Photographing an acoustic show

December 10, 2023

First published October 2016

Here’s the background to last night’s sudden change of plan - thought I’d do an ‘evening in the life’ thing. Some of these notes I made on the train last night, the rest I put together on my way to work this morning.

Around six weeks ago I photographed an artist at the venue I work at. The gig was recorded live and sold at the end of the night. I was contacted a week or so later about licensing photos for the artwork of the proper release of the CD (with the live recording tidied up, gaps and tuning breaks trimmed, etc.). All this was still in progress, then yesterday lunchtime I received an email - was I free to photograph the Union Chapel show that night as well? They were recording for another live album and liked the idea of having continuity in the style of photography.

Yesterday was due to be my last night at home until Sunday, but I’m not about to turn down a paying gig at a lovely venue that results in work being published, so after ascertaining that I could definitely make it home and get to the venue in time, I said yes.

I left work at 4.30 (my boss is really great, he insisted I give myself extra travel time), went home, packed my camera bag, and was back out of the house six minutes after getting there (a new record for me, I think!). I trotted down the hill to the station, stopping briefly to hug Jason who was on his way home, and got myself to Union Chapel via two trains and two tubes, arriving at 7.20pm (showtime 8).

I was shown where the base camp was (production line CD case labelling was in full flow and there was a row of CD duplicators waiting to be fired up), and was given my pass and my instructions - first three songs of each 45 minute set from the front, then I was free to roam the venue. Unlike the previous show, this was wholly acoustic.

This was the only curveball of the night. A seated acoustic gig can be one of the trickiest things to navigate in gig photography. Luckily this ain’t my first rodeo! :) Here’s what I’ve learned, and what I put into practice.

One man with a guitar in a massive church renders your camera shutter as loud as AC/DC’s stage cannons. You can’t just fire away as you would at a plugged in gig, and that creates an extra layer of complication - as well as the timing of movement and expressions on stage, you also have to think about timing things so as to not disturb the atmosphere (and the paying audience!). You listen for crescendos in songs so that you can get away with clicking when things are slightly *less* quiet. Wait until the song ends and people clap (this can also be when you get more variety of expression from the artist), then move to your next vantage point before the clapping stops. Wear rubber soled shoes and dark clothes and try to be a ninja (luckily I was already prepared for that part as I’ve been to the venue a few times!).

First thing first, I nipped down to the front to decide which lens(es) to use, then spoke to the people I would be nearest to, to apologise for any potential movement and sound during the first few songs, and reassure them that I wouldn’t be there for long (I did the same on the other side of the venue during the interval).

The gig started, and for the first song there was a white light behind the artist that was illuminating the front of the crowd. I felt very conspicuous at this point and stayed as small and still as I was able to. He asked for it to be dimmed after the first song as it was a distraction to him, but not before I’d used it to get some nice partially silhouetted shots and a bit of deliberate lens flare (all good for shot choice and variety).

I then moved around the venue as stealthily as I could, making sure that key vantage points were covered with both telephoto and wide angle lenses at various points during the show. I made sure to include a number of shots that showed as much of the (very picturesque) venue as possible.

When the remit is specifically album artwork, it’s sensible to take photos with lots of negative space, so that there are more options for overlaying text, so I made sure that was covered as well.

During the interval I checked in to base camp and had a quick chat to make sure I was getting what they wanted, then repeated the drill during the second set. At the end of the night we discussed delivery and invoicing, then I headed home. I was home at 11.45pm, and asleep having edited everything by 1.30am (it was a really quick turnaround because the lighting was constant and not much editing was actually needed).

This morning I got up at 6.15, gave everything a quick check to make sure my eyes hadn’t been playing tricks on me when I was tired, set up the folder on my website and uploaded the images before work. I’ll make contact and tie up loose ends in my lunch hour, and then that’s it, job done!