Photographing a band or artist can be a tricky process. There are often lots of people involved in creative decisions. As a result, it can end up being a combination of ideas rather than the photographer's creative vision for the image. However, this tutorial will take you through each element of the process and hopefully enable you to take eye catching images for a band’s album cover.
How I Came Up with My Idea
I was very fortunate to know some of the members of this band already. Even though I’ve only heard a few tracks, I was a fan of their music and this gave me a good idea of what I wanted to try and achieve with the shoot.
I was contacted by the bands management and we began a discussion in which I pitched a variety of potential shoot ideas. I suggested locations such as a second hand book shop (a play on their name ‘Storybooks’), a stately home with stuffed animals or an old theatre. The management liked the concepts, so we set about searching for potential location options.
My Vision for the Shoot
Their music is quite dark and brooding, but also grand with the occasional glimpse of hope, so I wanted to convey a shadowy, but also quite regal and classic feel within the images. I wanted the images to be clean, but to use light sparingly to highlight only the significant sections of the shots.
In many ways, Storybooks remind me of a band called The National, who not only have a similar sound, but also dress fairly smart, so I researched some of their promotional images, some of which were located in old houses and reflected the similar sort of classy, but dark, feel that I was after.
Both bands have five members as well, and this helped me with picturing the structure of the guys when placing them within the frame.
Due to a lack of budget, we had to compromise and we ended up using the architecture in a small area of London around Borough Market. Before the band arrived, I walked around the area with the band’s management, who was able to direct me to a few locations that he felt match up to our vision for the shoot.
Doug, who I was with, also knew of an real estate building across the road that had a decorative staircase, so we popped in there and asked for a favour. We asked if we could sit the band on the stairs for 15 minutes after they were closed. This actually worked extremely well, as I could use small elements of architectural detail and the minimal natural light available to get the feel that I was after.
It was something I wouldn’t have thought to do if I’d been on my own, but sometimes those risks are worth taking! Not knowing the specific venue in advance did mean that I had to think on my feet quite a lot of the time, but sometimes pressure is what you need to get that cruical shot!
I knew that this shoot would be during a winter’s evening in London. Knowing this, I packed my flashgun, which was invaluable, as there was extremely little available light and it made the whole shoot possible.
In most scenarios I was able to bounce flash off a wall or ceiling, which was much softer than directing the flash straight at the subjects, even though I was using a diffuser. I took a variety of lenses, but I ended up using a 28mm prime lens for the majority of shots as we were often in fairly small locations and I needed as much width as I could get.
I shot everything handheld. I didn’t feel the need for a tripod as I knew I would have an extra pairs of hands on location to hold reflectors if needs be, but in the end, that wasn’t necessary as the flash did all the work.
Utilising Square Format
As you may or may not recall, album cover art is square, and unless you’re working with medium format, you’ll need to take this into consideration when you’re shooting. The images from the Storybooks shoot were to be used for both promotional purposes and album artwork.
I needed to give the management and the label a variety of images, some that would work landscape, some portrait and also some square. The shot below was by far my favourite square crop, as the framing of the 5 guys works perfectly with the horizontal line across the image and the crest above. Whether they’ll decide to use it is another matter entirely!
If you're shooting for a final square crop, many people find it easier to shoot vertically. For some reason, it's easier to imagine a square on top of a vertical rectangle as opposed to a horizontal one.
Posing The Band
Many bands have a prominent frontman or lead person, so it’s worth considering whether to make them the centre of attention, or whether the members of the band want to be placed evenly within the image. In my case, it was agreed beforehand that Kris, the frontman, would take centre stage in every shot, as he is the main focal point of the band, which the others understood.
This made my job of structuring the band relatively easy. I had 1 focal point and then 4 others to arrange evenly, which worked nicely.
On stage, the guys are used to holding their instruments and it wasn’t necessarily natural for them to know what to do with their hands or how to pose. I was able to help them relax by giving simple instructions, asking them to turn a shoulder, look in a certain direction or stop twiddling their thumbs.
As the shoot went on they began to relax and joke and we also stopped for a glass of wine or two, which enabled them to feel at ease and get into the swing of things.
This image was taken on the staircase. The first challenge was the composition. My vision was to squeeze them all onto the staircase to form a pleasing alternating pattern, but some of the guys were quite tall and with it being a narrow staircase, I had to arrange them in a way that ensured I could see their faces. That was the main priority. As a result, I do feel this shot looks a bit untidy.
I placed Kris at the bottom of the stairs, partly because the viewer would then see all of him, partly because I wanted him to be looking into the lens. I also presumed that the viewer would start at the bottom of the stairs and look up through the image.
My shooting angle here was hindered by a staircase and also made difficult as to the right of the stair case was some modern furniture and decor, which would have spoiled the feel of the image. I did my best to frame the 5 band members and include as much of the decorative banister and wood panelling as I could without losing the atmosphere of the shot.
I wish we could have found a bigger staircase in a more regal setting!
There was a reasonable amount of ambient light on offer from the office ceiling, but it was no where near enough to highlight the faces of the subjects. In this instance, I bounced my flash off the wall to my left, which lit the faces of the band nice and subtly.
This shot was one of my favourites for many reasons. I find it very compositionally pleasing. Having placed Kris front and centre, he takes prominence within the image and he’s doing something interesting with his hands.
The structure of the rest of the band is really pleasing as well. I only really needed to see their faces, and the way in which this image works allows their head and shoulders to appear out of the darkness below.
Lighting wise, I used the flashgun and had it angled at about 45 degrees. This allows the faces to be highlighted, but for the darkness at the bottom of the image to remain. The lights at the top of the image were actually very distant and did very little in terms of contributing light to the shot, but worked well as interest in the top third of the image.
The only thing I’d change within this image if I were to shoot it again would be to ensure that there wasn’t any shadow cast over the faces of the band, such as the guy over Kris’s right hand shoulder, which could have been amended by asking him to move forwards slightly.
I always find post production difficult when there isn’t much light to play with in an image, so for this set of shots, it was hard work to get the most out of them in Lightroom. I wanted to try and achieve a selection of tones through the collection of shots, some warm, some a bit cooler and others in black and white.
I used white balance and also utilised some split toning, casting a musty yellow tone across the highlights for the warmer shots and a greeny/blue tone through the highlights for the cooler shots. I had to be careful with adjusting light levels and in particular contrast so as not to lose interesting detail in the background into the darkness.
Although I wanted the faces to be the main focal point, I needed the detail of the location to give the image it’s context, which would be lost if I’d turned the black and shadow levels up too high.
What to Take Away from This
I learn something from every shoot I do, this being no exception. I was very pleased to have built a good relationship with both the band and the management before the shoot. This meant we began the shoot all sharing the same vision and aiming for the same results. It really helps when everyone is working together in that way.
Being able to spend half an hour checking out locations was also invaluable. I was able to take some test shots, assess the lighting options and also picture where the band would be positioned, so that once we got to each location, I was able to get to work straight away.
Technically, I wouldn’t have been without my flashgun that day, and as a fairly new acquisition, I wish I’d spent more time getting to know it before the shoot. If you get a new piece of kit, take your time to know it inside out before using it in a professional situation, otherwise it’ll become a nuisance rather than being the difference between a good shoot and an excellent shoot!
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