Of all the types of photography ever invented, I would claim that live concert photography is up there among the most difficult ones. You have five thousand fans behind you, and there is a band in front of you. Nobody stands still. In fact, even the notion of standing still ruins the idea of a good music photo. The bouncers hate you, because you are in their way. The crowd is jealous of you. Crowdsurfers will kick you in the head. The band thinks you’re annoying. The lighting is never bright enough, and changes so frequently that you’re screwed even in the few moments that it is.
And nonetheless, concert photography is one of my all-time favourite pasttimes. It’s hard. It’s unrewarding. But it’s deeply gratifying on a personal lever. It’s about capturing the mood. Capturing the looks. Capturing something the audience is feeling.
Of course, it’s also something I know something about – I’ve done my share of concerts…
Tristania – Live in Manchester by Photocritic.org on Flickr
So, how can you take photos at a concert successfully? First of all, remember the “standard” rules for most concerts:
- No flash photography
- First 3 songs only
- What the security guys say is Gospel
The first two rules are a blessing and a curse rolled into one. No flash photography is a nightmare at many venues, but it is often better to take photos without. You don’t get the “feel” of the gig without the stage lighting. The “first 3 songs” rule is a bugger – most bands look the most energetic towards the end of their set. On the other hand, it means that you have a very clear time limit: You’ve got 10 minutes (or so) to get the photos you need. If you screw it up, well, you’re unlucky. But there is no saving film, you obviously have to make the best of the time you have.
Using the available lighting is a challenge, but can be rewarding, especially if you manage to cotton on to the pattern of the lights. This is Emanuel in concert 2 by Photocritic.org, on Flickr. More Emmanuel photos here.
Personally, I have done all all my concert photos with a Canon 60D, 10D or 20D. Don’t even bother trying with a compact camera – you’ll look like an idiot, and the photos will come out rubbish. (Granted, I have worked with a few photographers who have proved me wrong on this point, but why make your life more difficult than it has to be?).
My lenses of choice are a Sigma DX 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, which is great for getting in close, a Sigma 17-35mm f/2.8-4.0 lens which is great for overview shots, and a Canon 50mm f/1.4 fixed length lens. Notice a pattern? Damn right – go for brightness all the way. If you can’t afford zoom glass that is bright enough, then get a 50mm f/1.8 lens. it is normally the cheapest piece of glass you can find, and focussing is a bitch, but you need all the light you can get when doing this type of photography.
Try to capture the artists in the moment where they are most “into” their song. Photo of Eighteen Visions on Flickr. More 18 visions.
How to get in the pit
The first problem you are faced with is that unless you have credentials, the bouncers are unlikely to let you into the venue with professional (i.e anything beyond a compact) camera equipment. So you need a photo pass.
They don’t hand these out to everyone and his dog, but there are a few ways you can get them. Personally, I was shooting for an agency, so they sorted out the photo pass for me, but you can call up your local rag and ask them if they would like concert X photographing. Offer to do it for free. When they say they want the photos, call the venue, and tell them that you are photographing it for the local rag. This isn’t going to work when Metallica comes to town (the local newspaper will send their own photographers, no doubt), but for smaller bands, it usually works: The small bands are thirsting for publicity, the newspaper wants photos, you want into the pit and to get some experience. Everybody wins.
The second avenue is to become an in-house photographer for a venue. This doesn’t work with all venues, and it means you need to get friendly with the managers of the venue. Expect to photograph crappy small local bands for a while, but once they see what you can do, and they start to get faith in you, you may do better.
Finally, you can just call the venue anyway. Tell them that you are a budding photographer, and would love to take some photos. “you have ‘no’, and can’t get a ‘yes’ unless you ask”, as my mother used to say.
Photo of Tarja, of Nightwish. More Nightwish
Tips to taking good photos
So, you are in the photographer’s pit in front of the crowd. Well done. Now, you need to actually take the blasted pictures.
First of all, select an ISO value on your camera that is as low as you can get away with. ISO 200 will give you far better photos than ISO 800, but if all your photos turn out blurry because of lack of light, then you would have been better off with ISO 800 after all.
Second, observe. Concert lighting move in patterns, and you need to try and snap the photo of once the lighting is exactly right.
Always shoot in fully manual. It’ll be too dark for your auto focus, and the rapidly changing lights mean that your light meter is worthless. You need to be good, but your instincts will save you. If you can’t “feel” how a photo is going to turn out before you look at your digital display at the back of the camera, perhaps you aren’t ready for concert photography quite yet. There’s no shame in that – just keep practicing.
Take a lot of photos. Personally, I throw away 99% of my concert photos. In fact, some times, I come home without any really good photos – it isn’t always your fault. The lighting can be particularly tricky, etc. And you can’t plan for any of it – you have to roll with the punches.
Change your vantage point. You can walk all the way back and forth in front of the stage. Do it. If you are in your face enough, chances are that the lead singer will show off for the camera a little – they may even look at your cam for a fraction of a second. That is your cue. Get the photo.
Finally, get as close as you can. I guess this is mostly a personal thing, but I prefer photos where I get really close. Action portraits, if you will: photos taken of an artist at work.
Check out Lithium Picnic’s concert photography galleries, or talented music photographer Andrew Kendall’s photo gallery.
We’ve also done a separate article on ‘more on live concert photography‘ and ‘concert photography at smaller venues‘, both of which might be of interest to you :)
Making money off your concert photos
Originally, we had a lot of information here on how you could monetize your concert photography, but it all became a bit wieldy. I would strongly recommend you have a look at our seperate writeup on event photography, and our making money off your photos article.
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