Music photography, where to start… well it’s not something for the faint hearted that’s for sure, at any level. Any type of photography requires a vast amount of passion and dedication, as all types pose challenges and require patience. Music photography has its own and I guess that varies from gig to gig, venue to venue.
I started out as a hobby photographer, merely for the pleasure, not even really showcasing much of my work. This in itself is criminal… I recently read a quote that really struck a chord with me. A photograph that has not been shared or at least printed is almost an unexistent photograph, is almost an untaken picture – unknown .
Photography is not my only passion in life, that being music, live music! Having attended a fair few gigs I was asked by a friend/promoter whether I fancied bringing my camera along and taking a few photos for his company. Hell Yeah! That was the start of the completion of my life, two huge loves, thrown together into the most perfect combination.
What I wasn’t prepared for, was how different music photography was and the huge challenges that it imposes. I had no idea that the techniques needed would be so vastly different and my first few gigs produced little, if no usable results what so ever. I had to literally go back to basics and start again, learning a completely new way to use my camera.
Firstly not many venues allow flash photography and even if they do I prefer to keep my shots more organic if possible. Working with coloured stage lighting can prove extremely troublesome, especially when the vast use of pure colour washes comes into the equation. The lens cannot find clarity in features, and of course the dreaded red lighting that looks so cool to the audience member is the bane of any music togs life! However, get it right, get a shot at the right moment and working with the colours on stage can produce the best images going. For me, it gives a real feel for a gig which is my ultimate aim of achievement. I like my photographs to tell a story, to paint a picture of what a gig was really like and to give a feel for the atmosphere. My aim is to make someone feel as though they were really there, in the moment, in the audience and hopefully make them want to be there in the future!
Non flash use is not always possible in very small venues, even the best equipment in the world can only cope with a certain level of lighting limitations. At times you have to compromise in order to get any sort of shots. I guess in these circumstances it is worth the trade off, after all, what’s the point of no usable photographs? It also depends what sort of gig you are at.
For me the entire story of a gig means crowd photography. Showing how the audience interacts with a band completes the picture. Covering a lot of metal and heavy rock gigs means a lot of ‘mosh’ pits. Not for the faint hearted and I can often be found hiding behind speakers at the edge of the stage, peaking round with camera in hand. But I love these photo’s, I’m a bit of a hands on photographer, creeping in as close as I dare, getting into people’s faces with the camera to capture the action and true atmosphere of a genre that is often misunderstood. You do need to have your wits about you at all times around a pit, one eye through a lens and one on the ‘mosh’, otherwise you can quickly find yourself at the bottom of a stack of bodies, but all in the friendliest of manners, honestly.
So that’s the lighting challenge, next? Movement. As I stated many bands I photograph are from the metal and rock genre and man can these guys move. For me personally this is the best challenge, the one I love. The more a band moves around on stage, the more exciting they are too me. I feel myself becoming drawn in and only when I get home do I realize just how many photo’s I have actually taken and need to cull. Getting a clear, non-blurred shot of a band thrashing around on stage or head banging is nowhere near as easy as you may think, especially not when you combine this to the low lighting levels. A combination of ISO adjustments, wide lenses, shutter speeds, patience and luck is needed to get that great shot. When you do, it’s oh so worth it. Nothing beats the excitement of getting home from a gig, pouring a drink and putting that memory card into the laptop. The anticipation of having ‘the’ shot on that card transports me back to being a child on Christmas Eve. You may have an idea of what you have on your camera but it is not until you truly see a photo in large that you can tell if it’s as good as you think.
That’s small venue photography. Large venue photography is different again. I won’t go into this in too much depth but once you have your press pit pass, what are your main challenges? The press! Honestly, the lightening at these venues is much brighter, so gone is that challenge to a certain degree. Flash photography is totally out of the equation but then it’s not required so much. As long as you have put in the practice at small, poor light venues, getting your settings right with the much brighter stage lighting, should not prove too much of a challenge. You do have the restriction of only being able to photograph for the first 3 songs of any bands set, so the main difference here is having to work fast and hope that the band is kind to you.
In my experience, it is usually later in on in a set that a band really gets going, so it can be frustrating to watch them later move in a way you just know would have given some awesome pictures. All that aside, as I touched on earlier, the biggest challenge is the other togs… large venue gigs are extremely competitive in my experience and you find yourself literally fighting for a shot, or being pushed and shoved out of the way. It’s not a part of photography that I enjoy to be honest, as to me it feels like the original reasons for becoming a photographer have been forgotten. In these circumstances I merely try to focus on the band and try to ignore as much as possible all the madness ensuing around me. Zone out from the pushing in front of your lens and just take a deep breath. I guess that it’s important to remember at all times, why you are taking photographs of a band. What does it mean to you? Keep that at the forefront of your mind, because as soon as it is not enjoyable it will show in your pictures.
Equipment, I could get very technical here but there are many articles published on the net about basic and advanced equipment for gig photography. My main advice would be to have a camera that shoots in RAW as RAW captures 3/4 more information than JPEG. Yes you can have a flash DSRL with a telephoto lens (not really needed at small venues as you can get close enough), a wide lens, etc… However I’ve seen some great shots captured with a basic compact set on the right settings and bridge cameras with a fixed lens. In fact that is how I started and even now I keep my equipment to a minimum. You simply do not need all the flash stuff at small venue gigs, it can easily be damaged and you may look a little daft. Shoot in RAW, play with your ISO and shutter speeds until you find what works.
Most importantly, don’t shoot the entire gig. Take time to watch and appreciate the gig itself. When you are taking pictures, show you are enjoying and appreciating the band. You will get far more interaction out of them that way and may even be lucky enough to even get a posed shot. The most important part of gig photography? To simply ENJOY!
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