Getting the most out shooting gigs or parties in bars/clubs with little lighting.

Like all photography there’s no hard and fast rules…. search the internet and you’ll come across hundreds of blog entries on the subject. Everything from “how do I get a pro camera into an event “from how do stop focusing on the microphone?!”.

I love being at gigs for the music and capturing the energy of the artists. I’ve been pretty lucky to get press passes to the Way Out West festival a couple of years ago, and many of the gigs I get to are in countries were they’re not so phased by people bringing pro cameras in.

Getting a press pass is a little bit of luck and some schmoozing. In my experience mainly luck… As I can’t bring that, I can’t offer much to you. The best way is to have your shots on Flickr or another photo hosting site so that when you email the press guys at a venue or festival you have something to show them. A little cyclical, but you can start by taking shots of local artists in bars or in free, open air events.

Indoor / artificially lit (at night) events are tricky. Even daylight gigs can be difficult… I’ll focus on the indoor / artificially lit events as the light is by no means as bright as you think it is. My advise assumes you understand the principles of the magic triangle of photography (the interaction between shutter speed, aperture, and iso) but you can apply the settings without great knowledge of this.

1. Know your camera. What is the highest ISO that your camera can be set to without the photos getting horribly noisy? As a guide: Cheaper consumer cameras tend to fall apart as low as 800 ISO, higher end consumer at about 1600 or you might get to 2000 ISO, pro cameras do well from 3200 to 6400 ISO. The higher your ISO is the faster the shutter speed can be the crisper the focus. Also know how to quickly change the settings if needed. In addition, I know that I can recover about 2 stops underexposed in post processing. Know how much you can recover from your shots at the ISO you set.

2. JPEG or RAW? In my mind there’s no real advantage to JPEG expect you can take more shots… buy a bigger card and have spare. RAW will let you recover more if you underexpose and correct the white balance in a setting with rapidly changing lighting.

3. Know your lenses. In a pub/bar you can be close and use 50mm or 85mm f1.8 lenses that are very reasonable to buy and perfect for dark settings. Get a little further away and in order to frame the artist you’ll be forced to zoom 105mm up to 200mm. At these focal lengths cheaper lenses will slow (the aperture will close) to f5.6. This will reduce the shutter speed and introduce blur, or force you to crank the ISO and introduce noise. Faster lenses (f2.8) are expensive but you’ll get so much more light. You’ll get the shot either way you just might require more attempts with the slower lenses because of motion blur. For me the best lens for gigs is my 70-200mm f2.8.

4. What mode should I shoot in? Everyone has their opinions here. For me, it’s Shutter Priority (Tv). Why? I know that the artists move a lot, even if only their hands, and anything below 1/60th will probably be blurred from them rockin’ out. If your ISO can’t be cranked high and your lens is slow (>f2.8) then you’ll need to wait for the moment they slow down… which isn’t often. Further to that use high frame rates and take lots of shots… otherwise you can end up with the perfectly focused shot but they have their eyes closed or contorted face.

5. When to shoot…? Singing into the mic? Can be cool but not that interesting. Most artists come off mic and do something interesting with either other band members, solos on their guitar (etc.) and this can be the moment… Eyes open is always something to look for and makes for a better shot. If it’s a famous artist, what are the known for? Jarvis Cocker prances around the stage and jumps off speakers… something to watch for but you’ll need to increase the shutter speed to get that action nicely frozen. Concert photography is like other genres… it should be an interesting photo.

6. Stage Lights… red is a killer… it’s really hard to expose correctly and I’ve never been that impressed with the results in this light, not to say it’s impossible.

7. You’re not the show (if you’re in a more intimate gig)! Flashes are annoying to the artist and the crowd, don’t use one. In festivals and concerts the press are allowed in the pit for a limited amount of time (as little as 3 minutes but up to 10). There’s good reason for this. In a small event respect the artist by not constantly being center stage and getting between them and their audience… you’ll just annoy everyone, so sit back and enjoy from your seat and move if you want another angle.

8. Get your shots online. Why? You can use them to promote yourself, and the band if they ask. However, don’t expect to be paid for it… everyone wants something for nothing. See it as an investment in future gigs (passes) and other photography work. However, be sure to put a watermark on it and don’t upload very high resolution shots so it can’t be exploited too much, without any credit to you.

Well, that was longer than I thought. It’s a passion of mine and I figured I’ve write my two cents worth… If you’re taking photos of your friends in a bar, use the fastest lens you have and have fun 🙂 For both Canon and Nikon the 50mm f1.8 is a good cheap lens that adds wonders to any camera.


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