Lighting & Composition

Taking Photos of Rock Stars and Other Animals

In a recent masteringphoto piece, I compared taking photos at a rock concert to mountaineering. Today I’m drawing a different comparison: I recently took some photos at London Zoo, and as I wandered amongst the animals, I started finding similarities to my more usual photography habitat of London’s concert halls.

There may have been a good reason why the frenzied rock drummer on the Muppet Show was called Animal. Apparently inspired by The Who’s Keith Moon, personally Animal has always reminded me of Motorhead’s Phil Taylor, also nicknamed “Animal” – possibly for precisely that reason. Which brings me to my first similarity:

1)      Anticipate your subject’s movements. You have very little control over your subjects. A typical member of a rock band is very much like an animal in the zoo in the sense that you never know what they’re going to do next. In both cases, you’re looking for something a bit quirky, something out of the ordinary. There’s nothing you can do to provoke that something, but you can predict it based on what you’ve seen already and be ready to capture it when it happens.

Wait until your subject does something interesting. Left: an otter throwing a stone in the air. Right: Joyce Manor’s lead singer throwing himself in the air.

2)      Expose for your subject, not for the background. Even if you use a supposedly pin-point accurate exposure reading in an expensive camera, if there’s a lot of backlight or if your subject is brightly lit against a dark background, your lens will be fooled. If you are using any sort of automatic setting (e.g. an auto ISO), you will have to switch to manual and overexpose. I found this when I was shooting animals at the zoo up in trees against bright sky. And it reminded me of shooting singers who are backlit by fierce stage lighting.

Left: a lemur against a bright white sky; Right: 69daysofstatic against bright white lights.

3)      Respect the rules. Half a photographer’s job is getting permissions to be there in the first place. If you jump into the moat between you and the rhinos, you will be quickly apprehended by security and ejected from the zoo. Likewise, if you get on the stage without permission at a Feed the Rhinos gig, you will also be seized by security (probably less politely than at the zoo) and ejected.

Left: The Rhinos; Right: Feed the Rhinos. In both cases, respect the barriers.

4)      Get eye contact. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Do animals have souls though? I think they do. And so do musicians, even non-soul ones. So in both cases, try to catch – and capture – their eyes.

The eyes have it. Left: a member of the penguin family; Right: Lias, a member of the Fat White Family

5)      Look for good compositions. This goes for taking photos of animals, taking photos of musicians, taking photos of everything. Be it the rule of thirds, the golden composition rule, triangles, squares, circles or repetitions, a photographer’s eye and brain should be seeking out harmony and balance, finding music in the shapes in an image (as well as on stage in the case of taking photos of musicians).

Left: the graceful lines of pink flamingos; Right: PINS making a graceful triangle.

6)     Capture emotion. Making images of animals doing things like humans or looking like they are having human feelings is called anthropomorphism. When we anthropomorphize an animal we treat it as if it’s a human. It’s a process that is slightly frowned upon by zoos (if zoos could frown), but these type of photos are the ones that people like (probably because they’re people) and so are the ones that photographers try to take. Similarly in music photography, there’s frowning, crying, screaming and every other type of emoting and, again, these are the photos that people like and are the ones that we, as photographers, should be trying to capture.

Left: a giraffe looking like he’s happy; Right: Warren Ellis looking like he’s unhappy.

Richard Gray is house photographer at Bush Hall, a music venue in London, and also an occasional photographer at London Zoo.

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MasteringPhoto, powered by bestselling Routledge authors and industry experts, features tips, advice, articles, video tutorials, interviews, and other resources for hobbyist photographers through pro image makers. No matter what your passion is—from people and landscapes to postproduction and business practices—MasteringPhoto offers advice and images that will inform and inspire you. You’ll learn from professionals at the forefront of photography, allowing you to take your skills to the next level.