Two years as a concert photographer. What I learned along the way.
This past weekend marked my two year anniversary as a concert photographer. I got my first press pass for Forbidden Fruit Festival in Dublin and shot the entire weekend as the ‘semi-official’ photographer for the festival. That was extremely lucky and opened up a lot of doors for me — I will go into that later. In the next few paragraphs I’m going to go through the things I wish I knew when I was starting out and hopefully help to inspire some new photographers to get into this exciting and rewarding genre of photography.
You really don’t need the best equipment
I’ll start this off by telling you a bit about my kit and what’s in my camera bag. It’s pretty basic (an understatement) and hasn’t changed much in the past two years unfortunately but I feel it has made my photography a lot better. I’m constantly being restricted by the limitations of my camera and lenses but the more I use it the more I learn and I feel like it’s making me a better photographer. All the photos you will see on this page would have been taken on my beat up Nikon D90 and a couple of lenses including the Nikkor 50mm f1.8, Tokina 11–16mm f2.8 and the Nikkor 70–300mm f4–5.6. There are also a couple of lenses I borrow every now and then which are the Nikkor 35mm f1.8 and the Nikkor 10.5mm f2.8. Top-tip: If you’re starting out and have friends who have DSLR’s, always buy the same brand as them so you can beg, borrow and steal lenses from them when you need them!
Develop a style
As I said, my set up is pretty basic and as you can see above, it has been used a lot over the past number of years but don’t let an old camera and basic equipment ever hold you back. It was pretty daunting the first time I walked into a photo pit at a festival and seeing everyone with multiple camera bodies and lenses the length of my forearm. I’m sure their camera straps cost more than the second hand 50mm f1.8 lens I was using but at the end of the day, it’s the photos that do the talking and not the equipment. Old shitty cameras only make your photography better. That’s the main thing I’ve learned for sure. I’ve been stressed out by blurry or dark photos, photos that are way to grainy to be useable and shots that I’ve missed because my autofocus couldn’t handle the lighting and movement. Like most people I blamed my camera and lenses but I knew I had to keep shooting even though I didn’t have the ‘ideal’ camera and set up for music photography. One day it clicked — I can’t take the amazingly sharp and beautifully lit photos when it’s dark like the rest of the guys in the photo pit so I changed my approach to suit my camera and it’s limitations: I’m going to take dark, moody photos and focus on composition to make the photo interesting. I would over-expose the image slightly and in Lightroom I would bring down the exposure and shadows which would cancel out some of the noise from my small, old sensor. This helped me develop my style and see photos no one else shot.
Since then, the photos I take are more artistic than journalistic. These catch peoples eyes a lot more than ‘normal’ gig photos and festivals love artistic photos to make their event look beautiful and exciting.
New bands that are staring out in your area also love dramatic artistic photos. It gives the photos a feeling that a ‘professional’ took them and not just one of their friends with an iPhone or even a decent DSLR. You have the skill and that’s the difference. Working with these bands is also very very important. Do some research and find out which bands are working hard and trying to make a name for themselves. Shoot them, talk to them after the show, develop a relationship with them and you’ll always be their go-to guy. A lot of people will tell you not to give away your photos for free, but with young and new bands I see it as an investment. Sure, you could shoot 6 or 7 bands a couple of times and give them free photos and if nothing comes of it you’re working for free. But if one of the bands starts to make it, you will have been there from the start and already have the relationship with them. Then you can start charging for photos. They will also have friends in other bands they’ve met on the circuit and if they’re really impressed with your photos they’ll recommend you to shoot their shows. It’s all about getting your name out there.
Working for music blogs
Most cities have music blogs which review shows and have news about upcoming bands in the area. Email every single one of them with a portfolio. You don’t have a portfolio? Find a local venue and go there twice a week for two weeks and take photos. Most small venues don’t have restrictions on the camera equipment you can bring in and you can shoot the show from the crowd. Be courteous and only shoot the first three songs (normal shooting rules) and then leave the band alone after that. Maybe take a few room shots from the back and sides. Once you have some awesome photos throw them together on a website (even a Tumblr) and use that to apply as a photographer for music blogs.
Most music publications are run by people who love music and love the scene. They’re not there to make money and probably can’t pay the photographers or writers. This is fine. It’s fun and helps you build up a portfolio. More importantly, you meet other photographers in the pit. These guys very from being hobbyists to pros. Make friends with them, add them on the social networks and share your photos from the show on social media. Express your interest into photography and ask them questions about their career and how they ‘made it’. Let them know you have passion and are trying your best to be a photographer. If these guys are ever double booked for a gig they might recommend you for a job or have you come with them as a second shooter. I know it sounds like a long shot but it has happened to me many times and is a great way of building connections that will ultimately help you.
Shoot the moments in between, shoot the smiles the band members give each other, shoot them tuning, shoot interesting photos of their pedalboards or amps. Tell a story. A photo is awesome, but a collection of 10 photos which can tell a story and keep a viewer interested until the very end is even better. I’ve looked through too many photo albums of live shows and seen the same photo after photo after photo after photo. It gets boring and predictable. Shoot wide, shoot close. Don’t be the photographer with two angles of each band member and then one wide shot of the entire band at the end. Listen to the music, wait for the drops. Get your focus ready. Watch where the singer is looking. Is he reeling up a bunch of microphone cable into his hand? He’s probably going to jump into the pit and sing to the crowd from the barrier. Get your wide angle ready for that. It’s all about anticipating the shot, and also about being able to capture stuff you weren’t ready for with the wrong lens. That’s a bit contradictory but I’m trying to say it’s about being sharp. Think quick and never settle of average.
Keep everything. And backup.
At the first festival I shot I came home each night, went through each photos in the import window in Lightroom and manually selected wether to import or discard each photo then and there. Big mistake. Import everything and then edit the ones you like. I regularly go back to old albums in Lightroom and have a look through them. I find photos I never edited that I now love. My editing technique has come a long way since then and I also see photos differently. It really is amazing what you’ll see now and what you didn’t see then. Even if you’re not in the music photography field you should go through old albums. Learn, re-edit and see how far you’ve come.
Also back up everything all the time. I really don’t need to go into this because you know you should. And I know I should have too, but I lost an entire HDD full of photos including photos for a client I spend an entire weekend shooting. I put close to 20 hours into the photos and they never got them. And I never got paid. Lesson learned.
Get out there and shoot. It’s amazingly rewarding and you never stop learning. It’s fast paced, tricky, and disappointing sometimes. But when you open up Lightroom after a gig and see amazing shots, it makes it all worth while and makes you want to shoot more.