Taking Jazz Photos

Some notes taking photos of jazz musicians

There are considerations to bear in mind when taking photos in Jazz Clubs and at Festivals, being considerate to the musicians and the audience, the audience will have paid to enter and don’t want you standing in front of them or using a flash constantly generally ruining their enjoyment. The musicians are concentrating on the music and ideally don’t want too many distractions like flashes and people being inappropriately close. If you are new to a club it is always worth asking if it is OK to take photos, most clubs will generally let you… unless it is a Keith Jarrett concert!

One of the challenges of this type of photography is stage lights and available lighting, as I have mentioned it is best not to use a flash which means that you need to know how to change the settings on your camera, see below, then you need to look at what light you have. This may mean moving position to make use of the available light. After all when you take a photo you are painting with light.

Settings, all cameras are slightly different, but in dark situations the first thing to do is change the ISO setting to a high number, in the days of film you would have been lucky to have an ISO of 1000, but nowadays digital cameras go much higher, but the higher you go the ‘grainier’ the photo will be, I tend to shoot at 1250 but sometimes higher. For printing or display on the web this doesn’t seem to affect the photos. I use a mid range Nikon DSLR set at A – Aperture control normally and M – Manual if I am trying to capture an effect. I normally use autofocus on a single spot rather than general. I shoot in raw and convert to TIFF and JPEG in post production. Some of the detail here may not be relevant for different types of cameras.

At the start of the gig I tend to listen to the first 3 songs/tunes to get a feel for the music I am listening to and how the interaction is happening between the band. This is one of the most important elements of the photo process as you start to look and create photos in your mind.

I always find it interesting to start taking photos from where I am originally sitting, this is the normal view of most the audience and gives a feel of the environment your in. I don’t use ‘long’ lenses normally I use a 50mm 1.4  and a 80mm 1.8 as I am usually quite close to the musicians,  however there may be more interesting photos from different angles so it is worth moving about a bit to see if you can get a better shot! The lighting may be better or there may be a better background or less obstacles in front of the subject.

When there are objects like the audience or stage paraphernalia in front of the subject, try and use this to an advantage rather than not taking the photo, I often use out of focus objects to frame the subject or to create atmosphere! The out of focus objects come naturally as the depth of field is short as I setting the lens to be fast (f1.8),this means that you have a limited focus area, creating blurred backgrounds and foregrounds. The next tip is to try and fill the frame as the final photo, this may not always be possible from your view with your lens, but it helps when editing not to decrease the size of the photo too much.

Before a gig it is always worth reminding myself what is it I want to capture?
For the primary is the emotion, the emotion of the player/singer, the emotion of the audience, the atmosphere of the environment. The loneliness of a soloist or the interaction between the band members, a band member off stage, listening or a player blowing hard. Emotion is often expressed through the eyes, either open or closed.
Movement is another tool that can be used to capture the feel of apiece of music.

When I started taking digital photos of jazz musicians, I didn’t want to use loads of effects, as you have read this is not what I wanted to achieve, so I limit the amount of post production to; Selecting the photos, Converting the RAW files, converting from colour to black and white (I prefer and visualise in black and white!), cropping as little as possible as this reduces the quality of the original, and adjusting the contrast when needed.

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