Live Music and Concert Photography Tips

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Three songs, no flash, low light, other photographers jostling for position, security guards like Rottwiellers, adoring screaming fans…. and a picky editor the next morning. It’s a lot to deal with.

Stage photography, by nature, is different, because you are capturing a performance where practically anything can happen if you haven’t seen the show before. And the performers are going to be as dynamic as they ever get.

live music photography tips

“Heroes and Zeros live” captured by Ryck Valli (Click Image to See More From Ryck Valli)

Its in a class of documentary photography. What happens may only happen once, and it is therefore both difficult and fun. What follows is my take on how I feel about concert photography. I will cover preparation, being ready, passes, shooting modes, and manual mode.

Gigs are also difficult because of low light and this will in turn dictate your equipment, along with the fact that what you can take with you is heavily dictated by the venue.

Photo Passes

The difference between taking photographs and having to take photographs.

The ratio between my shooting with or without a pass is about 50/50. If it’s without one then the band will be made aware of my presence beforehand and this is enough in small venues.

If you don’t have experience of shooting artists on a bigger stage then there is little point in trying to get a pass to do so.

tips for concert photography

“Ben Romans of the Click Five” captured by Todd Beltz (Click Image to See More From Todd Beltz)

Larger stages are different in that there is more scope, but you need to work MUCH faster and be practically invisible to artist security and fans, and you still need to keep composed enough to be creative. Its great fun, and you should get as much of this experience as possible.

However, you need to be able to deliver, so get local experience first and for years to come you should not refuse any opportunity to get more experience. A good one is local music publications (both print and online). This is because freelancers not connected to a publication are not considered a priority if at all.

Music Photography Equipment

Gear for shooting live events in low light.

Rock photography is always better if you are shooting on a pass. If you get one or if you’re meant to be there for the band, then great. The equipment list is going to be one thing and the places you’ll be able to get to will be superb.

However, if you’re not meant to be taking gig photos there, your physical position may be poor, and the and the equipment you can take in will be limited to a little compact or some such.

rock band photo

“Somvazio@ Escambron Beach, San Juan” captured by Karlo X. Ramos (Click Image to See More From Karlo X. Ramos)

Fortunately, security doesn’t bother taking these off people, because everyone has a camera on their phone anyway. But don’t expect as good a set of shots. If that’s a problem then decide if you’re going to take a camera at all. After all, you will have paid to see this band. Presumably you like them, so do you really want to spend the gig struggling for shots? Why not just enjoy yourself?

If you’re using a DSLR camera then, and this is just an opinion, don’t bother opting for anything outside of the well trodden ranges of either Canon EOS Digital SLR which offers a huge range of available lenses for practically every type of photography or the excellent offerings from Nikon

Preparing to shoot a gig

Tips for getting ready for rock photography

I hate arriving unprepared. Might as well not bother. Rock photography is no different, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned. Some of it is just ideas and maybe you wont care. Your call.

low light concert photo technique

“Olympians return to stage” captured by mode (Click Image to See More From mode)

First, for the love of god, charge your batteries. Obvious, yes, but I’ve seen photographers’ batteries die on them. I also take a spare battery.

Next is memory cards. Use mid sized ones so you don’t have all your shots on one card. Bring spares and make sure whatever was on there before is safely stored and the cards are empty. This is good discipline, and it forces you to ingest shots between gigs and get them into workflow. It means I am at a gig with a full set of cards to use.

Take with you all the contact details of everyone involved. You will need them about 50 percent of the time, and security will may not let you in if in doubt. They also won’t try to communicate with your contact if they are busy—or maybe even if they are not.

Wear black. The stage crews and roadies wear black. Security wears black. This is so they aren’t seen and don’t distract from the performance. You should extend the same courtesy.

Auto Focus in Servo Mode

Shooting music with a DSLR.

I tether the auto focus point to the metering point and I then shoot with AI Servo Mode, being prepared to move the AF point.

The reason I do this is that frontmen/women move very fast, in and out of the plane of focus. If you shoot in other modes (such as half pressing the shutter then re-composing) this leaves you always running the risk of getting the point of interest (usually the eyes) out of focus.

This method works only if there is enough light to use the non-central auto focus points. If there isn’t, I go fully manual. What helps is to shoot with as wide an aperture as possible. This doubly emphasizes the need to use autofocus on servo mode, because your depth of field is likely to leave you with very little space to play with.

Using spot metering for live music

Choose your subject and allow the background

Live music lighting varies enormously, making it impossible for in camera AI to determine the correct lighting because it is programmed for a very thin range of types of photography.

A bright light behind a performer may be what you want, but your camera, set to evaluative metering, will take it upon itself to overexpose the background, giving you a silhouette you may not want.

This is why I only shoot in manual mode, expecting underexposed shots (according to the meter) because of the darker nature of a live music performance.

rock band concert photography

Photo captured by metal menace (Click Image to See More From metal menace)

Shoot gigs in manual mode

The camera cannot make decisions for you.

OK, so there are things to be said for shooting live rock photography in aperture or shutter priority modes.

I once tried to shoot a gig in Av mode. I had spent money on f/2.8 lenses, and I wanted to ensure I used it. This wasn’t successful..

I then tried Tv but hated it mainly because I ended up asking for aperture, which was unobtainable.

Ultimately, both these modes make the camera evaluate light and then adjust something to ‘correctly’ expose based on your exposure compensation settings.

But on those incredibly dark gigs or where the light is dynamic, I found that I really needed control over ISO as well. Shooting in manual mode all the time is good practice for a learning photographer. I shoot manually all the time, and over time I get a sense of things.

About the Author
Hi, my name is Keith Trigwell. I’m a live music photographer and I also have a passionate interest in most other types of photography, particularly portraiture and fine art. My live music shots can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/bigmojo. To pass the time, I also write a few articles on photography and technical photographic matters.

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3 Comments

  1. Wear black. Best advice given! Great article.

  2. Jensen says:

    what setting do you usually used? the iso and also the shutter speed? coz most of the photos are blur, if i push the iso, they will have a lot of noise :(
    what about the flash? sometimes they didn’t allow it

  3. Last time I shot a theater play in a very dark environment and a lot of colored lights I had used for the first time Tv auto function and it has been GREAT!!! No flash and some at very high ISO (3200) and the grain was acceptable! A tripod (monopod) was a must I had shot over 800 pics and I can easily say that over 600 of them were salable. I fall in love with scene photography and I intend to go further in that field… This was an excellent article lots of info. Thank you!

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