I was recently handed a guitar, the strap placed over my neck, for a portrait with the leader singer of a band that I had just finished shooting. I have never been more uncomfortable; musical instruments and I have never been friends. I could not play a note to save my life. Sure, I can belt out a drunken ballad late in the evening at the pub but, beyond that, don’t invite me to come entertain at your party. But I love music, especially live music, and try to consume as much as I can (though, not nearly enough as I’d like).I had always played with photography — like many, I would take my camera along when I went on holidays, but never much beyond that — but when my university research on local pub culture had me discover the rich local music scene, I discovered a passion for the camera that I never knew lay dormant within.
The first time I shot music, my brother had invited me along to have some drinks at a local where his mates, twin brothers forming the duo Grayson, were performing. I took my camera along and went to watch and have a few drinks. With my point and shoot, I spent most the evening toying with settings and capturing the gig. At the end, I had a handful of photos that I was proud of at the time. Grayson loved them and asked to use them on their MySpace (that thing before Facebook…). They invited me to subsequent gigs, and paid me to help them with some EP artwork and promo photos. Before I knew it, I had met other local acts and was shooting semi-regularly.
I should note, before I continue, that this was all done with basic gear. The truth is you don’t necessarily NEED the best gear in the world. Sure, it helps: a camera that can handle high ISO, or a wide aperture lens, can make shooting so much easier and your photos so much cleaner and crisper. But it’s not essential. I started with a small point and shoot camera — an Olympus SP350, actually — which was far from high end. Truth is, these days you could probably get away with taking photos with an iPhone and get decent photos at a gig.
When I first started, I read a lot of articles on live music photography. Amazing photographers with expensive gear and photo passes to the biggest gigs in town have written almost every article I have come across talking about live music photography. Their advice, of course, is invaluable. But, at the time, their photos taken with high end gear of international acts on well-lit stages in massive concert venues was all completely different to what I was doing. Plus, despite what many believe, you can’t rock up to any major gig and get in with a digital SLR; I’ve seen and heard of people trying it at festivals and various acts, only to be turned away to hide their camera gear in their car.Above this, while I love a massive show, I love local pub culture. The small, dark, often smelly pub; the drunken jeers; the intimacy between band and crowd; the pokey stage in the corner of the room; the often woeful lighting; this, for me, is where music happens, where I belong. And, unlike major concerts, you normally don’t need a photo pass; just introduce yourself to the performers, offer to post a few photos on Facebook and tag them in it, and everyone is normally happy. And who knows who you will meet along the way!
These pubs (or hotels or bars, depending on your local vernacular) are great training grounds for live music photography. They also serve as a great place to meet people and network.
Here are a few tips for shooting in pubs I will share after doing so for many years.
1) Above All Else, Stay SafeI have been in many a drinking hole over the past few years. Between research and shooting local bands, I have ventured into many a pub and seen a whole range of sub-cultures. There’s nothing scary about shooting a gig, but, and I want to emphasise this, it is NOT without risk. I have been in some of the roughest venues in my home city and I have never had a problem. But things happen.
Obviously if you know the band, this is a massive advantage. They will know you are taking photos of them, so they will likely throw a pose for you and what not or you might be able to jump up on the side of the stage for a better angle. But they will also keep an eye on you. It is also a great idea to say g’day to the bouncers and let them know you are taking photos with the band. And an introduction to the bar manager never hurts.
The best advice I can give, especially if you are new to it, is never go to a pub to shoot a band alone. Go with a friend. (Even better, go with two so your friend isn’t bored while you’re taking photos!) If for no other reason, it means you have someone to a) look after your drink while you take photos, and b) to look after your camera while you duck off to the toilet. But it’s also someone else to watch your back.
While I would love to say “Ah, nah, you’ll be right!” in my strongest mock Aussie accent, it’s a pub. People will be drinking, and, sometimes, drunk people aren’t always friendly (or they’re too friendly). If someone says “Take a photo of me!” just do it to get them off your back.
2) Flash Free Zone!While, yes, rules are made to be broken, and I have seen some amazing photos where flash has been used, the general rule is leave your flash at home (or ensure it is turned off).
Sometimes, it is so tempting to throw on a flash. Some pubs and local music venues are so dark it is almost impossible to get a photo. But flash is frowned upon in a photo pit of any major performance so, if that’s your end goal, start learning now to shoot without. But the biggest thing is that you are in a pub. Again, people are drinking. You do not want to risk blinding a drunk person and causing a problem!
Beyond this, though, by not using your flash, especially on-board flash if you’re using a smaller camera, is you capture the true mood and tone of the room. Stage lighting is often unique and beautiful; vivid colours can paint the stage in unique colours, cut beams of light through smoke, and add so much more to your photo than just the blinding light of direct flash.
3) Basic Rules of Thumb
No setting is concrete. And different people have different ways of approaching live music photography. But this is where I, personally, normally start with a few of my settings and I adapt from there depending on the environment.Manual or TV / Shutter Priority Mode — These days I tend to shoot mostly manual. But if I go back into one of the automatic modes, I use TV or Shutter Priority mode. While you can shoot in Program mode (not full Automatic, as you don’t want flash being used), I like having control over my shutter speed. When shooting in dark environments, especially with energetic performers, you want to freeze the motion. If your shutter is too slow, you will have blurry photos. I tend to start around 1/200 with my 85mm these days, and change on the fly. It largely depends on the focal length of your lens as to what speed will be quick enough to stop motion in low light situations.
Spot Metering — If you are relying on the camera to fix your exposure, you want Spot Metering. You want to expose the singer, not the advertisement for $10 Snitties on Tuesday in the background. Don’t forget your exposure lock button; expose for the eyes / face, and readjust your composition after if necessary.
ISO — Lower is, of course, better if you are after clean, clear, noise free photos. But, you know what, I don’t mind so much these days. Especially in the pub, noise makes the photo more authentic. Besides, I would prefer a noisy photo over one filled with blur.
RAW — Shoot RAW. You will take yourself later when it comes to editing!
4) Two Essentials
Two things help a lot shooting a gig. Especially in a dark pub.
Take lots of memory. You will be taking a lot of photos. Don’t delete anything — the time spent looking through your photos for something delete may lead you to miss something! So, the first essential? A big memory card (or lots of small memory cards). Just lots of memory!
If possible, try and shoot with something with a wide aperture. This does not need to be an expensive addition to your kit. For example, if you are shooting Canon, a 50mm f/1.8 will make shooting gigs so much easier. Nikon, Canon and even Yongnuo all make seriously cheap 50mm f/1.8 lenses (around $100), so it’s more than affordable. But, don’t think you can’t take a good photo with a kit lens, either…
5) Composition In A Crowded Room
Firstly, learn to move around the room, but be careful. Last thing you want to do is knock someone’s drink over!
i) Try for a natural look. Don’t wait for the singer/guitarist to pose for you with some over-the-top rock star pose if it’s unnatural for them. Capture them doing what they do best.
ii) That guitar is mighty shiny, huh? But look elsewhere! The pedals at the guitarist’s feet, the drummer up the back of the stage, a hand wrapped around a microphone.iii) You’re in a pub which, normally, by the end of the night, is up, dancing, singing, and cheering along with the band. Capturing the crowd getting into the music can be just as exciting as a photo of the leader singer belting out the high note.
iv) Think outside the box. At one pub gig I was enjoying, a photographer I knew decided to sit on the floor behind me and started taking photos from under my chair. The room was packed, but it was a laid back gig, with people seated on the floor in front of the stage, then some in chairs back toward the rear or the room, with standing room only behind the chairs. The venue was so packed, there were even people standing outside in the rain listening to the performance. By using the angle from under my chair, with my legs acting as a frame, the camera tilted slightly, the photos of the guitarist rocking out looked unique. And finding something unique is half the challenge!
v) If you can, if this is a band who play regularly near you, go and just enjoy their music for a gig or two before you take your camera. You can get to know the performers and introduce yourself and ask to take photos at the following gig, but you will also learn a few things about their performances. Knowing which songs have big notes that they hit or which song has a rocking guitar solo or drum solo will mean you will know when you have to get ready and where you want to be looking during a particular song.
6) Finally, ENJOY!
If you ever get to a bigger gig or festival, you’ll be in the pit, normally, for three songs. Then you will be punted out to the back of the crowd. Treat the pub the same! People won’t mind you weaving around them to the front of the stage in the pub to take some photos, but they will mind if you do it all night and constantly get in their way. Take photos for a few, then sit back and enjoy the music. And have a beer for me!