Thursday, 16 October 2014

Thursday Feature: Taking Photos at Gigs - Etiquette and Techniques

The practice of taking pictures at gigs has exploded since the advent of the pocket-sized camera and the camera-phone. Where once was a sea of cigarette lighters, instead is a sea of square blobs of light as everyone tries to capture the moment on a piece of silicon.

My view of Epica, courtesy of the guy in front of me.
There are many who are annoyed by this practice. I am one of them, to some degree, although I am more forgiving than most. Photographs I can understand; they capture a moment and it's fun to do. Videoing the event I don't get. A live music event is right there, in front of you. If you're just going to spend the whole time faffing with a gadget only to watch it again later, without the atmosphere, lighting or volume, then what's the point even being there?

But philosophy aside, there are practical issues that need to be dealt with. These are both social and technical. Much of the etiquette of gig photography is, or at least should be, self-evident. Basically, don't get in anybody else's way, obstruct their view, or otherwise influence the event that they have paid (with money and/or time) to see. Like everything else in life, it all boils down to "don't be a dick."


There are some key rules that I try to stick to that, as much as possible, avoid intruding on other gig-goers. They're very simple and easy to follow.

1. Keep out of the way

Don't stand right in front of somebody and block their view. Try to be discreet. Stand to one side, or get near the front and get lower down.

I am more aware than most of this because of my height. Even when not taking pictures I have to be careful not to block other people's view. Well, I don't have to; many tall people seem to have no problem with standing in front of someone 12" shorter than they are. But I do, so I avoid it.

2. Turn off the screen

Bright screens are distracting. Like fireflies flitting through the audience, they can be really irritating. And like spotlights right in your eyes, if one goes up right in front of you it can incite you to murder. Or at least pent-up frustration.

But what if your camera doesn't have a viewfinder? Well, get one that does. Or if you have one with an optional add-on viewfinder, get one. They're very nice. Alternatively, check out rule 3.

Of course, what if your camera pretty much is the screen? I'm talking, of course, about using the camera on your phone. At this point you're pretty much stuck with rule 3, but there are also technical reasons not to use your phone at all.

3. Be brief

Mael Mordha
I am aware that not everyone has the benefit of being 6'3", and using a viewfinder would result in lots of backs of heads. Fair enough, I wouldn't deny your picture-taking rights. But be brief. Turn it on, lift it up, frame and shoot. Then turn it off.

When you've taking your shot, avoid chimping. That is, avoid checking every single shot on the back of the camera before deciding it wasn't quite right and shooting another. In fact, best thing is to turn the picture review off altogether, otherwise you're breaking rule 2.

Instead of the usual "frame, shoot, review, frame, reshoot" cycle, use continuous shooting. Even my cheapest compact camera supports continuous burst shooting. If you can limit the number of continuous shots, set it to 3. That way you don't get too many, but the chances of catching the ever-changing lighting just right will be drastically improved.

4. Don't use the flash

Remember rule 2, about how annoying tiny little screens can be? That's magnified by bursts of very bright light from your little compact camera's flash. Especially if you forgot to turn off pre-flash and red-eye reduction. Many small cameras can flash up to 5 times for a single shot, somewhat like a strobe. Distracting, especially if you're unlucky enough to be stood next to somebody with one of those cameras.

And the problem, really, is that even if the flash goes off, it likely won't do any good. The distance between most of the audience and the band is way beyond the range of an average consumer level built-in flash. 10 feet is probably all you're realistically going to get, so anything further than that is just going to be annoying with no benefit.
Just be nice

That's it. That is my list of rules for gig photography etiquette. Four simple little rules that will ensure you get a few good snaps to share with your friends, and the rest of the audience won't hate your guts for it. Just be nice, and people won't even notice you.


Now I'd like to go through some ways that I like to ensure that the pictures I take come out well and don't look like rubbish. I'll also give a brief overview of my gig photo gear, and why I like it.

There are a few common problems with gig photos. Each of them has a solution, but most people just let the camera pick the settings and hope for the best. At some gigs this can work really well, because the lights are bright, and consistently so. But at many gigs this simply doesn't work at all. The list of common problems, as I see them, is as follows:

  1. Underexposure - The pictures are too dark
  2. Slow shutter - The band is blurry due to moving around too much
  3. Position and zoom - The band is tiny
  4. Rapidly changing lighting - Shots are unpredictable
1. Underexposure

Anvil in the dark
Underexposure is a common problem in live music venues. The house lights are off, the stage lights are unpredictable, and the camera's built in metering just can't cope with it. There are a few ways to deal with it.

Before I go on I'd just like to point out that using flash is not a solution. It's annoying, and it usually won't work unless you're right at the front. And if you are, you risk annoying the band.

Instead of flash, bump up the ISO. Most phone cameras have fixed aperture and shutter speed and use ISO control anyway, so leave that as is. Other small compacts have ISO options up to about 1600, or even higher these days for the higher end of compact. Set it to 1600 and leave it there. If you find it's not good enough, keep doubling it until it's high enough. The fact is that if you get some high ISO grain on a 12 megapixel image, it'll be all but invisible by the time it's scaled down to 1.5 megapixels and put on Facebook. You'll likely lose some dynamic range, but that can always be recovered after the fact.

2. Slow shutter

Purified in Blood? Or
Purified in Blur?
Slow shutter speeds will cause the movements of people on stage to blur, often turning otherwise clear features to mush. This can result in pictures that, while properly exposed and bright, are indecipherable.

The best way to combat this is by using a high ISO, as mentioned before. Once that's set, you may still be at the whim of your camera if you're still using automatic mode. Switch it, instead, to S (shutter priority) or Tv (time value) mode. This lets you specifically set how long the shutter can stay open, and the camera has to honour that setting. But how long is long enough?

  • 1/30th of a second is good for "dramatic pose" moments, and may be the fastest you can manage with slow lenses. More than a tiny amount of movement would be badly blurred.
  • 1/60th of a second is the lowest shutter speed that can be safely hand-held without introducing blurring due to shaking hands. You would get more clear shots of the band at this speed and is a little more forgiving.
  • 1/125th of a second is what I usually use, because it's quick enough to get a clear shot, but gives some slight blur for very fast movement so it doesn't look like the band has been somehow frozen in mid-air. On slower compact cameras, this might result in images that are too dark because it can't compensate with a wider aperture.
  • 1/250th of a second should allow you to get freeze-frame moments with no blurring at all, but you'll need a very fast lens and very bright lights to get this.
One thing that can help is to use exposure compensation. Set it to -1 stop and you'll see your shutter speed double instantly. The picture will be dark, but depending on the situation that might be fine. In a venue with a high contrast between the bright lights and the dark room it's entirely likely that the lights will be bright enough to make everything work and you'll get some nice, moody images.

If the venue is really dark and you have a fairly basic camera, chances are it's trying to brighten the dark room to look like brighter than it actually is. You can then lower exposure compensation even further. Experiment, and put it in a position where the darkness of the venue is realistic rather than excessively bright, and where the bright lights are still clear.

3. Position and zoom

Lacuna Coil are tiny
There's nothing worse than getting what looks like an epic shot of the whole stage, only to look at it later and realise the band are 8 pixels tall and completely unrecognisable. Getting close is a basic rule of photography, and settling for a huge picture with a tiny person in the middle is hardly worth bothering with. Fortunately there are two main ways to deal with it.

First, get closer. Get close enough to fill the frame with the picture you want, instead of settling for tiny images. Get right to the front if you can, although the official photographers, moshers and other people might not like it. Refer to the previous post about keeping out of the way.

Phone cameras suffer a disadvantage here because they are built for taking pictures of people within a few feet of the camera. The wide angle lens makes things even a small distance away seem very small. You have to almost touch the stage to get any decent detail with a lens so wide.

Secondly, you could zoom. Consumer level cameras with 15x or even 30x zoom at the high end are available. The main issue with zooming is that there are two types:

  • Digital zoom - usually available on camera phones, this doesn't actually zoom. It just makes the pixels bigger. Pointless.
  • Optical zoom - usually available on actual cameras, although there are major issues.
If you're lucky enough to have a DSLR with a 70-200mm f/4 L lens then you'll get good zoom images. But if you're using one of those, get a photography pass and do it properly. If you're a normal person with a camera that zooms, then consider the issues. Two things happen when you zoom in with anything short of a pro zoom.

  • Everything gets slower
  • Quality gets worse
Thanks to the way most zoom lenses work you'll get a slower shutter speed when zoomed. Less light can get to the camera's sensor and the light that does has been through so much glass and air that the quality has taken a dive. Combine this with the fact that light levels decrease exponentially with distance, and compact camera sensors being so tiny that the light overflows onto adjacent pixels, and you have a recipe for muddy pictures with hardly any detail.

4. Rapidly changing lighting

Delain hidden behind a
sudden strobe
Rapidly changing lighting might mean that what looks great on your little screen turns out rubbish because that vital spotlight goes off just at the wrong moment, or comes on and makes everything go white. That's the nature of the beast, and you have to live with it.

Continuous shooting is the answer. In difficult lighting conditions like those, I use 3 shot continuous shooting, because the chances are that one of them will come good. I don't tend to bother reviewing the pictures in situ, because even a slightly off picture can turn out awesome, and I can generally tell if something went badly wrong and take another.

5. Focus

Focus is key. Not only on enjoying the event, but also on making sure that what should be sharp is sharp. If you're taking a picture of a performer, ensure their eyes are in focus. If you're taking a picture of something more abstract, ensure that the key details are in focus. This can be tricky if they're moving around a lot so the key is to be quick, and to be patient.

That concludes my technical tips on getting the most of out whatever camera you take along. With a little practice, good pictures should be easier, and you won't have to spend half the gig staring at the back of the camera instead of at the band.

What camera?

Northern Oak
Olympus OM-D E-M10
I have two cameras I use for gig photography. The first is my system camera, an Olympus OM-D E-M10. A lovely little micro four-thirds camera. It usually has either a 20mm f/1.7 or 45mm f/1.8 lens stuck to the front of it. No zoom, but I have feet so I can walk. I also have a 14-42mm and 40-150mm zoom lens, but they are too slow and chunky so no good for gigs. This is my "proper" camera and the one I use if I have time and access.

It has many benefits, one being a beautiful digital viewfinder so you literally never have to turn the screen on. The other being a myriad functions including loads of configration, wifi, 3 axis in-body image stabilisation and a high range of ISOs to choose from.

Unfortunately, that camera is banned from some gigs. Lots of copyright laws, over-active litigation lawyers and jumpy doormen have resulted in a blanket ban on "professional" cameras, which seems to only mean "cameras with interchangeable lenses". Be warned.

Sister Sin
Fuji X10
Instead, I take my Fuji X10. It's a compact, 12 megapixel consumer camera, but with all the features you could want. It's a great gig camera for many reasons. Some of the reasons the X10 is so good are:
  • Very fast lens. f/2 to f/2.8 with a 4x zoom means that even when zoomed in it's really quick.
  • Great ISO 1600 performance. Still a little noisy compared to DSLRs, but once the pictures are scaled down to internet sizes it's all but invisible.
  • Full manual control, with Aperture and Shutter priority modes if you want them.
  • No shutter lag. You press the button, it takes the picture. Most compact and phone cameras have a noticeable delay between pressing the button and anything actually happening, resulting in perfectly timed shots being ruined because the subject has moved by the time the camera responds.
Quite a decent list of features. And to top it off, they are two generations old now so the price is dropping fast. There are quite a few cameras with this sort of feature set out there now; the last few years has seen a resurgence of high end consumer compacts.

That pretty much tops off my list of "gig photography tips". I hope some are useful and result in some good pictures that don't ruin the whole gig experience for you or your fellow gig goers.

Check out our photo gallery for more gigs photos I've taken.

Originally posted on Femetalism by Craig Andrews.