Capturing Facial Expressions

The Upright Animals @ the Pageant -- 2008.10.04


A reader asks about etiquette for presenting performers in a flattering manner. Is photographing a singer with their mouth wide open a display of intensity, or do they just look hungry for the mic?

Love your site! Your photos are a source of inspiration to improve my shots all the time.

I was told that you shouldn't showcase photos with the artist's mouths open, as it looks like they're eating the microphone. I don't see anything wrong with it, but I have noticed that the press typically only publishes the ‘nice” photos.

When I go through my sets, I would say about 85% of the photos has someone with pursed lips, a wide open mouth or their tongue hanging out.

What is your take on it?


Hi Jo, thanks for the note.

I believe the essential issue of your question is how we as music photographers portray our subjects. Deciding what to show ultimately comes down to one's vision and taste.

Think Portrait Shoot

As a concert photographer, my goal is for the final set of images to communicate the essence of the band in a compelling and natural way. I don't necessarily rule out any expression, but rather look to see which looks best capture the performer and event as I saw it.

In one sense, I approach every gig as a portrait shoot. The charge of distilling a study of the subject still holds true, albeit with a little more action interjected. I don't think it's necessarily an issue of what is “nice” to the subject, but simply what best captures the event, the subject, and helps tell a story.

Style and Substance

It's also worth noting that much of the presentation and expectations for an event depend on the type of music being photographed. A hardcore punk band is going to have a different visual aesthetic and expectation than a singer-songwriter performing an acoustic set, for example. In a rough regard, the more raw and visceral the music, the more “stray” expressions I might give a pass. It all goes back to the music and the images that best represent it.

For a howling frontman doubled over, I wouldn't rule out bulging eyes, popping veins, or flying spittle. In fact, I might even prefer that. But transfer those same attributes to a folk singer with an acoustic guitar, and they simply don't fit the story.

Technique and Timing

From a technical standpoint, concert photography can present a huge challenge in regard to capturing the best expressions of a performer, given the short duration for shooting and a slew of other variables. One way to give yourself a wider selection of facial expressions is simply to shoot more. I always tell beginning photographers to shoot as much as they think they need to secure a shot. This is particularly true if the subject is active, either in their body movements or facial expressions.

By shooting more during the key moments, you'll be able to have a larger number of images to choose from, which should allow for more refined choices in the final set.

Better yet, with experience and practice, simply concentrating on the rhythm of the performance and paying attention to timing will ensure that capturing the facial expressions you want becomes second-nature.

Have Your Say

What are your thoughts on the way you present performers with regard to facial expressions? Does anything go, or do you follow certain guidelines when it comes to mugging singers?