When it comes to gig photography, when I started out, I didn’t think I would even last five minutes, let alone celebrate a year of it! As I write this, I have caught a total of 119 different artists from behind my lens. With crowds totalling between 15 to 9,500 people behind me. Despite only doing this for short period of one year, I often get people at venue bars, or friends or relatives ask me the most popular question:
“How did you get to do this?”
If I am being brutally honest, It was only a little over a year ago when I was asking people the exact same question. I knew it was something that I had wanted to do back from the days when I was queuing for hours to ensure to get up the front of the stage so I could get the clearest photo, despite the fact that the flash on the point and shoot would strip all the colours of the stage lighting, give the artists red eyes and destroy the skin tones of everyone involved.
Let us take the photography aspect out of the question for a moment though. Most concert goers are generally there to see their heroes, their idols, or the music that has a lot of influence on these peoples lives. To hear it in it’s raw live state, and to see it performed by the artists in the flesh. Prior to being a photographer, I was, and still am to this day, a die hard music fan. Music is almost like lifeblood to me, and if music is my lifeblood, then gig photography is the drug I am dependent on. They go hand in hand.
Once I got into photography in a serious level and bought a camera that wasn’t fully automatic. One could say that I was in for a shock. Not just for the cost of the equipment, but the amount of time that it would take for me to understand my equipment. When I had joined a camera club temporarily to start a beginners course, I was essentially told to get rid of the lens that it came with, as It was going to hinder me in the long run for indoor shooting. Outdoor shooting wouldn’t be so bad, but I would struggle in low light conditions. She wasn’t wrong, but I kept it for a while as most of my shooting was done outdoors at the time.
Over the years, a couple of friends of mine had pushed for me to contact promoters, venue managers, local artists to see if I could be allowed shoot some of their shows. Being a shy and nervous person around new people, as well as very doubtful of my skills at the time. I kept brushing it off and brushing it off until a gig had come up that a friend of mine could possibly get me in on the guest list and a pass for the show. To say I was excited was an understatement, but at the same time, I was a nervous wreck.
I had approximately one week to do as much research as I could. I didn’t even know if flash was allowed or not (I would discover this just before I entered the venue, but brought it along just in case), what settings to use on my camera. Before I knew it, it was gig day and I was no better off than I was one week prior to the show! Luckily, some other photographers gave me some invaluable advice regarding my settings (things like switching to Aperture priority mode as I wasn’t comfortable shooting manual at that point), and ensuring my ISO was set up as high as it could go.
The problem was also my limited equipment. I was shooting with a Nikon D3000, as well as an 18-55mm kit lens and a 55-200mm f/4-5.6 lens. Needless to say, the kit lens didn’t last very long in that bag after the show, when I had discovered that I didn’t have much in the way of usable shots after my three songs were done. It was a little disappointing, but the feeling of being in that photographers pit never went away. Even when I kicked back and enjoyed the show, the adrenaline was still pumping away. That was Iced Earth in Dublin in August 2012, and although I got in on the guest list, the show was worth it so much that I bought a t-shirt from the merch stall just to give something back, as it was about the same price as the ticket cost would have been.
At this point, I began to invest in newer lenses for the upcoming shows, and just as I was looking forward to shooting my next show, I had a sinking feeling that the rug was being pulled from me. The promoter got angry and annoyed as he had discovered a handful of people were posing as photographers just to get on the guest list to shows, and that he was pulling access. My heart sank as I was only getting into the industry. If I’m honest, I almost quit the idea of being a gig photographer there and then. Had it not been for the encouragement of one of my closest friends. I would not be writing this right now.
The dispute ended up being settled for as long as I paid for my ticket. Not exactly an unreasonable demand for the experience to be gained. It was a small enough venue (600 people approx, I think) and could see his side. I still have a good relationship with the promoter to this day as a result of that. I was back in the game! I also ended up shooting a couple of local bands, who had no problem with me coming in and taking a few photos of them. Slowly but surely, I was starting to feel more comfortable at the thought of moving around and getting different positions for shots of all the different band members.
Before I knew it, four months had gone by, and I had counted the amount of bands I had shot. Five bands! I thought I was doing pretty good in one respect, and then I realised, if I needed to build a portfolio, I was going to need to shoot more acts! Most importantly, I was going to need to upgrade my equipment. My entry level gear was no longer going to cut it. So with Christmas and my birthday had come and gone. I bought a 35mm f/1.8 prime lens and a new camera body capable of going higher than ISO 1600! At this stage, I had invested a considerable amount of money into a hobby/profession that nothing was guaranteed. And that’s the gamble.
When you start off in gig photography, very little is guaranteed. You will walk into a photo pit and will know nobody, whereas you’ll find several people who know each other. You certainly won’t know if you’ll get another gig after this one. And even when you do get some good shots at your first gig, what are you going to do with them? Where are you going to publish them? These are all things you need to consider when you first get into concert photography. Do you have other idea for photography and the equipment you will buy if the gig photography thing doesn’t work out for you? More importantly, do you have enough determination to make it work for you? Because you’ll certainly need it.
I cannot stress this enough, and Bob Dylan said it best, but when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Do not be afraid to email a band or a promoter and introduce yourself, that you are looking to get a start into gig photography and could they help you out to build your portfolio. If you’re really genuine about it, you can assure them that you have your ticket already paid for and that you’re not looking to freeload your way into the gig. Throw some samples of your work onto a website or a flickr, or social network and put the link in the email to briefly display your previous work. The worst that can happen is they either say no, or worse, you hear nothing back.
I’ve had a couple of artists come back to me saying that they would have absolutely no problem with me shooting their show. At the end of the day, artists are human too, and when they started off, they also had to beg, borrow, scratch and crawl and cajole to promoters and venue owners to give them a gig. So they were in a similar boat to us at one stage or another in their careers too. So do not be afraid to email them directly! Offer a few shots as a courtesy if you like. Some will tell you this is a big no-no as it undermines the value of your work but occasionally, you will need to do something if you want to get your foot in the door. I would say try not to make a habit of it.
So six months into shooting, and I’m getting slightly bigger venues to shoot. Not exactly stadiums or arenas, but in this business when you start off. If you think you’re going to be shooting Coldplay at your nearest football stadium as your first gig shoot. I hate to break it to you, but you’re most likely living in a dream land. This is probably just as well because you will learn how lighting works in the worst light venues. It’s at this point where you will realise that the training wheels will come off and you need to discover how to shoot in manual mode. This isn’t difficult to get to hang of, even if it’s trial and error, however you do need to think fast when you’re doing this. If possible, get to the venue early and play around with it before the band comes on stage.
Before you know it, the summer has rolled around. And it’s festival time. Several artists over multiple stages, and you want to bring a camera in with you! This is a tricky issue, and I would advise to ensure you put in for a press pass for one of these, as all the high end media outlets will have done so. You could risk bringing a camera in a hidden compartment in a bag and hope security are lax and won’t check, and shoot from the crowd, however I would strongly advise against this. If this advice is going to be ignored, ensure you have somewhere close by like a friends place that you can leave the camera behind, because you will be denied entry if you are found with a zoom lens and you have no media accreditation. This happened me earlier in the year, but that’s another story altogether.
So if all goes is going well, you have had a few gigs under your belt after about six to eight months, and you’re seeing some familiar faces in the photography pit. It’s very important to get to know other photographers too. If you’re serious about wanting to shoot gigs, these guys can (and in a lot of cases, will) help you out. I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for a lot of the folk I’ve met in the pits the past year, I wouldn’t be getting the gigs I’m currently getting. I got advice on my work, I’ve gotten advice on where to go to get exposure for my work, and on top of that, I’ve had general banter that made a fun job even more fun.
Find some local music websites! Once you’ve hit your stride, upgraded your equipment, more importantly, gotten to know your equipment, it’s strengths and it’s flaws to the point where you can use it blindfolded, and you’ve enough gigs under your belt to make a portfolio. Start getting in touch with local music websites and publications. If they like what they’ve seen regarding your portfolio, they may contact you. That happened with me after almost ten months of shooting. I got a three gig trial with a site, and this was when I needed to experiment with different camera angles. Play about with the camera, tilt it to the left, tilt it to the right and keep it centre for the same shot. You’ll be surprised the difference framing and composition will do for your images.
Be aware of your rights as a photographer. You own your images, unless you get slapped with a release form at the door of the show. Read this carefully. The majority of these things are reasonable enough just to ensure you don’t go selling the images or making merchandise like t-shirts and posters off their hard work, however if the release tells you that you have no credit or rights to the images, do not sign that. You may get away with this if you’re shooting a gig abroad and the contract doesn’t apply to the country of publication. Either way, read very carefully before signing. You’re well within your rights to take the night off if the terms are not agreeable. Same when shooting for websites or magazines, ensure you know exactly who is publishing your images. If a third party is given rights to publish and distribute without your consent, this could jeopardise access to your own images! Should that happen, do not stand for it. Otherwise you’re undervaluing your own work.
Make sure you have equipment for the right venue! For small venues, I use 35mm and 50mm f/1.8 primes. For outdoor venues, I use a 55-300mm f/4-5.6 zooms as I have enough natural light to cover me at the best of times. For mid sized venues, I will use a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and for bigger venues, I’ll use a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. If you’re unfortunate enough to have to shoot from the desk, it’s really at your own discretion. If your camera body is good enough, you can probably crop, just don’t expect much if you want to go and print these off.
Lastly, try not to be too choosy about the gig you’re shooting. When you’re starting out, take anything that you can get. It’s about experience. You could be a die hard Snow Patrol fan, get taken on by a music website, only to find out someone else has already got it! When it comes to shooting gigs regardless if it’s for yourself or for a magazine or website, it’s always going to be a case of win some, lose some. So try not to get too discouraged if you don’t get a gig you badly want, and save yourself for the next gig that you do want.
I hope people find this informative and useful, I’ll also be happy to answer any questions regarding my experience in my first year (by using the comments below).
Thanks very much Shaun.
Shaun is a regular contributor to this site. You can also check his work out or contact him via the following links:
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