Many photographers merge into a great photographic passion first by their inspirations of concert and band photography. Musicians and photographers are like cousins; we are enthused by the instruments we use, constantly searching for ways to make our mark, and feed off one another’s talent to express emotion. If you are among those who aspire to shoot concerts you may know already that the task is one of the most challenging in the industry, especially for beginners learning their craft. If you have interest in this fun yet competitive field and are just beginning or interested in improving – look no further! We have interviewed some of Borrowlenses.com‘s resident concert photographers for their tips and tricks including what equipment they recommend, how to get the best shot possible, and the leg work it takes to grant you access to get the optimal shot.
Getting the Gig
If you’re interested in getting started in concert photography, chances are you are already involved in some type of music or performance scene. In the very beginning, asking friends to photograph them is a win win for both parties and gives you an immediate intimacy with your subject, thus propelling your new portfolio. There are definite challenges shooting in smaller, low lit venues. However, the greater likelihood of being allowed up close with little restrictions offers a playground to experiment with your camera settings.
Once you have gotten your feet wet and ready for bigger gigs, NETWORK. Go crazy emailing PR firms, music labels, the bands, managers and management companies, and venues. Creating relationships within this sector of the music industry can afford you press accreditation to shoot the more competitive shows. Once the connections are made, make a point to understand exactly what the client expectations are as they are the main artery to your press pass. No pass, no photo pit. If you do get yourself a press pass, expect having roughly 3 songs in an uninterrupted space to get the shot.
Get The Best Pictures Before You Even Arrive
Low-light stage photography is a juggling game of exposure that often forces a sacrifice. There are three ways to maximize available light to get the correct exposure before you even arrive at the venue. You can choose to use a camera with a full frame sensor which allows you to increase your ISO up to 3200 with minimal image quality degradation when it comes to digital noise. You can shoot with fast aperture lenses such as primes or zoom lenses with an f/2.8 aperture or faster. You can also choose lenses with Image Stabilization (Canon) or Vibration Reduction (Nikon) which allow you the ability to shoot at lower shutter speeds with less chance of camera shake/motion blur.
Pushing Your ISO
Raising your ISO (sensor sensitivity) will increase the chances of digital noise creeping into your final image. Full frame sensors have more capacity to handle higher ISO with minimal noise compared to their crop sensor counterparts. Depending on your kit this could be a handicap but not necessarily. Concert photos are all about the experience and having noise beats a blurry image and may even add to the expression of a gritty, grungy show. Large amounts of undesirable digital noise start to appear typically above ISO 3200 for full frame and ISO 1250 for crop sensors.
Shoot with a Fast Aperture Lens
If you are upgrading from a kit lens on a budget, the 50mm f/1.8 is a great lens to keep in your bag. It is a fast lens, only 2/3 stops slower than the fastest on the market, shoots a standard angle of view (which is good of a variety of subjects) and is lightweight.
For the more experienced shooters, the 35mm f/1.4 is great for your standard angle of view perspectives, while Canon’s 14mm f/2.8 and Nikon’s 14-24mm f/2.8 work well to capture dramatic wide angles. Canon and Nikon offers a 70-200mm f/2.8 with IS/VR which is best for isolating your subject and limiting the amount of information in the frame as well as shooting at lower shutter speeds due to their stabilizing technology. Do not overlook the Sigma Arts series 18-35mm f/1.8, which is the fastest aperture zoom lens on the market right now. It’s designed to fit a crop sensor body. If paired with a full frame sensor it can be shot in ‘crop mode’.
Freezing Motion in Low Light
To freeze movement it is advised to shoot at a 1/100th – 1/200th of a second or faster, which is what creates the need for a fast aperture lens. The general rule is that you do not want to shoot at a shutter speed that is any slower than the focal length of the lens to eliminate most camera shake, i.e. 50mm -1/50th , 200mm – 1/200th, etc. If you have a camera with Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction technology then you have the option of shooting handheld 4 stops slower, approximately 1/60th of a second with a 200mm lens. This feature is extremely useful with low-light stage photography and can be found in Canon and Nikon’s most versatile lens for this genre, the 70-200 f/2.8 II and also Canon’s EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 (for crop sensor bodies only) or Nikon’s 24-12omm f/4.
Controlling Your Camera
Learning to shoot in manual mode will give you the most control over your exposure, as well as consistency frame to frame. Aperture Priority is the best semi-automatic mode to shoot in for concert work if you are still learning photography. You will have the option of choosing an aperture that will allow the most light in and retain control to increase your ISO, allowing your camera to re-calibrate for a faster shutter speed if you are having trouble freezing motion.
When choosing a metering mode, the spot-metering will most accurately guage your exposure. You can direct the camera with the center meter pointed at what you want to expose for, adjust, and then re-frame. This is especially useful when shooting in Aperture Priority mode.
Trust the histogram on the back of the camera for overexposed points. Overexposed ‘hot spots’ can’t be easily recovered in post production and are easy to get when concert lighting is involved. Our eyes adjust for dark environments making it difficult to tell if your exposure is correct just by looking at the preview on the LCD screen. The histogram is a tool that can more accurately assure you that your exposure will yield a workable file. It is generally better to shoot a hair underexposed in RAW and add detail and depth to the shadow areas in post production to guarantee you have enough detail in the highlights.
Autofocus works only when there is enough contrast in a scene to distinguish the focusing point. Focusing in low light poses a problem for AF. By shooting in manual focus with your attention on the outer edge of the subject there is a greater likelihood of catching the focus of your subject that is not brightly illuminated. Having a camera with Live View also can help with focus because it allows you to zoom into the subject, nail down focus, and then hit your shutter – a little videography trick.
Shoot in short bursts using continuous (shooting) mode to capture 3-4 frames at a time. Doing so will increase your chances of capturing fleeting moments as well as allow you the chance to have more useable images to choose from after the event. Reading and anticipating light is a part of being a photographer but with quick moving spotlights frames shot within seconds of each other can be blown out, underexposed, or spot on. If one image is all you want at a specific time just lightly depress the shutter to allow for a one frame capture.
Fifty percent of the concert experience is the crowd, so figuring out a way to include them in the frame without it being a distraction or an interference is something to push yourself to figure out creatively. This is especially true in smaller venues or when you are first starting out and do not have photo press privileges.
Lighting will always been your main challenge when shooting a concert and when configuring your exposure it isn’t necessarily the goal to make a bright exposure where everything is illuminated and with recognizable detail. It is often more about setting a mood, capturing the ambience, and telling a story. Do not use on-camera flash. Unless you are standing very close to your subject it will not have enough reach even at full power to illuminate and/or freeze your subject. Using it also creates the potential to illuminate undesirable objects in frame such as the back of someone’s head or pieces of large equipment which distracts the viewer from the real focus of the image. If you are in fact close enough to use flash, make sure to incorporate the ambient light by slowing down your shutter and directionally aiming your flash to freeze motion.
If it is at all possible you can attempt to setup off-camera lighting around the stage pointed directly at the subjects you want to illuminate – such as the drummer who is notoriously under-lit. Activate the lights using Pocket Wizard triggers and control their intensity by adjusting your f-stop or ISO. This is a great tool for smaller venues with minimal stage lighting as it will help create a less “typical” look.
Tell a good, representative story. Try to incorporate a mix of close-up images, wide crowd shots, band members interacting with each other and the crowd, and (if allowed) some before and after set images to round out the story. Sometimes the best band may not be the most technically sound musicians, which is good to keep in mind when considering your own photographic technique. It’s more important to capture the essence of the action than to be perfectly exposed or sharp. Push yourself for unique angles, such as shooting behind the band and into the crowd. This will maximize your story telling efforts by layering information.
Incorporate silhouettes into your shot checklist. It embraces the low-light conditions and use of spotlights can earn you style points. Your goal is to provide the viewer with just enough detail to understand who the subject in the frame is. This may be immediately accomplishable or you may need to move around the frame/venue until the lights illuminate the subject from behind. This can be additionally dramatic if fog machines are in use as they are translucent with back lighting. A quick way to create a silhouette is to increase your shutter or stop down your aperture to allow less light in which creates a black frame. When the anticipated light appears from behind your subject start shooting! Minor exposure compensating adjustments may need to be made and also can be enhanced in post-production.
You can also create a distinct style for yourself even after all the photos have been captured. Shooting RAW images have a very wide dynamic range but appear low in contrast when first imported to your digital darkroom. This is your chance to edit the pictures to your liking by exposure adjustments, noise reduction or grain enhancements, overall color saturation, and white balance. If you have a dynamic image with great expression but is otherwise tainted with harsh red-colored stage lighting, convert it to a black and white image. It will not only remove that undesirable color wash but restructures the focus of the image on what is truly of interest.
If you have gained access to the photography pit then you probably have very limited time to get the shot. You will most likely be allowed 3 songs with no flash and then you’re out. This is your chance to shoot a lot (without chimping). Know your settings are on point and get the shot!
Wear earplugs! Whether you are in the pit or the back of the venue, the decibels that the music is playing can cause long term damage to your hearing such as Tinnitus, which is when your ears will ring as if you are at a loud show but are not. There are earplugs designed to cut the decibels of the music out but still allow you to enjoy the music, which is a great option for photographers who frequent live music.
Create a post-processing workflow that will allow you to deliver photos to your clients (promo company, artists, venues) within 24-48 hours. Time is of the essence for publishing purposes, so if you want to be considered for the next gig then it’s important to follow this rule. Click here for a solid workflow conceived by one of BL’s resident concert photographers.
Don’t give up if you don’t get hired by anyone. Being a concert photographer is hard, not only to get the shot but to be given the opportunity in the first place.
When you are ready to share your work, pick your best and toss the rest. Your pictures should express to viewers how live music makes them feel. Create a storyline of the top 10-20 images with no repeats of slightly different frames.
If you do not have a contract with someone there are many web-based options to contribute to that can offer critique, inspire you to keep improving, or be picked up for use in publications. Look into Flickr, Guro Shots, 500px, and Exposure for starters. You may even want to consider the local newspaper or other online news platforms which can help you gain access to even larger opportunities.
There are many nuances to shooting low-light stage photography. Understanding how your camera works, the style you are after, and having the right contacts to allow you access are the first steps to a great portfolio. We unfortunately cannot gain you your contacts list but we are able to recommend you low-cost solutions to high-ticket items such as full frame camera bodies and fast aperture lenses. Check out our varied brand and skill level concert photography packages here!
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