Everyone loves a good list. If it’s a numbered list, well, the stakes are raised, points are scored and battle lines drawn. I was going to make a list of the best lists ever but I couldn’t decide to put it in bullet point form or numeric, so instead my five pointers for shooting live music will have to do.
1- Small gigs are where it’s at.
Apologies for my use of lingo there, but there’s no other way of saying it. Aiming high and setting your goals is all fine and good but there needs to be realism in everything. Festivals are seasonal and, chances are, you’ll be stood with dozens of other photographers taking, more or less, the same shot. You’re restricted in access and the crucial interaction between performer and fan rarely happens.
Now hop back to your local venues. Dripping with sweat, smelling of old spilt beer and with a barely visible line between band and crowd. There’s a reason half of my portfolio is made up of shots from small venues, because that’s where real passion comes out.
2- Less is more.
Otherwise known as GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Believe me I’ve been there, bought it, seen the credit card bill and wondered if I really do need all those kidneys. I bought a 500mm lens because ‘you need them to shoot festivals’ (you don’t). Decide what you really need (that’s need, not want). A basic 50mm or 28mm prime lens will cover a lot at most venues and can be bought relatively cheaply.
3- Don’t run before you can walk.
So you’ve shot a few gigs, your mates have said how great the shots are, especially those arty black and white ones, and now you want to get some paid work. In your opinion your stuff is just as good as anything in the magazines plus you don’t do that boring fill in flash trick. Well here’s a quick thought, perhaps because the mags run a lot of pictures using fill in flash they might like those shots? I speak from experience, I’ve done the whole day trip to show off your portfolio and you need to be pitching what they want.
4- Don’t quit your day job just yet.
This perhaps should’ve come up before pitching for work – don’t do this for the money! I’ve been told this by enough art editors now to realise perhaps there’s some wisdom in those words. Live music no longer pays a premium, the market is awash with cheap, good images. At best it’s pocket money, at worst it’ll barely cover your costs. Shoot gigs because you love shooting gigs, not because you see it as a viable income stream. The money is in portrait work, and if you want to do that go and assist a fashion photographer, learn how to light people and work from there.
5- Protect yourself.
This is in two parts – firstly your ears. Buy good ear protectors and wear them. I never did and now if I spend more than a song in a pit without them I’ll be living with a high pitched whine for a day or so. A lot of venues now won’t let you in the pit without them, so you might as well get some good ones.
Secondly your reputation. It’s very easy to get frustrated, with other photographers, PRs, promoters or fans. Trying (and failing) to get into a gig, dealing with bad photo releases and having a pint of beer land on you aren’t fun. But just suck it up, smile and carry on.