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Club Photography: Photographing Bands, Musicians, Performers in Low Light

by Jeff Spirer, August 2009 (updated May 2010)


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.

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.

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.

Equipment

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)
  • 35/2
  • 50/1.4
  • either a 20/2.8 or 85/1.8
  • 580EXII flash
  • spare camera battery
  • extra rechargeable batteries for the flash
  • memory cards (at least 8GB)
  • business cards
  • earplugs
  • clear lens filter and lens hood on every lens

Text and photos ©2010 Jeff Spirer, with Eric Arnold.

Article revised May 2010.

Readers' Comments


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JD Rose (Glen Canyon) , January 21, 2010; 04:16 P.M.

Excellent. Thanks for posting!

Pete S. , January 21, 2010; 09:19 P.M.

Since you mentioned ear plugs as very important I just wanted to mention that molded ear plugs with filters, like Elacin ER15, are the thing to have when you spend a lot of time in loud music.

The difference between those and regular ear plugs is that they fit perfectly and they just lower the sound level without muffling it so it's easier to talk to people without removing them. There are different filter (-9dB, -15dB and -25dB) depending on how much ear protection you need.

Alvin Yap , January 22, 2010; 05:56 A.M.

Such synchronicity! I was just telling my friends last night I wanted to try more gig photography, specifically for blues, jazz etc. Very good article, I've done such shoots before, and they are really challenging. I wasn't supposed to be shooting IIRC, but I had come in from a big convention toting my full gear and passes from the other venue, the ppl let me though ;-)

Regards, Alvin

Dave Wilson , January 22, 2010; 12:50 P.M.

Really excellent writing Jeff, good work. I have done much of this in NJ, and it can be very challenging. I still shoot everything using only 2 lenses, an old 50 1.8 manual focus and an 85 1.8. I shoot wide open always and they are my two sharpest fast lenses wide open. I find the 1.4 not as crisp for me open. Again, fantastic!~ Dave

Mathieu Landry , January 22, 2010; 03:17 P.M.

Good article! The club atmosphere is well described and I think that's important as I feel not all photographers have a true appreciation of the difficulties of shooting in such conditions. The technical aspects are all spelled out nicely.

"Respect" is probably the most important advice in the article IMO. Otherwise, my guideline can be written simply as such: Buy the widest aperture lens(es) you can afford and shoot at the lowest ISO possible without a flash with a shutter speed of 1/60 or more. I did and still do most of my club shooting using a 50mm f 1.8 using that simple 'rule' and have gotten many great images.

Another useful tip for shooting in club venues is using the 'average metering' function. This is especially useful where the venue is large enough and has some sort of dynamic lights system. I have found that I get quicker 'good' results metering this way and compensating the exposure accordingly.

Sarah Cross , January 25, 2010; 05:27 P.M.

Thanks sooo much for the article. It has inspired me to get out there and into those venues.

I'd also mention that even though a show says that "photo is allowed" does not always mean "professional cameras" are. Not a fun surprise. I was nearly kicked out of Smashing Pumpkins at the Filmore for bringing my camera while all around me happily held their point-n-shoots. Luckily, we hung out long enough after the show to catch his outside appearance...with my camera in hand.

Thanks again!

Dale L , January 29, 2010; 10:29 P.M.

I been shooting concerts for years but still an interesting read, Jeff - thanks man.

Hey two questions, when you are dragging the shutter what apertures do you tend to use. Second, when you use AI Servo, do you still use just the one focus point typically, or do you use all focus points?

Jeff Spirer , February 04, 2010; 12:56 P.M.

Dale, I seem to end up with the shutter around 1/10 - 1/15 when I'm looking for that look. I shoot with a single focus point, it can be difficult capturing the right spot with all the focus points on, given the activity on most stages.

Johann G. B. , May 12, 2010; 11:19 A.M.

I also enjoy photographing artists and saw your articel by chance.

But looking at this http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=10488676 and many other of your photographs, I think the protagonists need a little more space around them to act. People are not only them self, but also the space around them and their interaction with surroundings.

I assume that you are using an autofocus zoom lens? If yes, then try one of your old fixed lenses for just a few days. My style changend rapidly and got much more open when I did this.

Also I startet using a split prism viewfinder in my DSLR and manual focus lenses two years ago. I'm using a rangefinder film camera now. Both improved my pictures very much. Now I feel as close to my subjects as never before. And making images is no longer taking photographs, but capturing life.

The most important thing I realized is: An image is created in mind and the decisive moment is felt by heart. 1 - 2 rolls of film of one event and I've got all the beautiful moments. Sometimes I think in digital age I wasted so much space... just click click click, but my soul was not with it. (Covering the DSLR display and never looking at also improved my pictures, but not as much as rangefinders).

A camera is just a tool. And after many year I think an autofocus zoom lens is not the greatest tool for capturing life.

Enjoy your next events ;)

Johann G. B. , May 12, 2010; 11:34 A.M.

PS: If your are not sure, if you are allowed to take photos, then just ask. A few weeks ago an actor and dancer was on a exhibition opening and gave a short performance. I talked to her and she allowed me to take photos. After the exhibition I met her at the bar, we talked a little bit and she said I could visit and record her rehearsal next day. Then I also got the exclusive permission to photograph her live performance. She was very happy about the beautiful potographs I took of her and wants to insert some in her portfolio. This is also great for me, as she was one of the main actors of a beautiful cinema production.

Sorry for not being able to show some pictures right now, but I'm still working on my own portfolio. You will find it in late summer at www.jgbossert.de

Joe Bala , August 09, 2010; 11:47 A.M.

Thanks for posting, very informative. Have you ever used the Canon 80-200mm 2.8L at any of the concerts you've attended?

Jeff Spirer , August 10, 2010; 01:04 A.M.

I am never far away enough to need that lens.  I always shoot as close as possible, sometimes inside a meter from the musicians.  My problem is usually at the other end, that I should be shooting at 16mm.

Mark Keefer , August 13, 2010; 07:16 P.M.

Jeff, I enjoyed reading your article. I am using similar equipment. 40D, 50mm f1.4, 580 EX II flash, spare memory cards, few other lens 11-16mm f2.8, 18-55mm and 28-135mm though these are slow f3.5-5.6. Hope to add some faster lens and a 7D down the road. I also have 100-400 for out door use. Also have the business cards and website.

Great mentioning the ear plugs. You will not regret packing these, but in a jam a small wad of paper napkin inserted in the ears may work as I recall being in a club back in 1979 and when the rock band I was watching hit the air raid sirens and all the drinks on the bar started moving and I was in fear of serious ear damage. I used this in an act of desperation. lol. I still believe it saved my hearing.

 

 I have been trying to make a niche in the Philly Area for Band and Performer photography. Not making any money yet, lol, but having a lot of fun just starting out seriously this year and making a lot of contacts and building a portfolio. Been also talking to other shooters who have done this, learning lots of tips. One has offered to come along on gigs if I need a second shooter.  If nothing ever comes out of this, at the very least I am having a lot of fun, but you never know what will happen if you don't try. So I try to shoot as many oppourtunities as I can.

Thanks so much for the artcle, it was a real pleasure reading :) .Mark

Jeff Spirer , September 06, 2010; 06:41 P.M.

Glad you liked it.


BTW, regarding earplugs, I have recently started using these:

 

http://www.etymotic.com/ephp/er20.aspx

 

and have to say it is making a huge difference over the cheap foam earplugs I had been using.  Sound is better and obvious improvement in ear damage based on how things feel after a show.


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