Some things I learnt as a live music photographer

This was one of the first live music photos I ever took.  Box-Ed, The Outfit, taken at the Nevermind The Warp'd Festival 2013 with a Cannon 1100D
This was one of the first live music photos I ever took. Box-Ed, The Outfit, taken at the Nevermind The Warp’d Festival 2013 with a Canon 1100D

This really weird thing has been happening over the last month or so.  People are coming to me, asking for photography advice.  Whether the question is about equipment choices, camera settings or just how do you get into live music photography, it really kind of catches me from left field.  It’s not that I don’t like these queries, it’s just that I’m pretty much self-taught.  I’ve never really considered myself as having ‘expert’ skills or knowledge.

If I can atrociously paraphrase Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (yes I’m a sucker for that movie):

“I’m just a boy…  standing in front of a band… hoping i can get a good shot.”

This year I started doing promo shoots for bands.  This Now You Die, captured using a Cannon 6D
This year I started doing promo shoots for bands. Pictured: Now You Die, captured using a Canon 6D

I‘ve been using a DSLR for about three years and kind of just fell into live music photography about two years ago when I started bringing the camera to mates shows.  The challenge of getting a good shot in a dark pub with subjects moving around kind of caught my interest… and the music was good, really good.  After just wandering into gigs for a year, I started going to more and more gigs and created the Sub v2.0 Photography website. The rest as they say is history.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m the world’s greatest authority on live music photography, but I thought it might be useful to share some of the things I’ve learnt along the way.  Hopefully these tips are useful for someone having a go at live music photography for the first time.

10 tips for improving your live music photography

1. Respect everyone

Be nice to the punters... Captured with a Cannon 6D
Be nice to the punters… Captured with a Canon 6D

This includes venue staff, security, bands, punters and other photographers.  If you want to continue returning to a venue, it’s really not a good idea to piss off venue staff or security.  Similarly if you’re there to record the performance of a band, pissing them off by getting in their way, jumping on stage uninvited, or in some other way interfering with their performance is not likely to get you the best pictures, let alone the good will of bands.  Trying to be unobtrusive in relation to punters and other photographers is also a good idea.  You are more likely to get some great candid shots and, on the odd occasions where you need to change position in relation to the performers, you are more likely to receive good will from patrons and other photographers.

“Somewhere on my hard drive is a collection of photographs of another photographer’s arse as they repeatedly jumped on stage in line with my shot… don’t be that photographer.”

2. Talk to people

Funnily enough, when you talk to people you find shit out, like info on upcoming gigs and other opportunities.  By talking to people you also have the chance to explain why you are taking photos and what you plan to do with them.  Being transparent is really important and you need to give people the opportunity to retract their consent for their photographs to be used.  I have a terms of use policy on the website, but I also let bands know how I’m going to use the photos directly whenever practicably possible.

If you look closely you can see my head  in amongst the crowd at a hardcore gig. Photographer unknown
If you look closely you can see my head in amongst the crowd at a hardcore gig. Photographer unknown

3. Be aware of your environment

I mainly photograph punk and hardcore shows.  Standing at the front of the stage with several thousands of dollars worth of equipment while the punters are going off can be a little risky at times.  I’ve found that generally other punters are pretty protective of me, especially since I’ve gotten to know more of Melbourne’s punk community (see tip 2), however there have been a couple of times where I’ve been knocked onto my arse.  Make sure you look up from your camera between shots and try shooting with both eyes open so that you retain some peripheral vision (yes I know I’m crap at the second bit).

4. Avoid using a flash

I avoid using flash or other lighting wherever possible.  This isn’t due to any aesthetic choice, I just figure that the last thing bands need is my flash going off in their faces every other moment (see tip 1).

I totally missed Abe from Now You Die smashing his bass in spectacular fashion (or so I'm told) last year as I was busy chimping.  A boot on a smashed bass doesn't really carry the same drama.
I totally missed Abe from Now You Die smashing his bass in spectacular fashion (or so I’m told) last year, due to chimping 😦

5. Avoid ‘chimping’

Chimping is the act of constantly dropping your head to check out your shots.  I’m an absolute sinner when it comes to this and as a consequence I’ve missed some absolutely fantastic photo opportunities. Chimping also means that you are less aware of your environment (see tip 3).

6. Look after your ears

This is another one I’m pretty shit at.  Quite often the perfect position for a shot… is right next to the bloody speakers.  This of course can be damaging to your hearing and while hearing is not a necessity for photographers, it does make tips 2 and 3 a bit more difficult to achieve. Ear plugs can be a valuable addition to any live music photographers kit.

7. Familiarise yourself with a venue’s lighting

Bloody laser lighting gives me the shits
Bloody laser lighting gives me the shits! Pictured: Killamedic

Photographers deal in light. Live music venues are tricky beasts when it comes to light, with spaces alternating between darkness and overlit, not to mention the changing colour and patterns of the lighting.  As I’ve spent more time at different venues I’ve gotten more accustomed to the different lighting environments.  As I’ve gotten to know different environments better, I’ve become more practiced in selecting the prime positions to capture a decent shot at each of the different venues.

There are some venues that have appalling lighting situations, and when I’ve got a number of different gigs that I can elect to attend on a given date, sometimes the lighting situation will be a deciding factor regarding which show I select to attend.

8. Don’t ‘spray and pray’

It can be tempting in the heat of the moment to set your camera to rapid shoot and spray away, however there are a number of down sides to this.

I shoot in RAW format, a file format that enables far more versatility when editing, than smaller JPEG files.  Given the larger size of this file format, it is dead easy to fill a 32 GB card over the course of the night.  Additionally once I get the images home, I have to spend time going through all of the images captured, sorting out which ones to edit and which to discard.

It’s for this reason, that more and more often I find myself setting the camera to single shot and focusing more on waiting for that ‘óne shot’.

Pictured: Kati, Liquor Snatch
Pictured: Kati, Liquor Snatch

9. Don’t forget the drummer

I wrote about this a while back and it still stands true.  Drummers can be a pain in the arse to photograph.  Your auto focus is often drawn to the bright shiny things in front of the drummer and all too often they are poorly lit.  Added to this, with smaller stages you may need to shoot past all the other band members between you and the drummer.  Despite the added degree of difficulty when it comes to drummers, they can be a worthy subject for your camera… so don’t forget the drummer!

10. Practice, Practice, Practice

Like most things in life practice is the key to getting better.

What’s in the bag?

Still one of my favourite images, this photo of Dik and Josh was taken with my old Canon 1100D.  The 100D was the base model of the Canon's DSLR range at the time.
Still one of my favourite images, this photo of Dik and Josh was taken with my old Canon 1100D. The 1100D was the base model of the Canon’s DSLR range at the time.

Ask any photographer what pisses them off the most and it will usually be the often heard comment that goes something like…

“Gee that’s a nice camera, you must be able to take some great photos with that.”

Equipment does not make a good photographer.  Having said that, over time I’ve developed a kit that I find is a best fit for my live music photography.

Normally at a gig, my kit consists of:

  • A backpack style camera bag – this helps reduce stress on my shoulder that a tote style bag can cause
  • Canon 6D Camera body
  • 40 mm, 50 mm and 85 mm prime lenses

If I’m capturing video, I’ll also usually pack a Rode Stereo microphone and my tripod.

I use prime lenses ( a non zoom lens) rather than zooms as they are generally cheaper than zoom lenses.  Prime lenses also offer a shallower depth of field (f stop value e.g. f 2.8).  The depth of field is achieved by opening the aperture wider in the lens, a by-product of which, is to allow more light to the sensor ( a necessity in dark environments).  To purchase a zoom lens with similar capabilities can cost quite a deal more money than the value of my three prime lenses combined.

The drawbacks to using prime lenses however is that you need to cart three lenses rather than one or two, and you can miss shots while changing over lenses.  Additionally lens changes in a dark, busy environment increase the potential for you to damage either your camera, lens or both.

Camera Settings

I shoot on manual mode.  This offers me the most flexibility when shooting and while today’s cameras are pretty smart, nothing can replace the human eye.  My one concession is to use auto focus as I’m shit at manually focusing.

Obviously camera settings will vary between different cameras and different environmental conditions, however generally speaking I:

  • Try to avoid dropping shutter speed below 1/100 (1/160 for drummers or other fast movers)
  • Try to avoid going above 6400 ISO (this will vary lots from camera to camera)
  • Will vary depth of field (f stop value) dependent upon the type of shot I’m trying to take and lighting conditions

Okay that’s it for now.  I’m sure I will learn heaps more stuff as I continue to photograph bands.  My final tip:

“If you’re new to this then get on out there and take lot’s of pics and if you’re comparing them to someone else’s try to do it constructively rather than using it as a big stick to tell yourself you’re no good.”

(Note: Feature photo taken by Om-j Whey De Fister with my… ahem… selfie stick (it’s a tripod Om-j!!!) Pictured from screen left to right: Me and Om-j)