MerleFest and Photography

April 22, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

MerleFest is fun for an event photographer.  Unlike some music festivals, MerleFest is photographer-friendly.  There are restrictions, of course - no admittance to the backstage areas, no selling of your photos without express permission from both the artist and from MerleFest.  But those don't matter to the music fan taking photos to cement his or her memories.

Here are some general tips for photographing musical events:

  • You and a lot of other people are at a concert.  It's all about the music.  When taking photographs, make sure that you don't detract from people's enjoyment by making noise, standing in their way, or otherwise being intrusive.
  • Your photos should be flattering to the artist.  If you capture an unattractive moment, delete that photo.
  • Plan your photos before moving into position.  Check your camera settings and, if possible, take a test shot or two before moving into position.
  • Take you pictures quickly, then sit down or move away.  You don't need lots of photographs of every song.  A few photos of the first song or two should do.  After that, enjoy the music.
  • Microphones  have a tendency to show up in awkward places in photographs - sticking out of singer's ears, covering eyes.  Watch carefully when shooting.  I have found that I usually get the best results when I am photographing from the right side of the audience when facing the stage.  When singers reach the end of a line in a song, they tend to draw back from the microphone and look to their left a little (maybe toward their fret hand).  If you're on the right side of the audience, they'll be looking toward you.  That's the time to press the shutter button.
  • The more members there are in a band, the harder it is to get all of them in one photo without someone being obscured.  Before moving toward the front, try walking behind the audience from one side to the other to see if there is an angle that offers a clear view of all band members.  When you find the best angle, look to see if there is a closer spot with the same angle that you can reach without disturbing fans.  If so, move there and take the photo.  Just remember, sometimes you just can't get that complete picture.

 

With so many stages to choose from, there are always opportunities to photograph.  Each venue is different, with it's own photographic advantages and challenges.  The Watson Stage features the headliners in the evenings, and the evening stage lighting makes for great photos.  However, unless you have a pass for the reserved seating area, you can't get close to the Watson Stage after 5:00 pm.  The Cabin Stage is adjacent to the Watson Stage, but there's no convenient area for a photographer to shoot from.  The Watson Stage and the Hillside Stage both are fairly high above ground level, so photographing from up front is a challenge.  It's often better to be a bit further back and use a lens with a long focal length.

The Creekside Stage and the Americana Stage are easily approached.  One big challenge at Creekside is avoiding bright spots in the background from tour busses and equipment.  Often, the best photos at Creekside isolate individual performers against darker backgrounds.  The Americana Stage offers a different challenge.  Since it faces west, afternoon light can be rather harsh and contrasty.  The Plaza suffers from similar harsh light.

Jim Lauderdale and Friends (Town Mountain) on the Creekside Stage at MerleFest 2011.  Note the distracting background.

Little Pickers, Traditional, and Dance are all tents, so the difficulties of dealing with sunlight go away.  The Mayes Pit, the Austin Stage, and the Walker Center are all indoor venues.

The Pickin' Place is an area where anyone is welcome to bring their own instrument and join in the music.  There's good music there, and a chance to get up close.  Keep in mind that jamming musicians typically sit or stand in a circle.  You'll be photographing over someone's shoulder.

One final, but important thought, don't forget to photograph everything else.  It's easy to get carried away taking pictures of performers.  When you get home and go through them, you may realize that your MerleFest experience was much more than what you captured.  Keep your eyes and mind open to all of the visual opportunities around you - the crowd, the Shoppes at MerleFest, the scenery, the craftsmen.  Take lots of photographs of things other than the performers.  If you're using a digital camera, electrons are free.  Use them up.


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