Many photographers find their passion in concert and band photography. Musicians and photographers are inspired by the instruments they use and are constantly searching for ways to make their mark and express emotion. Shooting concerts is of the most challenging things to capture, especially for beginners. We consulted with BorrowLenses‘ own resident concert photographers for their tips and tricks on how to shoot concert photography. Learn more about the equipment they use, how to get the best shot possible, and what it takes to get stage access.
Getting the Gig: Starting Out in Concert Photography
You are probably already involved in some type of music or performance scene. In the very beginning, ask musician friends performing in small venues if you can photograph them. It’s a win-win for both parties and gives you immediate intimacy with your subject. There are challenges to shooting in smaller, low-lit venues but you’re more likely to be allowed up close.
Next, you must network. Go crazy emailing PR firms, music labels, the bands, managers/management companies, and venues. Creating relationships in the music industry affords you press accreditation to shoot more competitive shows. Once the connections are made, understand exactly what the client expectations are. 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 only 3 songs in an uninterrupted space to get the shot.
Get The Best Pictures Before You Even Arrive
Low-light stage photography forces sacrifices. Maximize available light to get the correct exposure before you even arrive at the venue. One option is using a camera with a full frame sensor so that you can increase your ISO up to 3200 or higher with minimal image quality degradation. Shoot with fast-aperture lenses, such as primes, or zoom lenses with an f/2.8 aperture or faster. Another option is to use lenses with Image Stabilization (Canon) or Vibration Reduction (Nikon) so that you can 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 in your final image. Full frame sensors tend to have more capacity to handle higher ISO with minimal noise compared to their crop sensor counterparts. That said, 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, though the technology on this is improving every year.
Shoot with a Fast Aperture Lens
If you are upgrading from a kit lens but you’re still on a budget, a 50mm f/1.8 is a great option. It is only 2/3 stops slower than the fastest lenses on the market. It shoots a standard angle of view (which is good for a variety of subjects). It is also lightweight, available in a variety of mounts and brands, and is fairly affordable.
For more experienced shooters, a 35mm f/1.4 is great for a slightly wider (but still standard) angle of view perspective. The Canon 14mm f/2.8 and the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 work well to capture dramatic wide angles. Canon and Nikon both offer a 70-200mm f/2.8 with IS/VR. These telephoto zooms are best for isolating your subject and limiting the amount of information in the frame. They are also handy if you’re far away. They are great for pairing with lower shutter speeds due to the stabilizing technology in both mounts.
In this same range, Sony a7 series users should try out the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS lens. Do not overlook the Sigma Arts series 18-35mm f/1.8, which is the fastest-aperture zoom lens on the market right now (at the time of this writing). It’s designed to fit a crop sensor body. If paired with a full frame sensor, you’ll need to use crop mode if your camera has that – otherwise you’ll experience strong vignetting.
Freezing Motion in Low Light
To freeze movement, 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, then you have the option of shooting handheld 4 stops slower. So approximately 1/60th of a second with a 200mm lens.
Camera Settings for Concert Photography
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. You also can choose your aperture, leaving the camera to choose your shutter speed. If you have trouble freezing motion, try Shutter Priority mode instead. Eventually, graduate up to full manual mode.
For metering, Spot metering is a favorite among concert photographers. Position the circle over the specific part of your scene that you want to meter for. Spot metering will measure just the important part (like a band member for example). Other metering modes consider more of the whole scene. Bright lights and dark areas of the stage can throw your exposure reading way off in Evaluative or Center-Weighted metering modes. Meter for the spot of the stage you care about!
Histogram and Exposure
Check the histogram on the back of the camera for overexposed points. Overexposed “hot spots” can’t be easily recovered in post production. But they are sure easy to get when concert lighting is involved! Our eyes adjust for dark environments very well. But this makes it difficult to tell if your exposure is correct when looking at the image preview on your little LCD. The histogram more accurately assures you that your exposure is good. When in doubt, shoot just a bit underexposed in RAW. This is better than trying to bring down blown highlights when editing.
Autofocus typically works only as good as there is contrast in your scene. Focusing in low light is really difficult for a lot of AF systems. By shooting in manual focus with your attention on the outer edge of the subject, there is a greater likelihood of nailing the focus of your subject that is not brightly illuminated. Having your DSLR in Live View mode can help with focus, too. It allows you to zoom into the subject, nail down focus, and then hit your shutter – a little videography trick. For mirrorless users, you have the advantage of an electronic viewfinder with focus peaking features.
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.
A lot of the concert experience is the crowd. Figure out a way to include them in the frame without it being a distraction. Push yourself creatively. This is especially true in smaller venues or when do not have photo press privileges.
Lighting is a big challenge when shooting a concert. Don’t let perfect lighting exposure get to you. Concert photography 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. Besides, using flash can be a huge distraction for performers. In small venues, sometimes they’ll allow you to set up off-camera lighting around the stage for subjects who are notoriously under-lit, like drummers.
Use the existing lighting to your creative advantage. Add silhouettes to your shot list. Spotlights can earn you style points! Give the viewer just enough detail to know who the subject is. This is especially dramatic if fog machines are used on stage. A quick way to create a silhouette is to increase your shutter or stop down your aperture, almost all the way down to having just a black frame. When the anticipated light appears from behind your subject, start shooting! Be ready to use the exposure compensation dial in a pinch. Minor exposure adjustments may need to be made on the fly.
Tell a good story. Try to incorporate a mix of close-up images, wide shots, band members interacting with each other/the crowd, and (if allowed) some before-and-after set images. It’s more important to capture the essence of the action than to be perfectly exposed or sharp. Push yourself for unique angles when allowed, like behind the band and into the crowd.
Create a distinct style for yourself even after all the photos have been captured. Shooting RAW gives you a wide dynamic range but appears low in contrast when imported to your digital darkroom. This is your canvas to work with! If some of your images are tainted by harsh, red stage lighting, consider converting them to black and white.
Your 3-Song Shot
After gaining access to the photography pit, you will 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 (and without much time to chimp or fuss with your LCD). Make sure your settings are right ahead of time.
Whether you are in the pit or the back of the venue, concerts can cause long-term damage to your hearing. Tinnitus 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. If you want to be considered for the next gig then it’s important to follow this rule. Click here for an example workflow from 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 story with your top 10-20 images. 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.