Photographing music: the point where the fun stops . . .

In the “BLUES” section of photographs on this web site is a 1964 shot of Mississippi John Hurt taken at the Cafe Yana in Boston. The single spot brings the light to his hat, his face and his guitar. I have always told people that this image (along with one of Ray Charles in the spotlight) is my own personal favorite from 50 years of music photography.

John played a week for me back in 1964 and I was so busy with watching the door and taking care of details that I didn’t get my camera out until he was doing his second set on the last night. I opened the shutter as far as it would go (i.e. f2.8) and then ‘walked’ the speed down from 1/60 to 1/30 and then all the way down to 1/4 of a second. For non-camera folks, that is a mighty slow shutter speed to capture a frozen image that is absolutely sharp.

When people ask me how was able to capture that shot, I laughingly tell them that ‘we had better drugs in those days.’

The truth of the matter is that my balance and ‘touch’ was pretty good back then and while 1/4 of a second is extraordinary, I could do some delicate things back then and have the photographs to prove it.

Well, no more . . .

I started to have shaky hands about ten years ago and it gradually got worse until I had to see a doctor about it. I thought that I had Parkinson’s Disease because my handwriting had deteriorated to a point where I could no longer write a letter or even a short note. I can write “Dick Waterman” to autograph a book or photograph but that is more ‘muscle memory’ from doing it so often. I could not write a legible paragraph to inscribe a book.

I saw a specialist in Memphis who told me that I had ‘Essential Tremor’ and, yes, you can look it up because it has its own web site and foundation that explains what it is. It even lists people who have had ET (as we call it) including Katherine Hepburn.

So I pop a pill (Propranolol) every morning and I’ve been pretty OK over the years but it now seems that time is catching up with me. I am still getting the proper results in my daytime shooting but I’m having trouble at slow shutter speeds in low light.

I was disappointed at my results at the Blues Music Awards when I was at 1/90 or 1/60 of a second. That is fine for people not moving but I had a whole lot of blurred guitarists.

My camera has an ISO of 1600 but newer cameras have 3200 and even 6400. Those higher numbers would mean that I could shoot at 1/125 of a second which will stop motion. I checked into getting a newer Nikon body and had to shake my head at some of those prices.

So if you see me at a festival this summer, I’ll be getting what I want during the daytime but squeezing that shutter very delicately at night.



    One Response to “Photographing music: the point where the fun stops . . .”

    1. You know Dick, as a documentary photographer I know that one day physical issues may affect my ability to shoot as well. I appreciate you for sharing this and I do hope that I get to actually spend time with you in person instead of just on Facebook, Soon!! 😉 I always appreciate your thoughts on Blues photography and I really love that I can rely on you as a great resource. Thanks always! Wish there were more of us who photograph the Blues! :)