Working in the Mosh: My philosophies on music photography
Over the years, I’ve had the great privilege to lose my hearing while capturing talented musicians doing what they do best - playing to receptive punters. I’ve shot small bands & large bands, from rehearsals with uni student recording sessions, to intimate gigs with 5 people, to roaring bush doofs with 10,000 people all in various altered states.
Music photography makes up a tiny percentage of my overall jobs as I work primarily as a Melbourne based event photographer (check my work here!). Yet I always savour the moment when one of those music jobs comes bouncing down my way.
The magic is truly palpable when you are there to capture the vibe of the night, where many people lose themselves into the moment. It sure beats the cushy office job I used to have!
As I walk down memory lane, let me share some philosophies I’ve picked up over my years shooting music photography.
Study the musician, then adapt your photography
Every artist has their process, their personality, their little behaviours when they’re in motion. Some are larger than life, rock stars with a charisma that radiates from them effortlessly. Others are introverts who have a cerebral, utilitarian approach to music.
If you can take the time to study from their past performances on YouTube, or even observe them backstage talking to people, you get a deep feel for their personality. How this artist creates & performs their music is an extension from that.
If you’re covering a theatrical band, that has a heavy presence on stage with flair, pyro & tricks, you want to ensure that your shutter speed is nice & fast, with a fairly reliable auto focus & wide angle lens if you want to capture them properly.
If you’re shooting, say a Psytrance DJ who keeps fairly quiet and has spent a lot of time getting their set list right, and doing live mixes, then get them in their natural state - shoot them in the moment, get their eyes, snap the thoughts and emotions that come up as they play.
The simple truth to all of this, is that, my style to adapt to the musician. I want to show them in motion. Not give my take on them. But to see them as objectively as possible. Everyone will have their own style & thoughts to music photography, but this is mine. Gonzo documentarian.
The venue & the audience
Some of the great music photos are the last surviving evidence of fashion trends & venues that have been long knocked down.
When I shot backstage at Rainbow Serpent in 2019, I recognised that some of the stages that were built, took months to design and plan, only to exist for a few short days, before being disassembled and chucked in storage somewhere.
The call of duty to music photographers is there, should you not be solely blinded by the band & music, that you forget the other rich subject matter to capture. That is important. The best moments for me was going where the punters were. I went on giant walks under the sunshades, whilst the DJ’s were playing. Big dust clouds, crazy costumes, sprinklers raining down water, whilst the tunes kept pumping over the sound system.
There were a myriad of emotions & moments that popped up in my times there. The faces of joy showed how much these people lived in the moment and made it a worthwhile experience for me personally. This is the human side that is worth capturing capturing should the opportunities present themselves.
The instruments ….
When I say Yellow Strat, what do you immediately think of? If your answer is…. Yngwie Malmsteen, then you’ve won 2 brownie points.
If you didn’t, then it’s worth noting that there’s a lot of neo-classical shred metal fans who did. Have you heard of him? No? He’s arguably in the leading top 3 neo-classical guitarists in the world.
The point I want to hammer home here is… that your audience know these facts. Many of those guitarists have drooled over that guitar. Ditto for Tom Morrello’s punked out bass, with the graffiti scrawled on it (bonus points if you know what phrase it is!)
Now - you don’t have to be a music nut & know of every minutae of the musician’s canon, but it definitely helps to understand what the die hard tragic will want to look for at your gigs, lest you waste the opportunity. Furthermore, study the qualities of that instrument. You’ll find out very quickly whether it adds some much needed reflection into your photos … and the stages.
If roadies & stage designers are the artists, then stagecraft is the marble statue. There’s a ton of thought that goes on into the staging, the sound systems, the pyro, the set design etc. The appreciation for their work never gets recognised which is a crying shame. The stage itself is more than just a place where the musical performer struts around on. Capturing this, might reveal hidden genius many years down the track for other stage designers and roadies to marvel at.
The stages that are on offer one year long ago at DefQon in Sydney for instance, tended to follow a particular theme with regard to recycling. These giant statues of recycling themed art form, stood side by side with the main & secondary stages. Things that the crowd stood in awe of and quickly forgot. But I’m sure if anybody saw these photos, that memories of awe would come back just as quickly as it left.
The magnitude of your photos is revealed of the years. Sometimes, you don’t truly know the impact of your photos until many years after when it is all said and done. Whole careers have flown by & the documentarians and journalists come out of the woodwork, looking for clues as to who captured the magic in the moment. I mean - can you imagine being sent down, to some seedy smoked filled room in Berlin, covering a 1am session of some bizarre band named The Beatles?
Or what if someone was there in the wings, snapping when Ozzy Osbourne bit the head of that bat? (Is it a rumour? Who knows. Ozzy’s done more substances than the periodic table and probably believes he did at this point!)
There photos last a very long time. They add to the mythos of the rock star, or they can take it away. But they never lose their power. The memories in them can’t be replicated. Without being all life is fleeting and such, I still believe it’s important to meditate on your past work, from years ago. Ask your parents what concerts they went to as a teenager, and then ask them if they snapped any pictures - I bet they wish they bloody had!
And that’s the real currency that these photos bring. They age like wine, and become even more valuable over time. One of the pleasures I have, is following this niche, private Facebook group (which shall remain nameless), of which the community are long time bush doof aficionados, who share all the great Kodak moments from the 90’s & 2000’s of festivals that have come & gone. If you don’t publish these, then get a plan to back them up and store them away for a rainy day.
Always back these up. They might be all we have left of the performances one day.
Don’t be afraid to lose yourself in the moment & enjoy the photo capturing.
Call me unprofessional, but I’ve always had a great time shooting musos, maybe more than most. I’m not afraid to climb up with the bands/dj’s, or have a boogie in the mosh, or soak it all from a peculiar vantage point.
As long as you have permission from the powers that be, then there’s no need to be a stunned mullet apologising for existing (which seems to be the case very early on in our careers!. I feel you should follow your bliss & give yourself permission to get amongst and have fun, instead of taking things so seriously.
As long as you capture your moments, and keep your image quality high, then the work should speak for itself - because boy, it beats the monotony of shooting product photos & capturing my dry corporate event photography! If you ever seen me in action, it’s normally in between beers, having a boogie with the other punters.
When we seek uncommon ways to find creativity, and give ourselves permission to be adventurous like enjoying the music in the moment, it opens up many different angles for shots that we might not have foreseen originally.
A final thought. Living in Melbourne, one of the great live music bastions of the world can really spoil you sometimes. I’ve had some great times, sharing a biggie with a stranger, talking nonsense whilst the band cranks it in the main stage. Having a camera with me, lends a more introspective license to the world of live performance.
We are the gatekeepers of these memories, of an era, of the band, of the people, the fashion, the lifestyle. Without us capturing these wonderful moments in time, we quickly lose all concept of the past that paved the one. If I sound like I’m an old man, then maybe it’s because of the rich life photography has given me.
About the author: Adam Marsh is a Melbourne Event Photographer & Corporate Videographer with a studio in Mernda, Victoria, Australia. View his Youtube Channel, 500px If you wish to contact Adam with enquiries or questions, flick him an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or contact him via Instagram.