In music photography, one of the biggest concerns (apart from lighting) is how nice the stage is. When indoors, the stage is usually (but not always) lovely, it’s clean, has awesome lights and is sometimes customised for the band you’re photographing – depending on how big they are. But when you’re outdoors, stages generally tend to be nothing more than a small tent raised off the ground with people crammed closely around it, or a huge tent with scaffolding everywhere at a festival.
Well, the small tent situation is what many early stage music photographers get stuck with. It’s either this or a small dingy pub (I haven’t quite figured out how to make the most out of these situations yet). These events are generally the easiest to get access to as a beginner, which sucks, because no matter how hard you try you’ll never be able to get amazing looking photos to help you progress, show off your skills and gain access to bigger events. However, they are good learning grounds when it comes to watching your frame. You’ll have to work harder to keep unwanted objects out of your background/foreground because the stage honestly looks like someone just threw everything there. My first paid live gig was to photograph Kate Nash in a tiny, terrible pub here in Dublin. I hate every single photo I took that evening, and I hated the entire evening because of the god awful stage.
Maybe I’m just spoiled because I’ve never really been in too many terrible venues, but nobody wants to have to shoot in a terrible venue, unfortunately for some it’s unavoidable as they’re trying to assemble a music portfolio to gain press access to better gigs. Everybody wants to just take awesome looking photos. So what’s the best way to make something good out of a bad situation? Well, the other day I photographed Kodaline in the US Embassy here in Dublin, Ireland for the 4th of July celebration. It was a terrible tiny and cluttered stage and the best solution I could find was to shoot tight. I’m not a fan of “standard” focal lengths, I like to go extremely wide or extremely close when I don’t have a specific brief to stick to. I love shooting with telephoto lenses, I love the compression. I’d happily shoot a full body portrait at 200mm, 300mm, it’s just not always ideal.
When you’re in this situation where your surroundings is mostly one big distraction with scaffolding, stands, speakers etc then unless you have a very eventful crowd, shooting wide won’t work out very well. I unfortunately only had a 24-70mm with me on the day of the gig so this is as wide as I was able to go when I moved to the back of the crowd.
The crowd was pretty poor, when there isn’t much life in the crowd just avoid photographing them. Nothing worse than a photo where somebody in the crowd is looking away from the stage. However, having an eye open for those rare occasions when a photo pops up in the crowd is always smart.
But when you have a band like Kodaline on the stage, you don’t want to turn around with just photos of the crowd. So, how do you deal with the horrible stage? My main recommendation is to shoot as tight as possible – for me, it was 200mm @F/2.8 which worked a treat.
However, you might not have an F/2.8 lens or you might not have a lens long enough to compress the background enough to minimise distractions. So you need to find a way to clean up your backgrounds/foregrounds. A handy tip for cleaning up your foreground is to use the crowd to block things by shooting between their shoulders for example.
This method can be used to different extents, I only have a little bit of their heads in here as I actually shot quite close so didn’t have much to block out. But sometimes, don’t be afraid to just cut out all the distractions and shoot with as much empty space as possible when you find a clean part of the background.
And remember, you only need one good shot to make it an acceptable shoot. If you can get one good shot from every shoot you do then you’ll be doing better than most people.
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