Snappin the stage

Starting out in stage photography? There are a few rules you can apply.

| Portraits and People

Starting out in stage photography? There are a few rules you can apply...
Words and Pictures Mary Jo Bramble

My first band photographs were taken late 1980 in Baltimore City. Just months out of high school, I was now employed by a little photo store called Modern Photo Supply. The camera I held in my hands that night was a brand new Nikon EM. It only had automatic exposure - it selected a shutter speed based on my chosen aperture, but I soon learned to over and underexpose by changing the ISO film speed dial. The EM also had centre-weighted metering, which was perfect for shooting stages. The band was Face Dancer and they liked my stuff. So I kept shooting. And that's the first rule of stage photography.

Keep shooting
Start shooting a few minutes before the show begins and do not stop until a few minutes after it ends. If you find yourself thinking partway through a band's performance that you have about all you can get, you're way off base.  If the act in question remains too stationary for your liking, then zoom in on the faces and go for expressions. Yes, they will come. Maybe five per minute, maybe one every five minutes. But the only way you are going to capture the moment is to be there ready with the camera. If I don't come home with at least 200 images, I don't think I've done my job.
But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. If you are shooting film, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Centre weighted or spot metering work best with stage lighting because your subject is often well lit with a lot of blackness behind. A meter that averages out the entire frame will try to compensate for all that black, leaving you with disappointing pictures, unless you are in a state of constant compensation. You can also take a reading off of your subjects ahead of time, but this only works if they stay in that same spot throughout the shoot. If your subject is moving, they are moving through many levels and colours of illumination.

Don t use flash
I don't recommend flash unless you have no other choice.  Because, in the case of stage photography, the flash overrides such rich and, sometimes, intense colours, it is difficult to get a shot that doesn't look like a flash snapshot.  Instead, I like to work with whatever stage lighting I have available. It's really a match made in heaven, adding a lot more drama to my images than I could ever achieve with portable lighting.  There are decent high-speed films out there now so use them.

Choose your lens
If you're shooting with an SLR, a wide selection of focal lengths is desirable.  I shot for nearly a decade with two zooms - a Vivitar 28-80mm and a Nikon Series E 70-150mm with a 2X converter. This gave me all the versatility in the world, it seemed. I rarely wished for a piece of equipment I didn't have.  A photo vest is handy also to save you having to keep track of where you left your gadget bag in those sticky-floored, smoke-filled music venues.

Digital convenience
I'm laughing at this as I'm writing it because I've recently made the switch to digital photography.  All of the gadgetry that went along with my 35mm cameras seems so Neanderthal now. I purchased a Sony FD Mavica last spring for 'web site snapshots' and haven't picked up my 35mm since.  While the Mavica is on the lower end of digital photography, I'm achieving excellent images for website and flyer use, opening up a virtual fountain of opportunity in this day and age of the indie artist. I'm a true believer in the digital wave and will be upgrading my equipment in time, when I have a better idea of which direction I want to go in and what I want to achieve. The advantage of being able to see my images immediately and the absence of photo finishing bills are but two of the many reasons I'm going digital.

Know your equipment
Whether you are shooting photographs or digital images be comfortable with it and know what it's capabilities and limitations are. 

Move around
Don't get sucked into the letting your zoom lenses doing your job for you.  You will get a different shot standing 50 feet away and zoomed in then you will by walking forward 25 feet and changing your focal length to compensate. 

Explore your subject
Study them like you would a bug under a microscope (they won't mind). Listen to their music, look at their existing images, talk to them often.
And, whatever you do:

Don't stop shooting

Snappin the stage
Kelly Zullo is one of my favourite subjects because every show is different.  I've shot over 2000 images of her at shows since May 2001 and very few are similar.

Snappin the stage
Ember Swift hails from Toronto, Canada. She performed at French Quarter here in Nashville a few months ago. Certainly the fastest moving artist I've ever shot, I managed to capture her in all her clarity several times that night.

Snappin the stage
Johnny Downs has a hair flipping thing going on. And although I caught that action quite nicely, I've included this picture to show the most boring angle ever: Straight On. There are a million different ways to view your subject besides the one everyone else is using.

Snappin the stage
Lyndell Montgomery performs with the Ember Swift band. Not only does stage lighting provide the best atmosphere, it can also be used as prop. I've never had an artist not smile hugely at seeing a shot similar to this one of themselves.

Snappin the stage
Kelly Zullo again, this time at an inopportune moment. I am totally in love with the lighting and candidness of this shot, but yes, the microphone stand must go!

About the author
Mary Jo Bramble is THE EYE, a professional photographer in Nashville, TN that is currently focusing on bands and performing artists.
See Mary Jo's web site, THE EYE - Exploring the art of focus hocus pocus, at


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