Concert photography can be a tough challenge for new photographers. Without the right gear and realistic expectations, it can be one of the most frustrating arenas to enter. When I started shooting concerts, I read everything I could get my hands on to prepare myself as best as I could, but I still learned most of my lessons the hard way. From the other side of trial and error, here are a few things every concert photographer should know.
Step 1: The Right Lens
First, you need fast glass. If you're unfamiliar with the term, it is used to describe lenses with a high maximum aperture (low number). You can use a zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or a prime lens with an aperture of f/1.8. I use a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens for the majority of my concert photography.
Using a flash is a possibility, but you can't rely on it. Many venues, bands, and publicists follow the "first three songs, no flash rule," or they simply don't allow flash photography. That is why prime lenses are a great place to start. They offer great value for the sharpness and speed they will allow you to achieve.
Step 2: Speed, and How To Capture It
Second, keep in mind that this is a passive form of photography. You won't be directing people or have any sort of control over the action that unfolds. Your advantage lies in the ability to compose images on the fly. The action will unfold at an alarming pace and you need to keep up with your shots. Musicians that have experience performing have likely developed an act or routine or simply get into the show and move around more than your typical subject.
Like in many cases, the simplest answer is the right one; you need a fast shutter speed. This is why I put a big emphasis on fast glass. With it, you will be able to better capture musicians with a shutter speed that would not be possible to achieve on a kit lens or one lacking a high maximum aperture without sacrificing exposure. Many of my favourite concert captures were shot at 160th of a second at f/2.0.
Step 3: Sensitivity - No, Not That Kind
Third, consider the context and purpose of your photos when purchasing new gear and choosing camera settings. ISO plays an important role in your camera's ability to deal with noise. You're likely already aware that the higher ISO setting you use, the more sensitive your camera's sensor is to light and the brighter your image will be at the expense of adding more grain to your photo.
Many of the new models of cameras have much better performance at higher ISO settings with less noise and better quality images, so it's something to take note of when deciding to upgrade your body or to buy that new prime lens.
Along the same line of reasoning, consider this: the extra shutter speed gained from increasing your ISO from 800 to 1600 (eg. going from 1/60th to 1/125th) can be the difference between having a blurry shot versus a sharp image capturing the performer's movement. Many publications and websites would much prefer a sharp and slightly grainy image to a blurry image with no noise.
Step 4: Do Your Homework
Fourth, it may not be as exciting as the show itself, but do some research before you attend. You will be able to score lots of advance information regarding how the musicians move, what the venue is like, and the lighting used, by browsing photos from past shows to help you achieve a great photo and get the upper hand over the other photographers in the pit.
Many photographers blog about the shows they shoot and offer tips and advice as well as write-ups on many of the shows they attend. These posts are a gold mine for information; they often contain specific camera settings and gear used. A great place to start is Todd Owyoung's site I Shoot Shows.
Step 5: Set Realistic Expectations
Many will be drawn to this type of photography with the promise of magazine and album covers, roaring crowds and meeting rockstars. I'm definitely not telling you to abandon your dreams or give up hope, but to simply be patient. Getting published in one form or other and meeting your favourite band are definitely attainable goals, but expecting them to happen within weeks or even months of starting isn't realistic or fair to yourself. I say this because it takes time to adjust, hone your skills, and get noticed. Once you do, you'll be happy you stuck with it.
Step 6: Save Your Hearing
I am going to assume that if you're pursuing any sort of concert photography, that you're also a music fan in some form. Otherwise I'm humbled by your interest in this type of photography for what they do to your hearing. Concerts are loud, so you'll want to invest in ear plugs. Even if you buy a cheap pack of the disposable foam kind, I highly recommend you make the investment because it will allow you to continue to enjoy music a few years down the road.
It's a very simple step and might be uncomfortable for some, but hearing loss cannot be regained over time so it's a very important part of concert photography. I personally use ER 25 Musician's Ear Plugs by Etymotic Research, which are form fitted to my ear by taking a mold and reduce sound by 25 decibels. Find a pair that are affordable and comfortable, and keep them with your photo gear.
Step 7: Getting Access
The eventual goal of a concert photographer is to have a small network of publicists and editors to work with. Publicists will allow you to gain access to the show, as they work for the bands and labels. However, you now face the chicken and egg problem of concert photography. You can't get proper access to shows without the above mentioned connections, but you can't make these connections without a portfolio of concerts you've shot.
This isn't as great a problem as it sounds. If you're lacking a portfolio of concert photography, you simply need to start at the bottom. You can contact bands and venues asking if they'd like photos of a performance, take advantage of free shows and battle of the bands, or pay for the ticket yourself until you are established in some degree.
A word of warning: concerts with more popular bands and expensive tickets will likely have a photo pit (a section surrounded by barriers) and will require a photo pass to shoot. If you ignore this warning you could be kindly asked to leave by security if caught shooting the show.
Step 8: Shooting the Show
Okay, so you got this far. Seems like a lot of work just to take photos at a show right? Probably, but I'm trying to help you do it right the first time. You've packed your bag and checked your gear, and now you're all set to capture your favourite musician.
Please, arrive early and shoot the opening acts. This is important for a number of reasons - you'll get used to the lighting at the venue, you'll get a vibe from the crowd, and most importantly you'll have practice shooting in all the conditions specific to this show that will help you achieve better results for the headlining act.
It's also worth noting that opening acts probably don't receive as much attention from photographers so they'll likely be more thankful for your hard work. Also consider shooting in RAW, as it will help you get the most out of your photos while editing due to the extreme lighting conditions you're facing at a concert.
You'll want to move around as you shoot, because taking all of your photos from one angle is boring and doesn't help you to improve. The trouble is that you'll need to work your way through the crowd in many situations and most concert-goers like hanging on to their spot.
Be polite, smile, gesture towards your camera when needed and simply ask if you can stand in their spot for a song or two to grab some photos. Make sure to say thanks when you're done and keep moving. This is the best approach I've found because no one likes the jerk photographer that shoulders and elbows his or her way through the crowd.
Get yourself in a comfortable position near the stage, choose some starting settings on your camera (e.g. ISO 800 125th f/2.0) and take a few photos. Check your exposure and adjust accordingly. You'll likely find a setting that works for most of the lighting conditions used at the venue and will be able to make minor adjustments to only shutter speed or aperture allowing you to focus on following the action and composing your shots. Make sure to have fun, it is a concert after all, and if you think you missed a shot, take more.
Step 9: The Aftermath
You've made it home after surviving the sweat, noise, and crowd - but the work isn't done. If you're shooting for a publication or blog of some kind, you likely have a deadline to meet. Even if you're not you should still impose one on yourself. Handing in photos on time will serve to create a good reputation for yourself.
As this is only a primer I won't go into too much detail regarding editing, but I will say that you will eventually develop your own style. Most of your editing will be done in your favourite RAW editor, such as Apple's Aperture or Adobe's Lightroom.
You'll be following general journalistic guidelines in that you'll want to improve the quality of your photos without misrepresenting what actually occurred at the show. The key is to experiment within reason.
Concert photography is a lot of fun and very rewarding, but it is unlikely that you will bring enough revenue to pay the bills solely on these images. If you are an avid music fan or are just looking for another avenue to channel the creative side of your photography, it's worth the effort and this primer should help you get your foot in the door.
There are no secrets or shortcuts and it can be hard to measure your progress, but you'll be happy for sticking it out and meet a lot of amazing and interesting people along the way.