The challenges of concert photography

Recently I had one of the most challenging assignments as a concert photographer for the Philharmonie concert hall of Luxembourg. I thought I would put together a few thoughts on my experience so other people get an insight on what goes on when they see these images published in the national and international newspapers as well as the Philharmonie’s own publications.

The Philharmonie Luxembourg, also known officially as the Grande-Duchesse Joséphine-Charlotte, is a concert hall located in the European district of Luxembourg City, an area known as Kirchberg. It opened in 2005, now plays host to 400+ performances each year and has become one of Europe's premier concert venues.

The Philharmonie Luxembourg, also known officially as the Grande-Duchesse Joséphine-Charlotte, is a concert hall located in the European district of Luxembourg City, an area known as Kirchberg. It opened in 2005, now plays host to 400+ performances each year and has become one of Europe's premier concert venues.

«Humanity is fascinating, and if you are truly interested in it, it becomes much more fascinating yet». P. Sellars

American theater director Peter Sellars created a moving staging of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion in 2014, and in collaboration with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Choir of the Age of Enlightenment and the direction of Sir Simon Rattle we were treated in Luxembourg to a performance of such beauty that it felt somehow other-worldly. Sellars says his aim was to humanise Bach’s masterpiece.

In part, these intense feelings were enhanced by the superb lighting provided by the light technicians at the Philharmonie. It created very intimate scenes that looked like living pictures. The challenge for me was to capture these scenes in a way that my own feelings were conveyed in the images I produced. That is always what I aim for but in this occasion the difficulties were higher than average due to the very high contrast produced by deep shadows and bright lights. I was also limited as the usual spots from where I take pictures were mostly unavailable. This forced me to be inside the main hall and follow the imperative of being unnoticed and unheard as a photographer.

How did I achieve this? First of all I need to wear dark clothing so as to go as unnoticed as possible when moving around the hall. Shoes are important too since the floors are polished and they need to be made of materials that don’t produce that typical squeaky noise. I also need to know my way around the building perfectly and be cautious while moving in almost complete dark in some areas.

The Grand Auditorium of the Philharmonie Luxembourg

The Grand Auditorium of the Philharmonie Luxembourg

My equipment also plays a very important role in my endavour of going about my job as unnoticed as possible. Not so long ago, cameras used to have mechanical parts that made considerable noise especially in quiet environments. This has been a curse for photographers and the only way to go about it was to use some noise reduction housing that made cameras silent but very heavy and cumbersome. These things were also quite expensive. With the advent of Mirrorless System Cameras everything changed. I wrote another post on this subject recently called breaking the sound barrier.

Some two and a half years ago I decided to gradually move into the Sony mirrorless system and I have already completed the full switch. I could not be happier about it. These cameras are 100% silent and alow me to worry only about the content of my images. For these assignments I always carry two camera bodies, Sony a9 paired with the Sony 24-70mm f2.8 GM lens and a Sony a7RIII paired with the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 GM lens.

Knowing that I can move around without being noticed gives me the freedom to concentrate on capturing those intense and delicate moments musicians and performers go through on stage. I enjoy the whole process of producing my images, from getting my equipment ready to the digital developing of the files. Seeing my images in the press and publications always provides a sense of deep satisfaction. I can only say I am very fortunate and I absolutely love my job.

I leave you here with a small selection of the images I captured at during the performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion and I thank you for your time.

2018, a year in images

It has been a great year for my photography I am happy to say. It started with a trip to New York that left me very impressed. All about that city is just on a different scale, love it or hate it, New York will surely never leave anybody indifferent. The only thing was that freezing temperatures of down to -18C made it quite a challenge to stand outdoors for long periods of time.

On my way back to Luxembourg I started the new year with some great concerts and by early February we had our own cold spell. Snow brings beauty and quietness to the city of Luxembourg, making it even more attractive than it usually is.

2018 has been the year I finally made the transition to a mirrorless camera system. For those unsure what that really means, it’s the final step on the digital transformation of photography. Mirrorless cameras do not have the pentaprism and the mirror to produce an image in the viewfinder. The light travels through the lens directly to the digital sensor and from there it is either shown in the rear LCD screen or in the electronic viewfinder.

There are many advantages of mirrorless over DSLR cameras but for me one that made me take the plunge was the ability to shoot 100% silently. Since most of my work as a photographer is for the Philharmonie of Luxembourg I was often in situations where making any noise whatsoever was not allowed. Now I can shoot and keep one of the premises of a good concert photographer; go unnoticed.

My Sony cameras have allowed me to work in some concert halls in Europe where previously photographers could not take pictures during the concerts. One such case that I am very proud of was at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Apparently I was the very first photographer to be allowed in the hall during a concert. You can read more about this experience in my previous blog post breaking the sound barrier.

I consider myself very fortunate to be able to do something with my working life that feels like I’m not working at all. My work for the Philharmonie in Luxembourg allows me to combine two passions of mine, music and photography. I also have found a love for architecture photography and I am very happy that led to the production of a 2019 calendar for the main costumers, press and patrons of the Philharmonie.

Landscape photography was and still is something that brings me much joy. I am also very lucky to be able to work for the National Tourist Office of Luxembourg. I also got into a great collaboration with fellow and friend photographer Christophe Van Biesen to run together landscape photography workshops. It has been a great pleasure to work together with Christophe and meet so many enthusiastic photographers.

I also traveled to beautiful Slovenia with a group of friend photographers and had great fun photographing the area around Triglav National Park. Slovenia is an amazing country for nature activities of any type and it is not getting the hordes of tourists other countries get. I sincerely hope it stays like that.

Ireland and Northern Spain were two other great destinations where I enjoyed the landscapes as well as the local culture and their people.

The year is coming to an end and I hope 2019 is at least as good as 2018 was. Me and my family stayed in Luxembourg for the end of the year holidays and despite the lack of snow we got the rather unusual freezing fog which brings to the otherwise dull Winter landscape a beautiful touch of brightness and contrast.

I sincerely hope 2019 brings plenty of good things to everyone. Some recent sociopolitical, economic and ecological developments have not been promising anything good so my efforts and hopes will go towards a kinder, more understanding, fairer world.

I wish you all the very best for 2019. Take good care and enjoy!

Dhafer Youssef

After a busy weekend, I went to the Philharmonie of Luxembourg on a Sunday night to photograph a musician I had heard of but had not listened to.

I was feeling a bit tired but soon Dhafer Youssef and band made me forget all that giving one of the most electrifying concerts I have seen so far at the Philharmonie.

Dhafer Youssef's music ticks all the boxes for what I consider to be exceptional. He is a Tunisian born oud player, vocalist and composer who became interested in jazz at an early age. His music is very eclectic, daring and not self-centered. I found Dhafer Youssef to be one of those rare musicians that are not only very talented but truly engaging with the other musicians and also with the audience, giving everyone a share of the protagonism.

By the end of the concert, everyone in the hall was standing up, dancing, even hugging each other and feeling really uplifted.

I was tired no more and left the beautiful Philharmonie full of energy and dying to get home to keep listening more music from the great Dhafer Youssef while processing the many photographs I had taken during the concert.

If you feel curious about his work check his homepage

If you already knew Dhafer Youssef and have been to some of his concerts let me know what you think in the comments bellow.

As he always said at the beginning of a song...bon voyage! and we were all transported to another, higher place.

All images © Alfonso Salgueiro Photography