A Photographer’s Perspective of the 2017 Joe Val Bluegrass Festival

Summer festivals feature a variety of life’s joys: music, outdoor photography, great food and beer, and place to keep kids entertained for hours. The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival in Framingham, MA takes away everything about a summer festival, except the music, and places it in a hotel. It attracts a special breed of festival goers; people that play instruments and appreciate that they will be absorbed in bluegrass for their stay. There is no escape from it, and it’s what makes Joe Val special.

From a photographer’s perspective Joe Val can be frustrating. An outdoor festival shines helpful light on all photography targets. It removes all need for a flash or external light source. Bright spot lights replace the sun when the outdoor festival turns dark. But at Joe Val the lightening is at a constant corporate nursing-home setting. Viewers come and go at will so the house lights are always on, and the performers are just slightly more lit than the audience. It makes sense considering the hotel environment, but it doesn’t make for a good photograph.

The Main Stage

The main stage is reserved for weddings on most days, probably, but for one weekend in February it is reserved for some the biggest names in bluegrass. It has no photographer’s pit. There’s 10 feet between the front row and the stage, and anyone standing in this area would be a nuisance.

The best option is to sit cross-legged on the floor in front of the first row. I suspect that most of the audience is otherwise okay with this very minor distraction. The view from this criss-cross-applesauce position is close and low, so with a zoom lens the photos can easily get crowded.

ƒ/2.8, 70.0 mmm, 1/100, ISO 640

ƒ/2.8, 120.0 mm, 1/250, ISO 2000

ƒ/2.8, 123.0 mm, 1/500, ISO 2000

The side aisles are the more casual option, though a bit too far away from the action. They require a fully extended lens, and often an uncomfortably high ISO level.

ƒ/2.8, 200.0 mm, 1/400, ISO 2000

ƒ/2.8, 200.0 mm, 1/640, ISO 6400

ƒ/2.8, 200.0 mm, 1/250, ISO 2000

The limited light source requires more camera configuration than outdoor photography. I typically remained in shutter-priority mode to avoid blur, and limited the ISO to around 2000. If the ISO is left on auto it would immediately jump up to unacceptable levels (6400 in my case). During the second set for The Grascals I forgot to limit the ISO levels. On the camera’s LCD screen they looked fine, but the lovely Kristin Scott Benson looked like a cartoon when the image was made large.

ƒ/2.8, 88 mm, 1/640, ISO 6400

The Showcase Stage

If the Main Stage was built for wedding receptions, the Showcase Stage was built for smaller corporate meetings. There is no sign of sunlight, and the walls are beige and blah. It’s like a casino before any Native American decorations.

There is no challenge in terms of a vantage point here. One could walk right up and rudely grab a mandolin out of a players hands. The challenge is taking an interesting photo with a dull beige background, very poor (and non-white) lighting, and no flash.

I don’t think there’s a great solution here. I tried a slightly tilted angle, but that view quickly becomes nauseating as demonstrated in some of the below photos.

ƒ/2.8, 145.0 mm, 1/640, ISO 4000

ƒ/2.8, 140.0 mm, 1/200, ISO 1000

ƒ/3.5, 120.0 mm, 1/80, ISO 1250

ƒ/3.5, 123.0 mm, 1/125, ISO 1250

Amateur Hallway Jammin’

Summer Bluegrass festivals all have amateur jamming, but they’re spaced out. Groups are tucked away in tents, under trees, and behind porta-poties. Unless you are seeking them out they are easy to avoid altogether. Plus, sound doesn’t carry well across a vast field with amplified competition on the main stages.

But for better or for worse, hallway jamming is unavoidable at Joe Val. If you paid for admission to a bluegrass festival in a beige hotel, it’s likely for-the-better.

The problem is that these amateur musicians find the darkest corners of the hotels. Passer-byes stop and crowd the areas and the option for photography goes away completely without a flash, which just seems rude to me, and wouldn’t produce great results regardless of tact.

But there’s one hallway with windows that face the sun. It merges the dark and beige February festival with its bright and sunny summer counter-part. It reminds me that, like every year, winter surrenders from its Sheraton Castle Dungeon and gives us the proper photographic light of summer that we deserve. It was the only time during the event where my crouching technique came into play.

ƒ/2.8, 70.0 mm, 1/125, ISO 200

ƒ/2.8, 70.0 mm, 1/125, ISO 160

ƒ/2.8, 70.0 mm, 1/100, ISO 2500

ƒ/2.8, 70.0 mm, 1/100, ISO 400

ƒ/2.8, 70.0 mm, 1/100, ISO 2500

ƒ/2.8, 88.0 mm, 1/125, ISO 2000

I wish every day was sunny and bright and full of music. Because that can’t happen, I’m happy that Joe Val exists in its beige hotel.

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