Capturing live performance with your camera can be challenging - but it's well worth the effort, says Damien McGlynn . . .

The other side of the camera

"Many people who love photography say that part of the attraction is avoiding being in front of the camera. And I’ll tell you something - it works!

I’m not sure what first attracted me to photography, but when I got my first camera (a boxy contraption with flashcubes) on my 8th birthday, it seemed like a magical piece of equipment. I later refined my skills while studying at art college, learning to work on black & white film and developing and printing my own work, before moving on to digital SLRs and Photoshop editing.

At some point, I realised I had little to no interest in what might be called ‘fine art photography’. For me, there was nothing interesting about carefully setting up a scene and adjusting lights and every other detail to get a precise shot. I was only ever interested in documenting the real world and working with an element of chance.

I was inspired by the documentary styles of the great street photography of the early 20th century – big names like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Saul Leiter, as well as Diane Arbus, who took a more formal portraiture style. Eventually, I combined my love of documentary photography with one of my other great loves: live music."

First three, no flash

"For quite a few years I worked as a gig photographer, following the golden rule in the industry, “first three, no flash”. That means you get three songs (maximum) and you can’t use a flash. Additionally, people like me would have great respect for those dedicated fans in the front row, so would do our best to hop about like ninjas, capturing the show but not disturbing anyone’s enjoyment.

The rule against the use of flash is mostly for the benefit of the performers and the audience, to avoid that paparazzi-style frenzy spoiling the look of the show. But it’s also in the photographers’ interests as a flash will normally result in a worse image with things looking cold, washed out, and not at all capturing the genuine mood of the moment."

Embracing what you can't control

"However, it also presents difficulties. I think a lot of what attracted me to gig photography was the challenges it presented. There are so many unpredictable, uncontrollable variables that make getting the right shot so hard, but so rewarding. The performers are often moving around at speed, the lights are changing constantly, there’s dry ice filling the space between your lens and the performers, and other photographers’ elbows are fighting their way into your personal space. Red lights, in particular, are a nightmare for photographers. It’s like a perfect storm of awful conditions for photography - and I highly recommend it!"

Tips and tricks

From my years on the gig battlefield, I can offer some tips:

  • Practice your steady hand: Low light, and no flash, usually means you’ll need a combination of high ISO settings (too high can create pixelated noise) and low shutter speed, which means the picture itself is slower so the camera needs to be held very steady while you shoot. Practice makes (reasonably) perfect.
  • Do your research: Gigs, like all live performances, are unpredictable. But you can prepare yourself by knowing the songs, and looking into other photos and videos of performances to learn and anticipate how certain performers set up or behave onstage. Being ready for a split second moment means you might catch it.
  • Different angles: Photography is all about angles. One thing that I think applies to all types of photography is how much more striking it is to see something from an unusual angle. If you stand still and take all your photos at normal height, looking reasonably straight ahead, it doesn’t look visually interesting because this is how people see the world every day. You’ll see music photographers crouching and kneeling to get shots looking upwards, almost from a performer's feet, because it looks more dramatic. But try any unusual angle and see how much more interesting the result is.
  • Don’t forget the crowd: Gig photographers are usually positioned in the no man’s land between the front barrier and the stage. In smaller venues, you might be right among the crowd. Either way, remember that the audience are an important part of the dynamic of a live show and you might be looking the wrong way to notice. 
  • Shoot everything: It’s tempting to only shoot music you enjoy, and I did a lot of this, but take the chance to see things you’re not a fan of already. Choirs, orchestras, punk bands and DJs all present different visual challenges and rewards. 
  • Easy on the editing: This is a personal opinion, but take it easy on post-production. If you want more control, shoot in RAW digital format and make some tweaks, or just shoot in JPG format and do the basics in Photoshop or similar. But try not to go too far. There’s a whole artform of digital imagery, but if your goal is documentary photography, try to be true to the moment as much as possible.

[All photographs: Damien McGlynn]