Portraits from the North East: Musicians – September 2017 update by John Cogan ARPS

By John Cogan ARPS

The current Portraits from the North East project, North East Musicians, continues apace.  Recent shoots have captured the work of jazz, brass and chamber groups.  Three different genres of music sharing a common venue: Ushaw College.  Each these shoots have had a four-way outcome: images for Ushaw’s use; selected ones for the performers’ own use; images for the Project’s eventual exhibition and/or the online display and, lastly, photographs for me to work on for my own portfolio.

Anyone who has photographed musicians will appreciate that they all share a common love of music.  Very few make shed-loads of money but they are happy to be out there, in the limelight, lost in the shared joy of performing.  It is this quality that makes photographing them a pleasure to photograph. Their relationship to music and their commitment to being the best musically that they can adds a sparkle to the photos, gifting every image with passion.  The good thing about photographing at Ushaw College is that there is very little separating the musicians from their audience; and the audiences tend to be very knowledgeable.  This relationship with the audience adds to the magic.  The people, who pay their money to come and see them perform, become witnesses (even pilgrims) rather than mere casual guests.  

So far, I have been granted almost total freedom to photograph what I feel is appropriate.  There are restrictions, but they are simple: not to use flash or a tripod during a performance and to think carefully when to change position and how to “read ” the music so as not to distract with excessive shutter action. 

There are other advantages when committing to a longer-term project.  You come to understand the “structure” of a concert or performance.  Like an avid sports fan who can anticipate when the action on the field will become that decisive moment, you can come to know when the ebb and flow of a performance will render the best results.  As for coming back to a familiar venue, you come to know its eccentricities and lighting foibles.  With a venue like Ushaw College, which depends so much on volunteers, you can soon begin to feel part of the fabric of the place.  The way these volunteers and staff react to you helps validate your presence; this in turn helps “settle” the performers. Explaining that you are there to support Ushaw’s management adds a further reassurance.

When it comes to the photography I have an advantage with my little Fuji X-E1 in that it is small and quiet.  Using prime lenses limits me a little but the familiarity of them, their fast speed (f2 or f2.4) means I can work in lower light.  One of the other factors I have discovered is that it is best to set at a high ISO with a fast shutter speed rather than rely solely upon a moderately enhanced ISO and a slower speed.  The settings are usually at ISO 1250 (sometimes as high as 2000) and 1/60+ of a second.  This seems to work well enough.  What I have to watch out for is trusting the autofocus blindly.  In some circumstances it will lock onto something shiny like a brass instrument and, with the focal length at f2, what you were originally aiming to photograph then becomes “soft”.  In such circumstances I find it better to opt for manual focusing, often leaving it on manual when shooting becomes fast and furious.

What with manual focusing and black and white pictures I have also returned to producing good old contact sheets.  With Photo Shop this is easy enough.  Self editing is a skill I find hard to master and a contact sheets does help.  The difference between shots may be as simple as the singer’s arm being raised a fraction but that is just enough to prove decisive!  To access the contact sheet section first click on File then scroll down to Automate… click on there and you will see Contact Sheet II

Nothing is ever manipulated in the sense of adding or subtracting bits, though I admit to playing with tone and contrast, adding a vignette or sharpening a little.  Using prime lenses in a situation where you might not be able to control the background or where you stand then cropping is something I do use.  To turn the colour image into a mono I will de-saturate rather than use the PhotoShop Black and White facility.  I have Nik on the bottom of the filter drop-down one PhotoShop.  However, using Snapseed’s warm tone tool it does a good job of softening a face.  Adding a warm glow also applies to the instruments and when the Da Vinci Quartet saw their photographs that was one thing they commented upon.  Perhaps that also reflects not only their priority but is a sly way of saying the other aspects of the pictures were… what to say that is polite?

Below is a selection of photographs from the latest images from Ushaw.

John Cogan ARPS


Jim Birkett who played the Django Reinhardt part with Emma Fisk

Another image of Emma Fisk

Chester-Le-Street lad Paul Elis on Piano and his fellow Jazz performer Graeme Wilson on Saxophone

Emma Fisk playing from the repertoire of Stefan Grapelli

From the Buck Clayton Legacy Band… Matthias Seuffert on Tenor Sax, Martin Litton on piano

Gabriel Waite of the Royal Northern Symphony and the Da Vinci Quartet rehearsing

Lady J who sings the songs of Billy Holliday with the Buck Clayton Legacy Band

Lady J wearing the flower in her hair which was Billy Holliday’s trade mark


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