Shooting at Big Gigs

I have followed Jamie Cullum's music since his 'Twenty Something' DVD  grabbed my attention, and then stayed on hard rotation in my DVD player for weeks on end back in 2004, much to the annoyance of my roommate at the time. He is one of the most talented musicians and dynamic entertainers out there today, in my humble opinion.

So when they advertised limited tickets for his pre-album launch show here in London, I immediately applied; and was lucky enough to be selected for a ticket in the second round.

I usually don't take my camera to big gigs, partly because of security issues, partly because I am unlikely to get good shots unless I wind up close to the stage, and partly because trying to shoot in those crowded situations can get in the way of enjoying the show.

But a few days before the gig Jamie's people sent out an email asking people to bring their cameras along because he wanted to film a crowd sourced video of one of his songs. The idea was that he would prompt the crowd to pull out cameras for a particular song and get them to film the entirety. Everyone would then head home after the gig and upload their footage to The venue would upload their sound from the desk (likely post mixed) and fans could then view the song from a couple of hundred angles around the venue.

Great idea.

Mostly because it gave me an 'in' with my DSLR.

I arrived early to get a good spot in the front of the cue, but as we were being ushered through the security check point I was still pulled aside because I had a big camera bag on me. I found myself waiting in a pit off to the side, with a growing group of DSLR users, all pulling out our phones to show the 'Gig Nazis' the emails which had asked for us to bring cameras, all the while the rest of audience are streaming in ahead of us. I saw one guy head through with a Leica M9. I asked the security guy why he had let him go through and not me. He said, "Because he's only got a small camera. Yours is a professional one." He obviously had no clue what a Leica was and that it took much better pictures than mine. Got to get me one of those.

Eventually, after frantic conversations over walkie talkies, the 'misunderstanding' was cleared up and we were allowed into the venue with our gear.

The crowd had now filled up a 3rd of the room, but I managed to pull a sneaky maneuver via the arches and through the bar area to the left hand side of the stage. Why the left? The first thing I looked for when I walked into the room was to see which way his piano would be facing. Knowing I wouldn't be able to move around much, and that I would have to pick my angle from the start, I wanted to have a clear, over-the-shoulder-shot of his hands on the piano. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck on the opposite side of the piano and be shooting just the top of his head the whole night. 

So with some sneaky elbow work I made my way into the perfect position between his piano and his keyboard and was able to capture some great action. If there was a media pit that night, I would have been standing in it, so good was my position.

The other joy about big gigs like this is that the lighting does all the work for you. I could lock my settings into manual for most of the time and rely on the professional lighting rig to create some interesting mood changes. All I needed to be aware of was that I was never losing my exposure when the brightest lights hit his skin. Other than that I let the chips fall where they may. With gigs like this you can't be afraid of shadows, because you're not looking for even exposure of the whole scene. You're looking for good skin tone, and then you can allow the shadows to create mood and negative space.

I must admit that this is a once off for me. I don't enjoy shooting at big gigs, and unless you have a press pass it really isn't worth bringing your pro camera along to fight security and get frustrated over the shots you can't get because you can't move. Rather just enjoy the experience and forget that you're a photographer for a evening.

On this occasion I got lucky.

Here are some of the shots I got:


This is the video I shot from my prime location:

Respecting the Room

I love going to quiet, intimate gigs and listening to acoustic music by solid song writers. I'm really lucky here in London to know people who organise some amazing evenings on a regular basis where writers and performers of insane quality pedal their melodious wares.

I went through to one such gig at The Old Queens Head in Angel on a recent public holiday.

I'll be honest and say that I find shooting at these gigs quite challenging. It's often difficult to strike a balance between moving about and getting interesting shots, and making sure I am no distraction to the artists, or those enjoying the music. The fact is though that you have to move around because, at the end of the day, you are shooting the same individual, in the same sort of pose, against the same background. So you have to find ways to mix it up, whilst being respectful of everyone else in the room, and not making a nuisance of yourself.

I have made a few simple rules that I follow:

  1. DISCRETION: I don't move during a song. I find a spot during the applause break and stay there until the next one. This often means having a quick look around the room before the gig kicks off and picking a couple of angles I'd like to shoot from. I also make sure that if I stand in those spots which will give me the shots I want, that I'm not obstructing anyones view. I don't have the right to ruin someone else's experience of the gig, just because I have a camera in my hand.
  2. TIMING: Once I've chosen a spot for the song, I wait for a moment. I use the timing of the song, and the structure, to anticipate highlight moments where the artist will hit a high note or do something interesting with their instrument. Don't just fire continuously. I was at a gig recently where this guy was running around the room, standing in front of the patrons and blocking their view, whilst shooting away on burst mode with his camera which obviously made for a huge distraction. Don't do that! Respect the room. Your shots will also be better if you are deliberate about when you click the shutter, rather than just adopting the 'spray and pray' approach.
  3. APPRECIATION: I always make sure to enjoy the song. I feel personally like I am doing the artist a great disservice if I am just concentrating on the shots I'm taking rather than enjoying the moment they're creating, especially in an intimate venue. In that moment I attempt to be present and soak up what's going on. I came to listen to music, and shooting the musician is a bonus. I never want to end up going to gigs TO shoot musicians (unless it's a job). I am there to appreciate the work the artist has put in. I see too many photographers shooting gigs and I think to myself, "Wow, you missed that entire set because you were obsessively shooting and chimping." Be a fan first! I think it will come through in your images.

This particular day I shot everything with my 50mm and 85mm primes, and I tried to use the afternoon light coming in through the windows wherever possible. I often shoot in these venues at night so I was keen to have these photos stand out from the rest by making the most of the sunlight coming in.

Here are a few of the shots I took. I have added links to the artist's web pages below the images. Be sure to look them up. They are all very good at what they do.

(Some of you may recognise the second shot is a Bokeh Panorama made up of 12 stitched shots.)


Antonio Lulic and John Parker


Russell Swallow

...and for a giggle, this was the impromptu media pit including the talented duo from Mid Tea Sessions. A very respectful group of photographers who shoot music professionally:


Mid Tea Sessions