I attended the Canon Roadshow, held once a year, where Canon gets to show off their latest gear. We got to have lunch with the Canon people, and we also had great keynote speakers who told their story and presented their work and how they do what they do. One of the speakers, Laura McCullagh, shoots live music events. She's shot acts like Die Antwoord and Mumford and Sons, to name a few. We were fortunate to get some pointers from her on how to get great shots.
Environment and Equipment Requirements
Before every gig, she checks the environment and what gear she’ll need. She’ll pack differently for a club, a festival stage, or arena show. She’ll check if she needs flash, or if she’s going to push up ISO. She mentioned that at big events, flashes are not allowed, and the photographers only get the first three songs to photograph, and then, they’re asked to get out of the pit.
She’ll also check if she can get media accreditation, which allows you into the pit. She mentioned that although media accreditation is great, it’s also ok not to have it and shoot the event from the crowd’s point of view. Events are not planned and designed for the people right up front. They are made for the people in the back, near the sound desk. There, you’ll have the perfect sound and the perfect view. To her, this is often of the best spots to photograph the event. If she knows the venue, she has an idea of the angles she can shoot from, what the obstructions are, and what lenses to pack.
Watch Out for Hazards
Drinks and drunks are deadly to gear. If you can, just notice what’s going on around you, and be aware of potential stage divers, mosh pits, and headbanging.
Don’t crop too tight. Include the instruments. Shoot the brands and decals too, and include the interesting features of the event. If you crop and capture just the head of the lead singer, it’s just a random guy. But if you add the microphone or guitar, it gives it context.
Look Out for Expansion Opportunities
Shooting live events is a great place to meet people. The bands are there, the sponsoring brands are involved, and the media is there to get their scoop. From these gigs, she started shooting other events too. She shot portraits of musicians, which later became press shoots, and now, she shoots bands for the sponsoring brands, press releases, and album artwork.
Shoot the Drummer
The lead singer is the showman. They're the main attraction, or they might think they are. Her advice is to shoot the whole band. The other members are often the most interesting. Each member has a unique contribution to the band, and they are playing the instruments, which add a lot more context to the photographs. The drummer is most difficult to shoot, but visually, they’re caught up in a web of drum stands and microphone cables, which can make for very dramatic and appealing images. Shoot all the members; shoot the drummer.
Musicians Who Play to the Camera
Engage with them, make eye contact, and don’t hide behind your camera all the time. Don’t just observe, show them that you want some action to photograph, and they’ll surely bring it to the party.
Patterns and Timing
There will be lights flashing at these events. Brightly colored strobes will flash as the song reaches its final verse and builds up to the abrupt and unexpected end that leaves the listener with unanswered questions, but for the photographer, lights can help or wreck a shot. She tries to pick up on the rhythm of the lights so as to not get a blown-out shot. The band members also have a certain rhythm to their setlist. If one of the members does a jump and you miss it, he’ll most likely do it more than once. Be ready for that shot.
Setlists, Instruments, and Lifestyle Images
Getting the details adds context and makes the event real. It also gives insight into the band and their dynamics. Whose handwriting is it, who decided on the setlist? All these questions can be unlocked by shooting these details of the gig.
Shoot the people enjoying the show. This is the true fan, the person who’s there to have fun. They are also the ones who will go through the images you post online to reminisce over the festival, the people they met, and the great time they had.
This sounds stupid and obvious, but it needs to be said. She’s seen so many photographers in the pit, right in front of the speakers with no protection for their ears. Just get a pair of good earplugs; they're your ears for crying out loud. They're quite vital organs; they provide one of your senses.
Share Your Best Work
She doesn’t spend too much time editing, and she surely doesn’t share every photo. She chooses the best and showcases those. Think about the viewer. Don’t overload them with images. Select a few that make the event special, and they'll make people who didn’t go feel like they missed out, and they'll go the next time.
Some Extra Tips for Those Getting Started
- Start by shooting festivals. They have great variety. It’s a mixture between music and the lifestyle around it, and the crowds are loads of fun.
- Go out in your town, and shoot the bands you like. Start local, and take it from there.
- Know your gear. You need to have no tension when you’re shooting. Know what you need and what your gear is capable of, and get the best out of it.
Most importantly, she urges that we should all work hard and trust our gut, even if shooting certain things is just a hobby and you have to do other things to pay the bills. Her final advice was to always find time to shoot what you love.
I recommend you follow her blog to stay updated with her shooting.
All images used with permission of Laura McCullagh.