A guide to good gig photography

1. Fatherson, The Garage

Fan photography is as common at gigs as hearing the audience sing back the songs, but for those wanting to come away with a shot worthy of sharing online, doing justice to what you see on stage can be a real challenge, especially if you’re relying on a camera phone to work its magic.

So how do you go about getting the best results in an environment where the subject matter moves, the lighting changes constantly and – if you have a photo pass – a ban on using flash and a three-song limit?

Here, two prominent Scottish music photographers offer their expert advice to gig-goers with cameras of any shape and size.

By Euan Robertson (website, blog, Facebook, Twitter)

I photographed my first gig in February 2010 in Inverness. I’d been playing with an old film camera I had inherited. I loved it pretty much straight away and carried on shooting loads of stuff for Detour when I got my first digital camera. I couldn’t even count how many bands I’ve photographed since then. It’s taken over my life (literally) to the point where I quit my job last year to go self-employed and do this full-time. As well as working for bands and labels directly, I freelance for various publications including NME, Clash Magazine, BBC, STV and DF Concerts.

Tips for non-DSLR users (in the crowd)
Pretty much everyone now has a camera of some form in their pocket and you can drastically improve on the photos you take at gigs by keeping a few simple things in mind.

• TURN OFF THE FLASH! This is an almost universal rule in the photo pit, primarily to avoid distracting performers. When you’re not in the pit it’s still important, but for different reasons. The flash on your camera is designed to illuminate people who are, at most, a couple of metres away. It simply isn’t strong enough to reach the stage and compete with the lighting, even from the front row. All you’ll end up with is an obscenely bright foreground with that bald guy in front of you distracting all attention from the band.
• From the crowd, you’re unlikely to get a close-up action shot of the performers. The more you zoom in, the more of an issue motion blur becomes (your shaky hand gets more noticeable the more you use your zoom) when shooting over shoulders, hands in the air – all obstacles to a nice, clear, sharp shot from the crowd. Instead, it’s better to focus on capturing the atmosphere of a show. Watch out for house lights illuminating the audience, catch some silhouettes, wait for the exaggerated moves from the singer (arms in air etc) to make them stand out.
• If using a smartphone, make sure you’re utilising its full capabilities. For example, on an iPhone, you can tap the screen to focus and set your exposure (very roughly). For example, tap a dark part of the screen and it will expose for that, brightening everything, and vice versa.
• Try not to spend the entire show with your camera in the air. Once you get a cool shot, stick it away and enjoy the show. It’s amazing how much of a performance will pass you by when you’re watching through a lens.
• Loads of venues don’t have barriers and have relatively lax rules on camera use. This means you can arrive early, get a nice spot and shoot away from the front without worrying about photo passes. Some wise words I heard when I started doing this are, “It’s much easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission”. If someone asks you to stop, that’s fine, but at least you’ll have a few shots in the bag.

In (and around) the pit
Speaking from experience, the photo pit can be a daunting place, particularly the first few times. There are a few things you can do to make sure nobody bats an eyelid, even if you’re secretly bricking it. Good etiquette is of paramount importance in the pit. A lot of it is common sense but in the heat of the moment it’s easy to forget some simple points.

• Don’t get in people’s way. If you need past, go behind, go underneath their lens or wait. If you walk through a shot, you have pissed someone off.
• Don’t leave a bag in the way. It’s dangerous, end of. Keep it on you or tuck it away.
• Move around. If you inhabit a single spot the entire time, not only will your set of shots be a bit boring, you’re also going to be getting in the way.
• If you’re behind another photographer shooting, let them know you’re there. A quick hand on the shoulder means they’re not going to fall over you when they move.
• This should go without saying, but be nice to people and invariably they will be nice back. Chat to people before/after and make connections. For the most part you only get three songs to photograph, so that’s not the time to ask for tips and advice.
• Some of the ‘old guard’ tend to look down on younger photographers, or people they don’t recognise. Thankfully, these guys are a minority. The vast majority of people I’ve encountered while doing this are great. Don’t let a condescending look put you off. You have a photo pass and are just as entitled to be there as they are.
• Security are your best friends! Or at least they should be. Always chat to security when you arrive. These guys are running the pit and if you piss them off they’ll be much less accommodating. Do what they ask you to do (within reason), be courteous (they’re there to do a job too) and you’ll have a much better time.
• Once you’ve shot a few gigs from the front and want to get in the pit, you’re going to need to start dealing with the PRs. The easiest way initially is to get in touch with the multitude of blogs that offer regular live reviews. They should have some contacts with PR agencies etc that will make it much easier to get into your first few shows. Also, with a publication (even online) behind you, it’s much easier to get in touch yourself with bands to request photo passes. There’s no golden rule to this part. Again, be nice, courteous, concise and don’t hound people. They’ll probably not get back to you for ages and there’s a good chance you won’t get a pass confirmed until the day of the gig.
• This may sound a tad negative, but be prepared to be disappointed. Sometimes someone will screw up and your name won’t be on a list, and nobody will answer their phone. This happens. Just bite the bullet and get on with it.

Techy stuff
If you can, get your camera into manual mode. You won’t appreciate how much more control you have over your photographs until you try it out. There’s no right or wrong camera for shooting gigs. An SLR will give you the most control, and with changeable lenses, you have loads of room to upgrade. Generally speaking, get the best you can afford. You’re going to want to upgrade sooner or later, so you may as well make it later.

• By and large, things are dark at gigs. You’ll need to venture into the higher regions of your ISO range – this is how sensitive your camera is to light. The higher the number, the more sensitive, but it will also bring added digital ‘noise’ to your photographs.
• Get your aperture as wide as possible, which means using as low an ‘f-stop’ as your camera will allow. This opens up the lens blades to let in more light when you take your shot.
• Once you have these set, use your shutter speed to control your exposure – this is how long the shutter stays open for. The slower you get, the more blur you will have in your photograph. Aim to keep it above 1/100 second. Every gig is different, though, so treat these as guidelines. Explore and experiment and the settings will eventually become intuitive.
• A 50mm f1.8 is an amazing lens for the money and will be a staple of your gig shooting for a long time.

Here are photos I’ve taken in Glasgow which may be useful to illustrate some points.

2. Tame Impala, ABC1

• (1,2) As much as it’s nice to get a tight shot of a singer, showing the room and the atmosphere is just as, or sometimes even more important, and doesn’t require you to do right down the front.

3. Ty Segall, Broadcast

4. Tacobonds, Bloc

5. Palma Violets, Stereo

• (3,4,5) Make the most of smaller venues that don’t photo pits. If you can get some of the crowd in, particularly if they look like they’re having fun, it’s going to add to your photograph.

6. Passion Pit, QMU

• (6) iPhone photography. If you concentrate more on the atmosphere of the shot, you’ll get something you’re happy with. This isn’t going to win any awards or be published, but it’s a nice shot of the crowd getting into a good gig. Wait for some light on the audience to lift them out of darkness.

By James Gray (website)

I started photographing gigs by accident after a friend asked me to shoot his band at King Tut’s. Since then I’ve photographed at many venues in Scotland and shot acts such as Green Day, Biffy Clyro, Kasabian, Atari Teenage Riot and Bullet For My Valentine. I was a winner of the T Break photography competition and have had work published in the Sunday Herald, The Skinny and STV. Earlier this year, I put on the SoundExposed live music photography exhibition (featured on The Pop Cop), showcasing the work of 18 music photographers.

Gig photography is challenging but also rewarding, not to mention fun. Fun, that is, apart from the fact you have no control over the subject matter or the lighting, security hate you because you are in their space and the crowd hate you because you have a better view than. I love it. No, really, it’s not that bad and the security guys are really very nice.

If, like me, you’re not on the books of a major photo or news agency and aren’t taking gig photos as a means of paying the bills, you’ll probably have a passion for music and a desire to bag some images which capture the excitement and energy of a live performance.

Finding a band to shoot
• Unless you have accreditation you’re unlikely to get anywhere near the pit, the promised land between the security barrier and the stage. At small venues featuring local bands, photographing from the crowd can be just as good, if not better, than being in the pit. You can go almost anywhere and take shots from many different angles.
• Up and down the land there are gigging bands who’d love someone to take live shots for their website. Contact bands via their website and ask if you can shoot them at their next gig. Alternatively, contact the venue or just turn up as a paying customer. Want a pass for a big-name band? Trying asking the support act instead.
• Irrespective of how you approach it, always make sure you have permission from the band before you shoot – bear in mind that 99 times out of 100 a band won’t be able, or willing, to pay for your services. However, if you’re starting out and want to build a portfolio or gain some experience it’s the best way to go.

Getting the shot right
When shooting bands you are likely to encounter some of the most harsh and unpredictable lighting scenarios in photography – low lighting, red lighting, backlighting and every other nightmare lighting scenario you can and can’t imagine. Here are some tips which may help you manage some of the challenges.

• A digital single lens reflex camera with a fast (f2.8) standard zoom lens is best. If you don’t have a fast zoom lens, a fast (f1.8) 50mm fixed lens is a good alternative. Although the fixed lens is limited in terms of variable focal length, it is great in low-light situations and a second-hand one of the Canon or Nikon variety isn’t too expensive.
• Many photographers start of on the highest ISO setting available. Personally, I recommend experimenting with ISO levels to determine the point at which noise becomes unacceptable. Setting the correct ISO level is a balancing act, but a sharp, grainy image is usually preferable to a blurred, smooth one. Remember, excessive noise can always be reduced using software such as Noise Ninja or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3. Alternatively, try converting to black and white.
• Shooting RAW images allows greater flexibility in managing the final image and dealing with any exposure issues. Alternatively, shoot RAW plus JPEG to cover all scenarios. If you’re happier with JPEG, no problem, it’s really whatever you feel most comfortable with.
• Shooting in manual mode gives the greatest control over exposure. Set your preferred ISO and dial in the widest aperture (lowest number). Experiment with shutter speeds between 1/30 and 1/200.
• Use spot metering and meter on the subject’s face rather than the stage lighting. It’s better to take a reading from a small area than an average reading from a larger area.
• Look at the action through the viewfinder. If you don’t, you may have missed that once-in-a-lifetime shot by the time you lift the camera up to your eye.
• Set the shutter drive to fire at the highest frames per second and on a three-frame burst. Some photographers recommend continuous auto focus but I prefer single AF.
• Keep an eye out for crowd action like crowdsurfing.

Pit advice
Everyone at a gig is there to have a good time. Be polite and courteous and show respect to your fellow gig-goers and photographers.

• Be especially nice to those nice guys on security. You never know when you might need their help. If they tell you to do something or not do something, I recommend you comply.
• You worked hard to get your gear so look after it. Keep bags closed (it’s amazing the amount of beer that gets thrown towards the stage). Keep straps and bags out of the way of passing traffic, both in the pit and out. That way you can avoid a potential claim for broken limbs.
• Don’t carry your camera around your neck or over your shoulder. Wrap the strap around your wrist instead.
• Make friends with your fellow photographers.
• Always carry spare batteries, memory cards and a torch. Check your gear before you get to the venue and don’t forget to reformat your memory cards. If you’re going to be close to the stage or in the pit, wear earplugs. Most venues will give you some if you ask nicely.

Compact cameras and iPhoneography
Don’t have a DSLR? Fear not, most venues allow the use of personal compact cameras or camera phones. In many cases, compact cameras carry 80% of the features of a DSLR and allow manual control over ISO levels, shutter speed and aperture. If you intend to shoot from the crowd with a compact or camera phone, here are some tips.

• Get to the gig and bag yourself a spot as close to the stage as possible.
• Use both hands to minimise camera shake. Tuck your arms into your side or rest the camera on your girlfriend/boyfriend’s head, shoulder or other suitable body part.
• Memory is cheap, shoot a lot of images.
• A bit on the short side? Turn the camera upside down and hold above your head – this will give you a few valuable inches. Just rotate the image once downloaded.
• Keep the flash turned off. Built-in flash on compacts and camera phones will have just about enough power to light the back of the head in front of you, never mind the stage. Getting closer to the action will improve your chances of getting a good shot – and it will it be brighter.
• Turn on image stabilization if you have it. And ramp up the ISO.
• Wait until the stage lighting is at its brightest.
• If you don’t have manual control, try using the night scene mode with the flash turned off.

If you’re lucky enough to be in the pit, you almost certainly won’t be allowed to use flash. No matter – you won’t need flash to capture the atmosphere and mood of a live performance. If you are going to use flash, make sure this is OK with the band and/or venue before you start.

• If you’re using flash you can probably drop the ISO. Using flash can give some really cool effects with light trails and zoom effects. Try experimenting with long shutter speeds in conjunction with second/rear-sync flash. This fires the flash at the end of the exposure rather than at the start. After pressing the shutter release, try moving the camera around or zooming the lens in or out before the flash fires which will then freeze the action.
• In the pit you will be limited to the first three songs with no flash. But no matter where you are, use flash sparingly. It can be distracting to fellow gig-goers, the band and those nice guys on security. Rather than using flash it’s better to wait until the stage lighting is sufficient to give a decent exposure.

– Don’t forget to enter The Pop Cop’s annual Best Scottish Music Photo competition

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