Club Photography: Photographing Bands, Musicians, Performers in Low Light
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.
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)
- 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
- clear lens filter and lens hood on every lens
Any SLR, DSLR or rangefinder will do. I have shots in circulation taken with an older DSLR, and while I would not use that camera given what I currently have, I would use it if I still had it. The images are noisy—and there are ways to deal with noise in the results—and not particularly high resolution, but they work just fine. Rangefinders are a lot more limited, but I have used them in the environment we are discussing. Framing is a pain, and the lack of autofocus with a focusing beam can make shooting in the dark a lot more difficult, but it can be done. You can use film or digital, but digital is a whole lot more flexible in this environment. More on that later.
Unless you absolutely know you are going to be shooting only with flash, and your flash provides a focusing beam, fast prime lenses are the way to go. Zooms are just too slow in a lot of situations, and fast (2.8) zooms may be usable in available light but are big. Try to have at least one mid-focal length (35 or 50) lens that is f/2 or faster. In terms of focal length, this is venue-dependent. If you are going to be shooting on-stage or right at the stage, take a wide lens, something wider than 30mm if you have it. If not, take your widest lens. If you’re going to be shooting from a balcony, steps, risers at the back, or similar locations, take a longer lens.
What lens you take also depends on what you are intending to frame. If you’re looking for full-stage shots in a small venue or one where you have to shoot up close, take a wide lens. If you want headshots, take a longer lens. Whatever you do, if you’re taking primes, take more than one. You will want a different angle of view at some point, and you may find your shooting area restricted if the club is crowded.
Don’t forget what I said before—unless you’re going to what you know will be a very tame and uncrowded show, use filters and hoods. I use “hood hats” for my lenses so the hood stays on even when packed and the lens caps are at home in the closet.
It’s commonly believed that flash spoils the “atmosphere” in clubs, but it’s only the technique that can be a problem. In most environments, flash can work but you need to learn to control it. I always shoot a mix of flash and ambient shots, unless there is a restriction on flash usage, which has only happened twice to me, or there isn’t enough light to shoot at high ISO without a flash, which happens a lot. There are some important considerations. Make sure you have enough battery power. I shoot with a power pack, but bring plenty of extra batteries as well. Your flash should have bounce and swivel. The best way to avoid common flash problems is to shoot the flash in a different direction than the subject and use the diffused results. An off-camera cable is useful but not necessary, as is a bounce card unless your flash has a built-in card.
When you get to the venue, especially if it is new to you, scope it out. Walk around and look at the layout. How high is the stage? Where are the monitors? What places besides the floor can you shoot from? If there’s going to be stage diving, what places are safe to shoot from? Can you get behind the stage and shoot? Are there tables and chairs or is it an open floor? Where are the lights located and do they have gels? I always look up to see the lighting. Take a few snaps to see where the lights are landing. Where is the bar? Why is the location of the bar important? If your equipment dies or you’ve shot everything you want to shoot, you need to know how to find the bar.
Figure 1 shows how you may first view the performance area—Dingy, cramped, and, although this photo doesn’t show it, a stage off the ground. It’s not a very good situation, and the short stage (back to front) means that flash can easily make the cluttered background part of the photo. That’s exactly what you get if you just shoot it straight on with flash. Figure 2 (Ravana) is a good example of how flat and cluttered it can look. I’m jumping ahead a bit here, but my solution to finding some way to shoot here came when a singer jumped down off the stage and I was able to shoot her wandering around on the floor. This allowed isolation from the background and gave one of the few usable shots that night. See Figure 3 (Carniceria) for a better shot in the same location.
Talk to whomever is running the lighting. In most smaller clubs, and even some mid-size ones, the sound person runs the lighting. Find out how many lights are going to be on, if gels are going to be on them, how dim the stage and house lights will be, and whether or not there will be fog machines. Photography is all about the lighting and it’s important to understand what there will be. If you can’t get to the person doing the lighting, or you arrive too late, spend the first five minutes of the show watching the lighting. Get some idea of what spots are being used. Gels can be the enemy, so watch for where the colored lights are shining. Gels can also be your best friend, so take note for that reason too. A typical no-flash shot that shows lighting gels of different colors and what the effects are is in Figure 4 (SFTV).
If you haven’t talked to the performers yet, find them and ask what they would like, if you are shooting for them or their manager. Find out if you can shoot on the stage, or in the back. Ask about flash if you think they might be concerned. And hand out cards or some other form of information about yourself.
One more thing—you can sometimes shoot at sound check. Small clubs don’t always have a sound check, but anytime there is a sound check, there’s an opportunity to get on stage and wander around. I often can’t shoot drummers during a performance—they’re in back, obscured by the rest of the group, often in the dark, and, if the stage is elevated, there isn’t a good angle for shooting. At sound check, on stage, those restrictions aren’t there.
And let’s talk for one minute about respect. People pay to see these performances. Don’t get in their way. This is especially true if you were “on the list,” but it’s also true even if you are paying. The photographer is not important and shouldn’t be what people notice. The performers and their performance is what’s important and everyone should be able to watch and listen.
What to Shoot
There’s a simple trick I use shooting music and dance acts. It’s called “listening to the music,” and I use it by listening and shooting on the beat the performers use for their impact moments. Musicians often choose a specific beat, but it’s most common that rock acts will do something, if they’re going to do anything, on the first or fourth beat. There are exceptions, but that’s most common, so count them out. In addition, listen for changes, like a chorus that is up-tempo or louder than the verses. Look for quiet moments that end with a bang and watch the drummer.
Why is this so important? The best shots you will get, and the ones most likely to get used if you are looking for pay and/or publication, are either dramatic or atmospheric. Drama comes when the music is dramatic, no surprise there, so that’s why you want to look for the dramatic moments in the music. Figure 5 (Forget About Boston) shows a musician hitting a high point. Too many people walk up, shoot whatever is happening and walk away. The results are often as exciting as listening to someone tuning their guitar.
For atmospheric photos, watch for the quiet times when the band steps back and the lighting is right. Slower music gives this opportunity, as do those in-between moments. Some lighting just won’t work, and you won’t get the atmosphere shots. But always watch the lights. I guess I can’t say that enough. The lights are what can help create the mood, even when you are shooting with flash. Figure 6 (Forget About Boston Ambient) shows what you can do by looking for the in-between moments.
Watch for Crowd Interaction
Bands that come off the stage, lean over into the crowd, pull people on stage with them, stage dive, these are moments that also make for great shots. For many artists, this is the essence of their performance. It’s the relationship between the stage and the crowd and breaking down the barrier. One band I shoot regularly sends the guitarist (with a wireless) into the crowd on the shoulders of their roadie. It makes for terrific shots from the right angles. Figure 7 (Goddamn Gallows) was taken at a show that was on the edge of violence, which did come later.
Even without crowd interaction, crowd shots are desirable—the audience can be as important as the performance. Figure 8 (Crowd Shot Elbo Room) was taken from the very front, up against the stage. Turn around and shoot, look for interesting things going on in the crowd. There’s a whole genre generally referred to as “party shots” that are photos of individuals or small groups of people in a club. It’s always done with flash, sometimes with slow sync and rear curtain flash. Slow sync will give you a “smeared” look, sometimes called light trails, that is very popular because of the dynamic appearance of the photos. However, this takes a lot of practice and care, as it is easy to get a sloppy mess. Sometimes the shots are just straight on with flash, which may not appeal to the photographer but does to the subjects when they see the photos.
If you can get on stage, you can shoot the drummer and the crowd. If you’re shooting for a band, they will appreciate the crowd shots, I get asked for them all the time if they know I’ve been on stage. Get the performers out front with the crowd in front of them, or behind them if they turn around. And spend some time with the drummer. I try high shots, at the drum kit from above, especially if the drummer puts his or head back. They’re always surprised at these shots, it’s not something they get from their friends in the crowd.
Other Quick Tips
With a balcony, you can get a good perspective on the whole stage and the crowd. Figure 9 (Balcony Shot) is a shallow balcony shot. Sometimes what happens in the crowd is just as interesting as what’s on stage, and from above you can shoot it. I shoot dancers and hula-hoopers in the crowd, sometimes brought by the band. I really enjoy shooting the peripheral action, as in Figure 10 (Hula Hooper). Look for mirrors in the venue—I’m always looking for mirrors that allow shooting the performers with a nice frame around them, or just gives you a perspective that you wouldn’t find. Figure 11 (Mirror Shot) was taken in a rehearsal studio that had multiple mirrors, allowing a somewhat unique shot.
Shoot high and low. I frequently shoot at the end of a tipped-down guitar or bass up towards the face, with the focus on the instrument, as in Figure 12 (Up the Bass). Look for light and dark moments and shoot to show them.
Microphones and stands can be a nightmare. Some performers stay pressed up against the microphone for their whole performance. You get the clutter in every shot, but worse, you can get the shadow of the mic and stand across them. I look for moments when mic-huggers back up, even if it’s only inches. I look for a side viewpoint that works. If I can get on stage, I look for a good shot of someone at a mic from behind. And sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do. I recently shot a punk trio and the two guys out front didn’t move from their microphones. I wasn’t real happy with the results.
Technical Details: How to Shoot
Let’s move on to the technical details. I’m sure you’re wondering about how to set up your camera and flash in some typical situations, and what to do with a compact camera. We will start assuming that you are using a DSLR and then move on. While I have shot quite a bit with film cameras, they are becoming increasingly uncommon for performance photography because they have specific disadvantages in this environment. In particular, you can’t deal with white balance (in color) very easily, you can’t switch back and forth from shot-to-shot for high ISO and low ISO (and I will explain why that is important) and high ISO film is often just plain ugly compared to digital results.
I shoot at high ISO without flash and low ISO with flash. Occasionally, I forget to switch and I get some high ISO shots with flash, but that’s not all bad. However, shooting at low ISO without flash can give unusable results and it’s worth constantly checking your ISO if you’re switching back and forth. I typically use ISO 400 with flash and 1600 or 3200 without flash. If I’m bouncing flash off a really high ceiling, a distant wall, or a dark ceiling or wall, I might use 800. With virtually all reasonably recent digital cameras, 400 should give clean images. Some cameras give pretty dirty images at 3200 but there are some remedies that you can apply in post-processing. Figure 13 (Helios Creed) was shot at ISO 1600 on a fairly recent mid-range camera and works fine by pushing the noisy shadows darker in post-processing.
Shutter and aperture
If you’re shooting without flash, in most clubs, you should be shooting wide open or close to wide open. I rarely stop down beyond f/2.8. Even shooting at f/2.8, you give up depth of field, but you just need to turn that to your advantage. Look for situations where it will look good with some of the composition out of focus. Or find a vantage point where you can shoot with performers in one plane, more or less, so that the lack of depth of field isn’t apparent in the photos.
I always shoot in Aperture Priority (Av on Canon, A on Nikon) or Manual Mode. I use Aperture Priority for ambient shots, i.e., no flash, set wide. If you use Shutter Priority (Tv on Canon, S on Nikon), you can end up with a shutter speed for which there isn’t an appropriate aperture due to the lack of light. For flash, I shoot in Manual Mode. The aperture is dependent on the distance the light has to travel, and I usually end up around f/4 because of the bounce. I move the shutter speed all over, sometimes to get shutter drag and show some motion and sometimes to stop everything and get that one dramatic pose. Those two things don’t often work together well, so I shoot both.
This is where “practice, practice, practice” comes into play. Getting flash right in these environments takes some experience. The more you practice, the more you learn what is going to work. Look up at the ceiling. What color is it? How high is it? Look at the walls. How far from the stage are they? What color are they? Is there anything on the walls or ceiling that will create an odd reflection? Once all this is well understood, aim your flash at the appropriate bounce surface and run a couple test shots. Make sure that there is enough light for the bounce, try a different surface if it isn’t working. If you are going to shoot straight on the subject, try setting flash exposure compensation to -1, open up the shutter a bit, and see if you can get a decent balance. The problem is that you can end up with really flat images with direct flash and you will have to do more work in post-processing if you use it. You can also use manual settings on the flash to drop the light and add some atmosphere to the shot. Figure 14 (Shadow Circus) was taken with flash in a club where ambient light shots can be extremely difficult. For this photo, I used a built-in bounce card on my flash.
Amazingly, it is possible to use the puny flash built into your camera (some mid-range DSLRs have a built-in flash), but this should really be for emergency situations. I went to see The Roots at San Francisco’s Fillmore and left my camera in the car because I didn’t have credentials, but it turned out it was OK to shoot. I went back to the car and brought the camera, shot with the built-in flash, and did fine. See Figure 15 (The Roots). However, I had a good background and a lot of light on the stage.
Some people use diffusers, which I rarely do because I bounce or just turn the flash down. The problem with diffusers is that certain ones, such as the Gary Fong type, send a lot of light to the side, which can annoy the people around you. Once again, people paid to see the show and the photographer should not be annoying them. The Sto-Fen type of diffuser, which doesn’t send much light to the side, is a lot more respectful. Figure 16 (Deathbone) was taken with bounced flash.
Dragging the shutter can produce some great effects. To do this, make sure the ISO is reasonably low (400 is usually fine) and set the aperture to get a shutter speed between 1/10 and 1/30 depending on how hyper the band is. Use the flash, set to second curtain sync, and you will get some interesting effects. The light trails shots so often seen with club shooting are done this way. Once again, experiment—look for the shutter speed that gives the best results. I dragged the shutter on Figure 17 (The Purge with Venom) to get a dynamic effect.
It can be extremely difficult to focus in low light, manual or autofocus. Sometimes the stage goes completely dark and you know you want to shoot the second the light comes back.
The savior is your flash’s focusing beam, if it has one. This lets you focus in total darkness and is very reliable. Don’t use the type with the flickering light—this is incredibly annoying to people who paid to get in. Most external flashes have a red beam that does not flicker and is barely noticeable.
If you are shooting without flash, or you only have that insanely annoying flashing white light for focus assist, try focusing on something in the same plane as your subject that is lit. Microphones or mic stands typically reflect even the tiniest amount of light so that you can focus on them. Instruments can be the same. Also, stick to using a single focus point (I use either the central point or the one above it) as this will make it easier to avoid focusing on something like a head in the way or the monitor at the foot of the stage. I usually set mine to “one shot” focus unless the performers are particularly hyperactive, in which case I may use the servo (AI) focusing setting.
For a start, I recommend my Event Photography Digital Workflow article here on photo.net about post-processing for event photos. My workflow has changed considerably since that article was written, but the basic principles apply. The number one thing to understand with any post-processing is how you want the image to look, or, if it’s for someone else, how they want it to look. Some performers like heavily-processed images that abstract key elements of the image.
The number two thing to understand with post-processing is that you can at least partially fix some of the white balance problems that come up with the complicated performance lighting. You cannot fix the effect of colored lights in many cases. This is another reason to use flash—lights with gels often look good in concert but terrible in reproduction. Sometimes the impact of the lights forces conversion to black and white as the only way to get around the look. Occasionally, very occasionally, it works out well.
Rather than write a whole new article on post-processing, I will summarize my current workflow:
- Import from memory cards using Adobe Lightroom 2 immediately after the show. This is actually quite slow as LR creates the thumbnails during the import, but since it’s usually late when I’m transferring the files, I run it while I’m getting ready to jump into bed.
- Pick the shots that are going to work out best for the way the performers should look.
- Make white balance and exposure/black point adjustments, using the Sync function across multiple images if appropriate.
- Do individual touch-up to deal with highlights and dark areas. Some of this is standard dodge and burn, localized contrast adjustment. However, bounce flash can cause a darkened lower area. This is sometimes advantageous and makes the subjects pop out of the darkness, but at other times, it takes out some interesting detail and unbalances the photo. I use the gradient in LR to lighten the lower half of the image if it improves the photo.
- At this point, I’m ready to make heavy alterations (not all images require further processing). I use several Nik plug-ins to do this: Silver Efex Pro for images that will end up in black and white, and Color Efex Pro for images that are going to stay in color.
- I create a gallery using jalbum for the photos.
This is the hard part. Most performers lose money every time they get on stage. Outfits, gear, transport, promotion—unless they are signed with a reasonably successful label, all of this comes out of their own pockets. Many are happy just to get a couple free drinks. It’s unlikely there’s going to be much for the photographer.
What I do to separate paying from non-paying is that paying customers are guaranteed a certain number and quality (high resolution) of shots. I meet with them early before the show and go over what kind of shots they want. I deliver full resolution shots within a couple days. If I’m not getting paid, I’m shooting for myself. Performers can use the web-sized images for their web sites, Facebook, and Myspace.
One way to make a few dollars is by doing promotional shots, posed shots that are not from a show. Many performers want these for PR kits, posters, etc., and you can use the connections you have through live shooting to get the PR shooting. I often work on location, shooting performers before and after a show. A lot of clubs have interesting settings, indoors and outdoors, and you can take advantage of them, if you have access to a studio or other locations. Take people out of the show environment, where their friends are shooting them and take interesting photos. Learn how to use lighting (a whole other topic) and reflectors.
CD cover usage is also a potential place to make money. Performers understand that they are paying for a variety of services to produce a CD and are usually willing to pay for the photos that accompany the CD, including performance shots. Make sure you follow the performers you have photographed and know when they are producing a CD. The obvious downside here is that a lot of musicians are releasing through digital stores rather than CDs.