There’s no question that taking good photographs of your chorus can be tricky. First there are the logistical challenges of scheduling a shoot that involves a large number of people, who are often volunteering their time, around an already packed rehearsal and performance schedule. Then there are the artistic challenges: documenting a group in a way that still makes a personal connection, finding visual interest in an art form that doesn’t typically involve a lot of movement or big sets, and capturing singers’ faces during the fleeting moments when their expressions match the beautiful sound they are creating.
Choruses who embrace these challenges, however, are rewarded with strong images that can be used to attract audiences, to raise money, to recruit singers, and so much more. We spoke with four organizations that have an interesting visual approach and the photographers they use for advice. Whether you are planning your chorus’s first professional shoot or just want to kick your marketing materials up a notch, here’s what they recommend.
You don’t need a big budget to make professional photography part of your marketing mix.
WomenSing, a volunteer chorus with 45-50 members, has only done one professional photo shoot during its almost 50-year history—but by planning ahead carefully, the chorus made that one shoot really count. They chose to document a performance for a fundraiser at a particularly attractive venue, and worked with photographer Kristen Loken to capture performance photos, posed group shots, and candids of singers, board members, and donors mingling at a post-performance reception, all during one several-hour stretch. “We had a photographer for that whole time period, so we needed to make the most of it,” says Linda Infelise, a board member who handled WomenSing’s marketing efforts at the time of the shoot. The group reviews the photos that they use periodically to make sure they are not out-of-date, but Infelise estimates that “at least 10” of the images Loken captured in Spring 2013 are still in their current rotation.
The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (LACC) hires photographers but has also found some willing to work on a pro bono basis, including a former chorister who is currently trying to build her portfolio. “She’s well-versed in our program so she understands what the children are thinking,” says Julie Larson, LACC’s director of development. “She’s able to wheedle certain expressions out of them.” And working with one photographer regularly can be a way to cut costs as well. The Houston Chamber Choir has a contract with photographer Jeff Grass for every event in their season rather than just one gig at a time. Because they give him a substantial amount of work, “I charge them less,” he says.
The Los Angeles Children's Chorus used some unexpected photo compositions for a refresher brochure in Spring 2014, including an image where all eyes are on the conductor except for one young singer who looks directly at the viewer. "We wanted to experiment with the idea that music does engage the performer with the audience," says director of development Julie Larson. "That involves making a personal connection." Photo by JP Candelier
Finding a photographer who “gets” choral music is a bonus.
Photographers that have experience working with musicians, or are musicians themselves, bring an extra awareness to their work—especially during performance photography when being undetected by the audience can be as important as getting the perfect shot. “With the Mozart Requiem there are definitely times when you can snap away and nobody can hear you, but there are other times when it’s so quiet and you really need to be sensitive to that,” says Alisa Garin, a violist who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in music performance. She photographs the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and says her familiarity with the repertoire the choir performs also helps her anticipate moments when the singers will be especially animated or have their mouths shaped in a flattering way.
Kristen Loken agrees. “It wasn’t until I started shooting more music and performance that I realized you can’t make an impact on the audience experience,” she says. “And the performer’s experience is really equally important.” Jeff Grass recommends finding a photographer who is at least a music lover, and who has an appreciation for the mission of your choral group. “You might find a commercial photographer who takes very good images,” he says, “but they might not like the restrictions of shooting at performances.”
The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh used this performance shot of artistic director Betsy Burleigh as part of their identity campaign, including on a billboard. - Photo by Alisa Garin
Think beyond the big group shot.
A large shot of everyone in your chorus singing or standing in horizontal rows is handy to hang in your office or use as a banner for your website, but won’t fill all your marketing needs. Infelise made sure that the list for WomenSing’s photo shoot included some “fun, more intimate groups,” which the chorus uses for singer recruitment and development appeals. She’s also found that newspapers and other press outlets prefer photos that show the singers’ faces and expressions, which full chorus shots don’t always communicate.
“I like to shoot so that you get a sense of how big the group is but also pick one or two faces that the viewer can really emotionally connect to,” says Loken. Often a few singers in her shots will be in sharper focus to “give the sense that they are one voice but still part of a whole.” Having your photographer shoot a rehearsal or a pre-performance warm-up is also an opportunity to mix it up with some more unusual compositions. Garin likes to use the warm-up period to shoot from the perspective of the conductor or to get right in among the singers. “I think different angles with different lenses provide a new view and kind of emotion for the person looking at the photo,” she says.
The Houston Chamber Choir used both of these posed group shots in its 2014-15 brochure. "After we sent out this particular brochure, I spoke to two different people who said 'I've never subscribed before, but your brochure looks so great that I want to get involved,'" says executive director Becky Tobin. "That's really what the goal is, to draw in people who maybe wouldn't otherwise take a look." - Photos by Jeff Grass
An interesting composition or other unique touch can also add a lot to a group shot. The Houston Chamber Choir does a themed photo shoot with their singers before the start of every season. This year’s photos feature the singers dressed all in black, each sporting a different red accent piece like a tie, a flower, or, in one, case, red sunglasses and a small stuffed monkey. “We focus on the singers because people like to see people,” says executive director Becky Tobin. “We’ve really tried to make it something that’s fresh and fun.” During the shoot, Grass posed the singers in a tight group looking up, then suggested tweaking that composition by arranging them in an open circle instead. It added “our own flair” to the photo, says Tobin—and the center of the circle has proved to be a great place to insert the Choir’s logo in marketing pieces.
Talk to your photographer about how you will use the photos.
“It always works best for me when groups come with an idea of how they want to use images,” says Kristen Loken. “Are you going to be doing brochures with a mostly vertical format? Are you focusing on a development campaign and it’s really all about the faces?”
Photography is central to the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh’s current identity campaign, which pairs dramatic closeups with short statements like “Be absorbed.” or “Be inspired.” The Choir was able to give the campaign extra visibility by running it on empty billboard space donated by a national outdoor advertising firm. Photographer Alisa Garin has gotten feedback from the firm about the type of images that work well for them and says she keeps the campaign in mind during shoots, choosing compositions that pack a visual punch and include blank space for text. “That’s been a really exciting partnership that we’ve been able to evolve,” says the Choir’s executive director Mary Ann Lapinski.
Designate a staff or chorus member to be your photo stylist.
“All my best shoots for groups, I’ve worked with a stylist,” says photographer JP Candelier, who photographs a lot of bands alongside his work for the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. A photo stylist helps brainstorm ideas and scout locations, but is also there to keep an eye out for the little things that can spoil an otherwise strong image: an untucked uniform, an awkward hand position, or a misplaced water bottle. When Candelier shoots the LACC, chorus staff fill that role. “I’m paying attention to the technical aspects of a shoot while they’re paying attention to the creative side.”
An eagle eye is especially important if you’re doing a photography shoot during a pre-concert warm-up, but want it to look like a performance shot. “You have to have everyone ready,” says Jeff Grass. “What we found for a long time was that the guys wouldn’t have their ties on yet. Women would have a scarf or a wrap on because they didn’t want to get chilled before the performance.” The Houston Chamber Choir now asks its singers to come to warm-ups in full concert dress.
Enlist your chorus “family” to add to your photo archives.
The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus works with professional photographers, but captures photos in other ways as well. “We have a really wonderful staff that makes sure to have cameras on them when they are in attendance at our various events,” says Julie Larson. LACC also taps into the talents of its choristers’ parents. “When we were on tour, we created a Dropbox and invited parents to share their photos with us that way,” says Larson. “It helped us grow a great archive of photos, and also let families feel pride of ownership in having their photo included in our e-newsletters and on our blog.”
Taken by a former singer, the photo of WomenSing with its accompanist (top) is one of Infelise's favorite images of the choir. The candid shot of singers together (below) is perfect for the group's newsletter, she says. "It shoes the deep friendships between our members and it tells a story." - Bottom photo by Kristen Loken
WomenSing also uses “friends and family” photographers to augment the professional photos that they have on file. “It’s really necessary that we do both,” says Linda Infelise. “We need our singers to help with this, and we need the singers’ husbands and partners.” In fact, one of her favorite images of the chorus was taken by a past singer who continues to be involved by photographing warm-ups, concerts, and events.
Plan ahead so that your chorus’s brand shines through.
The choruses and photographers we spoke to agreed that the most important ingredient for success is for choruses to show up at a shoot with a strong idea of what they want the resulting photos to say about their organization. “When we’re thinking about our season brochure, we want something that’s attention-grabbing and that gives a sense of fun that’s not stuffy or inaccessible,” says Becky Tobin. She says that “fun-loving attitude” has become the Houston Chamber Choir’s brand and is the connective tissue behind the different visual concepts they come up with every year.
For their planned shoots, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus is careful to select choristers that represent their program in terms of diversity and age range. They make a special effort to capture shots of their male singers “to make sure that other young boys out there that might like to sing can relate to the images,” says Julie Larson. LACC’s photos also try to communicate a quality that’s harder to define: the combination of rigorous training with the pure joy of singing. “We thought, ok, well this is a dichotomy that we’d like to be able to represent in our photography,” says Larson. “The discipline of the program, but also the children acting like the children they are.”
“It is that question of how do you present your art form,” says Mary Ann Lapinski. “We need to capture the dynamic nature of our choir through the most engaging photos that we can so that people want to be there and hear it in person.”
Liza W. Beth is editor of The Voice and director of communications at Chorus America.
This article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of The Voice.