Catching a Song in Mid-air

Mark and I are both music junkies.  We tote IPods with enough tracks to listen 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for more than a month before you start to repeat any songs.  Yeah, that's a little ridiculous....  I even used to play around with several instruments, on weekends with friends.  So, naturally, we like to shoot photos while we're listening to the jam session, and we both contributed to the text and photos in this blog.

Neither of us have ever shot a big name concert - that takes hard-to-obtain passes.  At a big name concert, you usually get in place for three songs, in the pits jostling with other photographers, and no flash or, if you're really lucky, backstage.  It is a daunting task to get anything that stands out, but the request list is always long.  There are several musicians whose concerts might be worth this chaos.

We shoot small shows and jam sessions, consisting mostly of acts that we or our friends know.  There is a rich tradition of bluegrass and eclectic folk music here in northern Virginia, and we've been known to partake.  There are many local places here to enjoy these and other music genres.  Almost all of the artists are approachable and are happy to let you shoot and sign model releases, especially if you send them pictures.  Several of them have used our pictures, with photo credits, on their band sites or their Facebook/Myspace pages.  Mark even did a CD cover for one band.  As musicians never have any money, this is a good trade.  Sometimes you can even trade digital images for digital music.

It is tough to get the richness and depth their music conveys onto an image.  Lots of times, the poses are just, well, repetitive.  Microphones obstruct the faces and instruments; weird and bad lighting is the norm; and you have to be careful not to antagonize the audience as you move around to get a better angle.  We both try to catch the musicians' expressions as they really get into their music.  This usually nets you the best shots but means you will spend most of the concert with the camera stuck to your face.

Make sure you know the rules before you start snapping.  If you talk to the management and artists before the show, you will have a much easier time.  Many venues and musicians frown on flash use during a set.  Talk to the venue manager and the artist, so you don't interfere with what they are trying to do.   It won't help your reputation as a photographer if you get tossed out of the show.  ;-)

Outdoor concerts are the easiest because you usually have lots of light and more room to move around.  Since these tend to be smaller concerts, the rules are often less onerous.  The picture on the left is from the Kerrville Folk Festival, in Texas.  This is Don Gibson and Jim Ringer at the 1980 show where I met Townes Van Zandt and Nancy Griffith.  The shots in the center and on the right are the Woodshedders at the Leesburg, Va., courthouse concert, in 2008.  Microphones everywhere!

If you do this enough, you get a better feel for when to shoot the shots.  The next shot is from the Bangkok Blues in Falls Church, Va., a blues club with great Thai food.  We know the former owner and always get friendly support when we take shots there.  Even though there is another microphone, the lighting was awful, and Ace from the band, Jubal Kane, was wearing a weird purple suit, this is one of my favorite shots.  No flash; no tripod; long lens (70-200, f2.8); and Ace really wailing on his blues harp.  Great band!

Mark got a good one at the Watermelon Park Festival, in Round Hill, Va., of Melissa Wright on the mandolin.  She plays with the Acoustic Burgoo, and they even remark at her laughing at the end of songs.

Mark had a jam session at his house while I was off - working hard - on my photography in Aruba and Curacao.  This is good portrait, from that night in November, of Ken "Harney" Harnage.

Finally, I shot the last image at our favorite wine bar, The Iron Bridge Wine Company, just a couple of weeks ago.  This was the first time Tina Hughes played at the IBWC, and we had made previous arrangements with her and management to shoot a couple of shots.  I didn't want to shoot too many because it's a cozy environment, and I had to use flash to get anything of use.  I shot exactly 15 frames (a new low count for me).  Mark held the flash outside the bar and pointed it through the window, while I triggered it from our seat at the bar.  It's a standard shot, but she likes it and that always makes it a good shot.