An introduction to gig photography: lights, camera, action?


chris lynam firework trick
Everyone’s a gig photographer these days and some are better than others, Getintothis’ Simon Lewis proffers some wide angle illumination on the art of capturing the finer details from the pit.

Our own personal artistic tendencies take on many forms – although music is a great place for artistic tastes to be shared and enjoyed.

My own form of artistic expression – gig photography – brings together music and another passion – technology.
There is common ground here for many of us – particularly capturing a moment in time. Indeed, check your pockets, we all have the means. Many of your own images will unsurprisingly include you, as the performer, too.

My type of photography doesn’t involve spending hours editing images in Photoshop, so everything must happen inside the camera, and around it, at a precise harmonious moment. My top tip? Be prepared and expect anything.
bill ryder-jones leaf seated
Bill Ryder-Jones ahead of a recent gig at Leaf Tea Shop, Liverpool

Being Prepared
With the digital photography process, I need to ease any technical burdens that may hinder my creative ability and also make provision for time to observe the dynamic gig environment.

I use a business-like process to manage technical and non-creative aspects of photography. This process ensures that myself and my equipment are ready to go and deal with the creative parts. My process has many components but, for practicality ‘on the night’, they are reduced to just two:

1. The person that controls the light.
2. The person that captures the light.

No light equals no picture.

alan mcgee lighting test shot

Alan McGee at his 359 club night at District

Lighting scenarios
Let’s make some huge assumptions: I have followed my process, I know how to operate my camera and I also know the optimal settings required for the gig (always use manual mode and auto ISO if you have it).

That takes care of my individual preparation (the person that captures the light) in swift fashion. Okay, I have hinted at a lighting technician, and he or she probably won’t be available, but fear not as I have taken some good pictures under the most simple of lighting set ups.

Using just the light of an emergency exit sign (the club was otherwise in near darkness), I snapped the candid picture above. I prefer not to use flash, as it can blow out subtle lighting effects, and I make use of the available light.

An old trick is to convert an image to black and white to remove any weird colouration which can also improve clarity and create a vintage vibe. However, it is up to you, as it is your artistic vision.

I won’t go into an explanation and other fixes to combat dis-colouration here – but it is a common occurrence in gig photography where flash lighting is not typically allowed.

I do regard it as one of the enjoyable challenges of photography, attempting to compose an image when conditions aren’t ideal (and Lucas or Spielberg aren’t available).

I conversely have been limited, photographically, by an over enthusiastic lighting setup, which was great to mesmerize the audience with, but not great for me trying to capture a moment when the artist and lighting are in-sync for about 1/100th of a second.

The presence of a lighting technician or a complex lighting setup adds further variables to the photographic challenge but, when working in harmony, they can produce fantastic impact and creative potential.

It doesn’t guarantee great photographs, as the split second moment may be over before I’ve even got my lens cap off, but (like I said earlier) be prepared and observant.

I did have a few disastrous examples of this discord between the lighting setup, the artist and photographer but, thanks to digital cameras and the delete button, the evidence no longer exists. Now ALL my pictures are good.

Oh, all right, I have retrieved one from the recycle bin…
sleeping dog

A recycle bin favourite – bass playing is a tough job
The spotlight moved away from the artist, I was unable to focus and he was also expressing himself by jumping around a lot. An impossibly difficult situation to capture.

The purpose of gig lighting
Personally, I prefer stage lighting to have periods where it is consistent, combined with some feature lighting for the artist or subject. It is akin to creating a studio lighting setup. This is not always possible, but certainly something to aim for.

The artist would probably request lighting that is complimentary to their ‘message’ or brand and (hopefully) said message may have similarities to my requirement for feature lighting.

As for lighting for the promoter, venue and media?

They largely require photographs for promotional purposes, therefore lighting that assists the photographer should also serve them well.

For the audience, meanwhile, remember what was said back at the top of the article: we all have the means to photograph and the desire for performance. But, consider this as you read on, that sonically, it is common to have mega sound systems that could turn an audience into pulp – whereas, visually, we can be left in the dark.
Loka singer live review capstone theatre
Loka live at the Capstone Theatre

Conclusion: good design doesn’t cost.
It needn’t take much to create an environment that actually helps us capture the images that social media craves, so we can show everyone what a great time we are having and increase our readership.

My Artist to Audience Process
Artist -> promoter -> venue -> technician -> photographer -> media -> audience

If I’m to increase the value of my photography, then there are many participants in the process each with their own requirements that require consideration.

The artist: to deliver energy and a visual message.

The promoter: to deliver value for all.

The venue: providing the business.

Technician: offering artistic support (ie: lighting).

Photographer: capturing the light.

Media: Convey the message from the live performance.

Audience: provide a reaction.

It’s not surprising the audience has an empathy with the artist, as they have become fans because they ‘get it’. The promoter, venue and media are important facilitators in a photographer’s process and they influence the ability to photograph more logistically than creatively.

I removed the artist/audience out of my creative part of the process, because they already know what they are doing at the gig and are there for me to observe and photograph. They just need to turn up, which again is more of a logistical issue. Therefore, on the night, I strip the main contributors down to just the lighting and the photographer which has served me well.

My chosen conclusion, however, has benefits to all of us – so it seems worthy of further development or do we let sleeping dogs lie?
aquaria symm hoop
Aquaria at Williamson Tunnels

All images by Getintothis’ Simon Lewis.

Further reading on Getintothis:
Flying in the face of adversity – the demise of the music press in the digital age.
Bob Dylan, Run DMC and the moral dilemma of selling out to advertising
Getintothis on the music battle for our soul – are you in or out of the box?
Liverpool Record Store Day 2014: Word from Probe, 3B Records and Dig Vinyl.
Liverpool Sound City 2014: He used to come round wearing make up and strange Japanese Kimono clothing – David Pichilingi
LightNight 2014: Guide to music and performance highlights