Rock On!

Since the advent of affordable DSLRs, concert and live music photography has become a burgeoning industry for a lot of photographers. Right along with the digital camera revolution, the indie music scene also has flourished, and this has opened up the doors for many photographers, both new and old, to have a shot at photographing live bands.

From the ’70s on up through the late ’90s and even into the early 2000s, most live music photographers were highly paid professionals shooting famous rock stars in concert halls for prestigious magazines. With the indie scene booming and many smaller venues opening, as well as the appearance of music blogs and web-based magazines, it has become easier for photographers new to the music business to get involved. Concert and live music photography has become an accessible and possibly lucrative option for any photographer who wants to try his or her hand at it.


ACCESS

One of the first questions you may have is how to gain photographer’s access to the shows. When starting out, you won’t be shooting the top-name acts. The best place to start is local. Most local bands and bars don’t require special permissions to have you photograph them; show up early and talk to the band. Offering a few shots for them is a good idea, too.

For regional or national acts that are still touring at the club level, get in touch with their management or PR people (this info is easy to find on the web). This usually gets you a spot on the guest list. They may or may not require you to be affiliated with some sort of publication in order for you to shoot them.

For the most famous bands, a photo pass request usually goes through the concert promoter, who forwards the requests to the band’s PR or management. You can generally find out who the promoter is by looking at the venue website. Look for phrases like "Presented by Acme Promotions" or "Acme Promotions Presents." Most of the top-name bands don’t have their management or PR info on their websites, and they would rather deal with the concert promoter than a photographer. If you attempt to reach out directly to them, you may not get a response. For these types of events, you definitely need to have an assignment for a publication or an image service.

GEAR

What camera system you use doesn’t make a difference. What you do need is a DSLR (most places won’t let you shoot with a compact camera) and a fast zoom lens (ƒ/2.8 or faster is best). A camera that performs well in low light is obviously ideal, but almost any camera body will do. A semi-pro or pro camera is going to last longer overall if you plan on doing a lot of concert shooting because it can get pretty rough sometimes.

I recommend zoom lenses over faster primes because prime lenses limit your compositional options when confined to a small space. If you’re on a budget, there are a lot of affordable third-party ƒ/2.8 zooms made by Sigma, Tamron and Tokina to consider. If your budget is really tight, you may have to go with an inexpensive fast prime lens like a 50mm ƒ/1.8.

CAMERA SETTINGS

Every photographer has his or her own personal choice of settings—ask 10 photographers, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. One thing is for sure, though: When you step in front of the stage, have your camera ready to shoot. You don’t want to be scrambling to get your settings right when the band or performer walks out on stage.

I recommend shooting RAW with auto white balance for most events. This allows you to compensate for the changing light sources in postprocessing. When I’m setting up for a shoot, this is where I start:

Manual Exposure. Most concert photographers set their exposure manually. My starting point is 1?125 sec. at ƒ/2.8. I find that this is a good all-around setting for most acts. For faster-moving performers like metal or punk bands, or when shooting with a longer lens, you may need to up the shutter speed to 1?250 to 1?500 sec. (rarely do I need to go faster than 1?500 sec.). When you have more than one person in the composition, you may need to stop down to ƒ/4-5.6 for greater depth of field.

Metering. Spot metering is the setting I use about 90% of the time. Concert venues are usually dark, but with flashing and moving lights, which causes other metering patterns to get false exposure readings. Spot metering allows you to target and expose for the subject, which is the most important part of the composition. At daytime concerts, I switch to a multi-segment metering mode or center-weighted metering since the light is more consistent.

ISO. In dark venues, typically, you’ll be shooting anywhere from ISO 1600 to 6400. Personally, I’ve been using Auto ISO on my Nikon cameras with great success for the past three years. Some photographers may balk at using an auto setting, but I find that my percentage of lower-noise images has skyrocketed since I started using Auto ISO. When the lights are turned up bright for a brief period, I’m able to get shots in at ISO 200. Without Auto ISO, I would never be able to change the sensitivity that quickly. You can simply set your ISO and adjust your exposure setting—which is a very easy and common way to do it—but all of your images will have the same level of noise.

Autofocus. This is simple. Use a single AF point and set the system to Continuous AF. You, as the photographer, need to decide where the focus point should be, and the camera needs to be continuously adjusting focus as the performer moves. Like metering, using any sort of mode where the camera tries to predict movement will be foiled by concert lighting.

VENUES

Each different type of venue (and to some extent, every different venue) has its own specific characteristics. You need to tailor your shooting style and gear choice to the type of venue you’re photographing at. For instance, you wouldn’t necessarily need the same gear at a bar as you would at an arena. Bars & Clubs. This is where you generally find your worst and most difficult shooting conditions. The lighting here is usually heavily saturated by PAR cans with tungsten lights and gels, or LED lighting systems, which are even more highly saturated than PAR cans. Check your RGB histograms to see if you’re clipping in any of the channels. Sensors are more sensitive to red light, so therefore, that’s the first channel to blow out. Generally you need to underexpose from 1?3- to one stop to avoid losing image information.

As far as gear goes, a standard zoom lens and a wide-angle zoom lens are your best bet. There isn’t likely to be a photo pit, so you’ll be jammed up against the stage if there’s a crowd. Show up early to stake out a space.

Theaters. Unless the band brings their own lighting setup, most theaters have pretty static lighting. The lighting is often tailored for plays and performances so there generally isn’t very dramatic lighting. Theaters are seated, most likely, so there usually isn’t a photo pit. You may have to shoot from the sides or the soundboard depending on the venue.

Bring a telephoto zoom lens with you—a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 works well. Telephoto primes like a 300mm ƒ/2.8 often work well in this situation, too, since your composition is likely to be loose. If you know you’ll be shooting from a distance with a long lens, bringing a monopod can help.

Stadiums & Arenas. This is where you find the most dramatic lighting. Lights of all colors will be flashing, blinking, rotating and strobing. You get your most dynamic shots at these types of venues.

Generally, the stages are wide and tall, so I recommend bringing a full assortment of lenses at first—a wide-angle zoom, a standard zoom and a telephoto zoom. Once you become familiar with the venue, you’ll know which lenses work best and can tailor your selection.

Music Festivals. These types of events usually run the whole gamut of the shooting experience. You can shoot a small intimate stage with little to no lighting in the day to a 20-foot-high stage with a full-on light show to everything in between. You’ll encounter all types of lighting situations, from daylight to stage light, front light and backlight, diffused lighting to straight-on hard light.

These types of events usually run a few days long, so I pack heavy. I usually bring a wide-angle zoom, a standard zoom and a telephoto zoom for standard shooting. I also bring along a fisheye lens for crowd and atmosphere shots, as well as a 50mm ƒ/1.4 prime for artist portraits. Don’t forget to pack extra batteries and memory cards—the days tend to run long.

ETIQUETTE

This may seem like a silly topic to bring up, but it’s necessary to know that you must be considerate of the other photographers, the performers and the fans.

Don’t be a lifter. This is a person who lifts the camera above his or her head to get a "Hail Mary" shot. This blocks the others behind you, and I’ve seen this lead to many arguments. If you feel you must use this technique, go to the back of the pit.

Don’t be a camper. This is a person who gets a good angle and stays there, oftentimes not even shooting. You may be a fan of the band, but you’re in the photo pit to work. Get your shots and move to another angle. Your shots will be more varied and better for it in the end.

Take off your flash. You shouldn’t be using one anyway, and it gets in the way of the photographers behind you.

Three songs, then out. This is the standard rule. When the third song is over or security asks you to leave, then go.

COMPOSITION

This is an often overlooked part of concert photography, but is a very important one. These days, most photographers are self-taught and haven’t been schooled in the basics of photography. You can be self-taught and still take great pictures, but I encourage every photographer to take a photography course to learn the basics of composition. Here are a few common tips that will make your concert photography better, and some that you can apply to all of your photography.

Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds is probably the most common composition tip in all of photography. This rule has been around since long before photography and has been used by visual artists down through the centuries. The Rule of Thirds basically states that you should place the subject off-center in the composition to make it more interesting. Most cameras have gridlines in the viewfinder to help, but imagine overlaying a tic-tac-toe grid over the composition and placing the subject at one of the intersections where the lines meet.

Fill the frame. Having big empty spaces around your subject can cause the viewer to get lost in the composition, with the eye wandering around. This often happens when using too wide of a lens. Compose tight, but not too tight.

Watch your cropping. By this I don’t mean cropping in postproduction. One of the most common mistakes I see are people cropping out arms and hands and guitar headstocks. Cropping out arms often leads to random hands hovering near the edge of the frame, and if you don’t have the guitar headstock in the shot, you can’t sell the photo to a guitar manufacturer later on.

Capture a variety of shots. Don’t just stand in one place. Move around and find different angles. Shoot from down low, then step back and use your telephoto lens to shoot from further away. Go with a wide-angle lens for full band shots or full body shots. Use a standard zoom to get three-quarter body shots and close-ups. Don’t be afraid to go ultrawide to capture the whole stage if it’s an elaborate production, or use a telephoto to get really close in on a detail. And don’t forget to capture audience participation, too!

J. Dennis Thomas is a full-time photographer and author based in "The Live Music Capital of the World," Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Concert and Live Music Photography: Pro Tips from the Pit (Focal Press), as well as the author of more than a dozen Nikon Digital Field Guides (Wiley Publications). His photos have appeared in Rolling Stone, SPIN, Ebony, W, US Weekly, People, New York Daily News and many more publications. You can see more of his work at www.jdt-photo.com.

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