A Day in the Life of a Live Music Photographer
Written 6 years ago by Guest Contributor
This is a first person narrative on gig photography. I encourage you to go into reading this as if it were a journey through time, unraveling a story about a young man with a passion.
That being said, I hope to help you better understand and make use of your time going into shooting a show.
I am by no means a professional photographer, however I do have a lot of experience and I believe the quality of my photos allows me to feel confident enough to write this post. I am a 21-year-old college student working as a sound engineer in a small concert venue called the M-Shop in the middle of Iowa.
I have an overactive hobby and a love for wide apertures and high ISO’s. I have shot bands such as O.A.R‚ Cartel‚ Ludo‚ The Morning Light‚ Howie Day and Straylight Run. I am currently lined up to shoot a few other gigs including Cold War Kids‚ Motion City Soundtrack‚ and HelloGoodbye.
This is my life and I love it.
I shoot with a Nikon D90 and a variety of lenses including my favorites – a 50mm f/1.8 a 24mm 2.8 and a 70-200 f/2.8. I have always loved music – especially live music. There is something in the emotion and energy radiating through the room during a concert that I simply cannot shake for days after the show. I live for that feeling. Shooting concerts gives me the ability to capture that emotion and feeling in the venue at the time.
I prefer shooting for bands that I am familiar with, however, this is not always the case. You may find yourself shooting a festival or just a small show at a local joint to get some practice in. Either way, if you have the means, pick up the bands CD if you don’t know the music. Take a listen and plan for the type of shooting you will be doing. Knowing when the emotional outcries and jamming guitar solos are going to pour out can help you capture the perfect moment.
Before any show, there are a few things I always do. I create/confirm a few presets on my camera, black and white, high contrast, and then a specific “Live” setting. The D90 has a great ability to create custom photo scenes. My “Live” scene consists of a sharpening boost, typically a -0.7 EV and very slight decrease in saturation.
I also have quick menus setup so I can make sure my camera settings are all correct. This includes a high ISO 800+ depending on lighting conditions in the venue, Autofocus illumination OFF this is so important if you want to avoid making any band members upset and annoyed. I also turn on AF or continuous/servo autofocus. This allows me to make sure that things stay in focus (when I use autofocus.)
Now that my camera is set, I typically do something that may seem a little silly to most people, but it really helps me stabilize my shooting and get consistently clearer pictures. Before I head out for the show, I take my camera with me into a dark room, typically my bathroom (no windows) and I practice adjusting my ISO, White Balance and EV +/- with the lights off. I’ll then turn on a very small light, flashlight or cell phone backlight and use it to illuminate something in the room. I then take a few pictures, adjusting slightly in-between frames. Just practicing keeping my hands steady and my ability to adjust on the fly. This may seem ridiculous, but basketball players shoot free throws hundreds of times a day, why cant a photographer.
It’s time to head out to the shoot. I have to stress this here – you will not be able to take your professional equipment into a large venue with a bigger act without a photo pass or press pass. This is something you have to acquire on your own terms. I have been presented with them in the past, and I have also had to seek them out. If you are just starting out, I highly suggest hitting your local venues with small local bands first where you most likely wont need a pass to shoot.
If the venue is large, like a music hall or outdoor pavilion/amphitheater, I grab my pass and my gear (if you aren’t sure what gear to take, check out my post that covers how to pack your bag) and I head in. I make my way up to the front where I am greeted by someone typically 3 times my size wanting to know why I am trying to get up there. This is where my charming personality and ability to talk to people comes in. I quickly make friends with the security person and introduce myself and explain what I am doing.
They usually have plenty of experience with photographers, but trust me, these are the last people you want to piss off. I make it a very strong point to be as friendly and nice to these people as possible. Remember, you are going to be in there while they are trying to do their job, as well as you do yours. In the past, I have made such an impression on security at a show, I actually got some more work. The company wanted me to get some shots of their guys in action to use for promotion.
Shooting a larger show typically mandates two minor things. No flash and only shooting during the first 3 songs of the headliner. Thus I follow a few simple rules while shooting. Before the show starts, typically during the opener, I get my settings fine-tuned, making sure that I am consistently grabbing well exposed, good quality shots. This allows me the ability to – as they say in the military, fire and forget.
Outdoor venues pose a little bit more of a challenge. As the show goes on, the sunlight dwindles and you have to be adjusting quickly and know what you are doing. This is where my practice comes in.
Within the first 30 seconds of the first song, I analyze the stage plot and figure out what will make for good pictures, angles, framing and lighting. One of the other reasons I suggest making friends with the security up front is so that you feel more comfortable running back and forth in the pit. To get from one side of the stage to the other you will have to jog in front or behind them and sometimes zig zag through them while they pull people from the crowd. I have never had a problem with anyone at any of the shows I have shot because I am polite and allow him or her to keep doing their job while I try and do mine.
All my settings are set. I am comfortable with the security got my bag close with my lenses‚ I only take 2 or maybe 3 MAX. Not nearly enough time to switch back and fourth. This is where knowing the music comes in handy. I start firing away on high burst setting. With the fast paced action on stage I usually try and shoot two or 3 shots at a time. This can be the difference between the lead singer screaming into the microphone or looking lackluster and expressionless.
Shooting the concert is just something that you have to go out and do. I don’t have very many tips for getting the good shot or angle. The best I can do is tell you what I have told you and encourage you to seek inspiration. I know there are a lot of people out there that I turn to for inspiration, some I know personally, others I just know their work. But nothing makes me more excited for a shoot then looking at someone else’s work I admire and striving to achieve their level of quality and success.
As I mention over and over again don’t worry about taking too many pictures. Buy a big enough memory stick and be ready to fill it up. Being comfortable with the camera you are using and knowing how to use it will help you. The editing process is almost as fun as the shooting. Time to shoot away.
After the third song I pack up my stuff, thank the security again and give a nice wave to the band thanking them. Occasionally I will take some shots from the back of the crowd or some shots from around the venue. It all depends on what I am going for with the shoot. I then sit back or stand and enjoy the show.
After the show depending on the band and the venue I stick around to personally thank the band and compliment the show. If it’s a local venue, like the M-Shop, the one I work at, then I offer my business card and usually offer them all of the photos for no charge to use for promotion (mainly because I am just in it for practice anyway and very rarely get paid for my work, at this stage in my career anyway).
Everyone edits photos in their own style. I think this along with a few aspects of the raw files gives each photographer his or her own style. I have been told many things about my personal style, but I don’t like to give my opinion on how I shoot. I like it to speak for itself. Editing through hundreds of images can take a lot of time and be very frustrating.
I have used Aperture in the past but am currently making the switch to Lightroom 3 with the Nik Software package. My workflow is quite erratic and never really consistent which is a problem that I have. I typically start eliminating the images that I do not like. This usually drops my total by at least half. Considering most of my shots are doubles or triples taken within fractions of seconds from each other.
I then move to quick editing and batch adjustments, exposures, details, highlight recovery and contrast. I typically like to pull in a lot of dark and shadows to accentuate the highlights and colors. I then make another round of flagging this time. I don’t delete anymore because management often requests the photos you take and I provide them with this list and highlight the ones that I spent more time on.
Once I have flagged all the photos I see potential in, I continue with the editing process usually doing sharpening and noise reduction using Nik Software. This is where I put my spin on all of my photographs and really work hard to make each picture unique.
Once I am happy with all of my images, I’m done! The whole process takes me between 5 and 10 days. Needless to say, I am happy when I finish but I cannot wait for the next show.
That, my friends, is a very long and hopefully helpful narrative of a day/week, in the shoes of someone who loves photography and live music. I hope you enjoyed it. If you want to see more of my photography and other day-to-day art feel free to drop by my personal site at markzikra.com and drop me a comment or two!
If you have some live photography pictures of your own please leave a comment below with a link to them! I always love to see some of the stuff other people create!
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