There are a lot of bars that have live music. Photographing at these venues has some challenges as well as some advantages compared to shooting at large music clubs.
First I want to break down specifics of pros and cons of shooting in small crowded bar. In bars that play music there inevitably a lot of people drinking and at first this seems like an obstacle. I don’t find that this is more of challenge that can be overcome. Most people who go to see live shows in a crowded bar, go because it’s fun. So, most people are in a pretty good mood. So grabbing a good spot to shoot from isn’t really that difficult. You should be familiar with the small venue that you are shooting from.
Lighting is a big issue. Bars generally don’t have any stage lighting. If they do, then it’s not very good. Sometimes I will use an on-camera flash. Usually on its lowest power setting and set up for bounce flash of a wall or ceiling. When using a flash you have to be as respectful. So, don’t over do it. Flash is irritating for patrons and musicians.
First thing, get there early find a place to stash your bag out-of-the-way, yet someplace you can keep your eye on. If you are in a sketchy neighborhood, then you don’t leave your bag alone, ever. When I’m shooting in Boulder this is not as big of an issue. When I’m shooting in Portland, my bag is never left alone. This is something to just keep in mind. I always carry a bag but I don’t like to carry it in the crowd. It’s really impolite to bump into people with it.
It helps to know the bar and the bands that you are shooting. It doesn’t hurt to even be familiar with the door guys and bar staff. All the bands I shoot, I’ll usually know someone in the band. It doesn’t hurt to talk to someone in the band and touch base and exchange contact info. Especially on social media. Most musicians understand the importance of getting images up online. Especially if the images are of high quality. Will it get you paid work? Yeah, maybe. This is usually not why you do it though.
Once the show starts people will start to funnel in and it could be tough to get to your spot. Be patient, don’t be pushy and if you’re carrying a camera, most people are very gracious as long as you are polite. I often approach shooting every show as if I were actually on a job. If you can keep a professional stance the people around you will usually respond positively.
The goal is to get great images, enjoy the people around you and have a couple of beers.
These images from Mumbouli’s St. Patrick’s Day Show at Conor O’Niell’s. This is a very small bar, with a very small stage. You can imagine, how crowded an Irish bar is on St. Paddy’s.