I’d like to share a few tips for portraits of musicians that will help you avoid the awkward photos that make any musician cringe.
Sometimes we are lucky enough as photographers to be asked to photograph someone with one of their most prized possessions: their musical instrument. Most people that want to be photographed with their instrument really and truly love it, and it’s a part of who they are. As a musician myself, I love photographs with gorgeous instruments in them, and I am especially bothered by photos that don’t capture those instruments naturally. Sometimes I’ll come across a photo that makes me cry out, “Why?? Nobody would EVER hold their instrument like that!!” You can still be creative with your photos without making them awkward.
1. Trust the musician
If you aren’t familiar with the instrument you’re photographing, it is especially important to trust the musician. This isn’t the time to try every posing trick that you can come up with, ending up with flutes on top of the head, or cellos held under the chin.
Ask your subject how they hold their instrument naturally. You can ask how they hold their instrument while playing, or when they’re relaxing between songs. If it’s a big instrument, like a piano, ask them how they would stand next to it before they perform, or how they sit by it when they’re thinking about what to practice. Ask them to demonstrate how they carry their instrument from one place to another. These might seem like silly questions, but you can really get a sense of what positions and holds are natural, then you can build from there.
As an example, a violinist may tell you that she holds her violin under her right arm when resting. You could take that position, ask her to sit on a chair in a formal pose holding the violin under her arm and get a beautiful portrait of a girl and her violin. The key is to remember that they are much more expert at how to naturally pose with their instrument than you likely are. However, if you do happen to know their instrument well, feel free to use your knowledge to get beautiful natural poses.
2. Do your homework
Before a session with a musician, you could watch some videos on YouTube to see how people interact specifically with the instrument you’ll be photographing. Find a professional musician who plays the same instrument. Look at their website to see what kind of photos they have with their instruments. You may have a client who is very shy and need more guidance posing, so it’s helpful to have a few ideas ahead of time. Be prepared for challenges that an instrument might bring, such as unwanted reflections in brass, immobility of harps or pianos, sensitivity to temperature or weather, and have a plan.
3. Ask the musician to play for you
If you can get your subject to give you a little performance during the photo session, you will get some great action shots. It usually helps loosen them up a little bit too, and brings out some natural smiles. Remind them that it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes because your camera doesn’t catch any audio. It will only capture the perfect moments of their playing. Also, remind them that you aren’t there to judge their skill, you just want to capture the relationship they have with their instrument. Move around as they play, and catch the beautiful moment from every angle you can, close, and far.
4. Get close-ups of the action
Hands are the main part of playing most instruments. Get in close on the hands as they play. These shots often end up being some of my very favorites. Try focusing on the hands as you shoot down the neck of a guitar, the fingers on a flute, or hands that are frozen in mid-air during a drum solo. Getting in close on these details can create beautiful action photos that really tell the story. If their hands are moving too quickly for you to focus, ask them to freeze for a moment in that position while you get the shot.
5. Make the instrument the star
Take a few photos of the instrument by itself, too. Musicians love their instruments, and they will love photos that show their beauty. Make sure to ask permission to touch their instrument, and to set it down, move it, or anything you might want to do for the shot that could potentially harm it in any way. You can even ask the owner to do all of the touching and moving, and you can move yourself around to get the photo that you want.
Tell the musician what you have in mind, and they will most likely be on board, and be happy to help you get some amazing instrument photos. Instruments can be extremely expensive, and even more importantly, can have sentimental value that can never be compensated. Keep this in mind throughout the session, whether your subject is in the photo with the instrument, or not. Never ask them to do something that could harm or damage the instrument.
Every time I’ve been asked to create photos for album covers for musicians, head shots for websites, art to print and frame, or just to capture someone’s favorite hobby, my goal is to create a photo that they will love. One that will stay true to what they would naturally do with their instruments.
I hope these tips can help you create beautifully genuine musician portraits too. I would love to see your musician portraits in the comments!