I’m a gig photographer. This means that as well as long walks on the beach, and searching the internet for pictures of fluffy kittens, I also enjoy complaining (at length) about the lighting provided for a gig. Red washes, or a lack of front light are amongst my top 5 favourite conversation topics, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone with this. In fact, I’ve had my fair share of moments when I look at another photographer in the pit and share a “what the hell am I supposed to do with this light” kind of glance. This leads me to believe that I am not exactly in the minority in my distaste for common lighting methods at gigs.
There is a common saying; don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Since I’m always judging the lampy for a show, I thought it was about time I took a few steps in their shoes. Spending a night behind an Avolites Pearl lighting console seemed to be the obvious place to start.
It’s not worth going through what you’ll find on a lighting desk, or even what to aim for with your lighting. I imagine most people reading won’t get much from that anyway. What could be useful are some of the things that I was thinking about, or in fact NOT thinking about, while lighting the show. So here we go.
As a photographer, you should already know that the use of colour can be very powerful. Lots of bright colours can help convey happy moods, while more muted tones can show a more subdued mood, not to mention the way we associate different colours with different things (red with anger or passion, green with greed, or money, blue with sadness etc). You’re probably also aware of how excess amounts of single colours of light (like the dreaded red wash) can make your job more difficult. It confuses the meter, and wastes a lot of the photosites on the camera’s sensor, often leaving us with photos that seem underexposed, or with all of the detail in the red channel blown out. I hate to say it, but when lighting a show, the last thing on my mind was how a camera meter might react to the light. I was more interested in the mood the colours created, even if that meant using all blue lights for a section.
Other than the colour of the lights, one of my most common complaints at gigs is that the light just isn’t bright enough. Freezing the movement of performers would often require an ISO setting of 12,800 or higher. Our eyes are pretty clever though, automatically adjusting their white balance settings and their ISO and aperture. Without a camera in your hand it’s pretty hard to see how bright is enough for a camera, and to be honest, the cameras aren’t the things you’re worried about. As long as the audience can see clearly, and you can use the brightness to help draw focus to certain performers for solos, then the lights are bright enough.
Having ignored all the main stuff that photographers need, I’m already feeling pretty bad. I’m letting my team down, but let’s be honest; I’m not there lighting the band for the photographers. I’m lighting the band for the paying customers. It has to look good for them, it needs to complement the music, and at times even replace the visual aspect of the band performing (people at the back of the room often can’t really see the performers properly so the lightshow is “it” for them). If the band is fast and aggressive, then keeping the lights static is going to kill the energy for some of the audience, even if it would make our jobs as photographers a little easier. Likewise, fast moving pulsating lights and strobes are going to kill the mood of someone playing slow ballads on an acoustic guitar, even if the photos might look more exciting with more wild lighting.
I’d say it’s worth every photographer taking the time to learn enough to light a show, and to try it out, but I know it’s not an option for too many people. It’s helped me understand more about how lights move, how they can be programmed to move, so that I can predict the movement a little better when I have a camera in my hand. I can get inside the head of the lighting guy a little easier in order to figure out what they’re trying to do, and find a good way to show that off, or at least make the best of it. Even if you can’t light a show, it’s worth remembering; the lights are there for the audience, not you. If it’s a show with a pre-planned lightshow, there’s not much you can do, otherwise, being nice, asking politely, or bribing with beer, are all ways to help persuade a lampy to give you a touch of extra front light for the first few songs.
Chris is a contributor to our website. You can check out more of Chris’ work and connect with him via the following links: