Like most people, I've listened to music my whole life - certain events even seem to have their own soundtrack! As I've grown up, I've decided that music, much like a cuddly pet, is best enjoyed in person. Working for an alternative weekly newspaper means that I cover lots of live music, and I have the opportunity to see a lot of concert photography.
Frankly, much of it is pretty bad. Dark bars and venues offer some the hardest shooting environments in the world. Antarctica has nothing on some of the light-eating, beer holes I've had to shoot in. But today, I'm here to help.
Come On Baby, Light My Fire
The biggest problem photographers have when shooting is overcoming or utilizing typically horrible light. Keep in mind that photography is all about light. So when you decide to shoot concerts, the very first thing you need to assess is the light. Pay close attention to color, quality, and direction of the light. Choose your approach to shooting based on what light is available to work with.
The easiest way to overcome dark lighting is the most obvious. Use the fastest lens you can get your hands on. A “fast" lens is a lens with a large maximum aperture, typically f/2.8 or faster. There are several tutorials on this site about these types of lenses, so shop around. The most accessible fast lens for almost every camera type is the 50mm. Nikon, Canon and other brands produce very affordable 50mm f/1.8 lenses.
With these lenses, realize that your depth-of-field will be very shallow, so be careful with your focusing. The following image was shot with a 50mm f/1.2. The depth-of-field was so shallow that the guitar is in focus, but his face is a little soft. It doesn't totally ruin this image, but it shows the difficulties shooting with fast lenses can pose.
Another easy way to overcome bad lighting to shoot at a low shutter speed. I hear all of you screaming “what about motion blur!" Well, that's were your motor drive or continuous shooting mode come into play. Keep that shutter release button mashed down, and with a little luck, you'll catch a moment where things are still.
People never move constantly, so just keep shooting. Be careful that you're not moving too much while shooting like this as well because camera shake can blur your shots just as much as the performer's motion. But after you mash the button, you can just hang out and ride it out. The following image was made in this way.
Jumping Jack Flash
Flash is also a way to overcome poorly lit rooms, but there are several reason to be very careful about using it. First, some venues will not allow you to use a flash. Second, you want to be as courteous as you can to both the performers and the audience members. In a dark room, even a small flash can be blinding and even painful.
If you're going to use a flash, try to bounce the light off the ceiling or the wall. If possible, use a wireless set up to get the flash off to the side of the stage. This way, the flash won't be pointed into anyone's eyes. The image below was made using a wireless flash, way off to the left.
During especially exciting shows or when you're in a very active crowd, you might be able to get away with using direct flash - and it might be your only option. In order to make this technique more appealing, use a very slow shutter speed. This will allow the ambient light (the normal lights in the room) to come through. Your flash will freeze the action preventing blur, but the background lights can make interesting patterns and give movement to your image. This image and the first one in this tutorial were both made using this technique.
In The Spotlight
The second biggest problem with a lot of concert photography is that it's just plain boring. We've all seen a guy with a guitar or a somebody playing the drums. So after figuring out the light, your second duty is to make your photo interesting!
Look for unique elements and angles. One way to spice up your pictures is to include the light source in them. Use a wide angle lens, a low angle, or back up to show what is lighting the stage. Most people don't notice these when watching a show, so by including them, you're showing people something different.
Lens flare is something we often fight against. It's occurs when a light source is shining directly against your lens. Camera companies have researched anti-flare coating for their lenses for decades, and many lenses come with hoods to help reduce it. But lens flare can sometimes add an interesting effect to your images.
Older lenses have less effective coatings, so strap an old piece of glass on to your camera and get your flare on. You'll want to check your exposure and the positioning of the flare using your camera's screen, because often you can't see it with through your viewfinder.
Stand By Me
The best place to watch a show is right in front of the stage. And while you don't want to ignore this spot while shooting, get off to the side of the stage and - if you're resourceful - try to get behind the stage to shoot photos. If you have permission from the venue owner to be there, they usually won't mind if you wander a little.
The side angle will allow you to get more than one band member in your photos. It also allows the light to fall on your subject from an indirect angle, giving your image more depth and your subject more shape. Flat light is usually not very interesting.
Closer To You
When I was in my photo classes in college, my professor repeated over and over again: “Get Closer!" Every time you're about to take a photo, take two steps closer to your subject. We don't like to violate people's personal space, but as a photographer, sometimes too close is just right.
All of this theory applies to concert photography as well. Try to get as close to the stage as you can, at least for part of the show. Normally, if you arrive early for the opening act, you'll have no problem with this. After the first act ends, the crowd should clear out for a little while.
Three Is The Magic Number
Now there's live music and then there's live music. Show at bars and smaller venues will be less strict, but if you are photographing a famous artist or something at a large venue, you'll probably be limited to shooting the first three songs.
This is the industry standard, so don't think you're being cheated or treated poorly when a public relations person tells you that you can't shoot the entire show. The image below is of a member of the semi-famous band Space Hog.
Along with being an extremely important part of general photography, it's even more important when shooting concerts. Remember how I said most concert photography is boring? Well that's because most of it is just a guy and a guitar. How many of those pics can you look at before falling asleep? So, layer it up. Live music is a very specific type of situation. There are a limited number of elements to work with.
First there are all the members of the band. Find angles that allow you to layer them in the same image.
Second there's the crowd, so again look for ways to layer the crowd and the band.
Thirdly, there are instruments, so you can also look for interesting ways to layer the instruments with those performing.
Detail shots are the candy of live music. People love to see what's scrawled on their favorite musician's guitar or what kind of shoes that gorgeous singer chose to wear for her show. Look for the little things, but keep in mind what I've already mentioned. Layer the object with something interesting and pay very close attention to the light.
Can You Take Me Higher
If the house is packed, as it should be if you've chosen a good show, then sometimes the best option is to retreat for higher ground. Balconies, chairs, whatever works for you. You can also just hold the camera over your head. In big crowds, check to see if there's anyone who has already taken my advice. Usually, there's a girl with a very gracious and strong-backed boyfriend who's been hoisted above the crowd. Check it out, it happens.
The In Crowd
Speaking of crowds, ask any musician and they will tell you that the crowd is just as important to the success of a concert as the band. If the crowd isn't into the show, the show just isn't fun. So when shooting, don't forget to turn around.
A concert is a conversation between the artist and their fans, so by leaving the fans out of your photos, you're missing half the action. I've mentioned layering the crowd in the photos, and getting above the crowd to get the photo, but let's not forget the most important thing...
Dancing shots are the best. Rarely do you have the opportunity to photograph people in their most free state. So jump on the chance when it comes. If you're right upfront and close like I suggested, you'll be in a prime spot.
Unlike the band, there will be few, if any, lights on the crowd, so flash is just about the only option. I often utilize the slow shutter speed technique to suggest movement in the images, and to fill the area behind your subjects. Using a fast shutter speed can make it appear that dancers are alone in a basement, which again, is a little boring.
A Little Bit Louder Now
The lead singer is usually the most interesting and photogenic member of any band, but please, no pictures of him eating a microphone. I know that it's tempting, since singing seems like such an important part of what a concert actually is, but profile shots of the singer looking like they are about to take a big bite out of a hot dog are pretty awful.
Equally, straight on shots where the microphone is covering up the singers mouth are also very unappealing. So watch where that mic is - I'm sure the singer had a nice dinner before the show, he doesn't need a snack on stage.
Standing Next To A Mountain
In some ways, shooting a performance is a lot like shooting sports. You're looking for the peak action. The moment when things reach their most active point. Much like knowing the sport of cricket helps if you're photographing it, knowing the songs that are being performed helps as well.
But even if you don't know the music, feel the rhythm and the pattern of the music, and you'll be able to anticipate when that singer is going to shoot for the high note or the guitarist is going to rip a crazy solo.
The peak action is important, but you'll also want to look for the unusual things that might be happening. Does the artist you're shooting have a particular thing that they do differently? Jimi Hendrix played a right-handed guitar left-handed. That's pretty unusual.
Also, be ready for those moments when the frontman for the band decides to jump of the stage and crowd surf - or just slide across the stage on his knees. These are hard to catch, but if you're thinking about them ahead of time, and have a plan for if and when they happen, you're likely to succeed. The photo below is of a finger-style guitarist. Most of time he looks like normal guitarist, but how many people pay the guitar with their hand crossed?
Don't Worry, Be Happy
Well, be happy with what you're doing, but don't hesitate to think negatively. And by that, I mean look for negative space. Typically, performers are lit with stage lights or even spotlights, and the background is totally black.
Utilize the black negative space as a compositional tool. It can give your photos an “epic" look, or convey the story of a lonely road-tested artist struggling on stage to make it big. It can also just look cool, and set your images apart.
In Living Color
Stage lights, for some reason, are usually the most horrible colors imaginable. Many are red, which make skin tones look, well awful. The first way to deal with this is going into your camera color settings and turning the saturation down.
The second, and usually more favorable way, to deal with it is to abandon color altogether when editing. Make your especially troublesome image black and white - or even sepia. This will make toning your images much easier. It will also allow the viewer to focus on the emotion or moment in the photo without being distracted by bad colors.
This is a minor note, but keep it in mind, especially if you hope to sell your photos at some point. Try to find a way to put the show in context. Look for signs (actual or metaphorical) that would tell someone viewing the image where the photo was taken.
Is there a banner behind the stage? Does the venue you're in have a particular architectural or decorative feature that people might recognize? When shooting images that include these features, your photo is no longer just of a band, but it's of a particular moment in time.
The image doesn't tell the story of performer, it tells the story of a specific performance. People can look at the picture and say “hey, I was there," instead of “oh, I like that singer." To me, that's more special.
We all suffer a bad hair day from time to time, but rock stars always seem to always have unreal hair. If you happen to find yourself at a show, look at the hair of the performers. I'm sure at least one member of the band will have something spectacular going. Shoot for the hair as well. There are two reasons for this.
First, if the hair is just crazy looking or unique, it tells your viewer that this guy is rockstar material. He doesn't work in an office. He is not of this world. He is awesome. You cannot dye your hair red and shave lightning bolts in it, because you are not a rockstar.
The second thing that hair can do in photos is defy gravity. When shooting, you can freeze that moment when the performer's hair seems to be the wild mane of a lion, shooting out all angles and floating in the air. This is also pretty awesome, and highly appropriate for rockstars!
Time After Time
VH1's Behind-The-Music is so successful because it shows a side of an artist's life that isn't typically on view to the public. While you're covering an artist, you can do this on a smaller scale. All it takes is time. Come early and stay late. Try to get access to the band before or after they go onstage.
For smaller shows, this might mean hanging out in front of the club before they arrive. For larger ones, it might mean making arrangements far in advance with a publicist. However much work it is, I promise that the photos you'll get will be worth it.
Nothing But A Good Time
The most important thing to do while shooting live music is have fun. Enjoy yourself. You're surrounded by people who are enjoying themselves, so join in. Listen to the music, experience the show.
Sometimes it can be easy to get lost behind the camera, lost in your thoughts of shutter speeds and f/stops. If you find yourself doing this, take a break and listen to a whole song, and then jump back in. Don't get so wrapped up that you forget what's going on around you.
I hope to see you at the next gig!
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