gig and signal a bouncer to extract you, which is why my rig works so well [it does not even have a pop-up flash on the body]. I shot the entire session at f.1.2 at 10 frames a second. I did not raise the ISO. I just stood, shot, and moved out of the way until the next moment. Remember that the artist’s audience paid to see the show, not to see you taking shots throughout.

While I read a few reviews after the show, I think that what people missed out on was how smart and edgy Sarah’s lyrics are. Yes, she is attractive, indie cool, and can wickedly bounce stride piano lines out while dancing with the loop machine, but it is her lyrics that struck me. Her ability to find a poignant metaphor, a raw image or a strong narrative connection while still manipulating a strong vocabulary was impressive. As she writes in “Cellophane”:

Sun soaked, high hopes
Wear them as my winter coat 
To keep out the cold
But try as I might
I can't hide the mysteries that you read in my eyes

When it came to the actual session, I had shot 338 photographs. Unfortunately for Sarah, the lighting never changed during the set, so that makes it a challenge for the photos not to all look the same. While the purple, red and blue lights worked well for the gig, they are a nightmare to work with as a photographer in post-production because they do not translate well with cross-processing or cross-balancing the image. In the end I decided to produce a series of black and white photographs with a slight amber paper toning for her – I knew there was another photographer there whose photos would all be the same purples and reds, so the bw shots might be useful to Sarah later on beyond the show.

What do I like about the photographs? Sarah was wearing a fabulous dress/tiara/bracelet combo that made her stand out from the other plaid-wearing hipsters. She moves her left hand in a way that makes you want to grab ahold of it as her words spill into the microphone. Her look, her natural beauty and her stage presence made it easy to take solid photos of her. What would I talk to her about as a photographer being hired before the show? I would have warned her about the microphone shadow and I would have asked her to look at me once per song whenever she felt like it. Two simple things would have made it easier to capture the deeply penetrating look that musicians want to be staring out from beyond their instruments. Microphone shadows can sometimes create interesting effects, but generally people want clean face shots and by moving back from the microphone every now and then the artist provides an opportunity for more clean shots to be taken.

Overall, it was a truly engaging session for me even though I had no chance to speak to Sarah and she had no idea who the weird guy taking photos was. As a courtesy, I looked up SJH on Facebook and sent her copies of the first round of selects for her free use if she likes any of them. While these are not the style of photographs I normally produce for musicians, they strike me as being worth the time to take and process them. If you have not heard Sarah, then I strongly suggest that you look her up on MySpace before she hits the big time, which should be sooner than she might think. Personally, my favourite song from the killer set was “Do I Make It Look Easy.”

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