Stage Photography Tips

The cruddy weather lately has inspired me to temporarily move the focus away from outdoor photography to a very tricky but worthwhile type of indoor photography: stage photography.

stage photography

“Linkin Park” captured by Nathaniel

While stage photography may seem simple to the naked eye, the lighting and constant movements that must be continuously mapped are akin to jumping on a trampoline while balancing on an operating jackhammer and snapping pictures.

The overall public consensus seems to be to take every possibly photograph of the idol on stage, post them all to Facebook, and allow friends to “ooh” and “ahh” over how close their friend—the photographer—was to their personal hero.

Gear

Stage photography can be a spectacular foray into the world of professional photography, but like any other foray, it requires practice, and a keen eye for detail. Before attempting stage photography of any type, please make sure that the appropriate DSLR and lenses are available in your camera bag. In addition a strong, lightweight, and compact tripod should be present at all times. While this might seem cumbersome to use when moving about the audience snapping pictures of Jon Bon Jovi or The Phantom of the Opera, the results are well worth the effort.

Aperture & Shutter Speed

Aperture and shutter speed are important considerations. Experiment with different apertures, shutter speeds, and lenses in different performance arenas. Each arena and show will have its own stage, strobe, and background lighting that may rapidly shift as the show progresses. Keep a notepad in your case kit and make sure to take notes on which settings, aperture, shutter speed, and zoom lenses worked best for which productions and at which performing arts centers.

If your camera has preset settings, then you’re in luck! First try using the Sport setting. This setting is used to capture rapid movement, and most of these settings come with automatic shutter speed and aperture adjustments to ensure that the perfect lighting effect is captured. One of the greatest settings ever created is the smile or face setting. This setting will detect the most important image in a picture, usually the human face, and make that image a point of focus resulting in spectacular shots of facial expressions, clothing detail, and the way that the light plays off of our hero’s face.

concert stage photo

“Concert” captured by maigi

Suggested DSLRs with similar settings include the ever popular Sony Cybershot, Olympus Stylus, Panasonic Lumix, and Canon Rebel EOS. Feel free to shop around and choose the highest megapixel digital camera with the best settings for your style of photography. When determining which digital camera to invest in, ensure success by checking for the accuracy of the LCD screen in displaying pictures. Wisdom has shown us that investing in a diversified lens kit before you take on this stage photography venture is a must. Bring an extra memory card and make sure to have several charged batteries on hand—for that you will need either a wall socket or computer based digital camera batter charger.

Plan ahead for the first few events so that the venue seating is purchased with an eye toward having enough space to move around and photograph the subjects, backdrops, and lighting effects. Be prepared to change out lenses, and settings. Open yourself up to full experimentation in these situations. Try different angles and even different color scenarios. Does your camera have a black and white setting? Use this setting to take timeless picture perfect for sale to local newspapers and eZines. Bring along your fish eye lens to rock concerts and take a picture of the crowds interaction with the rock star. The emotional affect that a picture like this can bring on when viewed by fans is far more than the normal picture worth 1,000 words.

tips for taking stage photos

“Gala FIG – Gymnaestrada 2011” captured by philippe.golaz

Keep a checklist of everything that you will need to successfully photograph your venue in your case kit. Then you will be instantaneously ready to run out the door and take that next award-winning stage photography shot the next time your friend calls you to tell you that she has two tickets to Miley Cyrus, a.k.a. Hannah Montana, Live in Concert series with zero warning.

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4 responses to “Stage Photography Tips”

  1. Jim says:

    One of the worst how-to’s I have read. Was this written for a intermediate/advanced skilled photographer or a mere fan who wants to bring a basic slr? I gained NOTHING.

  2. Mark says:

    I am sorry to say, but this article has many serious flaws. QUOTE: “Suggested digital SLR’s with similar settings include the ever popular Sony Cybershot, Olympus Stylus, Panasonic Lumix, and Canon Rebel EOS.” END QUOTE. Three of the four cameras listed are not DSLR cameras and have fixed lenses. The author does not know what SLR stands for obviously. Another problem is that I have never seen a venue that allows tripods EVER. Even with a press pass from on the stage, you must shoot hand held. Thus you need a GOOD dslr with really fast glass. And seriously, most good photographers would never suggest shooting in B&W straight from the camera. If you need B&W do the conversion later in post production as you have several choices of how to desaturate the image with some being better than others. Your camera only has one way to do that and is usually not the best way. Sorry to rain on this parade but inaccurate information is not only not helpful, it can be damaging to the beginner’s skill set.

  3. Any large venue will not allow tripods – and while some smaller venues probably would, unless you’re sanctioned by the band/promoter/whatever, you’re going to get some heat. A monopod you probably WILL be allowed, but to be frank, I’ve found them too much hassle. Hand held is the way. For my heavier lenses I use a Cullman 080 Shoulder Pod – it makes your SLR look a bit like a gun, but it helps stabilise the camera and lens. You can also try using your shoulder as a support, but it takes a bit of getting used to. Bear in mind that the audience are there to see and hear the performance – it’s not about you. While you might get away with a few liberties, don’t push your luck (which a tripod likely will!).

    Rather than have a checklist, I use a shooting jacket (a bit like a body warmer but thin, so it doesn’t warm you up), packed with spare batteries, memory cards etc. – and business cards too (give them to everyone you can!). The stuff I actually take in my camera case is the stuff I won’t forget – the camera, two fast lenses, a backup camera, and a lens bag (for putting the lens not being used in). Ideally I’d use two cameras, each with one of the lenses in, but it gets a bit much for my back on a long gig – yes, prepare to ache like hell if you’re shooting small gigs, where the 3 songs no flash rule generally doesn’t apply.

    That’s something else – most small pubs and clubs have lousy lighting, and you will need to use flash. Or, if you’re in with the promoter, they might let (or even be pleased if) you bring along your own lighting. But don’t count on it. To most promoters, bands etc, lighting is way down the list of things that they think about. Often, they don’t think about it at all. This is why you need to develop relationships with the musicians, and promoters – basically, whoever is in charge of the gig. And if the lighting is bad at a small gig, don’t be afraid to talk with the lighting guy (usually he/she is the sound man too!). I’ve only ever shot a couple of local gigs with stage light only (i.e. no flash). It’s great when you can though – shooting at shutter speeds of 1/500s without flash is great. You can get great pics at 1/200s though.

    The better the stage light, the better the noise response at higher ISOs, I’ve noticed. Of course, the brighter the stage light, the lower the ISO you can get away with.

    If you do use flash, make sure you use flash exposure compensation, to try and get the ambient light. Sometimes you might find yourself dialling it way down low – whatever works.

    Be prepared for a lot of discards. However many shots you get right technically, keep in mind that not all facial expressions are flattering. If you develop relationships with the performers, you may well find that some of the shots you love are ones they don’t like. It’s up to you to make the call, but if you value the relationship, it’s really not worth upsetting them (or indeed anyone you photography).

    And don’t shoot for free, certainly not once you get good at it. You might not get paid (much) but shooting local gigs for a promoter or band is not a privilege – you’re doing something for them, so make sure you get something back.

    Some recommended reading;
    “Three Songs, No Flash!: Your Ultimate Guide to Concert Photography” by Loe Beerens
    The aforementioned “Nightclub Photography 101” (though you will need to fill in some of the blanks)
    “A Digital Photographer’s Guide to Model Releases: Making the Best Business Decisions with Your Photos of People, Places and Things” by Dan Heller

  4. And the reason I mention the model release book is that it contains information about when you’ll need one, when you won’t, a lot of the myths about them, and making the business decisions. Bottom line though, courtesy and thoughtfulness goes a long way.

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