Rachel Bywater is a freelance photographer based in Manchester. She has been shooting Manchester’s music scene for more than a decade and has photographed everyone from local unsigned bands to international acts like Ian Brown, The Pixies and Kendrick Lamar. Rachel has taken some incredible pictures for Brighter Sound, most recently the premiere of our Young Composers Commission at Test Card and our Artistic Directors Series with Anna Meredith at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Here she shares her top tips for aspiring music photographers.
1) Use a DSLR. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t got the most expensive gear – the quality of your kit is far less important than the quality of your photography skills. Having said that, there are a couple of things you are going to need – a DSLR camera and the fastest lens you can afford. Try starting with a 50mm 1.8 prime lens, also known as the nifty-fifty. It’s a fantastic lens with a decent aperture which is also affordable (a rare combination, unfortunately).
2) Know how to use your equipment. This sounds obvious but you need to know how to use your camera. Shooting on auto is not going to cut it – you need to be confident using full manual mode. You have to work quickly when you’re shooting live performance so you need to be able to change your settings without thinking about it. If you don’t yet fully understand aperture, shutter speed and ISO don’t worry – just get shooting and learn as you go!
3) Turn off your flash. Gigs are often dark, dingy places but don’t use your flash – you will end up with much better images if you shoot using only the ambient stage lighting. Also, using flash at a gig ruins the ambience for the audience and can be incredibly distracting for those on stage. If there’s no ambient light and you really, really have to use flash, only do so with permission from both the venue/organisers and the performers and even then use it sparingly – pick your shots, don’t go for the scatter gun approach.
4) Protect your ears. If you like shooting gigs then invest in some decent earplugs – the kind that allow you to hear the music clearly but reduce the decibel level by a good 10-20dB. To get the best shots you need to get close to the action and that often means working right next to the main speakers. It’s important to protect yourself otherwise you risk permanent damage to your hearing. Trust me on this – I’ve had far too many sleepless nights after shooting loud gigs due to the ringing in my ears.
5) Start in small venues. Shooting live performance isn’t easy but, like everything, practice makes perfect and the more gigs and events you shoot the better you’ll get. Practice by shooting bands in small venues like local bars or clubs to get used to stage lighting, positioning, timing, etc. Shoot as much as you can and learn what works and what doesn’t. Build up a portfolio of your best work and show it off whenever you can. It won’t happen overnight, but if you’re good you will get noticed.