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.
Tony Palmer is a 45 year old photographer based near Portsmouth. He is passionate about stills photography and videography, artistic endeavours contrasting nicely with his ‘day job’ as a Consultant Clinical Scientist in Medical Physics. Tony is also a keen windsurfer, paddleboarder, occasional scuba diver, and casual guitarist. He’s also a roadie for his ten year old musician daughter, Erin Gracie!
What does photography mean to you?
I think photography can change the way you see things, it helps me appreciate details. Taking the time to study a subject, to really see emotion, to look for light, patterns, anything that’s interesting in the everyday. Capturing the fleeting details. Creating art from the moments and the things around me. Recording life. I’ve taken photos for over thirty years, but now see myself as much a videographer as a stills photographer, creating music videos and live gig videos, alongside gig stills, events and photoshoots.
Whose work has influenced you the most?
I was surrounded by photography from an early age, both my mum and dad were hobby photographers, and I was inspired by the beautiful landscape images they could capture. They certainly influenced me most.
From your perspective, what makes a great picture?
When was the last time you looked at a single picture for more than ten seconds? That’s a long time to look at one image. That’s a great picture. It usually needs interesting light, a pleasing aesthetic, originality, and importantly, to communicate something.
How do you educate yourself to take better pictures?
Studying the work of other photographers and being self-critical. I like when there are other photographers at a gig or event, or somewhere I’ve been before, likely with different equipment, but with the same opportunities. Looking at the images they choose to create is fascinating. There’s always something to be learnt from other photographers.
What goes through your mind just before you press the shutter button?
Why am I taking this photo? is there anything I can do to improve the image? is there anything distracting in the background? is the lighting and composition pleasing or should I recompose, do I need to change my position? Of course, if I’m capturing a ‘decisive moment’, a fleeting emotion, or an impromptu stage dive, there’s little time to think, you have to be prepared, and be lucky.
What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos in a live environment?
Musicians will mostly be happy to be photographed.
What settings do you use in a live setting?
Always manual. Stage lighting can vary dramatically and I find it best to manually expose for what I think’s important in the image. Low ISO, wide aperture, reasonable shutter speed. And if lighting is really bad, I convince myself a bit of blur is artistic.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you could give to anyone wanting to get into live music photography?
Try to capture the emotion of the performance in the image, be it stills or video. Capture an interesting moment, expression, composition. Usually ‘eating the mic’ shots don’t look great, and its all too easy to capture a dodgy expression when someone is singing.
In your spare time, what other kinds of pictures do you enjoy taking? Are there any types you try to avoid?
From taking pictures while cave diving to strapping a GoPro to the front of my windsurf board, via environmental portraits, seascapes, family photos and holiday snaps, I shoot lots. I’d like to be better at street photography, and admire those who are, finding chance encounters, random incidents, and perfecting timing and framing, to create captivating images from commonplace situations.
What motivates you to keep taking photographs?
The challenge to improve. To undertake an artistic endeavour purely as an end in itself. To appreciate what’s around me and to explore. To document and to create. To connect with people. To hold onto memories.
Who has been your favourite artist to photograph so far?
Musicians that are full of character and exude passion for their music. Off the top of my head, a few that I’ve shot recently… lead singer of The Collision, Lewis Danny Smith, is a fine example, literally bouncing around the stage, Tom Bryan of Shoot the Duke is wonderfully intense when performing, clearly loving his music is Jamin, such a character, the powerful presence of Ben Brookes, and of course the unique style of Jerry Williams, Lauran Hibberd, and I could of course go on for pages…. I recently shot a music video for Evangeline, an emerging musician in Portsmouth, and the storytelling in her expression while singing was just lovely to record. My favourite though… my musician daughter, Erin Gracie.
Who are your favourite artists to listen to when you’re at home?
Depends how I’m feeling, of course, but often the likes of Passenger and Lumineers will feature, maybe a random Spotify playlist, but I did have Ben Brookes album on repeat for a good while recently. Of course, Erin is in charge of music in the car, and I’ll happy listen to Jerry Williams, Tom Millichamp, Maisie Peters, First Aid Kit, etc etc with her.
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, Queen, live at Wembley, 1986.
Although I’ve taken photos for many years, I came to live music photography fairly recently, inspired by wanting to capture my daughter’s first performances. So, my first photo gig was for Erin Gracie.
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 don’t remember the first record I bought. But I do remember as a very young child receiving a film soundtrack on cassette tape for a birthday… unfortunately I just can’t remember what it was…
What is the best experience you’ve ever had at a live show?
I recently took my daughter to see Ed Sheeran at Wembley (she’s a big fan), seeing her face light up with 80,000 people singing the songs she loves, with the predictable (but really rather remarkable) sight of many holding lights aloft.
Sorry to be predictable, but my daughter’s EP launch has to be one of my best experience at a live show. (Erin Gracie, sing love hurt dream EP, plugging duty done I think).
Finally, for those that aren’t already familiar with your work, how would you describe it and how can they best view it?
For stills, I try to take original images of musicians, I have preference for tight portraits I think, and I often like to play with the images in post, perhaps adjusting colours, perhaps adding grain and selective blur, to make something hopefully artistic, hopefully a little different. It may not be to everyone’s taste, especially if you prefer a straight record shot, but I don’t suppose that matters too much. For videos, I like to put lots of effort into the process, discussing with the musician, the concept and the edit as much as the actual footage. I’ve recently experimented with freelensing, which feels a very natural artistic process, giving freedom from the need for a sharp image. I’ve made quite a few full music videos, multi-cam live gig videos, and simple one-take live recordings, and I love the different process of each of these. I do keep meaning to set-up a website, but for now, please take a look at my Facebook and Instagram pages, and my new YouTube channel…
In order to view Tony’s work, please follow the following links to his website and social media. Supporting photographers like Tony 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.