How to take classical musician portraits that rock
If you shoot portraits at all I can almost guarantee that you’ll get asked at some point by a musician to have some images taken. Whether you’re a professional or an amateur it doesn’t seem to matter. Musicians are generally hungry for photographs and need a constant carousel of images for their publicity and social media.
However, it’s not always that straightforward to take a great shot of a musician. And generally, they don’t just need action shots of them playing, they need a mixture of headshots, shots with the instrument, full-body shots, atmospheric shots, and often shots that would work on an album cover, even in today’s age of digital music downloads.
I’m not just a photographer, I’m also a musician. I have a music degree and have been playing and performing since the age of 6. Music was in fact, the reason I got into photography in the first place. From filling up the free time while on tour to taking promo shots for my colleagues and friends it was a very gradual transition from being a full-time classical musician to becoming a full-time photographer (with a lot of hard work and study no less!).
I have continued to photograph and film musicians to this day and it’s something I take an immense amount of pleasure from. It’s incredibly gratifying when your work helps other artists to share their music.
Plan ahead and find interesting locations
Studio shots are a bit of a mainstay in terms of portraits, and while it’s important for a musician to have a couple of headshots for programme thumbnails, it’s becoming increasingly popular to shoot in other locations. The main point of a musician photo is to grab attention. If you think about it, we will almost always see the visual promotion before we hear the music.
Some of my favourite shots I’ve done for musicians have been in unusual locations: a local cafe, a castle, a field in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a wood. As always with photography, planning ahead is your friend. But don’t think that you have to stick to conventional locations such as concert halls and churches. Always find out if you need to ask permission first.
For example, the image below is a composite where the three musicians were shot separately from the background in a studio. They wanted to be photographed in the old Silk Exchange however it being a UNESCO site they won’t allow lighting or tripods inside, so we had to come up with an alternative solution.
Don’t just take Headshots
There is a need for pulled back shots as well as close ups in a musician’s image gallery. While it’s true that many musicians don’t have a good headshot of just their faces, there is limited use for those shots in my opinion unless they are singers. It’s an important aspect of course and definitely something to include, but it shouldn’t be the entire point of the shoot unless they have specifically asked for it.
You don’t have to show the whole instrument all the time in every shot. Including a small portion of say a guitar or just the scroll of a cello still gets the idea across that they are a musician, and can help place the image’s focal point back onto the human subject.
I also like to include those quiet in-between behind the scenes moments. These are often some of the most interesting and genuine shots you will get and many people find this aspect of a musician’s life fascinating. Most people don’t get to experience backstage before a concert or during a rehearsal so don’t discount those small moments.
Include playing shots as well, and this is when you can push yourself to be a little more creative. How about a top-down shot over the keyboard for a pianist? Or a really low angle that makes the double bass look even more imposing? Or how about shooting outside at dusk under a street lamp?
One example that I had recently was for a harmonica player. The harmonica is perhaps the worst instrument to shoot while someone is actually playing it because it’s stuffed right up close to the face and both the face and instrument are completely covered up by the player’s hands. In the end, we used the amplifier as a prop and simply had the musician holding the harmonica in his hand in a casual kind of way.
Give lots of direction
Unlike actors and models, musicians are generally rather uncomfortable in front of the camera. They do need the confidence boost of a little (or a lot!) of direction from the photographer. Singers are oftentimes a little better at knowing how to act in front of the lens because much of their work involves a degree of acting. But generally, I find that musicians are like photographing anybody else in this respect. The exception is of course when you ask them to play something. That is often when the magic happens, and the subject forgets that they are in an artificial situation, they simply just play.
Direction is especially important if you’re photographing any kind of group or ensemble. For groups larger than 5 I like to break it up into smaller groups of 2, 3 or 5 people in order to create a more interesting composition. You can then control the lighting more easily if using strobes, and even create a composite.
You want to strike a fine balance between the musicians looking comfortable together but they shouldn’t look like family. It’s not easy because musical ensembles generally have a closer vibe than say a corporate office group photo would, and the body language needs to show that somehow. But I always steer well away from anything looking too cosy, ideally they should look like friends rather than relatives!
Include the instrument, but make it look natural
The instrument should be an integral part of the composition. It should have equal status to the musician and neither become more or less important. It’s a delicate balance to strike, and something that I’ve spent years trying to get right. The other tricky thing is getting the instrument to look natural if it’s being held by the musician. The best way I’ve found is to just get them to pick it up in the most natural way that they usually do, and then you can make minor small adjustments from there.
It’s incredibly important that you let the musician interact with their instrument in as natural a way as possible, especially if they are playing it. Great attention to detail is placed on seemingly small details for example embouchure and how string players hold the bow. If you make adjustments to these things then you could run the risk of making an experienced musician appear like a beginner.
The other thing that I do is I make sure I never pick up or touch the instrument. These instruments are often very old, very fragile, have been made specifically for the musician, and often are incredibly expensive. I treat them a bit like I would if I was photographing a newborn baby!
Early on in my career, I made the mistake when making a video for a string quartet of asking the members to do fun things like riding a bike with the violin (in a case) on their back or taking a cello onto a boat. It wasn’t until afterwards that I discovered that the instruments were on loan to the musicians and collectively worth $3 million! I certainly won’t risk making that mistake again and can’t afford the liability if anything bad happened.
Tell a Story and get creative
One really fun aspect about working with musicians is that they are fellow creatives, however they are often not as visually minded. This is actually great because between you you can bounce ideas around and it’s usually a very fertile environment from a creative aspect, with them introducing ideas from other areas of inspiration.
There are also often fewer constraints than say with other genres of portraiture or selling a product. You can explore some alternative concepts and really go wild which you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do. I find that musicians are a lot more open minded about some of my more crazy ideas than other clients would be!
It’s also a great idea to do some research into the background of the music that they play. If it’s a group or ensemble then there are probably some important songs or works in their repertoire, many of which have a story behind them. That is always excellent fodder for coming up with conceptual ideas and shoots.
You can also create some interesting effects to invoke the emotion or sound of the music that they play. If you want some artistic playing shots you can ask them to play things in a very slightly different way to create the effect that you want. Motion blur can look really great for drummers or string players, but you will need to take some time with them to experiment with the speed of movement and how far they are moving.
You may need them to either limit or exaggerate the movement to create the desired effect. In this case, I would always show the images to the musician during the process to double-check that they are happy with how everything looks. It’s no different from photographing a ballet dancer, they know their technique and what looks appropriate in an image. Just ask them, they are the expert.
Fundamentally, it is an absolute privilege to work with other artists, and photographing musicians is a very special thing to do. You almost always get to hear some amazing music, often getting your own private concert in the process. I love to hear what projects they have coming up, where they’ve been performing lately, and any new inspiration they’ve had.
Professional musicians are like athletes, albeit with the small muscles of the hands, fingers and, depending on the instrument, lips and feet. It’s a hugely demanding profession, requiring hours of study and practice from a young age. It requires the focus of a golfer, combined with the accuracy of an archer, the stamina of a marathon runner, and on top of that the ability to let all of that go and be completely in the moment. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to show this dedication and strength in an image.
Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe