Spotlight is a feature which aims to give exposure to the unsung heroes of the music industry. This article focuses on one of the most important groups of people that perhaps go largely unnoticed during most gigs: photographers. Keep an eye out for further articles on photographers and other groups of unsung heroes (independent venues and record stores) in the very near future.
Mark Cavill, 48, is originally from Bristol but now lives in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, with his wife and two dogs, Stanley and Olly. He has been interested in photography from a young age, and has loved music since his early teens. He began his career in live music photography around 2001, shooting from the crowd at gigs and sharing the images on a basic self created website. He then progressed into press photography when in a field near Huddersfield when Liberty X were stood in front of him waiting to told where to pose! His musical interests are wide and eclectic, and include All About Eve, Alanis Morisette, Prince and, currently, Anne-Marie, Little Mix and Sigrid. He is also a huge film fan (and hates the word ‘movie’) and enjoys reading thrillers.
What does photography mean to you?
I have always been interested in photography. Many years ago, at age 11, I won a compact 110 camera in a competition in Look-In Magazine, then proceeded to take picture after picture of the same landscape, until I decided I had taken ‘the shot’. My photography is always about that – getting the one shot that tells a story, catches a look or pose, freezes a moment to enjoy again and again long after that moment has passed. Working in live music photography this has always been a challenge as often the moments come thick and fast but are gone in an instant, so capturing ‘it’ is that much harder, but also that much more fulfilling when you achieve it.
Whose work has influenced you the most?
This is a tricky one, as I don’t really have any one name to share. I look at other photographers’ work and often appreciate what they have captured, but everyone produces a fantastic image from time to time, and I have no one style or look that influences me. I try to have my own style that maybe could become familiar to others over time, and having no formal training or technical education I perhaps do things a little differently to some.
From your perspective, what makes a great picture?
The story. What does the image say to you? Be it an artist interacting with the crowd, a musician lost in the creative process, or a performer putting on a show, there has to be interest in the image. Something to make you think. Lighting and composition are very important in adding to the story, catching a vocalist haloed by backlights whilst caught in the emotion of the lyric they are performing can express so much more than a shot a minute earlier of them stood adjusting their mic stand. As mentioned before, it’s about catching the moment.
How do you educate yourself to take better pictures?
Practice different things. Look at your images and check the metadata and settings. If you love an image, try to understand what it is about it that makes you feel that way, and if there’s something in the settings that you can replicate, give it a go and see if that is making the difference. I have had no photography training, I simply change settings and see what happens. When I see a result I like I remember the camera settings, the venue and the prevailing circumstances of the shoot for future use. I am also a great believer in taking a great image in the first place, rather than taking any old shot and editing it to look great. I don’t have the time or knowledge to edit or photoshop images for hours at a time, so simply aim to take great pictures at the outset.
What goes through your mind just before you press the shutter button?
‘Is this the shot?’ The split second before pressing that button I am checking eye contact, shadows, pose, background, lighting, the energy and emotion of the image. If everything feels right then it probably is ‘the shot’.
What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos in a live environment?
As a photographer in general, I wish I knew a little more about what the settings on my camera did. With no formal training I have learned as I go and I’ll admit at first I was often shooting on auto. Learning over time what each tweak of the settings can do to an image has improved my portfolio no end, and consequently my confidence in knowing my strengths and challenging myself to do better every time I shoot.
As a press photographer I wish I had known the ‘three songs, no flash’ rule! Arriving excitedly at my first press gig, pass in hand, to be told ‘usual drill, first three songs, no flash’ was a sudden shocker, and I learned an awful lot about the manual settings on my camera in that first fifteen minutes!
What settings do you use in a live setting?
I always use manual settings, to have the ability to quickly tweak things, if the lighting, stage setting, sunlight (at festivals etc.) should change. Often I only have 15 minutes or so to capture the images I need, so being in full control is vital. A few test shots before a performance can be invaluable to assess the required ISO, aperture and f-stop settings, along with white balance. Starting from a planned setup makes tweaking things smoother as the performance progresses, and being able to quickly adjust on the move means you are less likely to miss a moment whilst fiddling with dials…
What is the most valuable piece of advice you could give to anyone wanting to get into live music photography?
Start off shooting bands you like. If you enjoy the music, and are engaged with the performance you will inherently take better images. If you see the same band perform live regularly, you will learn their performance, you will know when they sit on the edge of the stage, when they are about to do a back flip, when they pause stage left for ten seconds. Every little bit of knowledge helps achieve that one shot. Knowing which hand the lead singer holds his mic in, means you know which side of the stage to shoot from, knowing when the guitarist is about to come forward for a solo means you will be ready to catch the pose, whereas other photographers may not.
Ultimately, try to be interested in your subjects. If I am to shoot a band or singer I don’t know well, I will look them up online, check previous gig shoots etc, to get a feel for their performance. At the end of the day, 15 minutes isn’t a long time to catch that one perfect image, if you are trying to work out your camera settings, keep track of where the band members are at any one time, avoiding other photographers and often video crews, generally in a small press pit squashed between the stage which is at waist height or higher, and the horde of loyal fans annoyed that you’re standing between them and their idols…
In your spare time, what other kinds of pictures do you enjoy taking? Are there any types you try to avoid?
Oddly enough I don’t take many pictures when not working. If I do, more often than not, it’s pictures of my dogs looking daft, with my iPhone. Outside the live music photography I have also done a number of studio and location promo shoots for bands, and ‘making the video’ behind the scenes shoots, but obviously these were also work, not in my spare time.
I have done odd days learning wildlife photography, and architecture, and have decided I definitely prefer a live subject to a building. Ironically, photographing a wolf prowling his compound or bear cubs playing was strangely similar to shooting certain bands performing on stage!
One thing I do tend to avoid is weddings! I have shot for a couple for friends in the past, very informally, but even then the pressure was intense. If you fail to catch the essence of their special day it is lost forever. I don’t want that on my conscience!
What motivates you to keep taking photographs?
Basically, my love for music, and experiencing music being performed in a live environment. Being able to look back on my images and relive those moments is like being there all over again, and I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to have experienced so many moments. Also, it is very fulfilling to work with new bands and singers in the studio, or at a live event, then to watch as their careers progress, and they develop as performers, accomplished artists and hopefully one day become superstars. I have worked with a number of these, and it makes the work even more enjoyable.
Who has been your favourite artist to photograph so far?
Such a difficult question! Every artist is so different, from Little Mix putting on an energetic show for the fans, through Liam Gallagher stood at the mic exuding attitude, or David Guetta, where all you can see is a head above a laptop in front of a mind blowing light show, to Sam Smith stood in a spotlight, the emotion of his lyrics defining the performance.
If I had to pick a favourite, may I have two?
Firstly Ella Henderson, often very understated, but with her amazing vocals and passion filling the venue, you can see the crowd enthralled by every word, be they sitting silently feeling the moment, or singing along to the songs they know all the lyrics to.
Secondly, probably unknown to many, Germein. Three Australian sisters I was lucky enough to encounter a number of years ago. They write and perform all their own songs, and actually play their own instruments which I always feel is the sign of a true ‘band’. Throughout every performance you can feel they are just loving being on stage reaching out to the crowd, enjoying being together as a group, and as siblings, and I have been fortunate enough to capture that joy on many occasions.
Who are your favourite artists to listen to when you are at home?
I love almost all music, so have an extensive and eclectic CD collection (I hate streaming, I have to hold the CD case in my hands and put it on the shelf!). I have also gone through phases in my life – my goth period, my Prince stage, my EDM phase! Generally in the car it’s dance music, a thumping beat to drown out the boredom of a long journey; at home on my own it could be any one of a number of albums that always come back to the fore – Suzanne Vega, Alanis Morisette, All About Eve, Howard Jones and French artist Mylene Farmer are probably amongst my most played CDs.
What was the first gig you ever went to as a fan and what was the first gig you did as a photographer?
As a fan – Suzanne Vega, Royal Albert Hall, 1986. I was a late starter going to concerts, around 17, and that first experience of hearing a favourite album performed live by the artist, not that far from you, has never left me. I was lucky enough to see her perform live again just last weekend, and I got to take photographs from the pit! This really was a full circle kind of moment, and will be a story I tell for a long time to come.
As an aside, I was also lucky enough to see Prince perform Purple Rain live at the Brits a few years back – an experience I will definitely never forget.
As a photographer, the first few gigs I shot from the crowd were Anastacia, Britney Spears and Steps, but the first I ever shot as an official press photographer was a Welsh artist called Jem, who had a few hits a number of years ago. This was my first ‘no flash’ experience and shooting the first song with Jem lit by a red spotlight from the foot of the stage was definitely a challenge.
What was the first record you ever bought? Do you still listen to it today, and if so, what does it mean to you?
I was never into singles, I only ever bought albums, and I was the one that preferred cassette tapes to vinyl. The first album I ever bought with my only money was Howard Jones’ Dream Into Action, £4.95 from Woolworths on the way home from school. I do still listen to it, and know all the words, regularly singing along loudly, and badly, in my car, having recently upgraded from cassette to CD. It was important at the time being the first I had bought, but also because he came from my town; my school bus went past his house, and he used to go to my school (I had his English book!). It is still a great listen today as it takes me back to my youth in the 80s when all ‘my’ music came out. It’s great that there’s such a huge resurgence of 80s festivals and events, as I am now able to photograph and meet all the artists I used to love as a teenager.
What is the best experience you have ever had at a live show?
Although it might be a bit selfish, it’s the moments when I am recognised. From time to time an artist will recognise me from a previous gig or meeting and smile, point or pose at me for a second or two. Nobody else in the audience knows it, but myself and the artist have a moment just between us, which is fun, and I get a great shot that nobody else has. Also the occasional shoutout, from an artist who knows and likes my work, is always nice.
The most unexpected has happened a few times, usually at lower profile showcases where I work with upcoming artists to help promote and get their names out there. Having an audience member come up and ask “Are you Mark? I love your pictures” was not something I was ready for, and I was quite humbled. The fact that members of the public like my work, and are engaged enough to know who I am when they see me at a gig, is very special.
Finally, for those that are not already familiar with your work, how would you describe it and how can they best view it?
Basically my work is live music photography, I try to capture ‘moments’ and hope that the audience viewing my images is able to experience at least a small part of the emotions, passion and excitement of having been at the event themselves.
I regularly post new and favourite images on social media, and have been published many times in the newspapers, press and online.
In order to view Mark’s work, please follow the following links to his website and social media. Supporting photographers like Mark ensures that they keep on providing us with the shots that enable us to continue to remember the gigs and moments that mean the most to us.