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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.