A Definitively Unprofessional Guide to Fiddler Photography

A good photo of a fiddler should convey some sort of emotion, but what does that mean exactly, besides sounding kind of obnoxious. I’m not saying that a fiddler is lazy, but they tend to have the most downtime. They may be vamping, which for non-musicians just means they’re pretending to play so they don’t have to leave the stage and sit with the road or kitchen staff. Or they may be smiling and looking at the ground; holding the fiddle by their chin just in case they want to jump in and contribute. They also may be playing which is the ideal time to take their photo. That’s lesson #1. The fiddler should be, or pretending to be, playing and/or otherwise engaged.

An active fiddler makes a lower-case “r” shape. The fiddle is the shoulder and the tuning pegs/scroll is the terminal. For those that have forgotten the anatomy of a lower-case “r”, here’s a refresher.  Since the stem (human body) is much longer than the shoulder (fiddle), and the fiddler tends to stand-up, the simplest photo is taken vertically. This captures the entire subject, and since the subject takes up the majority of the frame, the focus is forgiving. But these full-body photos tend to be boring, and have a snap-shot feel to them. For example:

July 2015. Brittany Hass with Tony Trischka and Territory at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY.

It’s a fine image, but it looks like a photo that her aunt could have taken with her iPhone if she snuck up close enough (“hey, I’m her aunt”). So to get a more interesting photo, and ideally the preferred horizontal frame, one must get closer, chopping off the unnecessary legs of the fiddler.

July 2016. Kimber Ludiker with Della Mae at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY.

July 2015. Kids at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. Oak Hill, NY.

July 2015. Sara Milonovich with Jim Gaudet & The Railroad Boys at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY.

July 2016. Kate Lee with The Mark O’Connor Band at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY.

July 2016. Maya de Vitry with the Stray Birds at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY.

While those photos don’t look like they were taken with an iPhone, they are also not entirely interesting. I want to get closer, and have a photo with true depth. A fiddle, a face and 2 hands are what’s important here as all other body parts are non-vital to the fiddle playing, and therefore non-vital to my opinion of fiddler photography.

The challenge now becomes focus since the details are now being highlighted, instead of the overall performer. In my opinion, the focus should be on the fiddler’s face, with very few exceptions.  In most cases when the fiddle is in focus over the face it appears either accidental or unnecessarily artsy. Those photos should audition for the trash can, and for that reason, I don’t have an example in my collection to display. I’m also not cruel enough to link to someone’s personal photo and embarrass them as an example of what not to do. But I did find a stock photo that begins to prove that there’s a stock photo for every imaginable request. It’s entitled “Close-up of violin in the hands of the violin virtuoso with a face out of focus“. It’s clearly not an accident, but it’s not a pleasing photo to me.

Getting the face in focus, while have pleasing composition and framing, is the final challenge. This is largely due to stuff getting in the way; namely the large bluegrass mic and the fiddle itself. The fiddle is obviously important to the photo, but there’s irony in the fact that it’s also the photos largest enemy in terms of focus. My technique is to set the camera’s focus point to center focus to quickly get the performer’s forehead in focus. Since it’s rare that the forehead should be the center of the photo I quickly move the camera to the proper frame and composition I want. I repeat this constantly during the fiddler’s energetic performance; focus on forehead, move the camera, then take the shot. Even if this action worked perfectly there’s a bit of luck on how many photos actually come our desirable. The fiddler’s eyes should be as open as possible, and their expression shouldn’t look transitional. With all these constraints the majority of photos hit the trash can. But, these are some of my favorites in terms of focus, framing, and expression, where the focus sneaks in and finds the face despite the obvious other obstacles that help create the depth.

July 2016. Connor Vance with The Dustbowl Revival at the Green River Music Festival in Greenfield, MA.

February 2016. Charlie Robertson with Flatt Lonesome at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival in Framingham, MA.

November 2011. Leeann Hackett with Cowgirl in Dewey Square in Boston, MA during the Occupy Wall Street protests.

July 2016. Kids at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY.

July 2015. Bridget Law with Elephant Revival at Green River Folk Festival in Greenfield, MA.

July 2013. Casey Driessen at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY.

July 2015. Daniel Foulks with Parker Millsap at Green River Folk Fest in Greenfield, MA.

While those may be my favorite intentional fiddle shot types it’s not true that other shots do not have a home in my fiddle-pic collection. To be interesting they must tell a story beyond simply a person playing a fiddle.

July 2016. Maggie O’Connor explodes in wicked laughter, apparently playing something funny on the fiddle.

July 2014. A kid with a hat makes eye contact with a cameraman in a section clearly marked for pedestrians only.

July 2010. Lauren Rioux sings into a fiddle at Ossipee Valley Bluegrass Festival in Maine.

July 2012. A woman plays for passersby at a festival at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY.

The focus of a photo can of course be anything, as long as it seems intentional and is visually pleasing (to me; write your own article). The photo below is a case where the fiddle is the intentional focus of the image, and not the fiddler. The fiddle is center to the image and the out-of-focus player is looking at the fiddle together with the photo’s viewer. If the player’s eyes were showing the photo would have a different, and more uncomfortable feel, as the true subject of the photo would be unclear.

All photos by Jason McGorty. This entry is one of a larger set of Definitively Unprofessional Guides to niche photography subjects

Disclaimer: The information contained in this website is for general information purposes only. I love fiddler players and fiddle music and everything associated with it. They are not inherently lazy. Their skill is one of the few that if training is not begun by Kindergarten, it’s considered too late. They are not inherently out-of-focus. It is their bursts of energy that challenge the photographer. Their lower extremities are also important for non-fiddle related activities.

What makes a good photograph is completely subjective and the views expressed in this guide are that of the author only.

3 Comments

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  1. Really wonderful article! I just stumbled across it and so glad I did 🙂 Just to clarify…were these photos taken on the iPhone? I’ve been thinking about picking up a DSLR for my blog to step my game up a bit.

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    • Thanks! These photos are all taken with a DSLR. Most are with my Canon 60D and 70-200mm f/2.8 L series lens. I’m a photographer before I’m a blogger so I often just write something around my photos so they don’t get lost in the sea of Internet photos.

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  2. I just came across this blog, and love it! I’m an acquaintance of Kimber Ludiker, as well as a contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine. Honestly, even your “bad” photos are better than many I have seen.

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