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Behind The Curtain: Nick Harding

By Erin McCallum.

The intention of this article has always been to provide readers with deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues Collective. With that mandate in mind, one might expect that musicians are the sole focus with respect to who is featured in each instalment of Behind The Curtain. While it is true that musicians are a primary focus, other artists certainly contribute to the Blues Collective, and play an important role in contributing to the Blues music scene as we know it. One of those artists is photographer, Nick Harding. He’s someone who has actively been contributing to the Canadian Blues landscape from behind the lens for the past 20 years, and many artists, presenters, and venues have become familiar with his presence, photography, and that “je ne sais quoi” that identifies his work before his watermark is seen. For this month’s instalment, Harding has a candid conversation about what inspires him, his philosophy behind his shooting style, and what advice he would offer aspiring photographers looking to pursue a path in live music photography.

For those who don’t know, Nick Harding is a photographer who has found his niche photographing musicians in a live setting. If you are an artist, or someone who attends live Blues shows in Ontario, there’s a good chance you’ve been in a room with Harding; it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that he attends as many shows as any heavily touring musician in the province. If you haven’t seen him, there’s an even better chance you’ve seen his photos on band websites, social media platforms and promotional material.

In conversation, Nick confirms what is seemingly evident when looking at his work – he’s always had a passion for Blues music. His work originated in videography, and evolved organically, from taking still images from that visual medium into shooting manual photographs exclusively.

In asking Harding the very first question of our discussion, a picture is painted that summarizes much of what likely makes his work so identifiable.

Asking Nick Harding what he thinks makes a great shot, he says:

“I’ve always been interested in Blues music, and when I go out there to shoot, I am looking to capture moments. That moment, sometimes, isn’t even necessarily musical, but it is a moment that captures the personality of the artist. That, for me, is what I’m looking for, and what makes a great shot that I can work with and consider it a good shot. There are lots of great photographers out there who take a more journalistic approach – they are really documenting the event, almost like an exact record of what happened. My approach is to look for moments and capture them more than simply creating an accurate record of what happened at that particular event, so to me, what makes a great photo is when that moment is captured, and the artist’s personality comes through in the shot.”

Photo Credit: Nick Harding.

One could imagine that any live music performance might be one of the most challenging settings for a photographer; variable lighting, different venues, indoor and outdoor settings, and more – and moving targets are the primary focus.

It was a fair question to ask Harding what he thinks is the most difficult part of live music photography. He offers readers this:

“The hardest part is probably dealing with certain stage lighting – red and blue lighting is the most challenging. If it’s an artist I really want to shoot, but I have difficulty with lighting, it requires a lot of post work to really try and pull that moment to where it’s good for what I want to see as a final shot.” (Of note – post work refers to the editing process that takes place after a shoot is complete, and the raw photos are edited, touched up, corrected, watermarked, and finished to the photographer’s satisfaction.)

In looking at Harding’s immense catalogue of finished and published work, and knowing that there is an involved amount of work that occurs behind closed doors after the live event is over, it made sense to ask how many shots it takes to get the shots that are satisfactory:

“After you narrow down a shoot or series of photographs, there are usually only a couple that end up being ones that are ‘money shots’. It depends on a lot of factors though too, so the amount of shots it takes changes, depending on the setting you’re in, and even the artists you are shooting. For example, once you’ve seen an artist who is seasoned a number of times, you have a sense of what their signature moves are where you can capture that moment you’re looking for. Some of those artists are ones that I have seen countless times, so you can anticipate what is going to happen next. Also, there are venues you get to know too, and in some cases, you can anticipate the shooting conditions to some degree if you know the venue too – there are some venues where I have some of my camera settings set to the room in advance because I already have an idea about what the lights or the background I have to work with are going to be like. Factors like that can affect how many photos you might have to take before you find one that looks good enough to keep and work with.”

Photo Credit: Nick Harding.

When asked what advice Harding would offer to any photographers aspiring to follow that same path of shooting live music photography, he says:

“As far as shooting advice goes, I would tell someone to try not to be seen. Generally, you want to be there without the artist knowing you’re there – it’s better for capturing moments, if you want to shoot in a more artistic or less journalistic way if you blend into the environment. As far as shooting goes – I shoot everything RAW as opposed to JPEG; all of the edits I do are in RAW file, and its easier to make enhancements. Another piece of advice I would give to aspiring photographers is to learn from what others are doing and incorporate it into your own style – I’ve been given suggestions that are maybe a simple setting change on an ISO setting, and it opens up a whole new perspective on how I want to shoot. My shots don’t look like anyone else’s but that advice from another photographer added to my skillset and allowed me to develop my style of shooting, and it’s a great way for others to build on their own style as well.”

As the conversation with Nick Harding came to a close, there was one question left unanswered: What keeps his interest after decades of shooting live Blues music?

“The thing that keeps me interested is discovering new talent and new venues. I have presets in my post processing that are venue specific, or even environment specific for indoors and outdoors. I have different lenses for different settings and different cameras too, however, there is constant adjustments needed, even in those settings – especially live – so that keeps it interesting too. That constant adjustment, being a fan of the Blues, and that idea of capturing a moment is what keeps the interest.”

For those who come across Nick Harding’s work (and if you are a Blues fan, the chances are pretty high that you will), perhaps there is more insight after looking ‘behind the curtain’ about his intention, and the artistry that resided in each of his images. You’ll see a distinct style with the images he captures, as well as the artist’s emotion as the moment is captured through Nick’s experience. Countless artists on the scene have showcased their art through his - and for that reason, it is safe to say that Harding is a member of the Blues Collective who’s contributions are vital in nurturing and maintaining the live Blues landscape.

As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Photo Credit: Nick Harding.

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years.

Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.

Erin McCallum

Big Voice. Big Sound.

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