Concert Photography 101
I’ve shot easily more than 150 bands in my time as a working photographer including local acts and bigger names and record labels.
It’s a fun field to get into, you get to see shows for free, get to meet the band, and usually get free drink tickets. Bands are very difficult to shoot, usually the venues they play are poorly lit, shows are crowded, and the band moves around a lot. So how can you successfully shoot a band and get awesome photos of the guitarist smashing his instrument on stage? Why, by reading this tutorial of course.
Some people will go to all sorts of ridiculous trouble to sneak their cameras into shows – stuffing it in jackets, down pants, etc.
Thing is, it’s fairly easy to get a photo pass. You can contact either the band or the record label and ask if they need photo coverage for the show, send them a link to your portfolio and wait for a response. It may not be as exciting as sneaking past security with a 200mm lens in your pants, but you’ll get into the show for free if you get the pass.
Pack light. You should only need about 4-5 things. Your camera should be able to shoot well in low light or have noise reduction software built in. At a typical venue you will need to shoot at about 1000 – 1600 ISO and you will still be shooting at a shutter speed between 1/30 and 1/125, if you’re lucky. If you think you will have room for a tripod, bring it – but at a small venue or club I wouldn’t even bother. This is where it’s important to have good lenses. I bring a 50mm 1.4, a 19-35mm 3.5 and a 70-300mm 3.5/4.8 – the faster your lenses, the better. And of course, bring the usual – extra battery, extra memory cards, etc. Before you pack up your flash unit ALWAYS ASK IF YOU CAN USE ONE. I cannot stress this enough. You could interrupt and ruin the whole show by using a high-powered flash if the band doesn’t know about it. And trust me, you do not want to be on the bad side of a crowd who’s paid to see their most favorite band EVER while you are carrying $5000.00 worth of gear.
Shooting without flash
When faced with the possibility of shooting in low light with no flash unit and no tripod, some may panic. They jack up their ISO and send the band black and white photos to hide the noise from shooting at 2500 ISO and call it a day.
Now, this is ok in some practices but for me the colors and lights at a venue or club really set the mood of a show – many bigger bands have their own light set ups, so it would make sense to capture that in all it’s glory, am I right?
Instead of relying on a tripod or high ISO I would just focus on learning to have a steady hand. This can be difficult when you’re in a crowd, so find yourself a nice spot either right at the stage or against a wall or support beam and prop yourself against it. Frame your shot, tuck your elbows into your rib cage, take a deep breath and when you breath out slowly compress the shutter button. If you have a high frames-per-second option, use it.
Focusing in the kind of flashy-glitzy lighting that live shows are known for can be tricky. It’s really up to what you trust more – your auto focus, or yourself. Either way, know how far away from the stage you are and how your focusing works so you can make quick adjustments.
Shooting with flash
If your shooting with any flash at all, be it on camera or off you will need to make the photos interesting. I have a bit of an unorthodox method myself. I use my on camera flash – blasphemous, I know – in combination with long exposures.
The flash freezes my subject, and the longer exposure (usually no more 1 second) will give me glorious light trails from anything reflective, which results in a high energy shot full of motion and color.
It will also allow you to shoot at a much lower ISO and smaller aperture, and if you focus correctly it will be nice and crisp too.
Use your lenses. Come in with your 50mm and get some medium shots, use the wide-angle and shoot from above or below or other extreme angles, and use your telephoto for close-ups. If the band is letting you shoot on stage, be respectful and do not interrupt their show by stepping in front of them while the lead-guitarist does a face-melting solo. Be mindful of the crowd, and don’t shove your way around. And since you’re there already, why not get a shot of the adoring fans?
Before you shoot any kind of live show – especially if it’s a metal or punk show – get your gear insured. It costs what, 200.00 a year? If it’s that cheap, how can you afford to not insure yourself? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had gear broken, beer spilled upon it, or had it get stolen outright. Don’t take the risk.