The first thing to say for regular readers is this isn’t a review of Paloma’s Brighton show. Let me explain.
Unlike most other music photographers, almost always, when I shoot a gig I’m also there to review it. Occasionally, however, I get a photopass, but not a review ticket. This was the case here. So if this isn’t a review, what am I writing about? To answer that, I need to backtrack.
I’ve photographed Paloma three times before. Each time — while I came away with some good shots — there were restrictions on where photographers could shoot her from. At her previous two Brighton Centre gigs, it was from the side towards the back of the venue, meaning I couldn’t get the close-up portraits I usually aim for.
This time it was different. We were told we could shoot from the aisles, although being a seated audience, we couldn’t stand in front of the front row. In many ways this was better than being in the pit as I was slightly further back from the stage, meaning I was shooting straight ahead, rather than being forced to shoot upwards as one normally has to when you’re right up against the stage. It also meant I could move backwards giving me many more options for different compositions.
But for all those advantages, if the artist isn’t interesting to photograph it wouldn’t mean much. Fortunately, Paloma is always a great subject. Not only is she very theatrical on stage, she always wears flamboyant outfits. What’s more, every time I’ve seen her, she has a completely different look thanks to her wigs.
Judging from pictures I’d seen, on this Infinite Things tour she alternated between several looks styled by Phoebe Arnold.
For Brighton she wore a bright red pixie wig by Eamonn Hughes and a black Junya Watanabe bondage dress, finished off with a huge spiked Numero Ventuno choker. It was an arresting image.
Of course getting great live music shots also requires the help of the lighting director and the set designer. Both can play havoc with your images, creating unsightly shadows on the performer’s face, or a messy background to the portrait.
For her first song, Paloma performed in front of the gauze curtain which had been used by her support artist Josef Salvat. This provided a plain, light coloured, backdrop, which meant there was nothing to distract from her. Once the curtain went up the whole environment changed, offering a totally different look.
What also makes Paloma so good to shoot is her face can look completely different from one portrait to the next. And that makes her such an interesting subject.
As an artist ages — and Paloma has just turned 40 — their face changes. Commonly, this results in sunken, smaller eyes, deeper lines from the nose to the mouth and double chins, all of which are emphasised both through harsh theatre lighting and the artist contorting their face whilst singing. As can other issues associated with artists of a certain age, such as wrinkly necks, flabby arms and loose skin.
None of these do anything to enhance the portrait, and as a photographer all are out of your control.
For me, shooting live music is all about capturing the personality of the performer and the emotion of their performance. And then creating an iconic image. And believe me, that’s easier said than done.
There are so many factors that can spoil what would otherwise be a good portrait. This can be the slightest grimace, a poking tongue or an unsightly shadow. Add to that the artist is often constantly moving, what’s behind them can quickly change from being a good background to a poor one.
One thing I always try to avoid is having part of someone else or an instrument in my composition. Unlike many photographers, my live music shots aren’t just about point and shoot to capture the moment, mine are much more considered. My focus is almost always on the lead singer, and mostly tight on their face. I’m after great portraits, not stage shots.
But as you have no idea what’s coming up next or what the artist is about to do, the chances of getting a poor portrait is far greater than getting a good one.
Expressions are often what makes the difference. More than anything that come from the eyes — they are the most telling feature of a person — and if you can’t see them, if they don’t pop, if there’s no catchlight (the light reflected in a subject’s eye), the eyes will look empty and your portrait is unlikely to convey any emotion.
And all too easily, a single still frame can make the artist look like they’re grimacing. That being said, sometimes, a screwed up face or a thrown back head, can work well, if it conveys the emotion of singing.
And there’s two other things that get in the way. All singers have a microphone, a mic stand and in-ears, all of which can spoil a portrait. Holding a microphone too close and it obscures much of their face, hold it a little further away and it will cast an ugly shadow on their chin. Neither is a good look. It’s the same with wearing hats. Whilst they can often add visual interest to the portrait, a brim or a peak creates shadows that hide the eyes.
Speaking of which, some people are simply just not photogenic. Looking good under the lights is not a requirement to be a talented musician or good singer. But for many musicians, no matter how the lighting illuminates their face, their bone structure, facial shape or expression will rarely produce an outstanding portrait.
And that’s the only type of portrait I want to create. If an artist doesn't look good in one of my shots, that means I haven’t done a good enough job capturing them. We all take a slew of bad portraits. The key is to be able to tell the difference and discard the unfavourable ones. It’s why you need to take lots of shots, in the hope that amongst them will be a gem or two.
As a live music photographer, you can only shoot what you see. You can’t direct your subject on what expressions to make, tell them to keep their eyes open, or what angle to hold their face or where to stand. It’s why music photography is so challenging.
In the eleven years I’ve been shooting live music, I’ve never had any success with taking bursts of images at a gig— retaining sharp focus is always the overriding requirement and just being a tad out usually means most images in a burst are unusable. Because of this, I shoot individual frames, but if I see something interesting I’ll take as many individual shots as I can. Of course, retaining focus also requires stable hands, even the slightest movement of the camera can result in your portrait being out of focus or blurred.
And I can’t not mention the colour red. When it comes to live music, red is the bane of any photographer as it’s notoriously the most difficult colour to shoot. But red lights are ubiquitous at gigs.
In Paloma’s case, whilst being the standout feature of these images, her bright red wig also caused problems for my camera, often blowing out her hair into one solid block, rather than a series of different hues. On some shots it just makes them unusable.
But the challenge goes beyond all the uncontrollables I’ve already mentioned, for there is almost always a time pressure to contend with.
Any music photographer will tell you one of the biggest challenges of only having three songs to shoot an artist is getting a good variety of images. All too often, there’s little difference from the portraits you get at the start of the first song to those at the end of the third. That wasn’t the case with Paloma.
I can’t state enough just how rare it is to get a set of portraits from the first three songs that are quite as varied as these.
Behind the shot: All these images were taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 using the M Zuiko 75mm 1.8 lens and the camera’s in-built digital zoom. Photographed at Brighton Centre on 16 October 2021.
Special thanks to Warren Higgins of Chuff Media for arranging the photo pass.
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople. Most recently, he has written a biography of Robert Palmer and the story behind Whitesnake’s ‘Still Of The Night’. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians.