how-to guide to concert photography

A while ago I asked my friend Natalie if she’d help me put together a guide to concert photography. We each shoot scores of shows a year and have talked a lot about the various issues with concert photography many times before, so it made sense to me to put together a how-to guide together.

Overview

Concert photography, particularly that in small clubs, is its own beast. It shares some things in common with other types of photography, but it has its own concerns and problems.

Neither Natalie or Adrian claim to be the best concert photographer, but we’ve shot a few hundred shows between us and we’d like to share what we’ve learned.

Despite all the recommendations below, the best thing to do is to shoot a lot. Go to shows, bring your camera and just experiment and figure out works for you.

Equipment

The overwhelming limitation to concert photography is how dark most of the clubs and events are. This drives a lot of equipment choices.

Point and Shoot vs. film SLR vs DSLR

Point and Shoot
Point and Shoot cameras tend to have very small image sensors. In terms of concert photography, this translates into lots of noise at high ISO speeds (which are necessary for shooting in low-light situations). A little bit of noise is acceptable in an image; however, the amount of noise created by Natalie’s Canon SD1000 at ISO 800 and 1600 makes the photos essentially useless. In addition, most point and shoot cameras only allow for minimum (if any) control of shutter speed and aperture settings, which gets very frustrating very quickly. Another frustrating feature is the lag between pushing the shutter button and actually triggering the shutter – not great when trying to shoot a moving subject with a small depth of field.

Point and shoot cameras are also limited by their maximum aperture value (how big you can make the opening that lets light onto the sensor; to make this confusing, the smaller the aperture number, the larger the opening). This is incredibly important for concert photography, as there is usually not much available light, and you want to let as much in as possible.

That being said, some people have made point and shoot cameras work for concert photography, especially cameras such as the Canon G10, which allows you full manual control and the option to shoot in RAW instead of JPEG file format. And on the plus side, these cameras are allowed at most venues without requiring any sort of photo pass.

Sigur Ros @ Copley Symphony Hall, 10/01/2008 by kudoskid0511.
(by Natalie Kardos) Sigur Ros at Copley Symphony Hall, shot with a Canon SD1000 point and shoot – noise due to the high ISO can be seen in the dark parts of the image.

Film SLR
It’s possible to shoot concerts with a film SLR, but it can get expensive quickly. Film is getting more expensive as it’ss manufactured less and availability declines, and processing (especially for black and white film) is also fairly expensive these days. Shooting color film at a concert can also be tricky, given the uncertainty of lighting and the unpredictability of color tones if the film is push-processed. For an example of someone who shoots concerts with film (and does it quite well), see http://liveon35mm.wordpress.com/.

An additional concern with shooting on film is that high ISO film can be more expensive. Neopan 400, a fairly cheap film, pushes well to 1600 which could work in some brighter clubs, but be sure to tell whoever is processing it that it has been pushed.

DSLR
While it’s possible to shoot with a point-and-shoot or on film, both Natalie and Adrian shoot with DSLRs. While neither of us bought our cameras specifically for concert photography, we have found the flexibility of shooting options, lenses and quality of sensors work well for concert photography.

Lenses:

Pay special attention to lenses whether you’re buying detachable lenses for an SLR or as a part of a point and shoot camera. What’s the widest aperture? The lower the f stop, the more light it can let in and therefore the more appropriate it is for concert photography. Adrian buys all his lenses with at least f/2.8 widest aperture. Natalie owns two lenses for concert photography that are f/1.8 (only available on primes); when shooting festivals with a great distance between the stage and the photo pit, she rents a zoom lens with f/2.8 and image stabilization.

Prime vs Zoom
Prime lenses are generally cheaper (and better quality for the money) and available with much faster apertures than zoom lenses. Zoom lenses are more flexible. You may end up with some primes and some zooms in your kit. Natalie shoots almost entirely with prime lenses due to a limited budget. It does mean switching lenses sometimes in the middle of a rock show. But, as someone once told her, “the best zoom is your feet.”

I'm from Barcelona
(By Adrian Bischoff) Wide angle of I’m From Barcelona (cropped to a panorama)

Useful types of lenses

  • (Super) Wide-angle
    When you’re close up of the stage, or any time you want to show more of the picture than just what’s directly in front of you, a wide or super wide angle lens is useful. Adrian uses a 20mm and has recently started using a 11-16mm as well. The wider the lens, the more it distorts, especially near the edge. This can be a fun effect. Another thing to consider is that a wide lens gives you a greater depth of field, even at wide-open apertures.
  • jake mann at the bottom of the hill
    (by Adrian Bischoff) Jake Mann’s bass distorts when shot with a super wide angle lens.

  • Normal
    A normal lens is one that shows you what your eye is seeing. It’s about a 50mm lens for a full frame sensor (or film) and about 35mm on a DSLR that crops. The 50mm f/1.8 prime lens is the first lens that Natalie recommends for concert photography. For it’s quality, it’s amazingly cheap – around $100 for the Canon or Nikon version.
  • Boubacar Diebate
    (By Adrian Bischoff) Boubacar Diebate during SxSW 2008 taken with a normal lens

  • Telephoto

    These are good for getting close up details of performers and for when you can’t get right up against the stage. When you’re standing more than about 10 feet back from the stage, this is really the difference between shots that look like just any old person shot them–half the frame is taken up by the people in front of you–and something more professional. A 80-200mm f/2.8 lens is a really heavy piece of machinery, but Adrian never goes to a concert without it if he plans on shooting that night. Natalie does not own a good telephoto lens for concerts. She’s had her eye on the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS (image stabilized) lens for quite awhile, but with a price tag of $1700, she rents it when she needs it – which is usually about twice a year. She also doesn’t mind being front and center for shows though (she’s often the only person standing in the 5 feet of “too cool” open space in front of the stage during shows).

  • lykke li @ the independent
    (By Adrian Bischoff) Lykke Li at Bimbo’s, taken from about 40 feet away with a telephoto lens.

Technique

Don’t use flash unless you have an off-camera unit and you know what you’re doing with it. On-camera flash makes things look flat, washed out and unnatural. It also can throw large shadows on walls behind the performers, which can be incredibly distracting in the resulting image.

Even with an off-camera flash, a fair number of shows don’t allow flash photography, so you should be prepared to shoot without a flash either way.

Adrian sets his camera on its highest ISO (3200). Noise does start showing up at that ISO but it’s worth the trade off. In really dark situations, he’ll set the camera on continuous mode and he’ll shoot four or five photos in a row and hope the middle ones don’t show the shaking of his hands/ body. He’ll usually use spot metering the performer’s face.

Natalie shoots much the same way (spot metering, highest ISO – 1600 on her camera). A lot of times she will shoot in shutter-priority mode, with the shutter speed set to 1/80th or 1/60th of a second. This allows the camera to choose the aperture value based on available light. Usually it ends up at f/1.8, but this is a useful trick for shows with variable and unpredictable lighting. Of course, if the lighting is too unpredictable (like strobes) you may have to shoot in full manual. This can also happen if there is fog. Fog will also get in the way of auto-focusing systems, so be prepared to shoot with manual focus on occasion…

Syl Johnson @ Eccentric Soul Revue, Park West, Chicago, 04/04/2009 by kudoskid0511.
(By Natalie Kardos) Syl Johnson @ Eccentric Soul Revue, shot on shutter priority mode at 1/100 second. The resulting aperature was f/2.5

Aperture priority mode can be useful when shooting outside shows in daylight. A stopped-down aperture will increase your depth of field – something you usually want to avoid when shooting a stage crowded with instruments, musicians, microphones, cables, and amps. A smaller depth of field will help focus the attention of the viewer on the subject of the photo

As an aside, all of this so far assumes noise is bad. Some photographers have figured out how to make it work for them to great effect, particularly Charlie Homo.

RAW vs JPEG
This is a space vs quality trade off. If you shoot only JPEG, you can get hundreds of photos on a smallish card and not have to worry about running out. But shooting RAW has the big advantage that you can change white balance settings in post processing. Given the major problems with getting colors to look right at clubs, this can be a major advantage. Memory cards are cheap these days, so Natalie prefers to shoot in RAW format, even during all-day festivals. It does add time into post-processing though, because the RAW files, at the very least, need to be converted to JPEGs once you are done editing them.

Style

Style is largely up to the individual photographer.

Constant shots of a singer and his guitar and microphone framed in such a way that you see just a little of his guitar get a bit old after a while. The job of the concert photographer is to convey what it’s like to be at the show. What strikes you about the performance? Is the singer really giving it his all? Is the drummer nuts? Is the space amazing? Is the crowd really into it?

Here are some examples how these affect his photos. At the Fillmore, Adrian is often struck with the space and how the performer is a small part of something bigger. He’ll pull back and show the space.

meric of the dodos
(By Adrian Bischoff) Meric Long of the Dodos at the Independent

The Independent has great lights, especially certain combination with blue or green that set great moods.

A berserk drummer may inspire me to slow down my shutter speed a bit and get some motion in the photo. An enthusiastic crowd can inspire me to get photos of silhouetted raised fists against the backdrop of the performer. Adrian knows photographers that say they don’t enjoy the shows they shoot. He feels like he needs to be into the show to get good photos.

While being right up against the stage is often where Adrian will start out, after a few songs, he’ll often move back or to the sides. Finding new places to shoot bands from can be compelling for the end-viewer and invigorating for yourself. Can you get behind the band and show the audience’s reaction? Can you get upstairs or behind the mixing board?

rockin out
(By Adrian Bischoff) Casey & Brian and the audience dancing at the Rickshaw Stop


(By
Natalie Kardos) the crowd reacting to the Hold Steady during Coachella 2009

bishop allen + mixing board
(By Adrian Bischoff) Bishop Allen and the mixing board at the Independent

But, let’s be honest, some of the best photos are just capturing that moment, that expression of a great performer:

John Darnielle
(Adrian Bischoff) John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, Noise Pop 2008

Processing and Editing

If you just want to adjust lighting and contrast, Picasa is free, quick and easy, but if you want to do anything more serious, Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom will probably be useful.

laura marling, under the red lights and b&w
(by Adrian Bischoff) Laura Marling and her bass player–the color version was destroyed by the club’s all-red lightning that night. On the other hand, the black and white version is quite pleasant.

Sometimes in bad or unbalanced lighting situations, you can convert to b&w to save the photo.

Natalie uses Adobe Lightroom as a catalog for her photos and to do some photo tweaking. That being said, she does surprisingly little post-processing on her concert photos (as compared to other photos she takes). She tends to merely increase contrast, darken shadows, and fix white balance issues – which sometimes means resorting to black and white.

Logistics

Photo passes:
Some venues and bands don’t mind you bringing in any old camera and shooting till your heart’s content, but some don’t, so be sure to check with the venue. Even venues where they usually allow cameras will sometimes not allow them at the request of a band.

If it looks like a photo pass might be necessary, contact the band’s representative. The tour manager is often a good person to go through if you have their contact info. Otherwise, try the band’s press contact or label contact. Explain who you are, who you’re shooting for and what you want (a photo pass). Sometimes I’ll already have a ticket to a show and just need a photo pass (usually, they’ll assume you need a press ticket to the show as well if you’re asking for a photo pass); in these cases, let them know as it’s easier for them to give up a photo pass rather than a photo pass and a guest list spot.

A quick trick for press passes is that if the headliner being deluged with requests, try one of the openers. It’ll get you and your camera into the show all the same. But if you do this, it’s good practice to actually take photos of the band that got you into the show.

Festivals:

Friendly Fires @ Coachella 2009, 04/19/2009 by kudoskid0511.
(By Natalie Kardos) Friendly Fires shot from the pit during the Coachella Festival, 2009.

Festivals are a whole different ballgame. Usually you need to apply for press credentials a month or more in advance. Connections (through a PR firm, a band, etc) definitely help with festivals.

Once you’re at the festival, you’ll find that the big stages will have a photo pit and different rules. You’ll often have three songs to get photos, so you have to work quickly. Often the main headliners will have separate releases or applications to shoot them.

Etiquette

Be aware of those around you. Don’t have your arms and camera up the whole show if it’s blocking the view of the person behind you.

At a show without a photo pit, if you want to be up against the stage, get there early. You don’t have some special right to be up against the stage. If you get there late, you can ask people to let you in front of them. Often if you say you’ll only be there for a couple of songs, they’ll let you in. Other times, they don’t want to give up their spot and you should respect that. Of course, you can just push in front of people, but that’s not very courteous.

If you’re in a photo pit, be courteous to other photographers; everyone’s got a job to do.

If the lighting at a small club is bad on a particular night, I’ve found it’s usually okay to politely ask the lighting guy to change it, even if it’s just for a couple songs.



7 Responses to “how-to guide to concert photography”

  1. Adrian, are you sure you’re just going to South Africa and not taking some … more permanent journey? Your posts are really giving off an “I want to leave a lasting legacy” vibe.

    Fantastic, useful information to leave to the city & the world. (You still need to stay on the planet, though.)

  2. adrian says:

    Kevin, yes, I’m just going to South Africa… There were all these posts I thought about doing before I put my blog on hiatus and I couldn’t get to all of them so the ones that I decided to do happened to all be these big picture ones.

  3. Anonymous says:

    ok…so your suggestion. best point & shoot for concerts? (i know it can’t compare to a dslr).

  4. Natalie says:

    @Anonymous

    I’d suggest the Canon G9 or G10, or anything that has the capability to shoot in RAW file format. This allows you a lot of leniency with white balance (as well as correcting exposures), which is very useful given the usual concert lighting.

    That being said, I don’t really have any experience shooting shows with point and shoots.

    One thing to consider is that several festivals I have shot recently won’t let you in the photo pit without a “professional camera” which seems to equal a dSLR (basically, the requirement is that the camera has to have a removable lens). So if you’re really looking into concert photography, it might be better to save up your pennies for a dSLR.

  5. Anonymous says:

    thanks natalie! i actually have a canon rebel xsi..but it’s brand new to me. so i’m not good enough to ask for a photo pass. i was thinking of a p&s in the meantime. and for some of the smaller shows where i can get close. -ag

  6. Christi says:

    I have a Nikon D80 and a couple prime lenses for concert photography, but I’m looking to buy a decent point & shoot as well so I can still take photos if DSLRs are not allowed and I don’t have a photo pass (I still have yet to ask for one). I was looking at the Canon Powershot S90 and the G11, but I can’t decide which one. They both seem pretty decent. Do you have any advice?

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