Hot music live chats to local live music photographers

Hot music live chats to local live music photographers

We're lucky in the Hot Music Live area to have not only a lively scene but also an enthusiastic community of music photographers

Of course, a local gig has to be one of the most exciting subjects for photography, with colour, movement, drama and huge character interest. Unlike a professional gig, you don't need a press pass and you can get close to the action, moving around freely to vary your viewpoint. Above all, your subjects typically take an interest in your work and genuinely appreciate what you can do to help them promote their music.

On the other hand, it's also one of the most technically demanding areas of photography. Low light, fast movement, crowded rooms and on-stage clutter all add to the challenge of ensuring good image quality and arresting composition. There's a lot to learn so we chatted to some of our favourite local music photographers to find out what advice they could offer. Many thanks to Andrew Lock, David Zoot Jay, Ian Bourne, John Wright, Mark Webb, The Tone Ranger and Thomas Wilson for their ideas on both the technical and human sides of gig-photography.


Check you have everything you need before leaving for the gig. Camera and lenses are obvious but it's dangerously easy to head out with a nearly flat battery or no spare memory card. Business cards can be helpful. (If you're taking pictures for Hot Music Live we can get you cards and an ID badge.)

Get to the gig early. You can not only meet the act and check the room but also get settled into a good spot before the room gets crowded. At a small, busy rock venue, like the Oak in Warwick, the room tends to fill up from the front. At the start of the evening you'll have some room to move around and try different angles but eventually you'll find it hard to manoeuvre through the crowd.

Ideally, chat to the band beforehand to check they're OK with being photographed and see if they have any particular requirements. Very occasionally, a band member has good personal reasons to stay out of the limelight. This can also be a good time to swap contact details.

Check the room while it's still quiet. Most pubs and bars have several useful and very different viewpoints. For example, the Grist Mill not only has a good zone in front of the stage, but also offers a side view onto the stage and a raised ‘balcony' view.

For the first tune, just watch to discover how the individual musicians move and what combined shapes they make on the stage. Most musicians have characteristic patterns and gestures; you can use these not only to predict what they will do next but to identify distinctive aspects of their performance that fans will recognise.


Some of our photographers like to use a flash gun; many others prefer to work from the stage lights or even regular pub lighting. Flash has some useful advantages; you have more light to work with so there are fewer issues with motion blur or limited depth of field. An off-camera flash with a diffuser will certainly give more attractive lighting than an on-camera pop-up flash. On the other hand, some places, especially more commercial halls, discourage flash guns. Working with available light can be difficult due to the risk of digital noise, focussing issues and motion blur. Nonetheless, many of our photographers prefer to work this way because it can be so powerful for capturing the atmosphere of a live event.


While we've seen some surprisingly good pictures taken on mobile phones, a modern digital SLR is generally the best gear for the job. Recent models in particular cope well with low light. Some of our photographers prefer medium range zooms for flexibility while others use short telephoto prime lenses to give them a little more headroom for shutter speeds and ISO. Some recommend carrying two cameras, one mounted with a wide angle, one with a zoom. For pub gigs, long ‘sports' lenses are hard to exploit in a crowded room where you can't get a clear view from a distance. On the other hand, for an outdoor festival, a long lens can be very effective.


On a cycling light show, some colours are usually brighter and more attractive than others; learn the sequence and anticipate the brighter colours such as whites and golds.

Automatic metering can be a bit unreliable with stage lights. It's best to keep checking the preview and histogram then making small adjustments, especially when you move to a new point of view. Be aware that histograms can look a bit different from regular photography. Don't be surprised to see a bunch of very dark pixels on the left and another cluster of bright pixels on the right with not much in the middle! Red and pink lights in particular seem to encourage over-exposure. You may not have time to get the exposure and colour balance absolutely perfect but shooting in RAW gives you an opportunity to sort things out later with Photoshop. However, it's often easier to recover from under-exposure than burn-out highlights.

While motion blur on hands and arms can add interest, faces need to be crisp. As most musicians, especially singers, tend to move their heads a lot, you'll want a shutter speed of 1/200 or faster for close-in shots of one or two musicians. Wide open apertures can work well, especially for shots of a single musician, focused on the eyes. For whole-band shots, you can often relax the shutter speed a little to get the depth of field you'll need to cover musicians nearer or further from the camera.

High ISO settings can add a lot of noise and most of our panel stick to a maximum of ISO3200. Many pictures with noise look rather better as black and white images where the noise is reminiscent of the grain in classic rock photography with high speed film stock.


Our photographers generally use a single focus point, either using the focus-and-recompose method or setting a specific focus point where they expect the performer's face to be positioned. Autofocus on all focus points is easily fooled by foreground objects such as monitors or music stands. For flash users, a speedlight transmitter can also help with focusing in low light.


Try taking pictures from different places in the room. Left and right of the stage will each highlight different combinations of performers while exploiting variations in lighting patterns. Low camera angles taken on your knees add drama. Getting up high on a chair or balcony is good for including musicians at the back of the stage. Vary the crop for a mix of whole band shots, combinations of two or three musicians and close ups of facial expressions. Burst photography can also work well.

Watch out for stage clutter. Although microphones and music stands often get in the way, a small change in viewpoint or careful timing usually does the trick. For close ups of two or more musicians, it's often more practical (and compositionally striking) to deliberately put the secondary subjects out of focus. Don't forget the drummer who may be the most visually interesting person on the stage. Some of our photographers like to get on to the stage for close ups and unusual angles. Others prefer to use a longer lens to avoid crowding the performers. While an onstage position can be be very effective, its best to clear it first with the act.

Above all, look for the ‘moment'; time your shots to capture dramatic gestures, interactions between performers and even the abstract shapes formed as musicians move across the stage.


When you get caught up in the excitement of framing shots, it's surprisingly easy to forget the interests of other gig-goers. It's good to be unobtrusive and minimise the time you spend blocking the view of people in the audience. In particular, some venues, such as folk clubs and jazz clubs, tend to be quite formal and strongly discourage any movement across the front of the stage during a song. In these situations it's standard to wait for a gap between tunes to move to a different viewpoint.


Here's some recent work by the photographers who helped us put this article together.

Andrew Lock

Ian Bourne

Mark Webb

Thomas Wilson

Tony Wilding


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