Gig photography can be fast-paced, exciting and highly rewarding. It requires a keen eye, the ability to think quickly and to know your camera intimately. So, if you fancy swapping your Friday night beer for the 15 minutes in the “pit”, then read on and I’ll tell you 12 things you need to do when starting out in gig photography.
1 – Start Small, Very Small
Be realistic about which venues you will be able to access. Even your local concert venue will likely be out of reach for the newbie. Look for small venues such as local bars or town fairs where new artists or cover bands take centre stage. You’ll often just be able to shoot from the crowd. It’s these types of low-pressure gigs that you can use to hone your skills and build up a body of work.
2 – Make Friends
To be a gig photographer you must be social and outgoing. Having a great reputation as a friendly and outgoing personality will pay dividends as you progress in gig photography. Be polite and introduce yourself to venue staff, security, and band members. If you are shooting at a local bar, introduce yourself to the manager.
If there are any security staff, get to know them. More often than not it will be the same security staff at the bigger venues. Security staff are effectively the gatekeepers at venues, so keep them sweet. Never, ever, get aggressive with the security staff. Even if you have a photo pass they still have the right to deny you access into the venue or even the pit.
3 – Share Your Images
As part of the process of making friends with the musicians and venue, give them your finished images. Build your reputation by sharing your images as much as possible. Let both the venue and the band use those images for promotional or social media use. Word will spread to other venues and musicians if your work is good. Remember, the venues will like images of people enjoying themselves and having a good time so don’t just take pictures of the musicians.
4 – Cover Music Related Events
Get your name out there by covering more than just gigs and concerts. Look at the web and see if there are any local music related events in your area. These events can often be great for networking and meeting new people in the music industry. I've photographed national Record Store Day at a number of local record stores and each time I do I meet someone new. It could be a record label manager, a band or artist, or even a promoter. By building your relationships and contacts, your ability to access bigger and better gigs improves.
5 – Tell Stories
Make sure you have a website and have a presence on the main social media channels (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter). Your website, particularly your social media channels, should be dedicated to your music photography, or at the very least your photography. Keep those social media channels clear of pictures of your dog or last meal.
Use those channels to get your work out there. Share your images on your own website as well. Tell stories with your images. Describe what the gig was like, the energy coming from the band, even what it was like to shoot the gig. You don’t need to write a review of the gig but use something like a blog to tell the story of the gig.
6 – Live Sharing
If your camera has the ability to share images with your phone use it. When you are in the slightly bigger venues you will likely be bound by the first 3 songs only rule. So as soon as you’ve done shooting, get a couple of images of the musician/band/artist and the venue uploaded to your social media channels. Remember to tag the band and venue. Top tip – I always make note of all the musicians and venues most popular hashtags before I head to the gig.
If you get a chance to speak to the band after they come off stage, there is nothing better than showing them a picture of their performance that is already on social media. Once you’ve got the image on your phone process it using something like Google Snapseed (Apple iTunes, Google Play). Now that Snapseed can process raw files, try pulling the raw file from your camera. You may need to convert your native raw file to a DNG so that Snapseed can read it.
7 – Gear
You don’t need amazing gear to get great gig photos. Start shooting with a prime lens like an inexpensive 50mm f/1.8. Letting in light is more important than lens reach in the smaller venues.
Make sure you know your gear as well. Know it very well. Know how to change ISO, aperture and shutter speed blindfolded. Use your time in the small venues to learn your craft. You won’t have time to think about your camera when you are in the bigger venues.
When you do find you need more gear it will most likely be a lens. Constant aperture lenses (fast glass) are the best but f/2.8 lenses are expensive. So, unless you are absolutely sure you will need a lens of that calibre all the time, rent one instead. I rented a 24-70mm f/2.8 several times before buying one. It wasn’t until I was shooting bigger venues on a regular basis and need longer focal lengths that I decided to purchase one.
Oh, and one last thing, make sure you shoot raw. Shoot raw and JPEG if you want, but when it comes to processing you will want the raw file and all the detail it contains. And don’t worry about pushing your ISO. Better a noisy sharp image than a clean blurry one.
9 – Partner with Other Content Providers
A great way to get into venues is to try and partner with a content provider who is already covering your local gigs. Newspapers and magazines can be difficult to establish a relationship as they will be looking for photographers with experience. A better way is to search out websites or local organisations are already writing reviews for gigs. This could be the local university or college press, or perhaps local music scene website.
They will typically already have the relationships in place with local musicians and venues and are normally on the lookout for photographers. Don’t expect to get paid, or the choice of the best gigs, but in terms of getting out there, meeting people and building your portfolio, it’s a great platform.
10 – Getting Paid
Just with many other genres of photography, getting paid work is a challenge. Be realistic though. When you are just starting out in gig photography it’s unlikely that you will be getting paid. You will need to do it for the love of it. Except for the bigger artists, even signed bands won’t necessarily have a budget for photos. A lot of the time a member of band crew will be tasked with capturing photos and videos.
It's not to say that it’s not possible to get paid work but you’ll need to build up your network and portfolio first.
11 – Business Cards
They may seem old school but business cards are still an effective way to let people know who you are and what you do. It’s really difficult to exchange website or email details in a noisy and dark music venue. So, if you do manage to get to chat with a band member give them your card as you show them the image that you just tweeted of them on stage. Keep the details on the card simple. Web address, email address and telephone number.
Some business card printers, like Moo, allow you to have one of your images printed on the opposite side. This will give your card a bit of extra impact and is a great way to show your work.
12 – Be confident
Always be confident and look like you are meant to be there. This is particularly important as you get to the bigger venues. Nothing makes the security staff question who you are and what you are doing than a person with a big camera bag, looking sheepish, and hanging around the pit area. Look like you are meant to be there and approach any security controlled area with confidence.
A quick word with the security staff to say who you are, what you are doing, and show any passes you have will make your transition into the pit area that much easier. Don’t be pushy though. They are there for the safety of everybody and they have a job to do. Be confident, but respectful and polite.
There's no doubt that starting out in gig photography can be very challenging, but for those willing to put in the time and effort, it can be exciting and very rewarding. As with most genres of photography your ability to communicate and interact with people will make your journey a lot easier. Hopefully, the tips in this article will help you along the way and you'll move quickly from shooting gigs in pubs to covering large multi-day festivals.
If you have any of your own tips, want to share some of your experiences, or have any questions, please leave a comment below.