My first year as a Gig Photographer by Shaun M. Neary

ShaunProfile-2One year.
52 weeks.
365 days.
8,675.81 hours.
525,949 minutes.

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:

Do not use these images without the correct permissions.

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • James says:

    Nice article about starting shooting gigs. One thing you don’t write about is your plan for the future. You mention things like profession, undervaluing your work and portfolio. Do you believe that there is a full time concert photographer job at some point in the future? Yes, a lot of people may say ‘wow, I’d love you job’ but they don’t realize it’s not a job.

  • Hi James.
    I didn’t write much about my plans for the future because I had just left a website after discovering that my images were passed on to a third party without my permission. It’s actually part of the reason I wrote that article. It got me down a little, and I wanted to do something to take my mind off it, so I decided to reflect on the good year I did get.

    I know I’m nowhere near done as far as concert photography goes. To be honest, I do think I’m only just getting started. The first year is really all about finding your feet, I just happened to have a lot of fun while doing so.

    To answer your question, regarding my future? I’d like to keep shooting for music sites, only with more freedom regarding my terms and conditions. I do have something in the pipeline, but can’t really talk much about it for about another week or so. But for me, it’s pretty big. Ultimately as far as full time concert work goes. It’s hard to get in that door. Since SLR’s have become affordable, the world and it’s wife has become a professional photographer, or a photographer who offers professional services (big difference between the two, one is paid, the other isn’t).

    It would be nice to get a house photography gig on top of what I’m currently doing. But I don’t see that happening for a while if i’m being realistic. I don’t think it’s anything on my skills which i am still currently developing, it’s just a matter of an opening coming up and being there when the knock on the door happens.

    Another thing a lot of people don’t realise is the amount of work involved! At a glance, we’re a bunch of lads who take a pic on a memory card and email it to someone else. If they knew half about what we have to do regarding post production, i’d bet dollars to doughnuts they wouldn’t do this gig if their life depended on it. That’s mere speculation on my part of course.

    Shaun

  • Darran Scott says:

    Very interesting, informative and helpful article. I have been photographing interesting things for about 7 years but like you have a great passion for music but felt out of my depth when photographing concerts etc. I have started out in a small way photographing local bands in Kent but recently was lucky enough to be at the front in a Meatloaf concert at Newbury http://www.facebook.com/britbikerphotography. Wondered if you could spare the time to view I have applied to shoot at an event on the forthcoming Haim tour and hopefully the Fratellis in Margate but have not had replies yet, will keep you posted if successful. Regards Darran Scott

    • Hi Darran.
      I generally don’t get ask to give feedback or critique, so It’s a little out of my comfort zone. But I’ll give it a shot.

      You didn’t have a lot to work with, as far as the crowd goes. So when you’re stuck in the same position, you’re going to find a lot of your shots are going to look the same because you’re stuck at the same angle. This isn’t exactly your fault. It’s not like you had room to move.

      However, should that arise again, you could try angling the camera 45 degrees to the left or right while continuing to keep your subject in the frame. My early work omits the very same technique and hindsight, has me kicking myself that I didn’t do it.

      A few of the shots look a little out of focus. Don’t be afraid to play with manual metering! Especially for drummer shots too in future. I’d say learn to be a little harder on yourself. Be a total snob when it comes to quality. If you can’t be hard on yourself, then you’ll most likely fall apart when someone else is hard on your work. Now, that being said, you did catch some real gems in that set too.

      Shooting a large venue isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, it’s fairly intimidating, especially when shooting in the crowd. You had the right idea asking for feedback. I’d also suggest when you’re shooting local gigs to find other photographers there, remain in contact and get them to give you other feedback as well. You’ll learn from it all.

      Most importantly, don’t let any experiences or feedback discourage you. Just go out there, plug away at it, and have fun.

      Shaun

  • Hi shaun,
    This article has been great help to me so thank you! With regards to asking for oress passes, do you have a guideline for the kind of thing to say to promoters? I’ve had a couple say yes when I’ve explained im expanding my portfolio but more a case of no response.
    Thanks, Charlotte

    • Hi Charlotte.
      Press passes are like gold dust to get, especially when you’re starting out. It really depends on the gig that you’re going for. If it’s for a major promoter in your area, then a lot of the time, you’re going to be out of luck. Most of the major promoters never got back to me when it came requests (and that was with me reassuring that I already had my ticket!)

      Unfortunately, that’s the way the cookie crumbles when it comes to starting out in gig photography. You could try contacting the venue, rather than the promoter and see if it gets you anywhere, or contacting the band directly. Usually more work is involved when talking to the band’s PR than the promoter. But sometimes you can lucky.

      In the promoters defense, they have to be careful who they assign the passes to as well. They generally send them out to established papers, magazines and websites as they know they won’t go selling off their work to the highest bidder. Should such a thing happen, bands won’t touch that promoter again, and that’s a whole other debacle altogether.

      Start off with the smaller gigs, get some experience with your camera and get the best results. Then try and get in contact with a magazine, paper or music website and show off the portfolio you created. Nine times out of ten, it’s not the names of the bands on your portfolio (mine were mostly metal acts!), but how sharp and in focus the shots are, as well as the framing of the shots.

      If you get nowhere, go back to shooting small shows, bumping up your portfolio and keep knocking on doors. Get to know other photographers on the circuit too, after a while they may be able to throw you a bone and point you in the right direction.

      I’ve also seen smaller venues being shot by those with no accreditation, they just pay in at the door and hope their bag doesn’t get searched. This is a risk you can take at your own discretion. Some smaller venues may not check for cameras. That said, if you are going to try that route. I’d say don’t shoot any more than the first two shots, then put the camera away and enjoy the show. But if you get caught, you could get a slap on the wrist, or you could get blacklisted by the promoter, and worst case scenario, barred from the venue. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

      Good luck!
      Shaun

  • Jon R Evans says:

    Hey Shaun,
    I just read the article and found it very informative. I started shooting concerts this year and had some success with shooting some pretty good name bands. Currently I have permission to shoot a local bar whom hosts all types of bands ranging from country to hip hop to the blues. I have had some promoters (at other venues) try to make me sign all rights to them. I’ve basically said no. I have a couple questions as I am really lost in my next step. Trying to sell my photos and making a name for myself in the industry. I now have a pretty decent size portfolio and am ready to start making some money but not sure where to start as I am not accredited. How did you start selling, where what who etc… Any help you can shoot to me I would really appreciate it. Thanks

    • Hi Jon.
      I’m afraid I don’t really know how to tell you where to start with this one, as I haven’t sold any work yet. I’ve been approached on a few occasions over the past year or so, but nothing ever really came of it.

      You’re right to say no to signing off your rights though, promoter gets those and you get nothing and there is literally no comeback from a situation like that.

      Back to your question though. It’s difficult to answer, as I’m not sure who you’re trying to sell to. Fans? The band or artists?

      Any time I’ve ever been approached to sell any of my work has been the usual social networking haunts. Twitter, facebook etc. The best thing you can do is post up low res watermarked versions online, and when you post them on the likes of twitter, don’t be afraid to tag the bands or artists in your tweets. I’ve found that newer acts want everything for free, while the established artists (the majority of the time anyway) will respect artist copyright. That’s not to say you won’t get their PR sniffing around either trying to wrangle images from you either!

      You could look into local exhibitions too. Start small, get some small (but not too small) prints done up and card frames. If there are places that allow you to exhibit for a small fee (or free, would be even better), worst comes to the worst, you may not make a sale, but you will at least drum up some publicity for yourself, your work, your website, social media etc. You may get people approaching you, even if it’s just for a chat. Word of mouth is still pretty powerful, while they may not buy any of your work, they’ll most likely pass your name on to someone who may be interested.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that when you’re starting out. It’s never just that easy (if it was, where would we be, other than bored stupid?!), but by the same token, you’ll need to exhaust every option possible when it’s there. For me, personally, I haven’t even begun to start exhausting options as I’m still building up experience.

      The kick in the head with photography, is that you must be willing to invest in yourself and your work a bit. You’ll need to spend a little (but hopefully not too much) on prints and frames, then a little more on somewhere to exhibit your work. But even if you don’t get much in the way of financial gain, if you can gain more contacts and more directions to go. The payoff should be worth it.

      Sorry I couldn’t have been more direct in my answer to this one. I haven’t gotten to that point in my photography career yet. I’m only telling you what I would probably plan to do when I reach that stage, so I hope it helps.

      Good luck,
      Shaun

  • Shaun,

    Your article and your responses to comments are interesting to read. I began in 2010 in a somewhat the same scenario. Your gear is also standard tog gear in the pit which is great. Keep giving good advice as you are because so many people have the star factor over shadow their work, and if you are good that is what it is. This our (I now have a partner and a tech person) first year making money. We are house photographers for three venues and more on the way. I am not going to hijack your article Shaun, just wanted to wish you the best and keep it going.
    George

    • Thanks George.

      I’d like to someday get into house photography at some point. At present, the website i’m shooting for is a nice place to be. We’re a good community and are dedicated to covering as many gigs as we can. 🙂

      But would be nice to get bagged by a venue or two. 😀
      Shaun

  • Mark says:

    Great article Shaun, many things you mentioned were very familiar to me and it was a very enjoyable read. Please keep your work coming and enjoy your shooting.
    You’re going to often find various parties in the music industry will treat you poorly but best to roll with the punches and get what you want out of it. Anything on top of that is gravy. 🙂
    Cheers!
    Mark

    • Thanks Mark.
      It’s definitely been an interesting six months since I wrote that piece to the point where I’ve experienced a bit more than live photography, with other plans in the pipeline as well.

      I’m still enjoying it, although there are those days where it can get a little stressful and/or messy, but the sun can’t shine all the time in any profession. 😉

      Love your work as well, btw.
      Shaun

  • Great article, I feel I’m on the same journey, just expanding my lenses, just got my first festival pass (previously smuggled camera in), looking to expand the portfolio and coverage. Created a website but need to start to fill it a bit more and need to increase the publicity. To be honest I’m coming in to this late in life too, recently turned 50 but have been to gigs and festivals since I was 16, love live music and want to to so much more of this as the adrenalin in the pit was great, met some nice fellow TOGs and I can see how addictive it can be. Positive stuff, I will keep going and thanks for the advice!
    Cheers
    John

    • Hi John. Only seeing this now, so I thought I’d respond.

      Cool that you’ve decided to keep at it. It’s certainly an expensive pastime for sure. I’m still at it (hitting four years next week), and still enjoying it as much as I was when I originally wrote this three years ago.

      Doesn’t really matter how late in life you come into it, if you’re a fast learner and you’re really into it, it doesn’t matter if you’re 15 or 50 when you start off. A lot of people are shocked when they hear I’m only doing it four years, I think they expect me to say something along the lines of ten years or something.

      Glad you enjoyed the piece and hope you’re still enjoying yourself in the pit.
      Shaun

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