As an avid music fan I love attending live shows and take my camera whenever I can.
Many of these shows are small and have no dedicated ‘press pit’ where professionals take photos, meaning I can get right up close to where the action is and reduce the chance of people obscuring my images.
Some of these shows however do have press pits filled with security guards, pros and sadly, sometimes, bad amateur photographers.
I have no problem with amateur photographers, I am one myself, but on many occasions these ‘photographers’ have no idea what they are doing and break many of the unwritten rules of live music photography. As a fellow photographer this grates on me and is something I want to help reduce (hence this How To).
This ‘breaking of the unwritten rules’ was very much in evidence at a show I attended a few years ago at the Mo’ Club Southampton. Sadly I did not have a press pass but did manage to get to the front. This show featured three bands including the very talented Devin Townsend.
As the show began the pros came in to do their thing, taking quick, unobtrusive shots of the band. To my surprise I spotted a person I know in the press pit clutching a low end DSLR camera. I was rather shocked and jealous at the access she had and was intrigued to see what she would do. I was surprised to see she was using the basic lens that came with the camera (I will discuss appropriate kit later in this post), but I thought I’d give her the benefit of the doubt. And then those doubts where thrown away, as she was thrown out of the press pit. She had approached the lead singer with her camera in automatic mode and began focusing, not manually or by using the cameras focusing beam but by using burst flash. Not only is this distracting for the audience but for the band itself and she was removed by security after an ignored reprimand.
Unfortunately this is not an isolated event, I have been at many shows where people who class themselves as ‘pro’ or ‘semi-pro’ annoy both the artist and their fans by continually flashing.
Venue Lighting Vs Flash
One of my cardinal rules of music photography is never use a flash apart from in special circumstances. Not only does it annoy people but it will, in most cases ruin great shots.
Take for instance the image below.
This shot was taken using the venue lights alone and has far more atmosphere then an image that’s bleached out by a flash, but this sort of image is only attainable with a very fast lens which I will cover in the next section.
I have two kits that I use when shooting live music and this depends on the venue and whether I have a press pass or not.
My first kit consists of a compact semi-pro camera the Canon G10, pictured below.
This is the camera I use for small shows or festivals where I can’t take larger equipment. This camera is perfect for gigs due to the metal body, image stabilized zoom and fully manual controls. Even with this camera I do not use the flash and instead control the camera manually, setting a high ISO such as 800 which enables me to use a faster shutter speed freezing movements.
Below are a few sample images taken with this camera with no flash.
As you can see some of these images are slightly grainy due to the high ISO, this can be edited later in Photoshop or reduced dramatically by using more professional equipment like a DSLR.
My other kit consists of a Canon 50D digital SLR and either a 50mm f/1.8 or a f/1.4 lens.
These lenses are probably the most important part of my kit and what I would recommend for anyone wanting to get into live photography.
Due to the size of the optics and very wide aperture this lens lets in far more light than the standard kit lenses meaning you can shoot quicker and really freeze your subjects. It also means you don’t have to use that pesky flash!
This is Canon’s current line of 50mm lenses, the f/1.8, f/1.4 & f/1.2 L Series.
These lenses retail for £89, £299 & £1259 respectively however the cheaper two can be found for under £70 & £200 if you know where to look and even cheaper if you buy second hand. I have found the f/1.8 for around £50 and the f/1.4 for £170.
Below are some images I have taken with a 50mm lens.
Another benefit of not using a flash is that the background is usually obscured in darkness which can really help when the venues backdrop is messy or distracting.
These images were taken at the front of the stage but at The Answer show there was no press pit meaning I had to shoot from the crowd, this doesn’t bother me but is does raise another point about etiquette.
When you are shooting in the crowd, no matter what kit you are using you have to be respectful of others who are there to enjoy the music and don’t want a photographer getting in the way and blocking their view.
The best thing to do is be polite and quick when taking pictures, don’t barge through or stand directly in front of people, sometimes crouching can produce the best images.
There will always be Ragamuffins
No matter how courteous you are you will always get someone who is aggravated by you presence. When shooting from the balcony at ‘the Answer’s gig I had one gentleman push and shove me out of the way shouting. I had lent on the balcony to take a few images and was trying my hardest not to block anyone’s view. I turned to tell the gentleman that I was press and would only be a few moments, and to my surprise when I turned I was confronted by a respectable looking man in his mid-fifties. You never know who is going to give you grief at a show and no matter what you should be polite and respectful.
Some people opt to use zoom lenses for live photography which when done right can be very effective, if I was to recommend such a lens it would be the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L Series lens. Even though this lens is rather expensive (retailing at an eye watering £1739) it will yield great results due to the wide aperture of f/2.8.
Tamron make an equivalent lens that can be found for around £400 second hand and would be a far better choice for amateurs (it’s definitely on my shopping list!).
To recap here are the main points I would recommend for any budding music photographer.
- Never use the built in flash, if you must flash try to use an external flash an bounce away from the performers
- Be courteous to the bands and others around you
- If you have a DSLR buy a fast 50mm prime lens or zoom lens and don’t use the kit lens that comes with the camera
- Always shoot on manual and use a high ISO such as 800
- Think about interesting composition and try and catch action shots.
- Always take spare batteries and memory cards
- Always shot on a high speed mode if you use a DSLR, this means you take hundreds (or even thousands) of shots but you have the reassurance that some will be ok, it’s always better to take too many images than not enough.
- One rule of professional music photography is that you only shoot for the first few minutes of a few songs and then again at the end of the set, I don’t really do this but it can be handy for long sets
And most importantly have fun! Music photography is a great way to meet new people including some of your favourite bands.
In my next post I will be discuss film cameras and why they are far better than today’s digital equivalents.