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5 Tips for Musician Portraits (So You Can Hit All the Right Notes)

5 tips for beautiful musician portraits

If you’re looking to capture beautiful, flattering musician portraits – the kind that every musician will appreciate – you’ve come to the right place.

As an experienced portrait photographer, I’ve done quite a few musician photoshoots. And over time, I’ve picked up some tips that will make a huge difference to your photography.

Specifically, I’m going to explain:

  • How to ensure you create natural, realistic portraits of musicians
  • Some unorthodox image ideas that musicians will really appreciate
  • Quick research you should do before the session to make sure you’re prepared
  • Much, much more!

Let’s get started.

musician with a guitar

1. Trust the musician (and ask lots of questions)

As a musician myself, I love photographs with gorgeous instruments in them – but I am especially bothered by photos that don’t capture those instruments naturally. Sometimes I’ll come across a photo that makes me cry out, “Why? Nobody would ever hold their instrument like that!”

Because here’s the thing: You can still be creative with your photos without making them awkward. There are plenty of easy ways to capture stunning musician portraits, and you don’t need to rely on ridiculous posing gimmicks (like a flute on top of the head, cellos held under the chin, etc.).

And it all starts with trusting the musician, especially if you’re not familiar with the instrument you’re photographing.

So start your session by asking your subject how they hold their instrument. You might ask how they hold their instrument while playing, and how they hold it when they’re relaxing between songs. If it’s a big instrument, like a piano, ask them how they stand next to it before they perform, or how they sit by it when they’re thinking about what to practice or while waiting to play. If it’s a small instrument, like a violin, ask them to demonstrate how they carry it from one place to another.

These might seem like silly questions, but you can really get a sense of what positions and holds are natural. Then you can build from there.

musician with a violin

As an example, a violinist may tell you she holds her violin under her right arm when resting. So you could ask her to sit on a chair in a formal pose, position the violin under her arm, and get a beautiful portrait of a girl and her violin.

The key is to remember that the musician knows how to naturally pose with their instrument, and that you are much less familiar. Of course, if you do happen to know the instrument well, feel free to use your knowledge to get beautiful natural poses, too.

2. Do your homework

While I definitely recommend asking the musician how they hold their instrument (it can vary slightly from musician to musician, after all), you can take steps ahead of time to become knowledgeable (that way, you can start thinking of posing ideas before the session even starts).

For instance, you could watch some videos on YouTube of a musician playing the instrument you’ll be photographing. Pay careful attention to how the musician sits/stands, as well as how they position their head and hands relative to the instrument.

You might also find a professional musician who plays the same instrument, then look at their website to see what kind of photos they feature.

You may have a client who is very shy and needs more guidance posing, so it’s helpful to have a few ideas in mind ahead of time.

Also, as part of your research process, look at photos of the instrument (and do a bit of reading on instrument care, as well). Consider challenges that it might bring, such as unwanted reflections in brass, the immobility of harps or pianos, sensitivity to temperature or weather, and so on. Then make a plan to counteract these issues; that way, neither you nor the musician feel uncomfortable or uncertain during the session.

musician with a banjo

3. Ask the musician to play for you

Posed musician photography is nice…

…but if you can get your subject to give you a little performance during the photo session, you’ll get some stunning action shots. It usually helps loosen your subject up a little bit too, and will bring out natural smiles.

Some musicians are self-conscious, especially when playing without preparation. So remind them that it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes; your camera won’t catch any audio. Emphasize that you’ll only capture the perfect physical movements of their playing. And remind your subject that you aren’t there to judge their skill. You just want to capture the relationship they have with their instrument.

As they begin to play, move around the scene, catching the beautiful moment from every possible angle. Get down low, try to find a higher vantage point, get in close, move back far – all of it can make for outstanding images!

portrait of a musician with a violin playing

4. Get close-ups of the action

For most musicians, hands are a big deal. After all, the hands generally play the instrument, so they’ll offer a window into the musician’s engagement with the music.

So focus on the hands. Capture some close-ups, where you zoom in close on the hands as they play. Shoot the hands from every angle: above, from the side, from down low, from behind. Try focusing on the hands as you shoot down the neck of a guitar, highlight the fingers on a flute, or shoot hands that are frozen in midair during a drum solo. Getting in close on these details can create beautiful action photos that really tell the story.

In fact, hand photos often end up being some of my very favorites (and the musicians love them, too).

Pro tip: If your subject’s hands are moving too quickly for you to focus, ask them to freeze while you get the shot, then instruct them to continue playing.

hands playing the piano

5. Make the instrument the star

With musician portraits, you’re expected to photograph the person – but I highly recommend you also capture a few photos of the instrument on its own.

Why? Well, musicians love their instruments, and they will love photos that show their beauty. (These photos often make for great website and social media cover photos, as well.)

violin in the grass

Of course, if you need to adjust or move an instrument while shooting, be sure to ask permission. You can even ask the owner to do all of the touching and moving, while you walk around the instrument to get the photos that you’re after. Instruments can be extremely expensive, and even more importantly, they can have sentimental value that can never be compensated.

Keep this in mind throughout the session, whether your subject is in the photo with the instrument or not. And never ask the musician to do something that could harm or damage the instrument; it’s a very easy way to lose the musician’s trust, make them feel uncomfortable, and cause the session to go up in flames.

So when you’re ready to take some instrument photos, simply tell the musician what you have in mind, and they will most likely be happy to help you get some amazing instrument photos. If they’re not – or if they seem uncomfortable – don’t push it. A good photo isn’t worth upsetting your subject.

top of a violin

Musician portrait tips: conclusion

portrait of a musician in the grass playing guitar

Every time I’ve been asked to do musician photography for album covers, headshots for websites, art to print and frame, or just to capture someone’s favorite hobby, my goal is to create a photo that the musician will love. One that will stay true to what they would naturally do with their instruments.

And by following the tips I’ve shared, you can do the same!

Now over to you:

Which of these tips do you resonate with the most? Do you have any musician portrait tips of your own? Share your thoughts (and photos!) in the comments below.

musician standing with a violin

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Melinda Smith
Melinda Smith

was born to be a teacher. She teaches violin lessons and fitness classes, as well as photography classes and mentoring. She lives on a mini farm in Eastern Utah with her camera, husband, kids, chickens, horses, bunnies, dogs, and cats. Visit her at Melinda Smith Photography.

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