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I'm an amateur photographer that loves music and recently (in the last 6 months) I started to take photographs on gigs. As time goes by I'm getting more and more gigs and I could even get in touch with some bands that ask me to go to their shows and get some snaps.

I'm obviously talking about emerging bands that play in small/medium sized venues but I'm starting to suffer the secondary effects of being too close to the speakers and amplifiers (in other words, having my ears buzzing for while after taking the shots).

I know I'm running the risk of being downvoted for asking a shopping question but, since I'm getting more and more of this kind of jobs (and I like that) I would like to know what kind of earplugs professional photographers use to protect their ears.

From my point of view, a good pair of earplugs should be able to reduce most of the noise but still let me hear properly the variations in the music since thanks to that I can anticipate the moment in which I can get a good shot.

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I'd guess you should really be asking for recommendations from other people who work at such gigs .. such as sound guys, or even the musicians themselves. –  Peter M Aug 16 '13 at 16:21
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I have successfully used a pair of earplugs from my phone to protect my hearing while usind a reallly noisy grinder (I know it's not the same) in a confined comfined workspace. They were not plugged to the phone nor a music player. They were in ear type, of the kind that are "noise blocking" with a mushrom-like rubber fitting. I'm not suggesting these for long term use, but they can serve in an emergency if you have them in hand. –  Jahaziel Aug 16 '13 at 22:38
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This question appears to be off-topic because it is not about photography. –  dpollitt Aug 18 '13 at 15:01
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It is about the working conditions in certain area of photography, important especially to those professionals who frequently work in the area. But maybe this is not a fit question here, since there is no one correct answer to it. Similar to "how do you remember to reset settings" question. –  Esa Paulasto Aug 18 '13 at 21:37
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I think it fits well because it is about a photography situation and can be definitively answered just as well as any question about what to look for in situation x, which we have many questions of that type. –  AJ Henderson Aug 18 '13 at 22:54

6 Answers 6

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I would certainly emphasize the need to address this concern quickly. Even if you can't feel the buzzing after, some hearing damage could still be occurring. With the buzzing, it means significant damage is being done every time. Your hearing will deteriorate quickly and has already been permanently damaged as a result of your exposure thus far. Anyone working front of stage should have good hearing protection as the volume levels are incredibly intense, particularly for big venues (since the speakers have to cover a bigger area), but still bad enough for medium ones and even some louder small venues.

You have two main classes of earplugs to choose from. There are acoustically accurate earplugs, which cost a bit more and don't reduce sound as much, but they include a sound channel to allow you to hear much less distorted audio through them while still providing a lot of protection.

The other option is to get standard earplugs that are rated for the highest possible level of dB reduction. They will distort the audio you hear, but are also much cheaper and provide the highest level of protection possible. While they distort enough that you couldn't use them for audio mixing or monitors for a musician, you should still hear things well enough to be able to tell what is happening and anticipate what is coming up.

Earplugs are pretty cheap and you can buy them in bulk from a variety of sources. There's no need to spend a lot unless you want the acoustically balanced and reusable kind, but there isn't much point to them for your needs. You can also improve the amount of reduction to the maximum if you get reusable, custom fitted ear plugs. Be ready to pay over $100 for these just for the visit to an audiologist, but they can take a mold of your ear and make a perfectly fit plug that will have the highest level of comfort and noise reduction possible. The amount of extra reduction probably isn't worth it in the vast majority of cases unless the foam expanding earplugs bother you significantly.

The third option that isn't exactly ear plugs is to use a good set of in-ears. This is actually what I do most commonly because I also do video and audio work and so I have a pair of Shure SE-535s on me at all times (literally all times, even when I'm not doing gigs). They aren't as effective as the dedicated earplugs and aren't as undistorted as the reduced distortion earplugs, but they still offer substantial protection (up to 37dB if you get them custom fitted) and they also allow you to feed another audio feed in if you need (for example for a radio or for a monitor of any audio or video recording you might be doing if you ever do that kind of thing).

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I have custom molded silicon ear plugs that are 15 years old. They are easy to clean and still look and work like new. –  Tristan Aug 16 '13 at 17:37

I am not a professional photographer, but because of my profession I have been using earplugs 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for the last 24 years. Best earplugs for gigs are those that block low frequency and high frequency sounds, leaving the frequencies of human speech less muted. Luckily, most hearing protection gear is designed this way. You will hear better what people around you are talking, better than without the earplugs.

I was careless and so I've got ringing in both of my ears for the last 20 years. It is not fun, believe me. No matter how much it makes you feel you are missing the concert - wear hearing protection. You lose it, you don't get it back!

Now, ear-plugs come in different shape and size. We can not say here what is best for you. Buy a sample pair and wear the plugs for an hour the least to be able to say if you still feel good or not. The kind of shop to find earplugs is a hardwarestore, especially shops selling construction building safety gear. Also shops selling musical instruments should sell hearing protection as well. Notice: Ear plugs are not comfortable in quiet environment. Test the plugs under noise.

My favorite is Laser Lite foam plugs because they are very soft, expand gently and have a round head. Some of my colleagues say it expands too much for their ears, and then they use Bilsom plugs, but those (that we have here) have straight cut head and hurt in my ear. Others may find a sort of headset plugs good, but I hate those things, since every turn of my head makes the cord do a swoooshing sound into my ears. What I'm saying is you need to try these things for yourself.

On general health side, earplugs only protect your hearing, but you'll still be exposed to the power of soundwaves hammering your entire body. Vibrations affect your bones and internal organs all the same. After spending time in loud noise (be it music or machinery) you will find yourself tired even if you had no physical work to tire you. And even if tired you'll find it harder to fall asleep. If you stay awake, you'll find it difficult to concentrate on things like reading a newspaper. It is a stress reaction of your body for having been under extended beating by soundwaves. Earplugs are good for you, but not making you immune to effects of noise.

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thanks a lot Esa, but I already tried those foam earplugs and I don't find them suitable for a concert, too much distortion of the audio. However I still use them when I skydive since distorting the audio is basically what I need (as there is no audio there, just loud noise) ... they are different situations with different needs. Thanks for the advice on secondary effects of the noise and soundwaves, I do extreme sports and I'm aware of them (and of bigger hazards). BTW, I gave you a +1 for the great answer! Peace –  Alonso Dominguez Aug 19 '13 at 9:09

I shoot death metal concerts and often have to stand right in front of the speakers with my head. I often loose my earplugs, so I've tried some different ones.

The standard cheap yellow foams form the drugstore are good for protection, bad for everything else. You cant hear what people say. You cant hear the music other than bass drums. Its not comfy at all.

The xmas tree styled plugs form the music store make you look like an alien, like ER20. They have decent sound quality, it is not that comfy, but you can hear what people say. The fact they stick out so much makes it easy to bump them so they offer no protection.

MY favourite type is the soft pads with a small hole in them, where you get 2-3 grades of protection. like Alpine Musicsafe pro. Comfy, good sound, easy to hear voices. They stay inside. They do pull out some wax but are easy to clean.

Next step up would be professionally moulded for your ears at the doctor. Havent tried those.

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Been there, done that, with hearing issues to prove it. Standing next to the stage and the band's 'Tower of Power' does require hearing protection. I stuffed cotton in my ears (when I remembered to bring some), but I'd suggest you use a couple of those squishy earplugs like shooters or construction workers use. They're cheap and work great. You won't have any trouble hearing the music- it'll just be in the safely bearable volume range.

Now you just need to worry about the effect of all that vibration on your equipment and image quality :-)

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+1 for vibration. Especially if the only clear path from one shooting position to another is directly in front of the speaker stack! –  Michael Clark Aug 16 '13 at 17:26

Just go to Home Depot and get the 3M #1100 and try those. About $3 for 5 pair. I used them at a Bon Jovi concert and was pleased to be able to hear most of the music but at a reduced volume.

Heroes from Walmart are also very comfortable and cheap.

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I am a sound engineer and music performer. I suggest the Etymotic ER-25 Filter (musicians' earplugs).

These plugs are not cheap, and are custom-fitted, like hearing aids — in fact, they have to be purchased and fit at a hearing lab/otologist's. (The Etymotic Research part is just the attenuator/filter cartridge and the wax filters; the body of the plug is custom cast for your ear.) The '25s offer 25db reduction, but because they are deep-fit (they extend well into the ear canal) you don't get that "echo in the head" effect that you get with universal-fit plugs (like the ubiquitous foamies), and they offer a reasonably flat frequency response considering the amount of attenuation. (They are designed for musicians who need to hear what they're doing relative to everyone else.) You can get additional, lower-attenuation cartridges (9 or 15db) to fit the cast body when you're dealing with sound levels that are not quite so damaging (like classical or acoustic jazz).

Again, they're expensive, and are not something you'd pick up on a whim for occasional use, but if you spend a lot of time in a very loud environment (or if money isn't too tight) the combination of comfort, protection and a less-disorienting acoustic background (especially when you're talking) might well be worth the investment.

Your ears will thank you :)

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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Welcome to Stack Exchange. In general, we like answers here to explain why, rather than just being a one-liner. If you could expand your answer to explain why the ER-25s are better than the alternatives, that would make it a much better answer (and likely to be upvoted). Thanks! –  Philip Kendall Jan 14 at 11:29

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