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Starting Out in Gig Photography When You’re Skint

Jo Cox


Sister Sledge @ Bestival 2012

My first gig shoot was an unmitigated disaster. I’d borrowed a point and shoot from my dad’s company because the only camera I owned was on my phone. I was escorted into a big theatre venue where I was the only photographer, told to stand back at the sound desk and took such blurry photos that I had to pretend the memory card was corrupted to get out of showing anybody. You’re probably wondering then, how on earth am I going to tell you anything useful about gig photography? Well, the one thing I did do quite successfully is get started (from that point on) with very little money. I’m here to tell you that it is possible to get into gig photography when you’re skint.

Choosing a camera body

The first thing I found was that a point and shoot wasn’t going to cut it. Hardly a revelation, but important nonetheless. In an ideal world (one where I’d won the lottery) I would’ve gone out and invested in the latest full frame Nikon body, but due to my complete lack of funds what I actually ended up doing was trawling Gumtree and buying a used Sony A100 for about £150. It only lasted a year before it died painfully in a festival field, but it certainly did the trick for a while there. I moved up one to an A700, and recently (after three years) over to a Nikon D700 full frame body. You do get what you pay for in many respects. My D700 is a whole world away from the old Sonys in terms of noise at high ISO and ability to focus in low light situations, and I don’t think I’d want to go back a step now but they were more than adequate starter cameras. A good half way house would be something like the Nikon D7000, which is very capable in low light but without the price tag. Whatever you get, keep in mind that it won’t last forever, especially if you’re buying second hand bodies all the time. I try to prolong my chances of a long and happy relationship with my cameras by being choosy about what I buy (boxed items that have clearly been looked after) and then treating them very well.

Buying some lenses

Gig photography often involves shooting in extreme low light conditions (almost exclusively without the aid of flash), and for that you need a lens that can capture as much available light as possible. That’s why a fast 50mm lens is a staple of most gig photographer’s kit bags. They’re also relatively inexpensive. I picked up a second hand Minolta f/1.7 for less than £90 to go with my first Sony. In theory then I’d managed to get a basic set up, adequate for shooting my first gigs, for less than £250.

Then if you’re going to be working in larger venues you’ll also want a longer telephoto lens – ideally a 70-200mm f/2.8. I went for the Tamron because it was significantly cheaper than the Sony equivalent. Again it was a used item (but in great condition, it pays to be picky). You may also want to think about a wider lens, depending on the kind of venue you’re working in. Some good places to look for these are eBay, London Camera Exchange and Gumtree.

Learning how to use it all

If you’re strapped for cash to pay for equipment, chances are you’re also not going to have any money to invest in photography courses and books. Thankfully though, the internet offers a mine of (mostly) useful information. I found that tapping up my friends on Facebook was a good place to start. I also used Flickr, Dyxum and blogs written by photographers whose work I liked. The first thing to get to grips with is using  your camera in Manual mode, which means mastering shutter speeds, aperture and ISO.

Most importantly though, I just got out there and did it. I used my camera whenever I could, so I knew it inside out and could operate it quickly in the dark. I read free articles and tried out some of the techniques. I found my way into as many gigs as possible and volunteered to shoot a few local events for free. It was, and still is, a constant process of refinement and learning.

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