Kara Smarsh: St. Vincent, SXSW 2014

The Image

Kara Smarsh

Stubb’s, Austin, TX, USA

Time / Date:
11:15 PM, March 2014

The Technical

Camera Body: Nikon D600
Lens: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART

Camera Settings:

Shutter Speed: 1/500s
Aperture: f/1.4
ISO: 1250
Focal Length: 35mm

The Story


I began shooting music as a teen who was interested in the music scene but was more of an artist than a musician. I purchased my first DSLR at age 18, but during college was largely on hiatus, choosing to focus on what I considered to be career-driving degrees in Biology and Graphic Design. After graduating and starting a job in design, I felt a need to continue my growing my photography portfolio, and I began pursuing photography for the music industry again in mid-2012, but this time with more serious and well-defined goals.

The Scene: 

This was my first trip to SXSW, and my first day of shooting while in Austin. I had booked my day completely full with other shooting goals located all around the city, but after receiving an approval email to be guest-listed and given a photo pass specifically for NPR Music’s showcase, I made it a priority to be at Stubb’s, the host venue, with plenty of time to shoot the earlier acts and get used to the environment of the venue.


I’ve been shooting with my Nikon D600 for almost a year now. It is my first full-frame camera and I completely love it. I had used three Canon bodies before switching to a NIkon D7000 (my previous camera body) and I don’t regret it. It isn’t as known for it’s video capabilities as comparable Canon bodies, but when comparing the color-depth and grain quality between the manufacturers I was sure of my decision to begin shooting Nikon.
This trip was my first time shooting with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art series lens. I never want to take it off! Truthfully the only time I do now is if I want to go wider or if I need more zoom.

Making the Shot:

The three acts before St. Vincent left me slightly unprepared as far as competing for the shot is concerned. It was surprisingly cold outside (Stubb’s is an outdoor venue), everyone was tired, and the opening acts were quite good, but by no means the main attraction. Despite the photo pit being full of other photographers, I had had no trouble getting into prime positions and making great shots. When St. Vincent came on stage, however, every photographer raced for the closest position to her microphone.

Annie Clark’s stage presence has definitely evolved with her latest release, with much of it involving robotic dance routines and very little movement around the stage. I wanted to continue shooting with my 35mm because I knew that it could create great images and I didn’t want to miss a shot while changing lenses, but I was also worried that I wouldn’t get a chance from my position at stage left.

Eventually she did start to move around the stage some, mostly to emphasize important guitar licks. I took advantage of my knowledge of her song structures to wait for large gestures and changes in stage lighting. Knowing an artist’s body of work is a huge advantage when shooting for the music industry, both on stage and off. The lighting was incredibly touch and go, and as you can maybe tell, started out as an unflattering mix of yellow, blue and purple.

Editing & Processing:

To be fair, this image was incredibly overexposed straight out of camera. However, I feel like a lot of my best work is done when I have to be more creative to “save” a photograph.

I do receive a fair amount of questions about my editing techniques, but I don’t have any special tricks! I started learning photo editing by working in Curves and Selective Color in Photoshop, and much of Lightroom, which I now use, is based around those concepts. I always start with exposure correction and make sure to go back and re-adjust as I work my way down the adjustments panel. For this image and for the majority of my work I literally adjust every single setting. If I can’t figure out certain stage lighting, this can sometimes be a nightmare, but I’m a total perfectionist and will work at it until it is right. Fortunately this image came together pretty easily after I adjusted the exposure, and the rich look was achieved mostly through color adjustments.

Looking Back:

I may be one of the few concert photographers who really loves to work with and manipulate stage lighting. Red lights? Give them to me. This image was a favorite of mine because I was able to work with the lighting I was given to create an image that really looked like it was lit purposefully — brightly lit with deeply saturated colors highlighting the subject’s severe and strangely beautiful features.

I feel like my overall body of work also represents the relationship I have with lighting. I really like to make images that tell something about the artist through a moment in time, and I also strive to get the lighting looking right to help facilitate that.


I would definitely say to know your camera equipment and know the artist, so that you can have an idea of what to expect. I love music photography because a huge portion of it is intuition. Some photographers have a lot of talent for being able to feel what is going to happen in a song or during a performance, but this is also something that you learn from being around the music scene. No one really ever knows what is going to happen in a performance, and times when I have worked with artists beforehand to make sure that I captured specific shots I actually struggled because I was thinking too hard about getting them instead of letting the mood of the concert drive my actions.


I’m definitely inspired by my friends Chris Phelps and Mitchell Wojcik. They’re both really great photographers who work around the music industry and they’re also both very modest about their talents, which I appreciate.
I also find a lot of inspiration through being involved in the process of producing a live show (even if that only means observing and photographing). The more involved I get in the music scene, the more aware I become of how incredibly hard everyone works, from musicians, to lighting designers, sound engineers, managers, tour managers, label owners, publicists, you name it. Doing these kind of things takes a lot of dedication and self-motivation and that isn’t something that happens unless you really love what you are doing.

Passion drives the music industry in every aspect and that’s exactly where music and photography come together for me.

Kara Smarsh

About the Photographer

Kara Smarsh is a photographer currently based in Columbus, Ohio. She frequently travels to shoot and is looking to embark upon more freelance or long-term opportunities in the future. Feel free to contact Kara:

Website: www.karasmarshphotography.com
Blog: blog.karasmarshphotography.com
Twitter: @karasmarsh
Instagram: @karasmarsh

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