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Taking Better Promotional Band and Artist Photographs

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Cybergrass LearningThis is the first of 4 articles that I wrote over the years. This one is on what constitutes a decent or good promotional photo and can apply to general photography as well. One of the most important aspects of a bluegrass artist other than their music is their promotion. In virtually every case where a band is highlighted, there is an accompanying photograph of the artist or band. This is essential for recognition and also because listeners want to see who their listening to. So, how do you get that great photograph? Proper composition, lighting, color, and theme are all easily achieved by even the amateur photographer if they plan ahead. It is very easy to achieve professional results once you know what makes a bad picture. Rather than tell you how to take a great photograph, I'm going to discuss what to watch out for and what to avoid. Then, the creative element is all up to you.

So, why write an article about photographs in a bluegrass music forum? The reason is simple. Many photographs look quite nice in glossy prints or fancy web sites but, they do not reproduce well for halftone screening for printing or they do not scan well for electronic reproduction. Bluegrass artists generally don't have the high budgets necessary to finance fully professional photographs and, its amazing how many of the high cost photos just don't work. This article is an attempt to bridge the gap and give the do-it-yourself method a chance to be better than just a snapshot.

The bigger artists often pay a lot of money for their band photos and many bluegrass music artists have their own taken. Its a matter of dollars and preference. Whether in the studio or the great outdoors, the photo(s) should reflect the image the band wants to project. Getting the right image is often a difficult task yet, is an important part of promotion. This article is a sharing of some of the trade secrets of good photography that anybody can use to achieve great photographs on a low budget. The most important consideration is plan to take the shot. Schedule a day and time to do it and then spend time getting it right. With the advent of digital cameras, you can take all you want without the big costs of film. If it isn't right, delete it and take another.

Promotion Photos

Promotional photographs are used in a variety of ways by different users and are used more for true promotion than just for the fans to get autographs. The photos are used in festival advertising, concert promotions, newsletters, press releases, and a variety of other promotional activities. The key thing to keep in mind is that the photo may look quite good in a 8 x 10 glossy format or on a particular website environment but, the end use of that photo may not look good at all. When getting a photo made, you should consider how its going to be used in addition to the photographic composition. You may want different photos for different uses.

In the past the most common photographs were the 8 by 10 black and white glossy photos which usually included the management and record label for the artist printed within the border. These were generally low cost to mass produce and were usable in a variety of ways. Today's digital evolution has made it possible to widely distribute color photographs with a variety to select from. These are easily posted on the artist's default web site. These versatile photographs are almost an essential element in an artist's press kit and promotional package. We discuss press kits in a later article in this series.

The publicity shot may be halftoned and reduced in its final form so that it will fit the intended purpose in a magazine or newspaper. For use on the Internet, they will be sized accordingly for the publication. For this reason, halftoned images should be avoided whenever possible. Halftoning an image which is already halftoned creates an ugly side effect called aliasing. Pixels (those colored dots that comprise a digital image) have the same problems of aliasing. If you've ever held two pieces of window screen on top of each other, you get a regular pattern of light and dark areas. This is aliasing. If the light spots align with the "openings" from the image screen for halftoning, no problem. If the dark spots align with the solid elements of the screen, no problem. But, when they don't exactly line up, one starts to either boost or reduce the level of the "spot" and this creates checker board or wavy patterns in the end image. In color images, this can also create a rainbow effect. Both of these are extremely difficult to remove without the appropriate digital imaging tools.

One way to help reduce this problem is to always use the highest resolution (pixels per inch) as possible. It is an easy function to convert high resolution to low resolution. Going from low to high rarely yields acceptable results because the program essentially is trying to guess what the missing data should have been. I've never seen a program guess right.

Album Photos

Another category of artist photos are the multicolor or highlight-color photographs generally used on CD, album and/or tape cover art and liner notes. These are usually a different image to reflect something about both the artist and the material contained within the media. For effect, black and white and sepia tone are also used frequently but the photo is usually not the same as the promotional press photos described earlier. These color shots can include graphical text and environmental arrangements to give a sense of atmosphere about the album. Alison Krauss' Paper Airplane promotional shots and her personal promo shots are an excellent illustration of this.

The color images are generally designed for only one purpose and thus are subject to a great deal of processing for printing. The colors are split into separate channels for printing with single color inks. Two common formats exist:

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black)
This is the general format for 4-color printing processes. The three colors can make up every color of the rainbow when the amount of the three colors is varied appropriately. The black content is used for brightness, darkness, and grays.
RBG (Red, Green and Blue)
This type of color definition is most common in television and electronic imaging. It can achieve the same results as CMYK however it often uses a process of subtracting color rather than adding color to achieve a new color.

For the printing of album covers and CD liner notes, a Pantone four color CMYK process is generally used in combination with a fine screen. To insure ease of use, film slides rather than prints are preferred as it is easier to handle the images and ready them for printing. Slides also offer higher quality due to their reduced grain. Digital images are becoming more common also as resolution and quality improvements in the electronics are making big strides in affordable formats.

Common Image Problems and Solutions

One of the most common areas frequently overlooked in band photographs is a quality contrasting background. Band members with dark hair and dark jackets when photographed against a dark background generally appear only as a face and maybe a white shirt. The rest is usually black on black and doesn't show up. In color photographs, the same thing often occurs where a person with auburn hair is photographed against a natural wood background resulting in a face surrounded by brown. One must be aware of fair haired people against a light sky and other situations which can ruin an otherwise great shot.

You want to insure that the band/artist is the focus of the image. Not the background. For the amateur, I highly recommend you avoid trees in the background. Trees have a lot of problems from shadows and colors to odd branch positions and more.

Its amazing that even the best professional photographs don't always turn out well. I have files full of promotional photographs and receive new ones frequently. Surprisingly, many of them are unusable without considerable image processing. Black-on-Black is usually the worst case and is extremely common. This article will attempt to identify some common problems with photographs and by doing this, help the reader to be able to recognize them.


Proper lighting can influence a photograph immensely. One of the best methods to use when photographing an artist is to use a fill flood high and behind the artist. This will highlight the tops of the shoulders and the hair line and help to make the subject stand out in front of the background. Watch the television nightly news program and look at the anchor's lighting. I think you will see what I'm trying to illustrate. An additional flood on the backdrop in a studio setting will result in additional dimension to the image.

Generally, you want to use at least three light sources on your subject if shooting indoors. If it is to be a group shot, more light sources may be required. A very common oversight is when a group is photographed, they are generally not in a single row or line. Some members are in front of others. Lighting becomes extremely important in situations like this as you want to avoid one person casting a shadow on another person. Cameras will capture every flaw in the composition so attention to detail is a must.

To get some ideas, get a magazine with lots of quality studio people images in it. Avoid the snapshot or paparazzi type photos. When you look at the photos, try and figure out how many light sources were used and where they were in relation to the subject and the camera. Sometimes its pretty easy to determine that there were 3 or more and where they were. Look for hair highlights. Shoulder highlights, reduced shadow fills, etc. Studying these will help you plan your shots.

Whenever possible use strobe flashes and quartz-halogen lights. Avoid tungsten, incandescent, or florescent light whenever possible as they have something called a color temperature which will grossly affect the color in color images if they are not properly filtered and handled. If you've ever used outdoor film indoors, you probably got orange colored tint to everything. That's because the film was designed to work with sunlight and regular light bulbs put out a redder light. Florescent lamps can put out green or pink light so, its best to get as white a light as possible. Many of today's digital cameras have adjustable settings for sunny days, cloudy days, indoor lights, and such so if your camera has these, definitely use them to your advantage.

It is also important to remember that light intensity drops off rapidly as you get further away from the light source. If a subject receives 100 units of light at 5 feet from the source, another object 10 feet away (twice the distance) will only receive about 25 units of light (one quarter the light). Thus, you will want to place the fairer complexioned people in the back and the darker complexions in the front to help balance the available light. Supplying additional lighting for only those people or objects in the back of the scene is highly recommended. Whenever possible, use a light meter on every subject or person in the picture before you hit the shutter on the camera.

When shooting outdoors, always avoid a cloudy day. You may also want to consider early morning or dusk as the colors of the sun are different. When photographing snow covered mountains, I try and capture the sunset colors in the snow. This can also add an emotional dimension to your group photos too.

Diffused light passing through clouds makes it difficult to control the contrast and depth of an image. Many times I've had to cancel a shot due to sky conditions. If you must take the photograph on a cloudy day, use a flash! It is quite possible that the condition of a cloudy day actually generate the emotional impact that you may be trying to achieve. Thus, sky conditions are a tool that you can keep in mind when planning your shoot.

The effect of a side flash will help bring depth to your photos. Another lighting situation that occurs when shooting outdoors it to not take the picture at high-noon where the Sun is high in the sky. Early morning and late afternoon have different light. High light creates shadows under the chin and needs to be handled carefully. Having the sun behind the photographer helps insure that all band members are lighted equally. If you look through a magazine and look at the pictures, you can generally tell whether the photo was taken in the morning or afternoon. Even though the Sun may be at the same angle both times of the day, the lighting is different. Pick the one which accents the image that you're trying to achieve. Never have the Sun behind the subject or way off to one side.

Intensity and Brightness

Another area which is often overlooked when making color photographs is how they will appear in black and white. Many colors which appear distinctly in color will appear identical when converted to a gray-scale of shades from white to black. Shades of green and orange, light blue and yellow, etc. often appear as the same color once a color image is converted to a gray-scale image. Since many magazines and newspapers do album reviews and often include a black and white image of a color CD or album cover, this turns out to be a very common situation. Bright doesn't imply light. Red and blue are both dark colors when they are reduced to black and white they are both almost black. You may want to use some photo editing software and convert some images to black & white to see how the colors translate. You can adjust your theme based on those results.

It takes practice to get the eye used to seeing intensity of color rather than the hue of the color. One way to help is to look at a color print and then at the print's film negative. Don't pay too much attention to the subject matter but, rather, how the colors compare. Compare a dark blue sky to a green lawn. The brown on a tree to the pavement in a street. Autumn leaves on hardwood trees, with all their colors ranging from green to blue to gold to red to orange is an excellent way to study the conversion from color to black and white. A great amount of detail can be retained if proper color combinations are used. There are many black and white images from color prints and slides which turn out exceptionally well due to paying attention to these types of details.

A color CD or Album cover with blue lettering on a red background may be quite patriotic but when printed in a black and white review, the title may simply disappear into a black rectangle. Light blue text on a sand colored background may result in a flat gray area while that same light blue on a darker color would stand out nicely in both color and black & white.


Since there isn't any perfect shot, there generally isn't a perfect background for the photograph. Due to the low costs involved in electronic format, color is becoming much more widely used than just a decade ago when film and printing were king. Digital has transformed all of that. Background contrast is just as important now as it was then.

For black and white, a good reference is what is called an 18% gray. In normal lighting, if you took either a color or black and white image and totally defocused it to the point that nothing is recognizable and no features are visible, you would approach this gray value. Photographic stores sell 18% gray cards to adjust exposure readings but this color can also serve as a good neutral background for black and white images.

If the subjects are wearing dark jackets and/or have dark hair, you may want to consider using a light background to help set them out in the photo. After all, its the subject that is important and that should be what stands out the most. Everything else is generally not as important to the composition of the photograph. Usually a light, but not pure white, background is better than a dark one but again, the message in the photograph is what's important. Consider the textured sides of commercial buildings, open fields, or objects that reflect the theme you are trying to achieve.

For shots taken outside of the studio, the background is something very difficult to control. Signs, other people, cars, power lines, air planes, and other unwanted objects frequently invade your shot. Planning for the shot outside of a studio is very important. Finding just the right place and time to take the photograph and then getting everything ready and all the people there is crucial to acquiring the perfect picture. Sometimes you want a particular sign or building or landscape so getting the right angle and distance are also important so that the image only contains what you want it to contain. You probably want somebody to assist you so you don't have to hit the timer button and then run to the position in the photo.

If the background is extremely bright or dark, adjust the exposure of the shot accordingly. A snow background reflects a great amount of light and can throw many light metering systems off. If you have to shoot against an extremely light background, over expose the picture a little bit to compensate for it. You will over expose the bright background yet keep the subject in proper lighting. The reverse is true for a light subject with a large dark background. Your light metering system may read the image wrong so, you should under expose the image slightly. A good practice is to shoot each shot over exposed slightly, exact exposure, and then one slightly under exposed. The advantage of this for the amateur photographer is that if one picture isn't right, you don't have to get everybody together again and repeat the photograph.

Today's software can do a lot to adjust color and exposure of images that are slightly off so do not be too concerned with that. In our article on Color Management, I discuss more about how to handle poorly exposed images to create a good working image.

This, That and The Other

One of nature's greatest gifts can also be one of a photographer's biggest headaches. Trees and plants can cause a lot of problems with photographs. This gets emphasized more in black and white but is still a major problem with color images. One thing is that you never want a branch coming out of somebody's head. This is almost unavoidable if the subject is placed in front of a tree. This type of shot is great for snap shots from a family picnic but should only be handled by experienced photographers where professional results are desired.

When using a digital camera, always use the flash and always use the red-eye flash feature to reduce the possibility of light reflecting through the subject's eyes creating a red appearance. In addition, most digital cameras have manual adjustments for exposure so use the one that gives the best results. The "Auto" automatic setting is usually adequate unless you are shooting with odd lighting situations.

When considering built-in flash units, it is important to keep in mind that digital camera flash units are small and low powered. If you're taking a group shot, make sure you have as much light on the farthest away person as you do the closest or those people in the back will be in the dark. Try and shoot on a sunny day. A lot can be done to correct lighting with today's image editing software but, it is always easier to start with a good quality shot. You cannot get data back where not existed before.

White shirts and too much light. The result of using a close flash on a white shirt is that it is extremely easy to over expose the white. Since it is extremely common for men to wear white shirts, this is a common problem. You don't want the white to "wash out" and lose its texture and subtle shading. One way to avoid this is to use a light source off to the side of the camera instead of head on.

Outdoor shadows from tree leaves or other objects can ruin a picture. Remember that what you are generally trying to do is to show the person or band clearly. A large image may clearly show that the shadows on a face are from a tree but, when reduced in size, the shadows start to appear as dirt. Nobody wants to see a face of a dirty person. I have professionally done photos of top bluegrass artists with this exact problem.

Texture and tone are valuable to achieving a desired effect however, making an image softer by defocusing it or shooting through a softening filter results in an image which is difficult to reduce in size and maintain the detail. Remember that today's software can smooth the image but sharpening an already diffused image never restores the original quality. Once these contrast-reduced images are taken out of their context and put into a magazine or newspaper, these types of images often appear as improperly photographed.

Leave a border around the subject. Try to avoid having the top of a person's head right at the edge of the image. In some instances, I have actually seen a person's head is chopped off at the top of the photograph. Back up the camera or zoom out just a bit to make sure that the entire head of every person is well within the photograph. The same holds true for the legs and feet. If you want a complete group shot, don't chop off body parts. You can always crop and edit the original image to create new images that may have only the waist up but, again, if it isn't there in the original, you can't put it into a new image.

Nothing can mess up a picture more than undesired movement or a photograph that is out of focus. This is especially true if a stringed instrument is in the photograph as the strings don't show up well. Computers are nice for correcting images but they can't add what isn't there to begin with. Image enhancement for sharpness and detail can only work from available detail so if the strings on a guitar or banjo don't show up, only the most expensive packages will be able to extract them. This usually results in other unwanted side effects.

Make sure the camera is level and that the subjects are on level ground. You don't want them to look like they're falling over. Buildings and other objects should also appear level.

Lastly, try and keep everything that isn't relevant to the "message you are trying to send", out of the picture. Flower pots, furniture, windows, etc. are often undesired in professional photographs. Arrange your shot so that they aren't there.

By careful planning and setup, its quite possible to take quality professional looking photographs with just a cheap digital camera. You don't need hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of studio and camera equipment. Take your time when setting up the shot and use a tri-pod if you have one to keep movement to an absolute minimum. Take a long look at the viewfinder on your camera before you push the shutter button. Make sure that everything is just perfect. Look again after you take the shot to make sure you didn't overlook something. The photo only takes an instant to make but can take several minutes to properly setup and adjust. Plan for taking the pictures - don't just do it on the spur of the moment. Make sure everybody is ready, the proper attire and dress for the picture and all the details are taken into account before you head out. Oh, don't forget to dust the instruments! Yes, they have been known to get dusty now and again.

This article is just to create awareness. It should help you consider some elements in the process and hopefully help you create some wonderful promotional photos and have some fun at the same time.

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