Photographing live events can be summed up in one quote, “Luck happens when opportunity meets preparation.” Here are six tips to keep in mind when trying to capture live music events that tell a story.
#1 Cover Your Bases
My kit consists of a Nikon Z 9 and three main lenses: a Nikkor Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S, Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S and Nikkor Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S. These lenses paired with my Z 9 allow me to cover all my bases and capture the shots that I know I want to get before each performance.
For establishing images of the venue, atmosphere, and high-impact, close-up shots of performers, I go in with the ultra-wide 14-24mm. I consider my 24-70mm the “bread-and-butter” lens. It covers a utilitarian range and is great for stage front and general use shots. The 70-200mm is the lens I love to use for individual images of performers, onstage portraits, and closing the distance between myself and someone like the drummer, who lives at the back of the stage.
#2 Be Prepared
If you can do research beforehand, it will always be to your favor. You can look up YouTube videos from fans for the current tour, as well as setlists to truly gauge how to get the best shots. Musicians tend to have the same blocking and movements around the same part of the stage for their songs and knowing what those are can be especially helpful for editorial photographers who only have a limited amount of time to capture photos.
It can also be beneficial to see what other photographers have captured previously throughout the tour and look for what’s missing that you could possibly get during your time in the photographer’s pit to make your photographs stand out. In terms of the venue, it’s always good to get a feel of the space – see if it’s a wide stage, old theater with a gilded accent, or if the photographers’ pit is small and narrow. All of that reconnaissance will help you get a lay of the land before you’ve even stepped foot in the venue.
#3 Don’t Be Scared of The Grain
Generally, with my zooms I will photograph wide-open at f/2.8. Nikon lenses are so sharp wide open that there’s almost no reason to stop down. I always prefer to shoot manual exposure. Lighting can vary so much, and the dynamic range is so large that it can be tricky. Lighting on performers can be very constant despite the background changing. I’ll generally prioritize letting as much light into the sensor as possible.
When considering shutter speed, it really depends on the type of show it is. The larger the concert, the bigger the production, the higher the technical threshold there is. For example, a large concert that is well lit I might shoot at 1/500th of a second to really freeze motion. It feels like there’s a greater expectation to get these really clear and crisp shots. If you’re photographing a small punk show in a dim basement, I think there are different expectations on the technical quality. A gritty image with a little bit of motion blur is perfectly acceptable because there is a different kind of feeling in the concert and music itself. Generally, I like to shoot at 1/250th or faster.
For the ISO, use whatever is necessary. For larger concerts, it may be 1600 to 3200. For those getting into music photography, you may not be as experienced with using high ISO and you may be concerned with the graininess of the image. My response to that is, “use whatever you need to get the image.” The worst thing someone can say about your photography is that it’s a little grainy, or there’s motion blur. However, if you nail the image, emotion, and expression, in music photography, that’s the most important thing by far. If they’re nitpicking on noise, it means you’ve got the composition, expression, emotion, and timing all right.
#4 Be Open to Possibilities
In music photography, you don’t have control over anything. The position, access and lighting are often limited. There are a lot of constraints for photographers that can become very frustrating, but there’s also a sense of freedom in that because these constraints force us to think outside the box.
In terms of interacting with musicians, while you can’t pose them, you can be open to possibility. You need to really know your gear, your technique and be able to respond in the moment. You may have an image in your mind, but another opportunity may present itself to you. A big part of music photography is being open to the moment and whatever presents itself to you in front of your lens.
#5 Don’t Forget the Drummer
If you want to show people that you are a versatile music photographer, you want to get all of the aspects of the live event experience. This can mean making sure you capture wide shots for the atmosphere, images of the full band, individuals, fans – all of these are details that can help you hone your craft and storytelling.
I love making artists look larger than life. Images where you can see the full length of them, head to toe. Images where it looks like you’re right next to them. Getting those images where it looks like you’re right there, at the feet of the performer while they tower above you. But the one shot photographers always forget is a picture of the drummer. Drummers are difficult to photograph. They’re at the back of the stage, have obstructions, and are in constant fast motion. By capturing stills of subjects such as the drummer, it can help diversify your concert photography portfolio with images that no one else may have. Find that drummer subject. Find what’s hard and chase that.
#6 Start Small
A lot of people want to photograph big bands in huge arenas but gaining access to those bands can be challenging, as well as a huge barrier for music photographers. One way around this, is building a portfolio by starting out photographing smaller local bands. These local artists can grant you access to larger performers in the future.
Smaller bands will often play in venues with darker lighting and grant you access to the music scene. If you make it in these venues with difficult lighting and layout situations, the big shows are honestly easier. Additionally, working on backstage candid shots, portraits of artists, and anything in between can help you to build out your portfolio and show that you are a well-rounded photographer.
All photos © Todd Owyoung
About Todd Owyoung
Todd Owyoung is an internationally renowned music photographer known for his concert photography and portraits of musicians.
Noted for his ability to nail the rock star moments that happen on stage, Todd’s images blend commercial precision with the authenticity of live performance. Whether the venue is a 200-capacity club or Madison Square Garden shooting for a major brand or out on tour, Todd strives to create images that give viewers an all-access pass.
His client list includes American Express, Atlantic Records, Fender, Live Nation, Red Bull, and Anheuser-Busch. His editorial work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, SPIN, The Wall Street Journal, Harper’s Bazaar, Entertainment Weekly and Billboard, among other publications.
Todd’s strives not only for great images, but also to share his knowledge of music photography. Through his website, which features over a thousand posts ranging from techniques for concert photography to advice on breaking into music photography, he aims to inspire a new generation of music photographers to pursue their passions.