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Photographing Musical Performances
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May 2008


I've been shooting live performances since I worked at a newspaper in the 1980s.

I'm referring to symphony, chamber, choral, ballet, opera and other performances with musicians performing without amplification.

I'm not talking about shooting an amplified rock concert, which is easy and a lot more fun because I've been able to get up on stage and shoot from any angle, like from above the drummer looking down, looking up from the end of a guitar, or catching someone in mid-air. We'll skip this fun for this article.

The issue with live performances is not simply to shoot quietly. You are required to be completely silent and to be invisible. If you are seen or make any sound, you disturb the paying audience. Using flash or any beeps from the camera are beyond stupid here. The word "audience" comes from "audio," meaning listener.

Few people listen to music today. Few people appreciate silence. Most people are busy doing something else while music plays, but that's completely different from listening intently. Because so few people appreciate music as music, instead of using it as a background for driving, reading the Internet or while working, most photographers have no idea how disruptive shooting during a performance can be. Let me explain.

In a live performance, people are paying to be there to concentrate intently on the music. Nothing sounds like a live performance. You can hear things, shapes and nuances in a live performance that can't be heard anywhere else, not even on studio playback systems and $250,000 audiophile systems. Any air conditioner noise, old folks' squealing hearing aids, muffled camera clicking, "silent" cell phones humming or anything other than the music destroys listeners' ability to form mental images. Someone shooting even a quiet Leica rangefinder 100 feet away causes enough clatter to drive most serious listeners crazy.

In serious music, people listen intensely. We close our eyes and concentrate 100% of our attention on the music. Music lets us see amazing things in our mind's eye. Music, just like a movie, tells a story. In the case of a symphony, that story probably runs at least 44 continuous minutes, just like an hour-long TV show, except there are no commercials. No one claps between movements. If people need to cough or sneeze, they wait until it's over, or if it's life-threatening, at least wait for the end of a movement. When someone is seeing music, a clicking camera is more disruptive to forming mental images than someone standing in front of a movie screen. A movie's images are already laid out for you. When listening to music, our brains have to create images from scratch.

Music people will spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) on an instrument to gain extremely subtle nuances of tone. Most people can't hear these nuances, but when you play or listen every day, you hear them. Disturb someone's attention, even by pushing control buttons on an idle camera, and you destroy that.


How to Shoot   back to top

Be Silent

The only acceptable way to shoot a paid performance is to be completely silent, not merely very quiet, and also to be invisible. You may not make any sound, and you may not turn on an LCD.

The only way to be silent is to shoot a non-SLR digital camera. Try an advanced point-and-shoot, but don't turn on the LCD until intermission.

A Konica Hexar, an almost silent leaf-shutter film camera with almost silent film advance, is probably quiet enough to shoot during loud sections. Leicas have noisy focal-plane shutters and manual film advance, and quieter leaf-shutter cameras still make noise as the film advanced. Nikon's "silent advance" modes, introduced with the, F4, aren't silent at all.

There is no camera silent enough to shoot during quiet sections.

Distance Yourself

For the purposes of this article, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, it is silent.

Don't sit in the audience. Don't stand in the aisle. Get far enough away so no one can hear you. If you're out of sight, it also will be permissible to look at an LCD.

Go up in a theatre's projection booth, go back to a vacant nose-bleed section or hide up in the catwalks. Just go hide someplace. If the nosebleed seats are all vacant, stand way back and the seats can help shadow your sound from the audience below while you see the stage above.

I used to shoot from the control room during a concert, but still needed to be very careful. Even during fortissimo passages, our ears can localize clicks coming from someplace outside the orchestra, like the control room behind and above people's heads. Our ears and brains are amazing things; far more complex than the human visual system.

Shoot during Applause and Loud Sections

Shoot during applause and no one will hear you. Ditto for very loud sections.

If you're not familiar with the pieces being performed, read the score (or listen to the CD) beforehand so you'll know when the loud sections happen.

Shoot on-beat. Never shoot between notes.

Our ears have a masking effect: we can hear a pin drop, but not if some louder noise (like an idiot shooting an SLR) masks it. Hint: percussive sounds, like pins dropping and camera shutters, always stand out from constant sounds, like long notes, transformers buzzing or air conditioning. Camera clicks can be heard through louder sustained sounds, but not during applause or percussive sections.


On movie sets we put cameras into dedicated, padded sound-proof housings called "blimps."

Blimps muffle most, but not all of the sound. They're OK for a movie set which isn't always silent and where noises can be addressed in post, but still not acceptable for use during paid live performances.

I had a newspaper guy arrested once for shooting an F4 in a blimp at a concert. It disturbs the audience if it makes any sound at all.

Shoot the Dress Rehearsal

This is how the pros shoot: when there is no paying audience. Shooting the dress rehearsal also lets you shoot during the day, and be home by show time.

Having no audience means you can make almost all the noise you want. If the group says OK, you can monkey around and shoot on stage, too.

Look out: some organizations sell cheap tickets to the rehearsals, in which case you're back to having a paid audience. Audiences at rehearsals are usually receptive to distractions.

Social Engineering

If you're shooting a paid performance, you've already gotten permission from the appropriate people to do it. This is a guide for pros, sorry, not a guide to amateurs who want to snap away at a concert.

If you have to shoot a paid performance, it may help to have the performers mention that you're there shooting for them at the beginning to gain approval from the audience.


Recommendations   back to top

Photographers should understand that shooting an SLR or rangefinder camera during a paid performance is far more annoying to the audience than most photographers realize.

People pay good money to hear a symphony, so they'll have you thrown out and sometimes fined or even arrested, if you're clicking away on the sidelines, even with permission. A venue's permission to photograph is not permission to disturb.

Shoot conscientiously and cleverly and you'll be much better off than hoping your camera is quiet enough. It isn't. No camera is quiet enough to shoot from the audience during most, or often any, parts of a paid performance.

You'll have to be your own judge at a kid's concert. People there probably still have their cameras' "beeps" left on!



If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.

Thanks for reading!


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