Representing invisible subjects: How to photograph music :: Digital Photo Secrets

Representing invisible subjects: How to photograph music

by David Peterson 0 comments

What? That's craziness. You can't photograph music--music is something you hear with your ears, it's not something you see with your eyes. So how can you photograph sound? Read on to find out.

Music is common to every human culture, just as visual art is. Music soothes us, from infancy to old age. When we are introduced to a new person, one of the questions we often ask that person is, "What kind of music do you like?" Everyone has an answer, whether it's country, classical, or hip-hop, and everyone who loves music also appreciates photos that represent music, whether they are album covers, photos of our favorite musical stars, or abstract images that feature instruments.

How to capture the idea of music

Yes, it is true, music is something we hear, it is not something we see. However we do have very strong visual associations with music, for example, we know what sound the piano makes, and when we see an image of a piano we don't have to be told what kind of music will come out of that instrument. Even instruments from other cultures that we may not be familiar with can still spark the imagination. Musical instruments, even strange ones, are easy to identify as musical instruments, and it's therefore natural for us to imagine the sounds that they might make. Even if we are wrong, it doesn't matter—we're still inspired to think about sound when we see images of those things with our eyes.

Now there are number of ways you can approach music photography - you can photograph the instrument, you can photograph the musician, or you can photograph the people who are experiencing the music. All three approaches can be used to communicate the idea of sound and harmony, but you need to photograph these subjects with those ideas already in your head.

Let's start by taking a look at some examples.

In this first image, we see a musician holding his instrument. This is a portrait—it tells us something about the musician but it doesn't necessarily say "music." The subject is holding his guitar, so we understand that he is a musician, but the image isn't really about the music, it's about the person. Intellectually, we understand what that guitar would sound like if he was playing it, but because he's not playing it there really isn't a reason for us to think specifically about sound. Now let's look at a different example:

In this image, the musician is strumming the guitar. It's a nice photo, but even though we can imagine the sound of the guitar being strummed, there's no emotion in the scene. Music is an emotional experience, which means that we need to see that emotion before we can really make that leap from sound to music. So the expression on the musician's face can tell us a lot--if there is no emotion in his expression, we can just as easily imagine that he is just tuning up the guitar or strumming a few isolated chords rather than playing an actual song.

Now let's take a look at our third example:

In this image, the subject is clearly making music. We can see that his instrument is actually being played (he's clearly not tuning it or just warming up), and there's an expression on his face that connects the music to an emotional experience. There's also drama in the image because of the way it is lit. The lighting is low and the image is very low-key, and low-key images tend to come across as being more dramatic. And let's face it, your favorite songs are probably somewhat dramatic—heartbreak, political outrage, romantic love—these are all dramatic themes that tend to occupy the lyrics of most modern songs. So the light in the scene can help create drama, which will really add to that feeling of actually being able to hear the music that we are only seeing in this photograph.


Here's another example of a photograph that says "music:”

  • Nikon D3100
  • 800
  • f/5.0
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 18 mm

Strings by Flickr user eleonoralbasi

Now, why does this image of an instrument on its own seem so musical, while the instrument being held by a musician who is not playing does not? That's because in the example above, the person is equally as important as the instrument. We automatically assume that the photo is about him, and not about the music that he might create with that instrument, simply because he is not in the process of actually playing. On the other hand, an instrument photographed on its own can only be about one thing--it is about the tool that is used to make music, and hence it is going to feel more like a photograph of the music itself. Again, photographing an instrument with dramatic light will help bring out that those musical qualities in the image itself. We think of music as being a dramatic thing, so dramatic lighting going to make us feel like we are experiencing music as a we look at the tools that are used to create it.

Now let's look at a fourth example:

In this image we see the complete experience of music. Because we are looking at the people who are affected by the music, we are connecting with them. That connection makes us feel as if we are experiencing the music too, even though we don't instinctively know what the genre is or even what band is playing. But because the photographer has captured the emotion that is often connected with live music, we are getting a very strong sense of sound in this image.

Have you noticed the common thread between all of the examples we've seen so far? Is it the light. The light is dramatic, and music is dramatic, so we can imagine that we are experiencing music just based on the way that the scene is lit.


Another way that you can capture music in a photograph is by taking an abstract or symbolic approach. A musical note is one very obvious way to represent music in a symbolic manner—everyone knows what a musical note is and what it represents. But I know you can be more creative than that—let's look at an example so you can see what I mean.

    The guitar king by Flickr user jinterwas

    In this image, the photographer used light painting to represent music. It's an abstract representation because there are no musical notes or other obvious symbols, but the light appears to dance in the way that we perceive music to dance, in the sense that it rises and falls in a rhythmic way. Because it is so visually close to the way that we hear music with our ears, it's easy to make that mental translation from visual input to auditory input, even though we're not technically hearing anything. Now, would this depiction work if there wasn't also a musical instrument in the image? It might work visually, but it probably wouldn't remind you of music, because we need that literal cue (the instrument) to appear in the frame in order for us to make that leap from the thing we're seeing to the thing we might actually be able to hear if we were present in that scene.

    Regardless of your approach, the key to capturing great music photographs is to try to make that connection between what you're seeing and what you're hearing, and then make sure that you are capturing that connection in your photograph. Most of the time, it's going to be an emotional connection. Music can make people experience joy, grief, love, anger ... there really isn't an emotion that can't be expressed through music. But the good news is that all of those emotions can be expressed through photography, too. So if you can capture the visual representation of music at the same time as you capture the emotion that exists in the scene, you can be pretty sure you captured the music itself. If you're not sure, ask someone. Pass your photos around and ask viewers to tell you the first couple of words that come to mind. If "music" or "sound" is one of them, then you've done your job.


    You don't have to be a musician to be able to hear the music in a photograph, you just have to be a human being who is capable of having the profound experience of connecting to music. Really, doesn't that describe all of us? As long as you keep that music in your head while you are creating your photographs, and you think about the emotions that are experienced by both the people creating the music and the people listening to it, you cannot fail to capture photographs that seem to sing.


    1. Photograph a musician playing an instrument
      • Make sure to capture emotion
      • Use dramatic light
    2. Photograph the instrument
      • Use dramatic light
    3. Photograph the crowd
      • Try to capture emotion and drama
    4. Create an abstract representation of music
      • Musical symbolism
      • Painting with light

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    About David Peterson
    David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.