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If you’re a live music photographer you’ve probably found the world of YouTube Photography tutorials to be a bit useless. It’s either middle aged men with loads of money and zero passion dryly telling you what the best metering option is (I still don’t really know) or a major youtube photography channel who doesn’t specialise in music and culture just doing a throw away video with footage from that one gig that shot that one time. This, is going to be something a bit different.
Since I started taking photography seriously about 2 years ago it’s become a bigger and bigger part of my life. In that time I’ve shot for the likes of Jayda G, Haai, Idles, Field Day, We Out Here, Porridge Radio, and most recently The Cause in London throughout their lockdown events series.
I’m at a bit of a crossroads as a photographer, for the first time it’s a consistent source of income for me, I’m investing in new equipment, and actually feeling like the work I’m producing is good, interesting and valuable.
So as I learn more about this art form and meet really cool and stupidly talented people I wanted to share and document my journey and theirs so that you might be able to pick up a camera, or be inspired to try something different to what you’re already doing to promote local artistic communities around with the wonderful power of photography.
Let’s start by saying: I am not the best music photographer out there. Not at all. If you’re looking for that please go check out Bree Hart, Phoebe Fox, Michaela Quan, Vicky Grout, Khris Cowley, Lindsay Melbourne, Zac Mahrouche, Iona Skye and Barnaby Fairley just to get you started with some of the best in the UK.
This series is about spotlighting visual talent around the various communities that make up the UK music scene.
This first episode is just an introduction to this series with a few pointers on how to get started and what kind of gear you might want to look at getting, to get some good results straight away.
Why start taking photos?
Before you even pick up a camera, let’s start by thinking about why you want to be doing music photography. Once you have an answer to this then you can work out what you should use to shoot it.
I wish I’d really known that from the start because since I’ve actually been thinking about “why do I want to shoot this gig/this artist/this party” I’ve got so much better.
There’s loads of reasons to take photos of music, this can be to get to know the bands in your local area, to document your creative friends on their journey or it could be because you fancy someone in a band and want and want an excuse to meet them at their gig. All are very legitimate reasons to get into music photography.
What should you use?
Pretty much any camera you’re going to be shooting with is pretty damn incredible by historical standards. Even your phone camera would be pretty good when compared to what a lot of people would have been shooting on in 1990 or something, so if all else fails, get out and use that. I still sometimes incorporate phone video into my video edits. If you’ve got no money to invest, start there and just take more time with composing your shots and you’ll learn a lot.
The idea here isn’t to tell you which camera to buy or anything like that but to tell you what to look for in the cameras and lenses you buy. A photographer or filmmaker is a storyteller and you can tell a great story with any camera and so can become a great photographer.
The problem comes when you start getting paid. People will probably start asking you to tell a story in their way and all of a sudden the techniques you’ve developed to tell your stories aren’t enough any more.
So why did I start taking photos and making videos? I started taking photos of live music and filming interviews to support the radio shows I was doing that have gone on to become Pretend. So for this, I started with a little point and shoot digital Fujifilm X-30, which I’ve since bashed to pieces in mosh pits. It’s a bit held together by tape now.
This thing was great, I didn’t know anything about photography and it allowed me to get into the action and start taking pictures. I’d really recommend getting a point and shoot and trying it out at a festival or something if you want to see if music is something you like. It deals with the more complex things for you so you can just start taking photos and thinking about what really matters which is the stories you’re telling. A smaller camera is also great because it’s less threatening and people tend to act more naturally around it
If you’re getting into photography to get pictures of your friends then I’d recommend trying a little disposable film camera, the feel of film even on something cheap and plastic is amazing and it’s really nice to capture memories with. The promotion duo Never Heard of Ya do this amazingly well around their events so make sure you check them out. This can be upgraded to a proper film camera but we’ll do a whole episode of that much later down the line cos it’s a whole thing.
The point and shoot was good but when I started taking photography seriously I decided to get a DSLR. People had started asking me to take photos for them and I wanted to do more video stuff so it made sense at the time…
My first DSLR was a canon 750d, which has been my main camera since 2017. It has a flippy screen, basic video capabilities and is alright. Pretty much everything I’ve shot and been paid for has been on this camera, it’s got it’s limitations but has got me somewhere.
Look for second hand stuff first, either online on ebay or facebook groups or check out shops like Nicholas Cameras in Camden or Real Camera in Manchester’s Northern quarter.
Full frame is best if you can afford it
- A full frame camera has a bigger sensor which means more information is captured in each photo. This means that the dark parts of your photos won’t be under exposed and your highlights won’t be so blown out.
- The most important thing that this does is reduce noise which is what happens when your sensor doesn’t get enough information from the light you give it.
You can still get great results with a crop sensor
- My Canon 750d is a crop sensor camera and it’s done me really well but I’ve needed to get lenses to help overcome its shortcomings. The problem here is that these lenses won’t work as well with full frame cameras, my friend Iona uses her crop sensor lens on her full frame camera and it creates this amazing vignette effect but it’s not ideal for all situations.
Consider video capabilities
- Canon cameras don’t do 60fps at 1080p until you get to the more expensive models and not having that option has forced me to be more creative with what I have.
The lens you choose is the most important piece of kit you have for taking pictures of live music.
The most important thing is having as big an aperture as possible. The aperture is basically the size of the hole that light comes through in your lens.
Shown as f/x.x the lower the number the more light can get to the sensor meaning you can shoot in darker locations. Given most music events outside of festivals are in pretty dark rooms this is really important.
If you have a cheaper camera your kit lens (the one that comes with the camera) will probably be an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 or something similar. This means that the aperture gets smaller the more you zoom in. When you’ve got the lens as wide as you can, at 18mm, you’ve got something that’s not awful for live music, but you won’t be that close to your subject and as you get closer, they’ll get darker which isn’t ideal.
The first lens you should buy is either a 35mm f/1.8 or a cheaper 50mm f/1.8 lens. All the major camera models have some version of these lenses and at the cheaper end you can pick up a 35mm for about £100 or a 50mm for £40-50 second hand. For lenses this is cheap and this will make more of a difference to your photography than the camera body you buy.
These lenses are “prime” meaning that there’s no zoom but as you’ll probably be starting in smaller venues this is okay because they allow you to get right into the action.
Now – If you’re just starting out, I would recommend not spending any more money on gear until you’ve properly mastered those lenses. The 35mm and 50mm are staples of photography and give you loads of options to play with and can produce some amazing results.
After that, for shooting in small venues the sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens THE BEST LENS IN THE WORLD (for a crop sensor camera). You can get it for any major camera model and it comes in around £650 new but you can definitely find it cheaper second hand. This lens is great, it allows for amazing wide crowd shows and at the upper end the zoom can get some amazing portraits and it’s got such a big aperture you can shoot almost anywhere.
The one drawback of the 18-35 that I have found is that it’s not any good for bigger venues, when for bigger shows where I’m further from the artists I’ve found that it’s too wide for most practical applications.
The next thing I’m going to buy is an 24-70 f/2.8 lens but it’s so expensive I’ve been thinking about it for like a year while trying to put enough money aside to make it happen.
Think about why you want to shoot music and just shoot with whatever is available. Get a disposable point and shoot, use your phone, whatever. Just get out and start shooting.
Then when you want to invest, get some kind of crop sensor DSLR and a 35mm or 50mm f/1.8 prime lens. Other options are available of course but I think this is the best value for money when you’re starting out.
Then, finally, if you can afford it get a full frame camera and a 24-70mm f/2.8. But if you can do that, you’re probably a bit beyond needing this video/article.
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Check out the next video in the series now about the best settings to use for live music photography – link here.