I don’t often do co-authorship in regards to this column; in fact, as I type this, I can only recall doing so one other time with Adam Gnade. But every now and then I come across someone who knows their shit enough to be trusted to take this out of my hands. To hold my baby, so to speak. Is that weird? Oh well. Fresh off of a trip to Alaska with The Front Bottoms, photographer and friend Mark Jaworski has some great advice for those who live behind the lens…or would really like to, but are perhaps unsure of where to start. Enjoy.
For nearly a decade now I have been tasked with creating promotional photographs for musicians of all varieties. While I cannot imagine a job that would be more fun or rewarding for me, it also comes with a large set of challenges and a good deal of stress. For a long time now, visual branding has been a crucial element to a band’s success, and much of the responsibility of crafting an appropriate and compelling band image falls onto the photographer.
Before you start thinking of anything else, take some time to get to know the musicians you are going to be working with. Listen to their music, look at their photographs and videos, spend time with them, and if that’s not possible, have a quick chat on the phone. If you go into a shoot knowing nothing about the music, you’re putting yourself at risk of creating photographs that seem out of place. Some genres have solid motifs that you may have to work within, and some genres may have tropes that you will wish to avoid.
Creating great promotional photographs will require as much work from the band as it will from you, and it is important that everybody involved understands this. You will be much more than just a photographer while shooting. You will be a set designer, wardrobe stylist, art director and maybe even a babysitter. If anything goes wrong, chances are you will be to blame, so proper organization will get you a long way.
Some bands already have a deliberate style and won’t need any assistance or reminders to dress properly the part prior to the shoot. Other bands tend to perform how they are and don’t put as much effort into coordinating outfits and such. There is nothing wrong with this, and it’s a perfectly good look for a photograph, but it can also go horribly wrong. If a band wants to look casual as they normally would, tell each member to bring a variety of pants, shirts, shoes and accessories, that way somebody can always change if their outfit doesn’t fit into a certain shot.
For artists that are not very experienced in front of the camera, this is the most uncomfortable part. Standing in front of a mirror and practicing stances and facial expressions can go a long way, and the band should be instructed to spend some time practicing these things. The last thing anybody wants in a promotional photograph is for somebody to stick out as uncomfortable or lacking confidence. While a photographer will certainly be directing the musicians at the time of the shoot, it is helpful if the subjects have some experience with posing, facial expressions, etc.
A concept that holds true with most portrait photography, the rapport between the photographer and subject can make or break the photograph. Lighting, location and styling are next to meaningless without the proper rapport. Bands are rarely composed of experienced models and subsequently straightforward direction can wind up doing more harm than good. Be a character, be yourself, be whatever you have to be to get the desired results from your subjects. In the past I have done all sorts of strange things to loosen the mood in the room, to get a subject to laugh, and so forth. On the other hand, I have also worked to create a quiet, serious tone to a session.
Here are some tricks I have used over the years to alter the mood in the room. First, ambient lighting goes a long way. I always have an Arri L7-C multicolor Fresnel in my studio from which I can completely change the color of the room from a dimly lit red to a bright daylight white. When working with strobes, this light will not affect my shot, but will work wonders on creating a mood in the room. Next, you must decide whether you will play music or not, and which music to play. The band will always have their opinions, but it is up to you whether or not to give them a choice in what music will be played. Having subjects who feel somewhat out of their element can work in your favor, allowing you to establish more control over the situation. I find that many old records from France create a nice mood that leaves everybody, including myself, feeling a perfect mix of pleasant and uncomfortable.
How many photographs you take can also have a drastic impact on the mood of the session. Feel out your subjects and determine how you wish to work with them. Some subjects work best to the rhythm of your camera’s shutter, which may cause you to take far more exposures than you actually need, for the sake of your subject’s comfort. Other subjects will work best in a relaxed environment where each exposure takes time and calm direction. How you interact with your subject is also a large consideration. Sometimes I speak very lightly to my subjects while other times I am loud and overbearing. Sometimes I give direct orders (“Chin down!”) while other times I aim to confuse (“Look diagonally away from me!”) in order to get my subject to loosen up and take some control of the situation.
Location and concept may very well be the most important aspect of a promotional photograph, short of interaction with subject. This is by far the most difficult part of my job. If you are a band photographer you are a full-time location scout. Whether you’re driving down the highway to spend the day at the beach or walking down the street to buy some proprietary brand peanut butter chocolate treats, always be on the lookout for a place to shoot. If you’re like me, keep a mental list in your head and be proud if you’re able to remember more than half of them in a few years. If you’re not like me, GPS tag the locations you find and add keywords based on genre, artist, etc.
When it comes to locations, it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission. A big camera is a ticket to anywhere. A wise old photographer friend of mine once told me that carrying a big camera and yelling “New York Times!” can get you just about anywhere. Early in my career I used variations of this method to gain access to many locations. At this point in my career I have shot, with credentials, at so many amazing locations that I now see that credentials are not always necessary, and even when you have them they don’t always mean something to everybody. If you plan on shooting at a location without a permit, have a few backup plans because it is not wise to assume that you will be able to complete the shoot, as planned, without interruption. If you are interrupted, be sure that everybody in the band is aware that you, and only you, will do the talking. I have had shoots interrupted by the police while I was shooting on private property, and after a brief and friendly conversation, they allowed us to spend some more time shooting at the location before we headed off.
If you want to bring your shots to the next level, start thinking a lot about lighting. Nearly all of my favorite photographs involved having some fun with lighting. Sometimes lighting is what makes the shot most striking and convinces the viewer to stick around. If you don’t already have a lighting kit, don’t worry, you won’t have to spend thousands of dollars to add a creative edge to your photographs. Lamps, candles, and even flashlights can be utilized as effective practical lighting in a scene, and old photographic lighting can often be found at thrift shops.
If you want something a bit more cutting edge, you have a handful of viable options. The first choice you will have to make is whether you want a constant light setup or strobes. Constant lights are like lamps—they are always on, and strobes flash for a brief moment to illuminate your exposure. Strobes are typically more compact and put out a lot more light for their size than the constant equivalents. If you also shoot video, you may wish to opt for constant lighting. If you only shoot stills, I would highly recommend strobes.
If you shoot on the go and don’t want to lug a large, cumbersome kit with you, consider speedlites and nano light stands. One light is typically sufficient, two is even better, and three is when the fun starts. A three speedlite system, with radio triggers and possibly modifiers such as softboxes or umbrellas can go a long way and allow you to shape the light in your photographs in just about any way you want. If you want lighting that packs a bit more of a punch, consider a kit consisting of mono lights or a pack and head system. These kits will be much larger than speedlites and require external batteries, but you will get more power out of them and they are a bit more intuitive to use.
When it comes to which camera to use for promotional photographs, the easiest answer to give would be something along the lines of “It doesn’t really matter for the most part.” I have shots from a decade ago taken on an old Canon Rebel XT that are still among my favorites. I also have shots from the most modern professional equipment. If you have a decent camera already, chances are it is more than enough to create a compelling promotional photograph. If you don’t yet have a camera, an entry level DSLR will get you a long way, especially if you have some off camera lighting. If digital doesn’t appeal to you, an old 35mm camera or even something of a larger format can work wonders. A great band photograph is rarely about technical idiosyncrasies of the camera and much more about the aforementioned qualities of location, lighting, subject interaction, etc.