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Going out to shows in clubs is fun. The music is often loud, the crowd is energized, people are drinking and the mood is on. You are there with your camera. You can’t hear, you can’t find your way to the stage, people are banging into you while you try to shoot, it’s too dark, the lights are shining in your face. It feels like it would better if you just got your gear out of there and enjoyed the show. So what are you going to do?
I shoot in clubs at least once a week, sometimes as many as four times, and sometimes in two different clubs in a night. I shoot for bands, performers, myself, and for publications, mostly online. I would be out shooting paid or not, I enjoy the music and almost always have the camera when I go out. The rare exceptions that I don’t have the camera are when I have paid for a seat or when I don’t have credentials and know they are required. I’ve taught myself how to deal with all the problems that come up in clubs—blur, extreme contrast, lights directly into the camera, no light, mosh pit suddenly forming, beer in the camera bag, hit by flying objects. It’s not always easy but it seems like it’s almost always fun.
Dave X Stacy, T and A
Questions about shooting bands, especially in clubs, pop up regularly on the forums here. Several of us that have a lot of experience in this area have contributed to the forums but posts on forums sink in the listings. This article will offer suggestions based on my experience with some input from other photographers living in this environment.
Where to Start
To begin with, you need a venue and a performance to shoot. Because so many things change from venue to venue and between one performer and another and even between one performer from venue to venue, it’s important to have some feel for what you will be shooting. The first thing I do is research online the venue and the performers if it’s a first time for all of us. I look for photographs taken at past shows at the venue. What matters most is the lighting and the stage setup. Because there is no dedicated area for photographers or press at clubs, you need to figure out where you can stand and shoot, what obstacles will be in your way, what you can stand on, and what lighting there is or isn’t. Things like color of walls and ceilings should be noted for bounce flash (more on that later), a balcony or stairs that can be a good location to shoot from, access to the back of the stage, these are the kinds of things to look for.
With performers, it’s good to understand what they do on stage and what kind of crowd that will attract. I usually do a little background research on the performer/band via the web. I usually check out their myspace page—most bands are on there—and their websites. I look at photos of past shows to see what I might want to shoot and to see how they position themselves on stage. I pay special attention to the crowd in the photos of past shows, especially whether or not a pit forms where I might get slammed around or the equipment smashed. All of my equipment is insured but I worry about electrocuting people with a smashed flash or poking someone in the eye with a lens hood. I also look to see if crowds hang back, which gives me an opportunity to shoot up front, or if they press up against the stage, in which case I might look for a better spot for shooting.
Nekro Festival 1
Permission to Shoot
I always shoot with permission. Usually I arrange it with the performers or their manager beforehand. In some local clubs, the people running the venue know me and I just ask performers after I get there. Sometimes, I show up to shoot one act and end up asking the others if it’s cool. I also ask ask about flash if it’s that type of venue. One place that restricts flash (although the performers can allow it) is a supper club with blues performers that I have shot in. It’s a bit different from the rock clubs and dive bars I live in, so I can understand the restriction. If a club requires a photo pass, make sure whoever gives you permission to shoot takes care of the pass. Smaller places rarely require a photo pass, anything bigger may. When they get to the “three song rule,” it’s going to be a much bigger club.
One thing I will strongly recommend against is shooting in venues as a ticket holder in a venue that doesn’t allow ticket holders to shoot. The last thing you want is getting tossed out during the second song for popping out the DSLR and 300mm lens. It’s a big waste of money—just enjoy the show instead.
This is often the first question asked, and there are good reasons for it. Too many people start out with equipment that is only going to make their job hard. Although there are ways to shoot in clubs with almost anything, there are limitations and it’s best to start with as few as possible. This is also the next thing to think about after you have researched the show.
Let’s start with my kit and then I will explain how the equipment decisions should be made. I will get to compact cameras and what you can do with them in clubs, since many people want to shoot with them.
I take a digital camera body, either a Canon EOS 1DMkIII or a Canon EOS 40D. I only take two bodies if I’m shooting for pay. I take three prime lenses. I always take a 35/2 and a 50/1.4 and then choose either a wider lens (20/2.8) or longer lens (85/1.8) depending on what I know about the venue. If I can’t get any good information in advance, I take the wider lens. I take a 580EXII flash. Before I had the 580, I took bounce cards – because the 580 has one built-in, I no longer do that. I take a spare battery, two if the one in the camera is low, and plenty of rechargeable batteries for the flash. I take at least 8GB of memory. This is usually more than I need, but you never know. I take business cards, and most importantly, I take earplugs. Even if my camera dies, I can stay and listen with earplugs, but without them, I won’t usually get near the stage. I have several pairs in every camera bag I own. Many clubs have earplugs, so if you forget them, you can ask at the bar. As a sufferer of tinnitus, I can tell you that going to loud shows without earplugs for enough years is not something anyone should do. I also take a small flashlight, which has been extremely useful.
One more thing on my equipment, and then I will discuss what you should consider. I always use both a clear filter and a lens hood. The reason for this is simple. I have been hit with spraying booze, dropping booze, real and fake blood, sweat, silly string, and a few other substances that have left me wondering. I have had my gear slammed, both at my side and against my face, and I have had it pushed into the stage, amps, and mic stands. Just like earplugs, a little protection will save you a lot of aggravation.
In list form, my equipment bag contains the following:
DSLR (either a Canon EOS 1DMkIII or Canon EOS 40D)