In the Pit: A Guide to Shooting Gigs

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John Carpenter – The Thing

Getintothis’ photographer Martin Waters shares more tips for shooting gigs and shows how a little research can pay dividends.

One of the main questions you get asked if you shoot gigs, right after ‘how do I get a press pass?’, is ‘what do you do in terms of preparation?’  Well, this all depends on the venue, the artist and how well known they are. In most cases, shooting an unsigned band in the Magnet doesn’t really involve too much research, you can just go and shoot (provided you already know the house rules and general lighting standard). But if it is a better known artist or a bigger venue then taking a bit of time to check things out is always worthwhile.

For all those keen to get an idea of just what it takes to shoot gigs, I thought an example of just what I (sometimes) go through may prove useful.  

The job always starts with the Getintothis list of upcoming gigs. You may be tempted to throw your hat into the ring for all the big shows at the Echo Arena, and while that is nice, anyone can shoot at the Arena and if you’re serious in figuring out if you can actually shoot at gigs then you’re better off opting for the small venues.

It is only by shooting the smaller bands in the darkest venues that you will really learn about shooting shows and whether it’s for you. I tend to opt for a mix and only occasionally ask for specific artists, if you’re free on a night and keen to shoot, then you should be happy to shoot anyone, anywhere.

All the work and effort that goes into securing access is done by the Getintothis team, which makes things a lot easier. As photographers or reviewers we just know that, barring an odd hitch, our names are on the door and we’re expected. For this particular gig, shooting John Carpenter at the Olympia, I get the standard rules: ‘We will only be allowing access for 6 photographers to this show due to artist stipulations and the shooting rules are strictly first 3 songs no flash.’

So far, so straightforward, and now I know what I’m working with – three songs as expected and then you’re done. But while they say ‘strictly first 3 songs’ is it that straightforward? Do they mean three songs in the pit and then I can go shoot a couple of crowd shots from the back or is it three songs from any location and out. It’s always worth checking, never assume you will have any sort of additional access once your three songs are up.

More often than not, anything else is a bonus and I’ve been escorted from a number of venues for trying to push this rule to the limits and grabbing a fourth or fifth from the crowd. A quick check with the PR company and they are happy for a couple of extra shots to be taken from the balcony.

And notice the standard no flash rule. This is a given. You have to be comfortable enough to shoot without flash no matter how bad the lighting. What this actually means is you have to have a fairly decent camera, one that will allow you to take the ISO up to 3200 (or even 6400) without throwing out too much noise in your image (my Canon will let me go as high as 25600 but the higher the ISO the poorer the quality of the image and while you can play around in Lightroom, pics are often needed the night of the gig and you just don’t have enough time for any major tinkering). And this is where experience of shooting in small, darker clubs comes in because that is where you will have learnt to balance your ISO with your shutter speed to still get as sharp an image as possible.

Anyway, time to do a bit of research.

If you know you’re limited to just the first couple of songs then it’s useful to know what they are. So my first port of call for any gig of a decent size is to head over to setlist.fm. Here I pull up Carpenter’s other tour dates and there’s the set lists. A quick look through and the set list hasn’t changed all tour so that’s the first three numbers nailed on.

  • Escape from New York
  • Assault on Precinct 13
  • Vortex

Out of those three, Escape from New York seems likely to have the strongest/most recognisable imagery if, as expected, they go with footage from the film. So in this example I’m already thinking of a shot of John Carpenter with Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken. But that is all going to depend on if the stage is going to be set up as I’m expecting. Time for more research.

John Carpenter - Escape from New York

John Carpenter – Escape from New York

Head over to Youtube and, regardless of the artist, you’ll probably find a fan shot video of the current tour. OK, it’s poor quality but it shows me what I need to know – there’s a definite screen as a backdrop and there’s the footage they’ll show. Now I just have to pick what I think is a strong image. I actually found footage of all three of the opening numbers and worked through to see whether anything stood out as unmissable.

Now this approach doesn’t just work for when you know there’s going to be strong visuals, it works for any gig. If you know what the first three songs are then you can plan ahead a bit. Wonder how we grab those shots as the pyro goes off or just as the guitarist leaps off the drum riser? We know what song is coming up and just where the action is. Youtube is a God send.

From the videos I can also see that, given the stage set up, I’m likely to be too close to get the exact shot I want during the first three songs which was a planned iconic image from one of the films and a sense of the full stage.

That’s OK, what I was really hoping for was actually a shot of the ‘spider head’ from ‘The Thing’. From the setlist I know this is song number 7. I know I won’t be in the pit for that, but I’ll have all the required headshots and everything else in the bag so I’ll have the luxury of getting this shot as an additional one. If it works out, great. If not, I know the brief is covered with the other shots.

All that is left now is to charge my camera batteries, pack my camera bag with my standard kit – for this gig it was a Canon 6D, 200mm, 85mm, 50mm, and 15mm and head to the venue. After a pretty lengthy queue (a photo pass doesn’t generally equal a queue jump) we’re in and checking out the venue just to see if there are any other shots that may stand out. Any shots of the crowd to give a sense of atmosphere always goes down well. It’s all good so it is time to settle down for what was one of the gigs of the year.

Olympia fit to burst

Olympia fit to burst

With the pit shots in the bag during the first three songs, it is time to head up to the balcony to catch that shot I really want. Thanks to just a little bit of planning earlier I was able to grab the shot shown at the top of the page.

How much preparation you put in is really down to you and how much you actually want to get the job done. Anyone can shoot gigs and in fact if you’re interested, I’d advise you to take a camera along to a smaller gig and get shooting, you’ll rarely need a photo pass. One thing is common in all of the In the Pit profiles we’ve done on Getintothis photographers, they all advise you to shoot anything and shoot often. And if you do fancy signing on to the Getintothis team, drop us a line and an example of your work.

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