Concert Photography Masterclass

In Music Photography

Stage photography article

For issue 46 of Digital Photographer magazine i wrote an article about concert photography. It gives an overview of everything an aspiring live music photographer might want to know.

I republish it here across two posts. I’ll outline the preparation you’ll need to do before you get to the venue, the process for acquiring a photo pass, the gear you’ll need, the settings you might want to use, some thoughts on technique, etiquette and editing.

Iggy Pop by Daniel Boud

Iggy Pop

ISO 800 | f4.5 | 90mm | 1/250 sec

Imagine you’re at a concert and instead of finding your seat at the back of the arena or contending with hundreds of sardine-like punters, you’re ushered to the very front, right at the performers’ feet.

If you score a photo pass, that could be you.

But you’re not there for fun; you have a job to do: to quickly capture on camera the essence and energy of the performance.

Several factors make stage photography a challenge, including unpredictable action, low lighting, a moving subject and a restricted time limit.

If you have a photo pass you’ll likely be set with the industry standard ‘three songs, no flash’ rule. That gives you about 10 minutes to quickly judge the stage light and capture the action on stage. Without a pass you’ll be physically constrained and annoying other punters while you’re shooting.

The upshot is, you’re photographing a performance, which by its nature ought to be dramatic and visually appealing. The performer is on stage to entertain, looking their best under atmospheric stage light, giving it their all.

While this article is specifically geared to live music, much of the advice is applicable to any low light or stage photography.

The Scare

ISO 800 | F2.8 | 30mm | 1/160 sec

This relatively unknown band called The Scare may not be high profile, but a shot this dramatic can make a great addition to your portfolio.



Before the show and choosing gear

If you’ve never shot a live performance before, be hesitant before pulling strings to request or accept a photo pass for a big concert. Photographing action on stage is quite different to any other type of photography, and until you’ve practiced enough, you may not be ready for the big stages.

If you do get a photo pass for a big gig, you’ll have to work very quickly, in the dark, surrounded by other photographers, security and fans.

You’ll want to feel totally confident about your ability to choose the right gear and settings so you don’t stuff up a big assignment.

Spend some weeks (or months) shooting events at small, local venues.

You’ll have to get used to working with stage light and anticipating what makes a good shot before requesting pit access.

Getting a Photo Pass

Once you’re confident in your ability to take stage photographs you’ll want to aim to get access to the photo pit for bigger performances. It’s a tightly guarded area in front of the stage.

Access is usually controlled by the concert promoter, and can be gained from the band’s manager or the tour manager, but rarely the actual venue.

Your role as an accredited photographer is to capture the performance on camera in order for those images to be published.

You’re part of the give and take of the publicity machine; in exchange for access to a show it’s expected your photos will be published to further promote the act.

That means in order to request a pass you need to be accredited via a publication or photo agency. It’s unlikely you’ll be granted photo pit access as an unaffiliated freelance photographer.

If you don’t already work with a publication that could seek photo access, you may have to start at the bottom and begin sending your portfolio to different publications advertising your services as a concert photographer.

Many concert shooters start out working for free for online publications or street press before they migrate to more mainstream media outlets.

It’s probably the best way to start out and improve your skills.

ISO 800 | F2.8 | 28mm | 1/60 sec

Shot from the crowd at a Dandy Warhols concert. You don’t need a photo pass to get some great shots.

Preparation

Being prepared doesn’t just mean having the right gear. If you’ve got a photo pass it means double-checking the pass is confirmed before you get to the venue and knowing the name and number of the tour manager or promoter should any problems arise at the venue.

If you’re anticipating having to change lenses, have the other lens out of your camera bag ready to switch. Some photographers shoot with two cameras slung over their shoulder, one mounted with a wide-angle lens, the other with a telephoto. 

You also ought to have a spare battery and flash card ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Gear

The Camera

Nearly all concert shooters work on digital SLRs. Because much stage shooting is in low light, you’ll often be using an ISO setting of 800 or above.

When choosing a camera make sure you get one that performs without too much digital noise in that range. The Canon 400D (aka Rebel XTi) or newer 450D (aka Rebel XSi) is very capable, as are most of the newer model SLRs.

Lenses

It all depends on the venue and the light but generally my preference is for large aperture (f2.8 or below) prime lenses. They’re the fastest lenses you’re likely to find and are often just that bit sharper than zooms.

There’s no excuse for not having a 50mm f1.8 lens in your kit, they can be found new for around $100.

Once you’ve got that mid-range covered you’ll want to look at the other extremes: a wide-angle and a possibly a telephoto.

Keep in mind that if you’re shooting from the front of the stage a long telephoto isn’t usually necessary and you’re better off with something wider. You’ll find yourself shooting less than 100mm most of the time.

The Butterfly Effect

ISO 800 | F8 | 28mm | 1/160 sec

As with all photography, it’s all about the lighting. Good lighting, a great pose and click, you’ve got yourself a killer shot.

Gear Guide

Here is some camera equipment that might come in handy shooting live music. It’s a mix a some high end professional gear and more affordable but very good mid-range gear.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
The ultimate festival or arena companion. It helps get closer to the action on the bigger stages, and the image stabilisation helps in the low light.

Nikon AF-S VR 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED
For the Nikon shooter who needs a telephoto zoom. With handy vibration reduction.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
A great low-light performer with a wide aperture. The Canon 50mm f1.8 also offers excellent value for money.

Nikon AF 50mm f/1.4
Very good in low-light, which is essential for stage shooting.

Tamron SP AF28-75MM F/2.8 XR Di LD Aspherical (IF)
Much better value than the Canon or Nikon equivalent. This versatile lens covers the useful 28-75mm range.

Canon EOS 450D
You don’t need the top of the line digital SLR to successfully a capture live performance. This little gem performs well at high ISO’s necessary for low light shooting.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III N
For the professional who requires a fast and rugged camera. This beast has 21.1 megapixels and shoots 5 frames per second.

Camera Settings

ISO

You’ll probably want to set your ISO level to 800 or 1600. At 1600 the images will be getting grainy, but that’s sometimes unavoidable. If you’re in a venue with plenty of light set your ISO lower.

Metering

If your camera allows you to change the type of light metering you should set it to spot mode if available, or partial metering if not. This gives a smaller defined area where your camera will evaluate the light, so the background light won’t affect an accurate exposure of the subject.

Aperture

To let as much light into the camera as possible you’ll need to shoot at relatively wide apertures, often f2.8 or lower. In that range there’ll be a smaller area that’s in focus, so you have to be very exact with your focus point.

Shutter Speed

In a low-light situation you’re going to need to shoot at low shutter speeds in order to get enough light in the camera. Remember the slower your shutter speed the more likely your shots won’t be sharp, either because the subject moves or your hands move.

Sometimes the images may be underexposed, but if the image is sharp and slightly underexposed it can be rescued in Photoshop. If the image is not sharp then there’s no amount of Photoshopping that can rescue it.

Also, if you’re using a telephoto lens you’ll need to shoot at a higher shutter speed, as camera shake from your hands will be more evident.

The Black Keys

ISO 800 | F2.2 | 50mm | 1/320 sec

When you can, try shooting at higher shutter speed or lower ISO. There was enough light on stage to shoot The Black Keys at 1/320 second.

Aperture and Shutter speed combined

If you’re new to stage photography, set your camera to shutter priority or aperture priority and take some test shots.

Once you get to a setting that’s got enough light and is still sharp, stick with that. On shutter priority the aperture will adjust automatically depending on the available light.

Don’t forget to intermittently check your shots on the camera screen and have a glance at the histogram. You want to make sure they’re correctly exposed. If you have to, err on the side of underexposure.

You can always give the brightness a bump in photoshop but nothing will fix your shot if all the highlights are blown out.

All digital photos have Exif data stored in them, this records all your camera settings for each photo. When you’re reviewing your photos later look at the Exif data and note the aperture and shutter speed of your shots and you’ll begin to work out why the shots turned out the way they did.


That’s it for part one. See part 2 for tips on technique, editing, flash and ettiquette.


76 Comments

  1. love this article so helpful… gonna use all your tips at gig this weekend!!

  2. Very good article, you have describe the secret of successful concert photography. I’d add Canon 24-70mm f2.8, and 1.4xTC as necessary lenses. Personally I don’t shoot too close as it exaggerates the nose and mouth too much. For preparation, I’d also add a cleaning cloth, a dust brush, a monopod with a swivel head, and a flash as must. Although I never use flash during the show, but need it for after show shots. Ear-plugs also helps, sometimes a neutral density filter helps for late afternoon outdoor concerts.

  3. Thanks so much for these great tips! I took my first gig shots at a Seasick Steve gig and I am so pleased with them.
    Kitty
    Urban Obscura

  4. Cheers, I’m just off out to take some photos of a performance of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, hopefully after reading this I’ll get some decent shots!
    I only have a Fuji Finepix S9600 though, but if I’m lucky it’ll do the trick!
    Cheers, Alistair

  5. hey thanks for the valuable info ive started out with local venues and gigs and been looking round for a site like this for ages
    im using a nikon d80 and also a nikon d40 with a wide angle and getting some decent results of late
    i have found with the really small venues that the lighting can be a real challenge when so close in dark dingy underground pubs and clubs any tips to help me get less grainy pics would be great
    cheers

  6. wow so much useful info! Definitely reassuring to me to hear that im looking in the right direction with what lens to buy and all.
    Thanks for sharing your info and experience, will be referring back to this all in the future!

  7. your masterclass helped me with concert photography so much. so thank you!! do you have any tips you can add about photographing lasers? it’s rare here unless it’s at big shows but I’m not sure what settings to put my camera at and I’m afraid I’m going to miss a good moment!

  8. Holy. This is a great reference! I have to shoot shows all weekend starting tomorrow and was totally freaked out. I feel so much better knowing all of this now. Also, AMAZING photos!!

  9. Hey,
    Great refference, I keep seeing it crop up all over flickr… Im sure it will have helped loads of people 🙂

  10. Hey,
    Great refference, I keep seeing it crop up all over flickr… Im sure it will have helped loads of people 🙂

  11. Hi Dan!
    Great info! I use a Canon 400D and I was wondering if a camera like this could support a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lense? Also, I’m thinking of investing in a Canon 5D…do you think it’s worth it or should I just use my 400D and invest in lenses?
    Cheers, e

  12. This bit of info has helped so much. I’ve done a bit of photography at shows, but I have always been an avid user of my old film camera! the digital camera I was using at shows just wasn’t cutting it. But I have just recently stepped up an bought a Nikon DSLR…a rather exciting purchase!

  13. Hi there Daniel – I just came across this article and find if very helpful. I have been doing casual live performance photography for over 15 years, and I’m in the process of updating my equipment for up and coming jobs.
    One thing I have found is that fast prime lenses seem to work better as they are smaller, less flare prone and have wider maximum apertures. I’ve been mainly using a 28mm, 50mm and 85mm (all f/1.8 or wider). I do however find the idea of a 70-200mm f/2.8 with image stabilizing very appealing. Do you, or any readers here, have experience with such a lens? My concerns are the bulk/weight, as well as flare risk with contre-jour lighting.
    Some of the venues I’ve shot are intimate ‘cabaret’ style locations, with really poor lighting (sometimes f/1.8 at 1/60 on ISO 1250!). f/2.8 at 1/30 is really pushing the limit, therefore the appeal of IS.
    (Current gear is Canon 1Ds 1st generation and handful of fast primes)

  14. WOW.
    amazing, thanks so much.
    you’re a very, very inspiring man!

  15. Great info. In night clubs, strobe lights makes everything tricky. On my last I got ghost images. Any tips on this one?

  16. Definitely some great advise.
    You have some nice pics too.
    I’ve been out of the scene for awhile but I took hundreds of live concert shots back in the 80’s.
    I may just have to start shooting bands again..I miss it.
    I recently made some of my pics available at
    http://www.liveloudphotos.com
    Take care

  17. Hi Dan,
    Like your shots/site/advice. I too have the 5D and take the occasional concert shot in small london venues..can you advise on white balance settings as many of these venues rely heavily on red light that comes out real bad in my photos!
    Cheers, Barney

  18. You are an inspiration! Lovely pictures and great advice! I learnt something from this very helpful article. Thanks!

  19. Hey, gret info…i have a musician boyfriend and am continously trying to take good pics of him and his band and i am often dissapointed as i find it hard to take pictures without a flash, this article has helped alot. However i would like to ask a question to dan or anyone who reads this, i have a Canon EOS 400D and my lens only goes to f4.5, any advise on what setting to use…. i recently took come pictures using ISO 1600 and i must say i was dissapointed in how grainy some of the photos were. Thanks.

  20. Hey Dan,
    I love the article, as I do concert photography myself for my website, and I’m always looking for new tips to make my shots look better.
    Right now both my wife and I are using D40’s which aren’t the best concert shooters around but they fit our limited budget (website isn’t going to be near profitable for a long time). Do you have any suggestions for an upgrade when the time comes (hopefully can replace one this year)?

  21. hiya there, excellent article. took some shots last weekend at a 3 day jazz festival (www.javajazzfestival.com), here’s the flickr page:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/33860547@N02/
    appreciate your input, tried some of your tips, especially trying high ISO. in large stage w/ abundant light, it’s a blast getting great shots. But if the stage is small, I was having problems getting the correct exposure (the stage was small, the audicen was sitting on the floor, the distance b/w the audience to the band is only 3 metres away (9 feet?). Tried using ISO 1600, helped a bit, but still a bit dimmed results.
    Let me know your input for such condition.
    Thanks.

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