Live music and cameras: A bad combination?

In the words of the great Tom Waits, I want to pull on your coat about something: Taking photos at gigs. Everyone does it, seemingly, and I’m also guilty, grabbing a few snaps on my phone to say I was there. However, for me, this is a tiny part of the event: I am there to enjoy the music; more than that, I am there to get absorbed by it, let it take me where it will, enjoy the entire experience of seeing my favourite artists performing, perhaps with some stunning sound and light show, or maybe some minimal surroundings and a smaller, more intimate feel.

Rush's Geddy Lee enjoying some Malignant Narcissism

Rush’s Geddy Lee enjoying some Malignant Narcissism

However, there are so many people who seem to be glued to cameras or phones throughout the gig, taking both still images and video. You can’t miss them, the glow of the screens being obvious as they film their heroes. As anyone who takes photos knows, this activity will somewhat change your experience of any event you try to capture: Now, you are no longer just idly participating, but concentrating on framing the subject, best camera settings for whatever result you are after, and all the other things which go with being a photog. And this changes the experience, puts you slightly more at a remove from it. Generally, this is something I do not mind, but for music, as I already stated, I want nothing to stand in the way of this particular experience. So, I grab a few quick photos from the phone, and then get on with enjoying it in a fullest way I can.

This means that my photos are only snaps, nothing artistic about them at all. And not particularly good quality (although even camera-phones can turn in some pretty good results). However, I am fully aware that there are some compact cameras out there with long lenses, HD video, image stabilising, decent low-light performance and a host of other features which make them capable of getting great results. That is just as well, because if I try to take my DSLR and long-lens in, without jumping through hoops to get permission, I know exactly what it going to happen. Is this fair, considering that the gap in performance is much narrower than it was? More than likely, given the rigmarole people go thorough even with the smaller, permitted cameras: Imagine more of the audience blocking out the view holding up pro-quality DSLRs and video cameras. It would become crazy!

Did I say ‘become crazy’? It already is at times. Mostly, people seem to recognise that we are all there to enjoy ourselves, and don’t try to keep their cameras held right up (or maybe they simply don’t have the upper-body strength?!). But I still find the screens a distraction. The guy right in front of me last night at Sheffield City Hall had thoughtfully turned the brightness right down on his, but I saw lots of big-screened phones around me (the Galaxy S3 seems very popular!), and numerous compacts shooting video, being held up for entire songs. I did have to tap him on the shoulder at one point, when he held the thing right up in front of me though. At a Porcupine Tree gig in Poland some year ago, all photography was banned, and the people who tried were taken outside (I’m not sure that anything nasty happened to them, as they seemed to reappear, and I can find YouTube clips of that same gig!): This was presumably at the request of the artist, and I can understand their annoyance, although people now do seem to have found out how to turn off the flash! It could be commercial reasons too, I guess, but the images and video are generally not going to rival that from the pros down the front, even though they are catching up. So why do people do it? As I said, I come at this from the standpoint of wanting to just get absorbed by the music. OK, if you are going to have a record of the event, have a good one, perhaps: This is certainly something I try to achieve with a camera the rest of the time. And certainly people seem happy to have their videos up on YouTube, as a search for a specific band or track will reveal, especially during a current tour. I guess what I’m saying is, be considerate if you must do it, but maybe also try putting the camera or phone away and just see if it allows you to enjoy the gig more. Go on, what’s the worst that can happen? And do you really look at all those photos you take that much after the event?

Joe Satriani and some Unstoppable Momentum

Joe Satriani and some Unstoppable Momentum

At least the pros are relatively unobtrusive: At Sheffield Arena, the stage is high enough that you don’t really notice them along the front, and they did get some amazing shots of the Rush gig I was at. At Sheffield City Hall, they are allowed to be at the front only during the first song, which also means a minimum of disturbance. Perhaps this idea could be extended to the entire audience as a trial, just to see if people then actually enjoy the music more? Just a thought.

About Chris Senior

Photographer, wit, travel-junkie, MSc student and practising eccentric! Prog rock nut and baker of tasty cakes.
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