Feature: Jazz Photography

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The relationship between jazz and photography is close and long-established. Capturing the essence of a live performance with a still photograph (for now, I’m not talking about video) is an art that eludes many that try. But the history of jazz photography is rich and the work of pioneering shutterhounds such as Francis Wolff, Gjon Milli, David Redfern, David Sinclair et al. is the stuff of legend.

Live music photography in general can be very challenging. It is a very fast moving and dynamic environment. The stage composition is constantly changing and often washed out with different lights. In particular, jazz gig photography is notoriously difficult, especially in small clubs where stage lighting can be virtually non-existent and access to the stage is often severely restricted.

Here, at The Riff, we are big photography fans and we intend to run regular features on the topic. In this article, our Photography Editor, Peter Goadby-Watt, describes his approach to shooting jazz.

I’ve been a professional photographer for over three decades.  My first concert was Whitney Houston at Wembley Arena in 1991, where I used both a Nikon F3 35mm and a Bronica ETRS medium format camera with a 75mm lens and 2x converter and using Kodak T-Max 400 asa (ISO) film pushed to 800 asa. Over the following 26 years I have honed my photographic skills and I now primarily concentrate on environmental portraits, editorial photography and jazz gigs.

Cameras, lenses and setup
Currently my primary camera for gigs is a Nikon D810 digital SLR (I’ve always been a Nikon man); I also use a battery grip and three lenses; 12-24mm f2.8, 24-70mm f2.8 and a 70-200 f2.8. I find these give me the full focal length range and speed I require. Through time, effort, trial and error I have identified the most suitable camera settings for me, to optimise my results. These are as follows: manual aperture (usually 2.8 or 3.5), manual shutter speed (dependent on focal length of lens, but usually around 200th second), auto white balance and auto ISO. I choose auto white balance as mixed colour lighting is often used and corrections can be made in post-production. As a side note the only time I ever do a manual white balance is when photographing fashion shows. The lighting is on runways is constant and the main priority is for the clothes to be shot in daylight colour temperature conditions. The Nikon D810 has exceptional low light sensitivity with very little ‘background noise’. This Auto ISO setting allows me the flexibility of shooting in varying light levels, usually around 1000-3000 ISO range. I also use spot metering as most of the gigs I shoot utilise bright, narrow-beam, spotlights directed at faces. The spot-metering mode allows me to meter solely for the very bright and important areas. While many my images may appear underexposed when viewing the histogram, you need to consider that these jazz venues are very dark with many extremely low light areas that have very little light detail. As the song goes: ‘Black is Black’, so there is little point in trying to register detail in those black areas which cannot be registered, except at the expense of the bright areas that would risk ‘blowing out’ important detail such as faces. The metering system on most cameras tries to turn everything mid-grey in tone. This is why very bright scenes such as snow tend to be underexposed when solely relying on the camera auto exposure metering. If you are shooting in a venue you are familiar with where the lighting does not change you can choose a specific ISO that gives you good exposures with minimal noise.

Other gear, preparation and etiquette
Also in my camera bag is a speedlight flash unit with remote trigger (just in case a portrait opportunity arises!), a tea towel for those sweaty face moments…I find indoor venues, particularly small ones, can get very hot. The last thing you need is sweat running into your eyes or onto your glasses when you are trying to shoot. I also ensure I have a bottle of water, painkillers, penlight and plenty of business cards! I aim to arrive early if possible to introduce myself to the band and to ideally take some shots whilst they are practicing their set. This can provide a great opportunity to take some unusual and close up images that may not be possible during the performance. Hopefully I can also practice shooting in the actual light levels of the gig. I will often get on stage during practice sessions, always being mindful to shoot quickly and to not get in the way. Prior to the gig, I make my obligatory trip to the loo, ensuring I don’t get caught short at a vital moment. Once the audience starts to arrive I make time to speak to those nearest to the stage to make them aware of my presence and what they can expect of me. People are a lot more tolerant of your photographic mission if you have a friendly word. After all, you may well be standing, walking and shooting in front of them and blocking their view. Always be mindful of this. A little courtesy goes a long way. I often wear a technical belt with a large lens pouch and water bottle holder. This enables me to tuck my camera bag away and still have everything to hand. A friendly hello or chat with fellow photographers can also serve you well. The type of venue will dictate whether or not I utilise a second body or simply change lenses as necessary. I prefer to only use one body and two or three lenses if the event allows, keeping my spare body safe in my securely stowed camera bag. With the final equipment checks done, I am ready for the fun to begin.

Shooting the concert
As the gig gets underway I often take a systematic approach to my initial images. Utilising the 70-200 lens first I will concentrate on each musician in turn, ensuring a few high-quality images are ‘in the bag’. These will include close-up headshots, hands and specific items of interest. I will follow the same pattern with the 24-70 lens and then the 12-24 lens, although I will do fewer shots with the last lens due to its extreme wide angle nature. I then relax into the gig, standing at the side and observing each musician and the lighting. Anticipation of shots is vital. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a great capture possibility happen and you don’t get it. Many musicians have a ‘signature’ expression or motion. I look out for these and any other interactions that may occur. I always look for something unusual, whether a shooting angle or specific musician activity. Try to avoid mics or even the instruments themselves getting in the way, unless you have a certain shot or shots in mind. Drummers can often be a challenge for they are usually positioned at the back and centre of the stage area. It helps to know the type of shots you want which will guide you on your position and choice of lens. If other photographers are present, certain etiquette applies…try to avoid stepping in front of them if they are shooting and don’t barge them out of the way. They can do the same to you! That said, don’t allow other photographers to bully you out of the way. Some gigs are restricted to a media pit at the front of the stage and the first three songs only. If this is the case it may be a bit of a free for all. Finally, before undertaking any photo assignment I always do my research. Look up the band members and write down their names and contact details, look at other examples of photography (particularly at the venue you are attending) to gauge the layout out and to get an idea of what is possible and to get those creative juices flowing. Happy shooting!

Peter Goadby-Watt
Photography Editor

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