A pro walks you through shooting live music in small- to medium-sized venues.
The Jimmy Cake Live at the Warwick
The Warwick is one of my favorite venues for watching and photographing concerts. Unfortunately, it is actually a ballroom/disco that hosts concerts on an irregular basis, so there is no permanent stage. The set-up and the lighting vary from gig to gig. The bigger name acts bring their own light shows, which make it easy to shoot, but with the smaller acts on smaller budgets, I need to make do with whatever the situation is when I arrive.
The Jimmy Cake lies somewhere in the middle with an OK lighting setup. A 10-piece instrumental band that often gets the crowd moshing, I photographed this concert exclusively on film. I used my Konica Hexar 35mm f/2 (Fuji 800 Press, and 80b filter, underexposed2/3 stop) and Canon A2 with 85mm 1.8 (Fuji Neopan 1600 black & white film).
Though the light on the band was reasonably bright, it was also rather drab in the color department. I wanted a nice full band shot, but I had to shoot almost a whole roll on the Hexar to come up with a picture I was happy with, and I still couldn't get all members in the frame. Though the Jimmy Cake gets the crowd moving, onstage they stay rather still below the waist. The interesting shots were in the faces and upper body. This was an ideal situation to shoot black and white close-ups.
With Fuji Neopan 1600 film at f/2, I was able to shoot with shutter speeds above 1/200th, freezing most action, which is what I wanted. Because of the intense dancing of the crowd, I chose to stay in one spot (stage right), and even then found myself slammed into regularly -- much beer flew in my direction. I had to keep one eye on the band, the other on the crowd, and rely on quick reflexes to get the shots and protect myself and the equipment. Luckily, I succeeded at both. Not being able to get physically close to or zoom in on the musicians to stage left made for some interesting compositions.
The film was processed at my local lab, with the black and white sent away as usual, and I had 3x5 printed just for reference, which were very acceptable. I later made black and white prints in the darkroom, and scanned both the black and white and the color negatives. The only changes made on the computer were slightly tighter cropping, dust/scratches touch ups, and standard levels adjustments.
Musical portraits in a way, these photos were enthusiastically received by both the promoter and the band, and were used for promo posters to accompany an article in The Irish Times, one of the largest daily newspapers with a nationwide circulation.
Jimmy Cliff Gig
A difficult gig. Originally scheduled for a larger venue, it was moved to a smaller stage at the Roisin Dubh at the last minute. My 50mm 1.8 was broken, so I had to choose between using my Konica Hexar 35mm f/2 with Fuji Superia 800, exposed at 500 with 80B colour correction filter, my 85mm 1.8 on my Canon A2 with the same film and filter, or the 85mm on the Canon 10D. A few spot readings of Jimmy Cliff showed I had no choice but to go for the 10D at ISO 1600. Even then, the shots were about one stop underexposed at the best of times.
It was a full house. The crowd was jam-packed up front and I found myself forced into one tight spot. (Luckily, the crowd was enthusiastic but peaceful.) So I was shooting dark-skinned subjects against a dark background under very poor lighting. I was extremely close to the stage with an effective focal length of 135mm. Getting a shot of the full band was impossible. I had to concentrate on catching Jimmy Cliff as he moved energetically in and out of the light. Given this type of situation, I always try to get a few shots of the other members of the band. I shot Jimmy Cliff, but I also got a separate complementary shot of one of his back-up singers -- here they work nicely together, either to illustrate a gig review or mounted together in a frame for the venue's wall.
Toasted Heretic Gig
This show was the triumphant return concert of Toasted Heretic at the Radisson SAS Galway, part of The 2005 Galway Arts Festival. A Galway band on the rise 10 years ago before taking a long hiatus to get married, write books, and have children, this was a major show in town. Though sold-out, the venue wasn't cramped, and the crowd of old fans was content to stay a few yards from the stage, leaving stage front to the 13 Galway photographers who showed up with press passes. The guitarist pictured on the right of the photo is a photographer himself, and the only stipulation was "First 30 songs/only using flash." A rather unique scenario: no hassle from the crowd and no rules. It was a bit difficult jostling for position, but all the shooters treated each other with mutual respect.
The light was bright and dramatic, so I chose to break the "rules" and shoot available light as usual. The main spotlight was on lead singer Julian Gough, so I took some readings off him and found I would be able to shoot at ISO 400, using my Canon 10D and both my 85mm 1.8 and my 50mm l.8. Though I had my Konica Hexar as well, the 35mm lens was a bit too wide, as the stage was rather high and the band more distant than at some of the smaller venues.
The band members really enjoyed themselves and put on a great show, with Julian Gough striking some unusual poses that made for good photos. Habit got the best of many of the photographers, who chose to quit shooting halfway through, but I found I got my favorite shots near the end of the night. (They never did manage 30 songs, however.)