Why I said goodbye to the pit – Shaun Neary

A couple of months back, we came across Shaun Neary on Twitter ‘Ex Gig Photographer’. Intrigued by why Shaun is no longer photographing gigs, we asked him to tell us about his journey….

1 – Tell us about yourself

I’m Shaun and I was an active music photographer based in Dublin, Ireland. I started off in the industry quite late in life, I was 36 when a lot of people were between 18-21 (some even younger) starting out. It was something I wanted to do for years but I was never really certain if I could do it. I quit school when I was 15, and when you did that in the early 90s, you were labelled as nothing who would never amount to anything which was a point of view that I never subscribed to. So it was somewhat of a lesson in growing up doing things the hard way. I’m nearly 42 now, and I’m still doing things the hard way at the best of times. I never learn!

2 – Where did your gig photography journey start?
I’ve been an avid concert goer since I was a teen, and I’ve always had a love for cameras since I was about 4 or 5 years old. Polaroids facinated me. To be able to see an image of myself in the space of a couple of minutes taken from this rather large box was almost like magic. Since then I’ve always liked playing around with cameras. People at events would go insane when I got a hold of their cameras because they knew I’d use up all their film! In terms of gig photography, for years in the late 2000s, I’d be one of the first in the queue with a point and shoot, just to have something to look back at. A couple of friends suggested contacting some of the local promoters to get a photo pass. Of course, I laughed off such a silly notion of an idea, but I’ll get back to that in a bit.

3 – What mistakes did you make when you first started out?

Oh God, loads! Way too many to list. But I think the biggest one would be doubting myself, and I think many people would say that about any industry. If you have a gut feeling that somethingis going to work, it will work because you’re going to make it work. I used to also make the same mistake of comparing my work to others. Looking back that was a huge mistake, because everyone is going to have different mindsets, styles, etc. But when I started out, I just assumed that there was a formula to it, but after a while I figured out that wasn’t the case at all. I also packed a tripod and a flash for my first gig too, which got promptly left in the cloakroom!


4 – What was your first ever gig?

Iced Earth at the Button Factory in Dublin – August 7th 2012. As I mentioned earlier, I had a couple of friends suggesting to hit up local promoters for a photo pass. I really couldn’t pluck up the courage to do it. That’s what the pro’s did, I’m just a schmuck with an SLR! My friend told me “I know this, you know this, they don’t!”. So it was very much nothing ventured, nothing gained. She actually ended up contacting them and sorting it out. I had a ticket for the show, it was a band I was going to see anyway so they knew I wasn’t trying to mooch a free show, which really hinders a lot of the smaller promoters. Of course, I get into the pit, and I genuinely do not know what I was doing as I had no experience, it was a dark show and I had a bad camera and a worse lens! It was only when another photographer who really helped me that night after all my shots were essentially black with blue an red dots. She swapped it to Aperture Priority mode and told me the training wheels would come off when you’re ready.

5 – What kit were you using to shoot when you started out?

I’ve always been a Nikon guy, and I used to take so much heat for that in a pit full of Canon shooters! First one was a Nikon D3000, which may as well have had “Fisher Price” or “Lego” on the side of it, because it’s a good entry level camera, but it was grainy as hell even at ISO 1600. It was good for outdoor photography, but that was it, and I was shooting metal shows, which are even darker than most shows, so you can only imagine the fun I was having with that. The lens was a standard kit lens that came with it, which was an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. I think most of us have been there when we started off, so I don’t beat myself up too badly about it, but looking back now, It does seem laughable that I thought I could get any results from it. But that’s how you learn, isn’t it?

6 – What kit have you been using the past year, what is your favourite?

Interesting story leading to this. Throughout 2013, I was using a Nikon D5100, a cropped frame camera, but I was using a bunch of Sigma FX (or DG in their case) lenses, so they were full frame lenses on a cropped camera. By the end of 2013, I got my hands on my first full frame camera, a refurbished D600 which had a total shutter count of five. That’s when I discovered how rubbish my second generation lenses were.
What makes this story interesting is that at the start of 2014, I quit drinking. I got tired of spending more than what I was making (which back then, wasn’t a lot!) and feeling like crap as a result. Within three months off booze, I’d saved up just over €1000 (no, that’s not a typo!) to buy me another refurb D600. I figured if I could do that in 3 months, I should be able to do the same for my lenses and selling my old ones off. That’s exactly what I did and by the end of 2014, I had those two bodies, a 70-200 f/2.8, 24-70 f/2.8, 14-24 2.8 and a 50mm 1/4, all of which still got used in 2017. And they got carried around with me almost on a day to day basis, for a price I would pay later.

7 – Have you experienced any difficulties being a gig photographer?

Hah! Who hasn’t? I’m going to try to be as diplomatic as I can when answering this, because music is not an easy industry for anyone to be in, so I do try to see all sides before blowing my stack. But I think the problem everyone has is the lack of co-operation or communicaion.
We’ve all been there, sitting around waiting for your photo pass to be confirmed. Some gigs I was only confirmed when the doors had opened! Luckily, living close by the city, all I had to do was sit in a coffee shop close by the venue and wait. But not everyone has that luxury. But you can’t really blame the promoter for that either because they’re still awaiting instruction from the tour manager. And the last thing the tour manager wants to know about are the photographers when they’re trying to get their band ready either to get from venue to the next, or during a soundcheck that isn’t going well. Others will tell you chasing up invoices is a nightmare too, but I think I’ve been very fortunate in the sense that anyone I’ve ever worked with always paid on time.

8 – Do you have a certain kind of shot you would aim to get at a gig?

In all honesty, I don’t. The only thing I check before a show is what sort of lighting an artist would be using on tour so that I can have my settings ready to go. Be it other peoples images, or youtube videos. Everything else, I just try to capture as it goes. Otherwise I’m on auto pilot, and when that happens, I get bored very easily. I rarely capture audience shots, in my experience, they don’t sell and don’t really generate that much interest. If it’s a large venue and I have time, I’ll catch the audience with a wide lens, but other than that. I really just get in, work with what I have and get out. Some bands are more exciting than others, that is never going to change so psyching yourself out overthinking the show before you get in the pit can and will only leave you disappointed.


9 – What has been your favourite thing about photographing gigs?

Unpredictability. It keeps it exciting. If you’re a music photographer working night in and night out, and you’re able to predict lights, movement, etc for every show, then it’s going to be a matter of months before you take it for granted. When that happens, the passion is gone, forget it, move on, because you’re done. It’s one of the reasons I never abandoned the smaller venues even when I started working stadiums and arenas, because they’re still a challenge. It’s also the reason I didn’t stay in Dublin all the time, why I moved to shows in Belfast, Cork, Limerick, then over to the UK for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Nottingham, Bristol and London. Different venues, different bands, different crowds, different lighting rigs. Variety is such a key element in anything creative.

10 – What has been your least favourite thing about photographing gigs?
I have two pet peeves. Long travel times and clumsy, inconsiderate colleagues. I love visiting new places, I just really hate getting there. Sometimes the bus going back from Cork to Dublin feels like six hours as opposed to three! The train isn’t an option as none run that late. Regarding colleagues in the pit. The amount of people who have crashed into me because they didn’t look behind them before taking a step back has driven me absolutely bonkers. An accident is an accident, I’ve done it myself and felt crap for doing it, but when it’s happening every time, often by the same people it makes you ask “why the hell are you here?” You wouldn’t walk out in the middle of a dual carriageway without looking left and right first, would you? Then you have the campers. You’ve seen them, the one guy who stays in the same spot for the three songs. If you need three songs to get the one shot, there’s something wrong.

11 – What has been your experience of getting paid work and correctly credited as a gig photographer?
Aha! I was waiting for this one after the discussion on the Shout About It twitter feed a couple of months ago. I’ve done my fair share of both paid and unpaid work. If you’re going to work unpaid, that is entirely up to you, but if you’re going to do that make sure it’s on your terms. But for the love of God, don’t give your stuff away to bands and newspapers for free for any longer than your first six months from when you start, otherwise you’re chances of ever getting paid are between slim and none. Make a name for yourself as a free photographer, and that will stick with you. Because nobody is going to value something that you haven’t put a value on.
I was very fortunate to be contacted by The Sunday Times in 2014 and added to their contributors team. My work featured quite regularly for almost three years in the main paper, as well as the Culture magazine. I wasn’t always credited, it wasn’t out of malice, it just didn’t fit in the layout. The newspaper stuff always had a credit, but the magazine, especially the live reviews, didn’t get a credit. It didn’t bother me. Credit is nice, but my local doesn’t take photo credit when I need to buy my food for the week. If I’m getting paid, I couldn’t care less if I’m credited or not. It’s my photo, I know I took it, I have the original to prove it, and that’s enough for me.

12 – What advice would you give to someone looking to get into gig photography?
I’ll bullet point this one for easy reading.
– Just go for it. Don’t doubt yourself and do as many shows as you can when you start out.
– Find a publication that’s recruiting.
– Don’t expect payment in your first year or two and expect to be in some of the worst lit venues next to a coalmine and a torch with the stage the size of a ping pong table!
– Self doubt will be your worst enemy, if you can keep that under control, then you’ll have no limit as to what you’ll be able to do.
– Don’t obsess over your camera gear, a good photo is a good photo regardless of what it’s taken with, make the most of what you got while you save for a better camera or lens.
– Respect the other photographers in the pit, also respect the security. You’re in their space, we’re just borrowing it.
– If the venue doesn’t have a pit, don’t let it discourage you. Just politely ask someone if you can hop in for a minute to get the shots, most of the time people will say yes, just don’t spend forever there. Another person will see this and move for you when you need that spot too.
– Lastly, enjoy yourself!

13 – Tell us when and why you made the decision to retire from gig photography?
April 2017, and the reasons were many, and all my own. My paid work was coming to an end and I really didn’t want to keep going on with it for as long as I was going to be out of pocket. I had a bunch of commitments right up until August which I promised to honour, but I didn’t take on any additional ones. My health also came into the equation as well, my arms and back are in constant pain due to lugging around a bag full of heavy glass, bodies and a 17” Macbook Pro for years, and then in May i got hit with a nasty dose of shingles, which is a virus which attacks the nerves of the skin. That left me in bed for weeks.
I love what I’ve done since 2012, and I’m really proud of it. I’ve covered about 1,500 different bands (support acts and festivals included in that number), but it was getting to the point where I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I once was, and it was starting to show, not necessarily in my work, but I was starting to develop a bad attitude, and dreading to go to gigs, etc. Venues are understandably getting more restrictive too with the attacks on Le Bataclan in 2015 and Manchester Arena earlier this year, where our venues that were once safe spaces are now that little bit less safe for concert goers. It just wasn’t fun for me anymore.
But by the same token, it was also time. I was happy to let it go. By the time August came along I was looking forward to my last show coming up. I had accomplished way more than I ever expected to, but I never really had any time to appreciate anything that I had done. Because there was always another show on the next night, or the night after. I’ve been going through my archive, and some of the stuff in there has really surprised me given the conditions (lighting, sound desk, etc). So it felt right to close the book, and essentially quit while I was ahead.

14 – Are you working on any new projects/hobbies now?
Right now, I’m not. My gear is in it’s bag in my wardrobe on a six month sabattical! It comes out occasionally to photograph the odd private event here and there, but I do have some non music photography stuff in the pipeline for 2018 which I’m excited about. At present, I’ve just spent the last two months getting my head together, getting my body back into shape again. I cut two and a half stone in three months earlier this year and I’m feeling the healthiest I’d ever been. It’s too easy to fall into nasty habits when you’re up until all hours editing photos, shoving all sorts of junk food down your throat. Music photography is a fun way to live, but nobody ever claimed it was the healthiest. When you’re in your 20s it’s fine, but when you hit your 40s, you feel it! And you have to work that bit harder to ensure it doesn’t get to you! So I guess my main project at the moment is, well… me!

15 – Tell us a fun fact about yourself
I’ll tell you a few! Spiders terrify me, I hate the eight legged freaks! I’m a vegetarian, which surprises a lot of people as I have a shaved head, tattooos and piercings and generally keep quiet about the fact that I don’t eat meat. I play bass guitar in my spare time, although I’m not as good as I’d like to be. I love retro-gaming, over the summer I have collected Two Amstrad machines, two Spectrums, and a Commodore 64 which all still work and load games from SD cards. I could go on, but this interview has probably gone on far too long already, and I fear I’ve put your readers to sleep.

Shaun Neary Photography

Find me on Facebook! – facebook.com/shaunnearyphotography

Follow me on twitter! – twitter.com/shaunnearyphoto



Thanks for sharing your story with us Shaun!

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