Music has always been an important part of my life. So too has been photography. Given these facts it’s not that surprising that one of my favourite things to do with my camera is to head off to a local gig and indulge both interests simultaneously.
It’s not just because I enjoy the music that I find shooting a live performance so rewarding. It is also a fairly challenging field of photography and when I feel that I’ve got a good result from a shoot I can get quite some satisfaction out of it.
Let me make it clear at this point that I have only ever shot at small music venues. I’ve never been lucky enough to shoot at a large concert hall. Conditions in such a venue would be quite different to shooting in the small pubs and clubs that I am used to.
Many of these venues have either a very small stage area or no stage at all. They are usually cramped, with tables wedged in right up to where the performers are. The lighting can often be best described as “challenging”. Very low light and often lots of different coloured spot lights illuminating quite a small area don’t make conditions ideal for the photographer. I find that red spot lights in particular can do all kinds of nasty things to flesh tones. Sometimes it’s great to pick up and use the lighting effects, other times they can ruin an otherwise good shot. Chaotic coloured lighting can be one good reason (and not the only one) to process your photos in black and white.
Getting a good view of the action is the first challenge. You have to remember that there are other people in the room who have paid their money just as you have in order to relax, listen to the music and watch the band. They do not want to have their view constantly blocked by somebody wielding a huge DSLR and a long lens. By the same token you also have to consider the musicians. You don’t want to be distracting them from their work too much and they certainly won’t be happy if you’re preventing the audience from enjoying their music with all your flitting around to get a good shot. Finding good positions that give you an interesting angle on your subjects whilst at the same time not distracting the band or audience is therefore your first hurdle as a photographer of live music.
Next we must consider what is “on stage” (assuming there is a stage). Hopefully some musicians will be present with their instruments. But then there will be microphone stands, speakers, cables, music stands, chairs, possibly small tables – all manner of musical paraphernalia. Microphone stands and microphones are one of my pet hates as they can hide so much of an artists face whilst also casting ugly shadows over them and that is the very place you’ll be looking to find some of the raw emotion that musical performances can bring out. It is also possible to make such distracting elements work for you in your photo however, depending upon how the artist interacts with the microphone and its stand. It can be difficult to separate the performers from their equipment and from each other if the performing area is small. I often find that I have the rogue neck of an instrument sticking into my field of view, or somebody’s hand or elbow.
I’ve already mentioned coloured lights, but we also have the challenge of low light to consider. You might be surprised to find just how much you need to crank up your ISO in order to get a reasonable exposure given that there might be spot lights in use. A good wide aperture will help you here of course, although that can also make your depth of field pretty shallow so expect to miss your focus a few times. I tend to underexpose my gig photos by at least a stop based on my camera’s meter anyway. Often you’ll have the performers with a dark background behind them which will “fool” the meter in your camera. You want to expose for the performers, not the background. I’ll either shoot in full manual mode, or if I know I want to take advantage of a lens with a wide aperture I’ll use aperture priority mode and dial in a bit of exposure compensation. The same approach is used if I switch to shutter priority which I might do if I want to make sure my exposures are fast enough to prevent camera shake or if I’m trying to freeze the action. Sometimes it can be interesting to emphasise movement : a hand strumming a guitar, drum sticks forming a blur as they beat the skins. However to get a low enough shutter speed to register the movement you’ll be risking camera shake. Tripods are rarely going to be an option in a venue like this. A monopod might be possible but is also an extra encumbrance (I can just see myself swiping a load of drinks off a nearby table with it when I move to find a different vantage point). Another option is to find something to brace yourself or your camera with, even if it’s just leaning against a wall it can give you the extra stability required to drop that shutter speed down a bit.
The subject of cranking up the ISO mentioned above brings me on to another of my pet hates: sensor noise. When I got my first DSLR (a Canon EOS 20D) I loved how “clean” the images looked after stepping up from the small sensor of a digital compact camera. I find that I like film grain but not digital grain, hence I do tend to call the former “grain” and the latter “noise”. I now shoot with an EOS 7D which is certainly much better at controlling noise at high ISO than either my 20D or my 40D were. However, noise is still very noticeable to me once I get up to ISO 1600 or above. If I bolt on my 70-200mm f4L lens then I can find myself having to go up to ISO 3200 to make up for that relatively small f4 aperture.
Generally I like to shoot with prime lenses, but in a small, cramped venue a zoom can be very handy as it’s not so easy to zoom with your feet in such an environment. If I can get in really close then I like my 50mm f1.4 (equivalent of an 80mm lens when used on my 7D), but my 100mm f2.8 macro is a more generally useful lens for this sort of work. It has a telephoto reach combined with a still moderately wide aperture and it is also a pretty damn sharp lens. Yes, I would love to be shooting with an EOS 5D Mk III for its performance at high ISO, I’ll have to take a lot more excellent photos and get well paid for them if I’m ever going to afford one though. I’ll be interested to see if the low light performance of the newly announced 6D is up to scratch, but even though I’m sure that will be a cheaper body I’m not really in a position to go out and buy any new camera equipment at the moment.
Having just said that noise is another “pet hate”, another option is to go with it and see that noise as just part and parcel of the environment. A gritty, grainy photo can add to the atmosphere you capture, it’s just that I’d like to be able to add the grain when I want to rather than have it imposed upon me by technical limitations of the camera I’m shooting with.
As I said earlier, processing your photos as black and white images is a good way to deal with chaotic lighting rigs. It can also help with noise reduction as a lot of the noise tends to be in the colour channels (particularly the blue channel). Even leaving these considerations aside I can find myself simply preferring a black and white photograph anyway. The further I go with my photography the more I feel that colour can be a distraction in a photograph if it’s not actually saying something and enhancing the mood of the image in some way. Maybe not a point of view shared by many, but then this is my own personal view of my music photography. Sometimes I might like the mood that the coloured lighting is evoking so I’ll make use of it. At other times I feel that black and white can evoke a classic “music press” look.
So far I’ve talked a lot about the technical challenges of photographing a live music performance. Another challenge is in making sure that you capture those special moments in a performance. An artist might hold a particular expression for a fraction of a second, but it’s a fraction of a second which can say so much in a photograph. I will take advantage of the high frame rate of my 7D, set it into high speed burst mode and fire the thing off like a machine gun at times. This can help no end in capturing “the moment” just as it can with sports photography, although it will also lead to having a heck of a lot of photos to pick your way through, looking for the best takes. I’d rather have to deal with that than find I’ve missed all the moments I was trying to capture. Shooting this way does make me feel a bit of a cheat. At 8 frames per second, how is it possible to miss anything?
I try to keep an eye out for unique little moments in a performance. Maybe the band are sharing a joke on stage. Maybe something has gone wrong and they’re having a laugh about it. Maybe they have a little routine or story telling they go through before playing a certain song. The better you know the performers the better your chances of capturing these moments. I recently missed a good example of this at a performance by Govannen. To introduce a song one of the performers who was playing the bodhran used it as a prop to illustrate “the moon” rising behind another artists head. At the time this was happening I was politely taking advantage of the pause in the music (remember my earlier comments about frustrating the audience and band?) to move to a new position to shoot from and in so doing I missed the opportunity. Tough luck.
One of these days I would love to get the opportunity to shoot a live music performance at a larger venue, with a press pit and a professional lighting rig. But until then I’ll keep popping along to local gigs at small venues, honing my skills and techniques in the hopes that if the opportunity does arise then I’ll be better equipped to make a good job of it. As quite a large bonus that should mean I’m out and about hearing lots of great music and meeting new friends as I do so.