5 Tips for Taking Great Musician Portraits

One of my favorite things to do is take photos of musicians. As a musician, I believe I have a unique viewpoint that aids in connecting with my musical clients. Collaboration with other creatives is always motivating, and coming up with new methods to include an instrument into a photograph is a wonderful challenge. I’ll give you five strategies in today’s essay and video that have helped me make interesting photographs of musicians.

1. Start With Headshots

Musician Headshot

I always begin a session with head-and-shoulder headshots when photographing a musician. There are several reasons why I begin in this manner. First, I’ve discovered that many artists don’t have a fantastic shot of their face alone, and instead use a range of portraits with their instruments in their advertising photographs. Providing them with a headshot makes sense from a practical standpoint, but it is not my primary motivation. Starting with headshots allows me to achieve my aesthetic aims while also connecting with the client.

Allow me to explain: To begin, I begin with a head-and-shoulders headshot, which allows me to advise my client on facial expressions and angles, allowing both of us to clarify the kind of emotions we desire in the portraits. Second, it demonstrates that the artist is more important than the medium (more on that later), and third, it creates a good tone for the entire session and makes the partnership exciting and entertaining when the client sees a fantastic headshot that they didn’t expect or believe they needed.

Consider this photograph of jazz trumpeter Tony Glaus. Tony was generous enough to give me some freedom when I told him I wanted to start his session with headshots, even though he didn’t believe they were essential. This is mainly because when you mention “headshot,” most people think of business images or “glamour shots.” He quickly realized the value and effect of a great headshot after seeing the photographs we acquired of his face, and he was motivated for the rest of our session.

2. Artist First, Medium Second

As a musician, I’ve long considered what it means to be an artist and what part my bass plays in that process. It’s simple to say, “I’m a bassist,” but as I’ve matured as a musician and a photographer, I’ve come to recognize that art transcends the media. I wouldn’t stop being an artist if I didn’t have my bass or camera. So, without being too philosophical, I like to focus on the artist as a whole, rather than just their favored medium.

For example, if I wanted to picture a poet, I wouldn’t necessarily arrange a stack of books around them or use a pen and ink to do it. Although this strategy can be beneficial, I recommend thinking outside the box when dealing with musicians. In my musician portraits, I focus on the person, the one-of-a-kind creative being in my studio, and the luxury of capturing them at a unique moment in time. This results in a more intimate, engaging, and creative portrait, as well as the removal of some of the self-imposed constraints we previously put on our partnerships.

Headshot first Musician

3. The Instrument is Not a Prop

It’s appropriate to integrate their favorite medium into the session once you’ve created trust with your customer and analyzed them as artists first. It is critical to recognize that an instrument is not a prop. Using the instrument as a prop, such as a ladder or a sofa, is typically not a good idea because it devalues the artist’s chosen medium. Remember that the instrument is the artist’s greatest asset, and they are thrilled to have it used in a way that honors its creative integrity. This may appear to be a contradiction to what I just said, but it is not. While the artist is the most important aspect of the composition, the instrument must also be included and presented in a way that complements the image without being cliched.

I wanted to create something unique in this portrait of jazz bassist Martin Wind that also demonstrated the double bass’s strength. Martin was supposed to hold his bass over his shoulders as I photographed from various angles. The resulting image portrays not just the physical weight of the bass and the “burden” it can be, which many double bass players can relate to, but it also expresses the emotional weight of the bass.

Instrument is Not a Prop

4. Get in Close

Because I am primarily a headshot photographer, I enjoy getting up and personal with my musical subjects. When photographing musicians, I strongly advise you to use this technique. Of course, I advocate shooting from a number of perspectives, positions, and cropping, since this is great practice and will provide your client with a lot of options. When shooting performers with their instruments, however, photographers frequently fail to get near enough.

Take this photograph of Peter and his double bass, for example. The visitor just needs to see the bass scroll to comprehend the image. Alternatively, in the image of Tony below, the trumpet’s bell makes it evident that he is a trumpet player without drawing attention to it. So don’t be scared to approach near to the instrument and experiment with presenting only a small portion of it. This frequently results in the most powerful portraits.

Get Close To the Photographer

5. You Don’t Need Them to Play the Instrument

Having musicians perform for me as I shoot them in my studio has always resulted in dull photographs in my experience. There are several reasons for this, in my opinion. To begin with, while a musician is performing, their eyes are normally closed, and many of them (including me) will create odd expressions or distort their bodies. This might be OK if I were capturing a live performance, but in a studio situation, it feels forced and out of place.

Second, when they perform for you in the studio, they are generally simply playing a few notes and are not in their “zone” as a musician, which affects the entire dynamic of the images. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but I believe it is a good general guideline. Allow them to play their instrument for you while you set up your lighting and shoot some practice pictures. This way, you’ll have plenty of time to perfect your setup and the shot will be free of uncomfortable pauses.

Musician doesnt need to play

Conclusion

It’s vital to note, as with any article of this type, that the aforementioned “rules” were designed to be broken. To be clear, I don’t recommend thinking of anything I’ve mentioned as rules, but rather as suggestions for building a good musician image. Everything is subjective and up to interpretation, as it is with all art, and your ultimate aim when shooting musicians is to assist them in realizing their creative vision for the session and leaving your studio delighted with the results.

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