Hey zack, I love what your doing here. I have been waiting for more of your blog posts and your answers everyday. Anyway, I wanted to ask, how would I give more meaning to my photos? What would I need to do add more context to my photos? I'm trying to do music photography here in the Philippines, and the images that I take look like most of the images I see. I guess I just want my images to be more distinguished from the rest. Thanks and more power mate!
I’m going to answer your question two different ways. One is without seeing your work and one is with seeing your work. It’s an exercise in two parts.
One part is being able to speak about your work and the areas you are wishing to grow in. Your only description of your work is “music photography” and you ask how to add more context. Is it live music? Promo and portrait? You want to distinguish your work from the rest. It’s a hard one to answer because your question raises more questions from me then I have answers. Work on how you speak about your photography. Be more concise with your words and questions.
The second part is being able to show your work to the person you are speaking to. Now there is a foundation to build from. One can look at your work and see the strengths and weaknesses. Had you asked this question anonymously I’d have to give as vague of an answer as you had as a question. So here is how I would answer you with and without seeing your work.
Without seeing your work ::
If you are wanting to separate yourself from the pack my usual piece of advice is to study how everyone else is shooting in the same genre you are and work to approach your subjects differently. If most folks are shooting wide angle lenses then try to shoot with telephotos. If everyone is shooting available light then turn on some flashes. If everyone is lighting then go available. Or find a mix of available and flash that most aren’t doing. If everyone is shooting color then go B&W. Whenever the masses zig you need to zag. They go left. You go right.
Sometimes maybe it isn’t what others are doing that you have to fight against but it may be a battle against yourself. You always shoot with flashes. So turn the flashes off. You always use X lens. Maybe you need to switch your focal length.
Thirdly… Maybe it’s just a matter of experience. Maybe you haven’t been shooting for very long (less than five years) and your style hasn’t solidified yet. You may by shooting along with a bunch of other new photographers who also haven’t found a style. You’re all falling into the same newbie traps and clichés and all of you are growing up together. It’s now about survival over the long run. If 50 of you are all shooting music photography right now and you are all fairly new to the craft then you are trying to be one of the five or ten left shooting in five or ten years. Many beside you will fall off or never progress any further than where they are now. It’s now a matter of endurance to keep shooting, keep shooting, keep shooting. Over time you’ll start to see your style and approach to photography rise to the top but only after you’ve put your hours in and paid your dues.
With seeing your work ::
I spent some time on your Tumblr page. Now I see what you are asking. You’re shooting live shows for the most part it seems. Along with some cats and dudes taking a nap. :) From clicking through 8 or 10 pages of your blog I see you are shooting live shows. You do have some gems in there. Like this one of the girl with the long hair in the smoke. That one is freaking fantastic. The light. The moment. The composition. There’s something unique about that image.
Then you have pictures like this guy. You’ve shot in that location a few times. The venue visually sucks. Nothing says rock and roll like bad vinyl banners hanging up in the background. I hope my sarcasm is coming through. The angle on him isn’t that flattering. The moment of catching his double chins isn’t that flattering. The light isn’t that flattering. The venue sucks. While it is properly exposed overall the photo sucks. Here’s another “less than stellar” photo of yours. Don’t think I’m being a jerk but when you look at that background you can tell that it’s just not that great. You have to say to yourself, “The background of this photo sucks” and you need to say that the moment you put the camera to your eye. Then you have to find an angle where you get rid of that background to make a better photo.
Look at the picture of the girl. Look at the picture of that guy with the double chins. Take out the bias of your gender preference or who is more attractive than the other and you’ll see that the photo of the girl has something unique. The light is also good. The location is good. The moment is there. All the parts of a photo are working in your favor.
There’s this picture of a guy playing drums. Light is pretty good. Location is decent. Moment isn’t too bad. But overall the photo is… meh. Not that interesting. Add to that you did the newbie tilt on that shot. That photo does NOT need to be tilted. He’s falling over and the viewers of that photo are all cocking their head over to the right like a confused dog.
You have a number of “pretty good” shots on your tumblr page. Light is pretty good. Subjects are pretty good. Venues are pretty good. Moments are pretty good but I’m left feeling the same way you’re left feeling about your own work. It’s missing something else. What can you do that can be different? What can you do to add some more context to your work? It’s all fairly decent but none of it, aside from a few photos, is really spectacular. I can imagine sending 10 other decent photographers into these shows you are going to and getting the same basic level of work you are producing. What fun is that?
So I’m moving along through your tumblr and I come across this article by you and about you. It confirmed that you haven’t been doing this for very long (about a year) and what you are looking for in your work, more context, is right in front of you. You’ve already talked about. It’s already in your mind. The problem is you aren’t photographing it. Your vision is far too narrow and one of the newbie traps you are stuck in right now is you are shooting the obvious pictures. Some quotes from you…
“This is the real battle here in the Philippines, Filipinos not listening to such great and wonderful, works of art that is original Pilipino music.”
NOW, I resolve to make the best photos that I can. Every click of that shutter, every thought of that composition, I want my viewers to see, be curious of what kind of art does this band make or where can I catch them live next. I’d like to hear more stories of foreigners appreciating our Music as it is. Not as some sound alike of their own local acts. I’d like to have our Artists tour the world and spread their love and passion through music the way I see it in front of my lens. Nothing more, nothing less…
From reading your blog and with this article I feel that you want there to be a Filipino community to build around the Filipino music scene. It’s like you’re on a mission. I see where you love Japanese culture and have talked about the Japanese community you see embracing Japanese music.
Community. Community builds culture. Community and culture bring people in. Guess what is missing from your blog? There’s not a pixel of the culture. I don’t have any sense of the community no matter how big or small it may be. I see Filipino folks rocking it out on the stage but at that point it could be any band of any race or background playing the drums or singing or strumming a guitar.
I walk away from your blog not feeling anything that you are on a mission to show through your photos. The reason is you are so focused on the musicians. They are just part of the story and when they are on stage that is part of the story. If you look at the whole of what and who makes community and culture then you’ll see that a musician on a stage is just a small part of the whole. You have yet to point your lens to the “whole” of it. Where are the fans? Where are the bands back stage? Where is the interaction between the bands and the fans? What are these musicians doing when not on stage? Where are the recording studios? And the tshirt printers. And the guys and girls working the bar? And the bouncer?
Where is the community? Where is the culture in your photographs? It’s not there. Want to add more context? Want to grow beyond all the other young photographers you are standing shoulder to shoulder with? Start building a story that isn’t just about bands on stage. Get back stage. Shoot the fans. Photograph the bartender. Let’s see a picture of a lead singer stuck in traffic. Let’s see them in some thrown together home studio recording a song. Let’s see photos of their posters and let’s see photos of them putting their posters up. Let’s see the fans hanging outside having a smoke in front of that poster.
Show people there is a community. Show people there is a culture worth paying attention to. So some guy with long hair is playing guitar. Who gives a shit? We, as people, typically want to be part of something larger than that.
Spend a month with a local band that you love. Shoot them at home. Shoot them at their day job. Shoot them getting together to practice. Shoot them hanging posters up. Shoot them hanging out with friends and fans and other bands. Show them playing their show. Show them back stage right after. Show them loading their shit into a car or taxi or whatever at 2 in the morning.
Be concise with your story you are telling. Start a new blog/site for it. Couldn’t find a site for you aside from your Tumblr. There’s too much random shit on your tumblr to tell this story. That’s fine. Tumblr is great for random shit. That’s part of the appeal. Just start a new fresh slate and approach your music community as a story teller and only communicate that. No pictures of cats or Japanese gore film posters.
If you can tell this story and start to connect people to the scene then you become part of the scene and a bit of a leader in it. That gives you more access and more of a voice to get your message out even more.
It’s all there. It’s all right in front of you. You just have to point your lens at it and get it and share it. Make sure the light is good when you get it. Make sure the background is clean. Make sure you get the moment. Make sure that the bands on stage is just a small part of what you are actually shooting.
Zach, are there any music photos that speak to you and/or inspire you?
Warning :: Here comes a long answer to a short question.
There is one specific music photo that seems to have had an impact on me that I didn’t realize until years after the fact. When I was in middle school / high school I was a huge U2 fan. I had a massive Rattle & Hum poster in my room.
Some 13 years later I took a picture of a local band that made me type “music photographer” into google the next day. I lit a show with an old Vivitar 285 flash that resonated deeply with me. It was a shot of the guitar player Travis. Something about that image made me stop. I typed music photographer into google and decided then and there that music was going to be my niche.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why that specific image set me on the course it did. There was “something about it”. One thing is this…
In my heart of hearts I’m a photojournalist. At least that’s what I want to be when I grow up. I went the commercial route with my career because I was told by so many people that if I was to pursue photojournalism I could have a family or a career. I couldn’t have both. So I went commercial with the plan of making good money to finance my own documentary projects.
The problem with my work back then was I loved both and my portfolio showed both and I wasn’t good at either one of them. I’d show my book to photojournalists and they would comment that I had a great commercial feel to my work and I was great at lighting but I couldn’t tell a visual story to save my life. Commercial photographers would look at this book and tell me I had a very journalistic style and was a good story teller but my lighting in my commercial work and my subject direction absolutely sucked.
A mentor I had was a guy named Mark Anderson who I assisted a good bit. He told me that I had to take these two style of journalism and commercial and find a way to combine them. He had ZERO answers for me how I could do that. That’s a completely personal journey I had to go on by myself.
This image I took of Red Letter Agent that night started the mix for me. I was looking for a “moment” and my light was there ready to capture it. I feel that is where I’ve finally found the mix. I want a moment to happen in front of my camera but it’s done in an environment that I’ve produced and I’m directing my subjects to give me those moments. In photojournalism you are looking for moments that you do not direct. It’s all about the moment whether the light sucks or not. In commercial work it’s about the light. Not all about the light but light is key. Moments aren’t the defining factor in commercial work but I love a moment. I love when my subject gives me something or I can get something out of them. There’s that moment they forget about the camera and that moment happens in the location and in the lighting I have controlled.
Some 4 or 5 years after I shot this image of Red Letter Agent I was in a record store and came across the photo that was on the Rattle and Hum poster. And there it was.
I just stopped. Looked at it. And said… “Holy shit.”
My shot of Red Letter Agent
U2 Rattle & Hum shot by Anton Corbijn (the master)
PS - It’s fun to think of Bono as a VAL [voice activated lightstand] :)
Hi Zack, I've gotten into band photography over the last year, but frankly the guys are not very interesting in front of the camera. While my images are well lit and nicely composed, the subjects don't seem to be doing very much. I've tried to get shots of them hanging from goalposts with one arm, fighting with water pistols, etc., but they all are a bit precious of their image - they just want to look moody against a wall. Any ideas on how to get more exciting images out of people?
I’m all about the standing around moody photos. I don’t do very well getting bands doing whacky things like water gun fights. Mainly because I just don’t come up with ideas like that. The master at that stuff is Dave Jackson.
What I do deal with is the lack of character or personality from a lot of band members. People think musicians are extroverts and “turn it on” anytime a camera is pointing to them. That’s so not the case. Get a band on a stage at 11pm on a Friday with a few drinks in them and they come alive. They are well crawled into their shells on a photoshoot at 3pm on a Wednesday. It’s our job to get them out of that shell and to connect with the camera and that is a lot harder to do then to light them well.
You have to be a director more than a photographer at some point. Do all your photographer things like finding the location, setting the lights, getting your settings dialed in, etc. Get all of that done and locked down. Then when the band shows up in front of your camera you are now the director. You have to guide them, coach them, pull them into the process. Sometimes you pull them in kicking and screaming but if you are going to get any sort of good photo of them you have to pull it out of them. They most likely will not be able to just “turn it on” for you.
If you aren’t a good director they are just going to stand there and look bored and moody. No matter how well you light them you will have photos of bored people who don’t know what they are doing. You’ll have photographic evidence of your lack of direction. It sticks out like a sore thumb when you learn to read it in photos.
To get more exciting YOU have to be more exciting. You have to be into it. You have to draw them in. You have to push them. Not screaming and yelling kind of pushing them but you have to be persuasive and confident in what you are doing.
If you are shy and timid you’re going to have the hardest F@#$% time in the world making this happen.
A drummer of a band I recently shot asked me for highres pics. I sent him some lowres pics with my logo to choose from & told him that highres pics aren't for free & asked for a modest fee. Now he lost interest. How do you handle such requests? Thanks!
If you wanted that drummer to create a song for you I’m sure he’d want some compensation for that. He has gear, time, and talent that has value and he hopes you see that and would pay him something for it. You aren’t any different.
Part of me says let it go and move on. The other part of me says go out and shoot such amazing photos that they’ve never ever seen of themselves that they will happily pay you your requested price.
I see a lot of photographers charging, or wanting to charge, for fairly middle of the road photographs. Stuff that anyone with a passing interest in photography and a DSLR can shoot. You have to honestly look at your work and wonder if the photos you are trying to sell to this drummer are pretty much just like all the other photos this guy has seen of himself. If they are, then what’s the point in buying them?
Note that I’m not saying they are. I haven’t seen the photos nor do I know your work. Just adding to the discussion here.
If these are just normal photos that happen to be in focus and properly exposed they may very well still be mediocre. IF they are just middle of the road normal ol’ drummer shots then push yourself to create images that can’t be shot by anyone but you. Shoot stellar photos. Amazing photos. Photos this guy has never seen of himself. Photos that he HAS to have. Photos that he’ll part with his cash to buy.
IF these are the photos you have shot of him and he still doesn’t want to pay a modest fee for them then move on dot org with this guy. Let him use the water marked images for facebook but don’t give up a high res file.
If he says “I don’t have money” ask if he’s playing paint buckets and frying pans. Is he? Then yeah, he’s proper broke. If not, he’s spending money. On what he values. He just doesn’t value the photos.