Band photography at MAINZ (again) – TezMPhoto

Word up guys,

A few months ago I got a call from the head honcho at MAINZ (Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand). It’s a school dedicated to the musical arts and encompasses all things musical like playing, songwriting, recording, performances, mixing/mastering, exploring different genres, and is basically a cool place I kinda wish I’d attended (except I lived in Manchester, UK and studied criminology instead which made me very adept at Tekken 3). The Dean Emeritus there had a bit of a brainwave to involve the students in a photoshoot.

The reasons are twofold:

  1. The students and school get some awesome photography for use on posters and other artwork
  2. The students get some experience in the settings of a photoshoot with the big lights and the “move a little bit to your left, please” so that should it come around again they’re familiar with the process.

Having said that nobody was particularly nervous despite the fact we’d never met and a lot of these bands are newly formed at MAINZ, and it’s great fun and inspiring working with some very talented people who know how to present themselves and have their shit wholly together. The future bodes well.

Anyway, the first shoot went really well and the second one went just the same.

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Before the shoot I say pretty much the same thing… I know it feels a bit silly and exposed when you’re stood there in a big room with lights pointed at you with a big camera following your every move. It’s not really a natural environment for the vast majority of us and not something we come into contact with very often. But, it doesn’t matter. For the 15 minutes of the shoot they’ve got to believe they’re the biggest, baddest, and best mofo who ever stepped into that room. Confidence shows through and all these people have the right to be where they are. It probably speaks to their good natures that most people shy from the limelight at the risk of pulling attention from someone else but in shoots like these it’s all about them and if it comes down to a face on a poster I’d rather see someone with self-belief and a confidence about themselves. And I’m not talking about being cocky and showy here, but the ability to just look right down the barrel of the lens with a conviction.

Everyone walks into the room unsure of what to expect. It’s totally normal. But put it aside until you leave the room and the work is so much better. The transformation between the first few frames and the last are incredibly noticeable and it’s rare that I select the first few frames from a shoot like this because everyone is still acclimating to the environment and the parts they play.

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A challenge from the photographer’s perspective, apart from the inter-personal stuff, is coming up with different settings, looks, and compositions in a white room containing a couch and a sink and nothing else. You can alter the feel and mood of a shoot not only with lighting and setting but with lens choice and angle. Here are two different pics of the same band:

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Taken about 8ft apart. Same lighting, but one is taken at 85mm stood up, and the other taken at 24mm sitting on the floor featuring an attractive crane in the background. Actually this band was among one of the most technically involved to shoot… and by that I mean it took about 30 seconds longer to set it up than the other guys. Not because of the guys, they were nothing but awesome and polite, but when you have a bunch of people all wearing black against a white background it’s easy to just have some floating heads on top of a shapeless black blob where their bodies should be.

So what do?

Remove hands from pockets if they’re wearing long sleeves. It’s a little thing, but seeing the hand at the end of an arm gives a sense of scale and proportion that you lose among a sea of black if every hand was in a pocket. And move the fill light so it fills in the shadows the key light doesn’t hit. If you do this right you’ll get a little bit of exposure in the shadows but not blow anything out. Easy right?

When it came to the posing/direction of the band in the bottom pic I wanted the singer to be at the top of the pyramid and knew her hair would make a great focal point. Usually when people first sit down they sit back in the chair. That’s cool but it doesn’t lend itself to a good group pic and can have the tendency to make someone look lazy and unengaged so I ask anyone who’s on the ‘bottom rack’ of the couch to move forward so they’re sitting toward the camera, interested and engaged. Since I was shooting at 24mm from pretty close, if they were sat back they would have massive feet too due to the lens’ distortion. We don’t want that… except when you do of course.

Another posing ‘trick’ I absolutely swear by is having the people on either end of a line face the middle of the frame. It looks way way more focused and cohesive this way and I’ve found that if everyone just faces forward it just looks stretched and almost imposing. By facing the outlying people in (in a standing shot) you’re pulling the focus into the centre of the frame and keeping the eye from wandering. Here’s an exmaple shot of when I shot the Feelers a while back but utilising the same principles as described here. Dark long sleeves? Hands out of pockets, and dudes at either end face the middle.


Here’s a few more of Emily to add some mileage to the usefulness of the imagery.

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And a couple more of Moana:

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So…. lighting.

The key (that’s the ‘main’ light whose job is to light everything) was either a big octabox (8 sided) or a softbox (4 sided). And the fill light (which fills in the shadows cast by the key light, or to be used as a separation light) was either a softbox or a bare bulb depending on what I wanted to see. The key light is typically up as high as it can go and the other light around eye level and I aim to shoot at f/11 or so on a group shot so everyone is in focus, but around f/2.8 on solo shots for the sweet depth of field.

What does that even mean? Well, basically, the higher that number the more stuff is in focus. The lower that number the less stuff is in focus. In the pic above of Moana, you see how the background is out of focus but her face is not? I’m shooting at f/2.8. If I were shooting at f/11, or f/14 or higher, that background would be in focus. That’s about it in terms of how aperture (or F-stop) affects a shot and it’s a creative choice in settings like this.

Since I’m on a tangent he’s an even better example of depth of field, which again, is basically the amount of stuff in focus. This is shot at f/2 and I’m focused on the cone in the front, if that same image were shot at f/22 then guess what? Everything front to back would be focus. This lesson was brought to you by traffic cones.

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So the lighting… it’s pretty simple. Point it at something, get the shadows where you want them and you’re good. Which is actually kind of backwards now that I see it written down. But when I shoot I’m looking at where the shadows are, rather than where the light is. Why? The shadows are the thing that define the shape of something, like a curve or a hard line. They call this “shadowform” in classical art circles (have a look at Caravaggio for some kick ass shadowform) and for me, it’s a different approach to getting the lights right. Once the shadows are where I want them, or don’t want them, it’s a matter of adjusting the light power to get the exposure correct for the subject – a face, a plate of food, a traffic cone, whatever.

Where was I…

This dude is awesome. Redacy is his (stage) name. Lighting here is the good ol’ octabox in the background, softbox around the front. The octa blows out the back making it look like a white wall in a studio and the softbox lights the front. Now, Redacy is one of those dudes who doesn’t need any direction or coaxing or anything else, he just gets it. I asked if after every pop of the lights he could look a different way, or move slightly just to get some variety (otherwise we get the same shot 20 times and it’s a redundant use of time), or maybe go through a variety of expressions ranging from this to that and man, it was great working with him.

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All about that negative space.

The fabled couch makes a return:

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I’ve mentioned in the past that I’ve usually got one eye on what these shots would look like with some text on them, like a logo, or some tour dates, or a headline in a magazine article and I get a couple of shots with some space to facilitate that should these shots be used in such a way.

With this band there’s nothing to do but just keep shooting. Let them do what they want, have fun, and basically just set the lights for a good look then just sit back and push the button.

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No, the one featuring the finger penis isn’t in here btw. Sorry.

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And I think that’s about it. I shot 6 or 7 acts in 2 hours. Each band/muso got something useful and go some experience under the belt for when the next shoot comes around. Cheers MAINZ for the opportunity (again) and thanks to the bands for being so utterly cool to work with.

Have some links: – Moana  – Emily

Next time I’m going to answer the question I get asked three times a week.