Back in 2006 I was just starting out as a fledgling photographer with a love of live music in whatever form it happened to take, from dive bars and student union open mic nights to philharmonic concerts and week long rock festivals. For me this was an obvious convergence of passions and I began looking at the work of veteran music photographers like Lynn Goldsmith and Laurie Lewis, in awe of the way they managed to totally encapsulate the ambience of the event, the larger than life personas on the stage and the humid closeness of the crowd in these vibrant, high contrast images that were so engaging, so visceral that you could almost hear them!
At the time I was in art school and a visiting lecturer had recently mentioned that they’d photographed a little hard rock and alternative metal festival at Donnington, none other that Download Festival – Nothing fancy. Only the most popular event of the year for those of us that were part of the angsty teenage alternative scene where tens of thousands of music fans from all over the world gathered around a handful of stages hosting bands from across the last fifty years of rock music from across the globe.
The temptation was just too much and I put myself forward as a volunteer photographer to shadow my lecturer, shoot whatever I could and learn new skills on the go in a position that so many would give anything to find themselves in.
Suffice to say that it started me on a career path that I keep coming back to after over a decade spent in the photographic industry and hundreds of performances later, from college bands to international rock legends, violin virtuosos to superstar DJs, I’ve tracked them all through a viewfinder and loved every fraction of a second of it. The skill set has improved, as has the technology that I use, but more than that is the respect I have for those artists giving their all up there on a stage whether they’re performing to an audience of one or a packed out arena and as such the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that I, as a photographer, owe it to them to give my all and treat them like the rockstars they are!
If you’re looking to shoot more music then here’s my top five pro tips!
Work on your technical skills – stage lighting fights back! You don’t need the latest kit but you do need some basic staple lenses and you need to hone your technique!
Find local venues hosting regular live music nights and approach them openly and honestly, most will be happy to let you shoot bands and performers if they’re getting some free images and you’ll get experience of dealing with small and often basic lighting set ups – the more simplistic their lighting, the harder you have to work to make the shots interesting. The more interesting the shots, the better it makes you and the venue look. It’s a win-win situation!
Get Low – Often the most dynamic angles are found by getting low to the ground or finding a vantage point where you’re looking up at the performer – it makes it feel like a much bigger gig and it gives an air of grandeur to the artist!
Go wide and close, move back and zoom – I usually make use of two lenses during a show, a 17-40 f/4 and a 70-200 f/2.8. One will give you stylised, whacked out distorted closeups and wider stage shots whilst the other will get you up close and intimate with head-shots from a distance without the barreling of the wide angle lens.
Use flash in moderation – Nobody likes direct flash. It distracts the audience, blinds the artists on stage and makes everyone look bad! If you have to use flash then try bouncing it off ceilings and walls or even using an off-camera flash with a remote trigger. Otherwise use the stage lighting only for a more authentic and ambient feel.