Advice From Behind The Lens: How To Look Good On Stage

I’ve been shooting bands for almost a decade now, and while looking back over thousands of performance shots last week, I realized that all the bands I’ve photographed fall into two categories: “That show was amazing” and “Wow, I don’t even remember taking these pictures”. I know that’s a pretty obvious statement; of course I’m going to remember some bands and forget others. What wasn’t obvious at first, however, was that the more I thought about the bands I had forgotten shooting, the more I realized musical ability had very little to do with whether I remembered the show or not. I had shot some amazingly talented musicians but had completely forgotten their live show, while I could remember in detail some four song sets of the smallest and off-key garage bands. When it comes down to it, the common denominator is that some bands forget that when you put out a CD you’re a musician, but as soon as you go on stage, you’re a performer. If you want to be remembered, you have to put on a show, be larger than life. Occasionally when a band asks me to come shoot their show, they’ll ask if there’s anything special I’d like them to do; well, here it is: my guide to getting the best photos you can out of your performance.

All the other guidelines I came up with really are just subpoints of this first, all important rule. As a band you’re going to be remembered for two things: what you look like and what you sound like. Most of your fans may never see you play live; almost all of their exposure to what you look like is going to be through photos and music videos. If you really want to be remembered your goal should be that every time someone sees a picture of your band they hear one of your songs in their heads, and every time they hear one of your songs, they get a mental picture of you playing it. To do this, you can’t just sound memorable; you have to look memorable as well. I’m not saying you have to be good looking, just interesting. There are tons of butt ugly but memorable faces in music.

If you took the stage clothes of Elvis, The Beatles, David Bowie and Liberace and put them on a mannequins, most people could play “name that band” successfully. This doesn’t happen by accident. These performers didn’t wake up in the morning, throw on jeans and a tank top, go to work at Starbucks then head over to their gig later on that night and perform. Their image was something they worked on and cultivated. Some bands might think that working on their look is something to worry about once they get famous, but cementing an image in the minds of your fans early is part of how you get there. Get together as a band and decide what you want to look like when you perform. It doesn’t have to be an outlandish costume, it can just be a theme or color scheme, but make sure everyone’s on the same page. If you’re going to be taken seriously as a band, try not to go on stage wearing the same clothes you bum around all day in. Even if you decide to go the jeans and plaid shirt grunge direction for your look, dress it up a bit. Wear your best plaid shirt, wear a funny or interesting t-shirt underneath, throw some pins on your guitar strap or throw some patches on the knees of your jeans. Wear clothes with textures or patterns, accessorize, wear a ring or two or a necklace and stay consistent gig to gig.

Giant Hand is a great example of this; his “uniform” consists of jeans, a plaid shirt, horned rim glasses and a pair of Converse, normal street clothes but done well. His clothes are clean, fit him well and he keeps it consistent from gig to gig; he’s made street clothes into a memorable look. You’re branding yourself; Pepsi doesn’t change its logo or the color of its cans every week because they want you to be able to recognize a can of Pepsi from across the room. I can’t stress how important it is to look interesting or memorable. If you go on stage with plain jeans and a white t-shirt, the pictures of you I take are going to be boring, and people have the attention spans of gerbils with ADD; the better you look, the better my pictures will look and people will spend more time looking at them. And like I said, make sure all your band members get this, just because you’re not the lead singer, doesn’t mean you get to slack off. The whole band is in the spotlight (well, except for the drummers, sorry guys, you usually get shoved to the back in the dark; getting a good picture of a drummer is a whole different challenge). If the lead singer is the only one dressed up, guess what? he’s the only one I’m taking pictures of. A good rule of thumb to follow is this: “If your audience is more dressed up than you, you’re doing it wrong”. This applies to all genres; if you’re at the bar for a drink before going on, you want to be inspiring the thought “He/She must be in the band” in everyone around you. If you’re still not quite sure what I mean, get on YouTube and look at the live performances of Kiss, David Bowie, Marilyn Manson or Lady Gaga; these are performers who have really turned it up to 11 when it comes to being remembered for what they look like. You may have never heard one of their songs, but you could still pick them out of a crowd.

The second big part of being remembered is putting on A Show. You’re not in the studio any more; you’re on stage performing for a live audience. I shot a band a year or so ago that got up on stage and played their latest album, start to finish, flawlessly. They stood in front of their microphones for an hour and change and pumped out sonic gold… I’d tell you who they were… but I can’t remember. The only memory of that night I have is the thought: “Wow, this sounds amazing, but I just bought the album… Why’d I just pay $20 more for the same experience I could have got at home, minus the smell of spilled beer?” If you stand stock still in front of your microphone the whole show, you’ve limited the number of interesting pictures I can take of you to a maximum of one shot per band member and a group shot, and given that you’re standing still, they’re probably not going to be the most interesting pictures. Move around, jump around, get down on your knees, get up on an amp, jump on your bass players back… anything, don’t just stand there. Granted, some bands will suit doing this more than others, but that’s just one way you can make yourself more interesting on stage. Putting on a good performance can be even more important that playing good music. When I was asked to shoot Skull Fist, a Canadian metal band, I was hesitant because after listening to a couple tracks I could tell it wasn’t my type of music, but I’m so glad I went. They put on such an energetic show it made me love the music. I’ll probably never listen to them on my iPod, but for an hour I was a hair metal fan. And get the audience involved in the show; if you just stand there, chances are so will they.

Talk to them in between songs, tell a joke or an anecdote, or have a song that the audience can sing along with. During Wax Mannequin’s last show in Ottawa, he had the whole audience singing along to “The Log Driver’s Waltz” and did his encore of “The Price” while walking from table top to table top. The crowd loved it and it made for great photos. Use your face to your advantage, be expressive and exaggerate the emotions of the song. If you hide your face behind a mic the whole time, again, I’ve got pretty much one shot to take and I’m done. Try playing in front of a mirror and ask yourself, “Do I look as into the song as I want my audience to be?” Energy is contagious. If you look like you’re into performing, the audience will get into the performance. Look at your audience, don’t spend the whole time looking at your mic, your guitar, the ceiling or with your eyes closed. A look instantly forms a one to one connection, whether it’s with someone in the crowd, or my camera. Speaking of cameras, if you want really good stage portraits, try to integrate subtle posing into your act. Know where the photographers are in the audience and throw them a look, a smile, a wink or a pose… and try to hold it long enough for them to grab the shot. About 2-3 seconds is usually long enough for me to realize you’re posing, focus, frame and shoot. With practice it can be done seamlessly without anyone knowing you’re intentionally posing for the camera. Or if you don’t think you can make it look natural, have some fun with it.

When I was shooting Electric Six, the lead singer took a minute in between songs to announce: “Okay, this is for all the cameras in the audience,” and proceeded through a series of exaggerated rock ‘n’ roll poses. It got a ton of laughs from the audience and I got some great shots. If you want some reference material to study, take a look at the live performances of artists like Iggy Pop, undeniable king of stage dancing, or Nick Cave, who’s got eyes that look right through you. Both of those guys can perform in nothing but a pair of jeans (and often did) and still give photographers tons to work with.

So remember, if you want good pictures from your show take some time and think about what you’re going to look like from the audiences perspective. Look the part, act the part, be a performer not just a musician when you’re on stage. I’m only as good as my subject and if you give me something to work with, I’ll do my best to create pictures people will want to look at.

Take a look at the band shots I’ve posted in the Live Music section of my Flickr, these are performers that gave me pictures good enough to put in my portfolio.

  • TonyBell Photography

    So true Jesse. I shoot a lot of local bands, at this level the performers shine like a beacon and you just know you’ll see them on a big stage someday. I recently shot a band, The Makeshifts, with so much attitude on stage they were downright ugly! A few weeks later at another show a man walked up to me and started chatting. He said he’d spotted me shooting his band, had seen the photos and just wanted to say thank you. It took a few minutes for the penny to drop because I just didn’t recognise him but, you guessed it, he was the lead singer with The Makeshifts!

    Your post has just reminded me to add him to my 500px collectio, thank you.


  • Jesse Hildebrand

    Love that shot Tony! Now that guy knows how to look good on stage 🙂

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  • Rich Frollini

    Great info Jesse…. Thanks for allowing me to use it. I’ve got a few bands I’m working with that really need to read this.

  • Konner Kralovetz

    Thank you, as an aspiring musician, this really helps.

  • Jesse Hildebrand

    No worries, if you have any questions, feel free to drop me an email.