How to get started in gig photography.
My name is Will Carter and I have been shooting bands in all sorts of venues pretty much solidly for the last couple of years. I have experienced the near dark small pub or club, right through to 'The Main Stage' at a major festival, and even shooting at the iconic Royal Albert Hall in London. The majority of shooting does take place in the darker smaller venues which are always gonna be your biggest challenge, but one I always look forward to conquering.
When I was starting out it was not easy to find any sort of guide that was simple, or explained what I wanted to know so I will try and explain what has made me successful in getting 'The Shot'. I will try and take you on a step by step guide on exactly what I do, and why you need to find your own style, which is probably the hardest part. Hopefully this will give you an idea of where to start.
So you want to give it a go?
So, you've decided you want to give live music photography a go. You may already be well versed in other forms of photography like landscape or Portraiture etc, where you have all the time in the world to set up for the shot you are after, normally with pretty decent lighting. Well this is where the biggest difference will be.
Live music photography can be the most frustrating thing on the planet one moment, then the most rewarding the next. Most medium to larger venues with relatively successful bands will only allow you to shoot the first 3 songs only with no flash, so you really need to be on the ball right from the off. Smaller venues or smaller bands may allow you to shoot their whole set, but the lighting is normally pretty poor in these kind of venues, and still no flash.
What equipment do I need?
Well to start with you can shoot with a bridge camera or even some high end compact cameras and can achieve reasonable results, but you will eventually need to get yourself a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera, or one of the new mirror less cameras which are a lot lighter. I can only speak from experience so will take you through my kit and what I use to get the results I do.
I started with a crop sensor Nikon D7000 and a 50mm f1.4 lens, both these items can be picked up relatively cheap and will do a good job, although you are restricted with no zoom.
I then upgraded to an older camera, but a full frame professional body Nikon D3 and a 24-70mm f2.8 lens. The Nikon D3 was the first Nikon full frame camera and is incredible in low light situations and to this day is an awesome piece of kit. It is built like a tank and will last forever. The 24-70mm lens will certainly cover most situations in most small to medium sized venues and is a must have piece of kit in my opinion.
Next up for me was a Nikon D500 which is a crop sensor camera but has pretty much the guts of the flagship D5 which retails around £5k, but costs about 1/3 of the price. The dynamic range is just amazing and the low light capabilities are great. Being a crop sensor camera I use a 17-55mm DX lens which is the rough equivalent of the 24-70mm on a full frame sensor. I also use a 10.5mm fisheye lens with this camera for some amazing results. This is the camera that I use most today.
I also use a Nikon D3s which is an upgraded version of the D3, just with a better sensor and video function added. Again it is a professional body with full frame sensor and also built like a tank. I normally use a 70-200mm lens with this body for those shots that a 24-70mm lens just can't reach.
You will definitely need the fastest lens that you can afford, with f2.8 being the minimum. You can use a f1.4 or f1.8 lens which will also do great although f2.8 should cover most if not all situations you will come across.
There will be Canon, Sony, Fuji and other brands that will do just as good, but I am a Nikon man and am very happy with the performance and results I get from my kit.
How do I get in to shoot a band?
I guess the first question that needs answering is how? How do you get into a venue to shoot a band in the first place?
Well there are many ways that you can do this, but there are no shortcuts unless you are friends with a band and they let you shoot them.
Start with local smaller venues where young bands or local bands normally would welcome the publicity, and this alone should give you a nice bargaining chip. Provide the band with images they can use on social media in exchange for them allowing you to shoot their set. This way you get a chance to shoot and try out this wonderful low light gig photography and may even see your photos used by the band.
Social media is always a good place to start when looking for local bands to contact and shoot. Check out your local area music scene and check their gig schedule. Now you can either contact the band directly or if they have a manager then contact them.
There are also plenty of online music blogs or magazines that will have access to more venues and bands who may well require photographers in certain areas. Remember though, you will probably be shooting for a single publication and they will want the exclusive use of the images in return for a photo pass, at least for the first few weeks after shooting. You will need to show them your work first usually.
You've got the pass, now what?
So you've been successful and they have agreed for you to shoot their gig, now what?
Make sure that you know what kit you will take and make sure that all batteries are fully charged and all memory cards are formatted and ready a good 24 hours before you are due to shoot. Trust me when I say “Do Not Leave Until The Last Minute”, you will regret it as there is no time to sort any issues out.
It helps to be comfortable with your camera and know the settings but this will all come with experience, and the more you shoot the more second nature everything becomes.
If you do not know the venue then it is always worth getting there an hour early just to get the lay of the land and see where exactly you will be allowed to shoot etc. If it is a successful band in a small venue, you may want to get there extra early and be front of the queue so you can secure your spot by the stage (you probably won't be moving much until the end with this so make sure you have everything you need with you).
Before shooting, my camera settings will always be set to Manual Mode, ISO2000, 1/200, and Spot Metering Mode. I will adjust accordingly once I can see how the lighting is. Also make sure that your lens is set to Auto Focus and always shoot in RAW as this contains the most data for post processing.
Time to start shooting.
Depending on the venue and the crowd, you will normally have to go into stealth mode, and by that I mean making yourself invisible as much as possible so you don't get in the way of paying punters. You may well have to manoeuvre yourself in between people to get the best angle to get the shot, but just be polite and most people will allow you to jump in front to take a couple of shots then move away again.
With the larger venues there will normally be a pit (an area cordoned off between the stage and the crowd). This is where all the photographers will shoot from and normally just the first three songs are allowed. This can get busy depending on venue and band, and some areas are quite tight and have quite a few photographers all fighting for the same spots. A bit of advice I would give here is to move away from the other photographers where possible or you will just have exactly the same shot as ten other photographers. You want to try and get the shot that the others have missed or a different angle to the norm. This will stand you in good stead for bringing that individual touch to your photos.
A few tips I would give new gig photographers is to always focus on the face, make sure you get the whole instrument in shot, wait until the singer moves away from the mic so you can see their mouth, and look for angles rather than a straight up and down shot (don't be afraid to be different, it's what will make you stand out from the crowd).
First and foremost get some shots of the singer/frontman, then you can work your way around the rest of the band. Drummers are normally the most difficult to shoot as they are tucked away at the back normally in poor lighting, also if you want to freeze the action and not have a blurry drumstick you will need to up your speed, maybe as high as 1/500s which will also mean you will have to raise your ISO as well to enable the light to get in. Don't be afraid to shoot at ISO5000 or 6400, especially with more modern cameras. As long as the image is in focus you can always improve the noise in post editing.
You have a camera full of images, now what?
Ok, so you've successfully shot your first gig. Now it's time to see how well you did.
Download all images to your computer and always make a back up copy as well. I use an external hard drive as a back up and copy all images once loaded onto the computer, straight over to the external hard drive.
Trust me, you do not want a computer crash or corruption to destroy all your hard work that you can never get back. This is a necessity if shooting for a publication as it will not go down very well if you have no images to give them.
Which editing software to use?
I personally use Photoshop Elements which is a cheap version of Photoshop with slightly less options. I use this to initially import and edit my chosen images and save them to a folder. I will then import the finished images into Lightroom where I can add my watermark to a complete set of pictures in one move. (It is important to add some kind of watermark to your images. This will help protect them from people stealing your images and using without permission. Some publications or bands may want images without your watermark on them which is fine, as long as they credit you as the photographer in their post).
What to do with your finished images?
Now you have your finished edited images ready to go, remember to share them on social media and mention the band in question (Only pick your best 20 - 30 images, and make sure there are no repeats). This will not only get your image more exposure, but also support the band you have shot.
If you are shooting for a publication then make sure you send the images as soon as possible to the person in question at the size they require. This is normally done by email or by using a transfer service such as WeTransfer.
Be proud of the images you have shot and start planning for the next gig.