Photographing classical music

Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Sept. 29, 2010 at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, Ky. Nikon D300s, 300 mm/f4 lens.

If you are an arts and entertainment photographer, there is probably no greater minefield for shooting than classical music performances.

At rock concerts, no one will hear your mirror click. I’ve shot numerous rock shows with the camera set in continuous mode – click-clic-cli-cl-c – with no problem. Vox AC30 vs. the shutter of a Nikon D300s? No contest.

But the D300s vs. a quiet passage of Dvorak’s New World Symphony? Vienna, we have a problem. If you’re clicking at the wrong time, people from the audience to the conductor can get really angry faster than you can play Flight of the Bumble Bee.

Since picking up a camera for my beat as arts journalist for the Herald-Leader, I have had numerous assignments that involved shooting classic music concerts and rehearsals. And realizing this is treacherous territory, I have developed a little checklist of rules I follow when going into the hallowed halls of orchestral and chamber music.

Quiet mode: When I was picking my most recent Nikon body, the Q mode on the D300s, caught my eye. It holds up the mirror to dampen the click when you take a photo. While it still sounds like a substantive click next to your head, hold the camera away from you, and it really is much quieter than the average DSLR shutter.  Nikon is offering the Q mode on new bodies such as the D3100 and D7000. I am not sure if Canon has a similar mode.

Talk to someone: Try to make sure the conductor or someone in the ensemble knows why you are there and what you are doing. If people are prepared, they will generally get a lot less upset with you than when your camera clicks surprise them. They may even be accommodating if you have offbeat idea. At a rehearsal last spring, for instance, I wanted to capture the enormity of the forces required to play the Berlioz Requiem, and University of Kentucky Symphony director John Nardolillo was cool with me getting up right behind his head with a 14 mm lens for a few moments to try to tell that tale.

Mei-Ann Chen conducts the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra. Nikon D100, 17-35 mm/f2.8 lens.

Familiarize yourself with the music and shoot at forte: It’s not like an orchestra can’t be loud. It can be incredibly loud. If you know when those moments are coming, you can be prepared to get the shots you need when the sound swells. For instance, I was shooting Gustavo Dudamel and the Vienna Philharmonic performing Dvorak’s New World Symphony in late September. Because I was shooting with a 300 f4 lens, and Dudamel is an active man on the podium, I needed a burst where I could grab some frames in continuous mode. But I sure didn’t want to disturb the VIP crowd, including the Governor, a couple dozen seats away from me.

But I knew the New World Symphony, so as the big moment near the end of the first movement approached, I slipped my D300s out of quiet and into continuous mode, aimed the 300, and as the music swelled – covering the sound of my shutter – fired off a dozen or so frames, one of which made the front page of the next day’s paper. I probably wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t know the music.

Conversely, do not shoot when it is quiet, particularly in a concert. Those moments are meant to be express how transcendent silence in a room full of people can be. Ruining it with an ill-timed click is a good way to make people mad.

That said,

Stand your ground: No matter how courteous and sensitive you are, there are some musicians and listeners who just think the concert hall should not be invaded with the click of a camera. Nevermind many human sounds from seat shifting, sneezes and even flatulence occur at almost every show. I would submit those people don’t get it. If any genre of music could use powerful compelling images, it is classical music, a genre whose share of the recorded music sales market is at 5.5 percent and falling. This is a genre that needs professional photographers and talented amateurs of all stripes to come in and take great photos to can help get a message out that this is a living vibrant art form. If you have asked permission and conduct your business professionally and sensitively, don’t let a few curmudgeons bug you.

Be adventurous: I am carrying this charge into the 2010/11 arts season. Like any shooter, I can get lulled into focusing on too much on conductors and soloists. Make sure to look into the orchestra for great shots. The sixth chair violist can be every bit as expressive as the musicians centerstage. I was reminded of this last weekend looking at Matt Goins’ photos from a concert by Marvin Hamlisch and the University of Kentucky Symphony I reviewed. Of course, he got great pics of Hamlish, but there was also this great shot of violinist Jessica Miskelly just enjoying the big gig that was fabulous. And if you are shooting portraits of a group, try to veer away from the staid formal wear pics. I am dying to find a chamber group to shoot Todd Owyoung style, or something along that line.

Classical music can be a great opportunity for exciting shots. Be adventurous, and don’t be afraid, but do have a plan.

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2 thoughts on “Photographing classical music

  1. Great website Rich. You are really doing a GREAT job of photography. I am very impressed with your lighting technique. I also love your writing as it is very informative and well written. Thanks-Larry

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