I think that, of all the genres of photography that I indulge in, gig photography gives me the most pleasure.
It brings together three things to form a perfect blend: photography, music and portraits of people engrossed in what they are doing.
I am fortunate that the owner of a local music venue allows me to take my camera in occasionally a photograph the bands playing there. There are several examples in my portfolio.
Photographing musicians on stage presents a particular challenge – the huge dynamic range of the lighting. From deep shadows to brilliant highlights from the spots, determining exposure can be tricky.
In general the highlights are on the musicians’ faces, so you want to be exposing for those and allowing the shadow areas to go to black. Better a featureless black background than blown highlights on skin.
I find that, with most auto exposure systems, it’s a good idea to dial in 1 to 1.5 stops of underexposure (with the advantage that you get a faster shutter speed). I almost invariably use my 85mm f/1.8 for these gigs, since I can get close enough that I can go in tight without having to crop. A bigger venue might need a longer lens. I don’t use zooms because even the expensive ones are still a couple of stops slower than the 85mm, and that makes a difference when you’re shooting wide open at ISO 6400.
I should say here that I will not use a flash – it’s not fair on the musicians, and it’s likely to wash out any colour highlights from the light show.
Which brings me to the question that I always agonise over: colour or black and white?
What it usually comes down to is that I will keep them in colour if there’s a reason to, otherwise I’ll convert to black and white. Why do I default to black-and-white? I think it’s because you get such wonderfully rich blacks in the background. In colour, the darker areas are not truly black, and would be a bit wishy-washy without other things to take the emphasis away from them.
Compare the two sets below. In the first, the light show was minimal, so the backgrounds were a bit plain. The second set had a much more interesting light show, making it worthwhile leaving it in colour to catch the way the differently coloured smoke adds interest to the background.
The first band on was a group of young jazz musicians, including one who had won the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year award. Jazz is not really my thing, especially the intricate avant-garde style that was on show here, but you’re not photographing sound, you’re photographing people, and you just have to put aside the fact that what you’re hearing doesn’t really float your boat.
The second band were an indie-pop/rock outfit (interesting juxtaposition) and much more to the taste of this ageing rocker. This style of music is more rewarding to photograph, for me, because the artists tend to be a bit more flamboyant and animated.
‘Serious’ musicians tend to be pretty much rooted to the spot, more concerned that the sound is exactly right, whereas rockers are more about the whole show. That’s not a criticism of ‘serious’ musicians, BTW – horses for courses and all that.
Another difference is that the second set involved singing. It’s very easy to make someone look ridiculous if you catch their mouth in the wrong shape whilst they’re singing. In general, if you can get them singing ‘aaaaaaa’, that’s best, followed by ‘eeeeee’. ‘Ooooo’ just makes them look like an orang-utan. Listen to the music and try to predict the mouth shape so that you can take the picture at the right time.
So here, I’ve kept it in colour because it works with the coloured smoke swirling around. But do note that the blacks are not nearly as rich and… black as the others. Just for comparison, here’s a picture from that set that didn’t have much interesting colour, so I made a black-and-white conversion. (Notice the shape of the mouth – what sound is she singing?)