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A Guest Post by Guy Prives.
Concert photography is one of the most challenging fields in photography, as opposed to posed photos; in this kind of photography we have no control of almost any parameter in the picture. We can’t direct the object being photographed, we do not have control over the lighting, which is constantly changing, and we do not have access to any angle.
On top of that we can’t forget that there are people around us who paid good money for enjoying the show and they don’t care that they are in our frame. Many times we are also limited to a certain time or amount of songs within we are allowed to take photos. Sounds like mission impossible? Although photographing a live show is not easy and intuitive, it is also less difficult than what most people might think, and I believe that at the end of this article, you will be amazed that it’s easier than it seems.
So how do we get started? For starters we want to lower as many of the variables that interrupt us, this is why I recommend to go to relatively intimate shows in places where you can get almost anywhere and take the frame from any angle you wish. If you have a band that you know personally, it will be a good place to start from. For example, my first show was in late 2007 – with Canon 350D and 18-55 mm kit lens. I went to a performance by a friend’s band, “The Carsitters”, who invited me to photograph the show, and I owe a lot of my experience to them.
Whether you are convinced by this saying or not there are still several fields in photography where our equipment is very important and one of these fields is the concert photography.
Due to the dim lighting at performances, we’ll prefer to use lenses with open aperture (f/2.8, f1.8, f/1.4) and using cameras that allows us to take photos at high ISO without noise.
In dynamic shows like rock bands, we will have to use a relatively high shutter speeds to freeze movement of wild drummer or jumping singer. These are the moments you will be thankful that you having good equipment in your hands. But do not be disappointed even if your equipment is not perfect. A lot of my concert shots were taken with Canon 350D that in terms of photography at high ISO is very noisy and does not allow to choose value over 1600, and also without any fast zoom lens.
Better to take a picture a bit noisy in my opinion, and reduce the noise later with some editing software (Lightroom 3 provides a very good option for reduce noises) or even stay with the noise, than getting an image without noise but all blurred because you had to compensate for the lower ISO with long exposure time.
Black & white can be a good option for noisy pictures like that.
One of the first difficulties we encounter in photography is the measurement of the light and selecting the correct exposure. In live shows we’ll measure light from a point which we want to expose by using the point metering (some will prefer using the evaluative).
In most of the shows there are several sets of repetitive light, so you should keep in mind the appropriate parameters for the different light and then for example as soon as spot will be on the singer we will know what the appropriate parameters for our frame. You should check your histogram and in addition check in the monitor for overexposed points, to ensure that the important objects in the frame are exposed properly. One of the most frustrating things is to get back home with a picture that looks good on the camera and then we find out in our computer screen that it’s overexposed or underexposed. Because it is difficult to find exactly our best exposure I recommend shooting in raw so that you can then compensate for the exposure if necessary and save images that was a bit overexposed or the opposite, got underexposed.
I am sure that you all know the following situation: You are in a concert, a few hundred feet from the stage, around of you hundreds of flashes of cameras from people who try to take pictures of the show.
I’m sorry to break the myth but your flash has no effect on lighting the singer. At best, the flash will do nothing, and at worst it will lit the cigarette’s smoke around you or the bald spot of those in front of you.
Another problem is that some use a camera on automatic or semi-automatic mode. The camera does not know that what interests us is the stage far away, and is not affected by the flash light, so it lets less light into the sensor – and we will get a dark stage.
So if you are far from the stage – turn off the flash.
If you are close to the stage and using the flash, the artist will be bright indeed – but any background will be dark and you’ll lose the whole atmosphere. What’s the solution? Measure the light by the environment until you get proper exposure in terms of atmosphere you want and just then add the flash, this way you get the ambient lighting showing the atmosphere, and the flash will lit the singer and freeze his movement. Thus, despite the slow shutter speed your object won’t become blurred. Of course you can bounce the flash and avoid harsh direct light which flatten the subject’s face, and can cause red eye, just like in any other situation that you take the photo with directed flash. If the ceiling is not low enough or is not white, like at most concerts, you can bounce the flash using a white card or just soften it by the use of any other diffusers. Another option using the flash that will have special results, but is less convenient, if you have access to the stage – put in advance flashes on the stage which will be activated remotely by triggers and will give you photos less ordinary.
The smoke can be our best friend or our worst enemy – when we take photos with flash, if the smoke is before the artist, then the flash will light the smoke and not the artist. In such situations we should avoid shooting with flash. However smoke behind the artist can improve the picture.
When it’s too dark and we are far from the stage and we cannot use the flash, we will wait until the spot light, the narrow, focused and strong light, will light the artist. You might be surprised to discover that those dark images that are lit just by the spot light on the singer will be much better than the frame where everything is lit. You have to remember: photographing a concert is not like documentary photography where it is important to see everything, but more of a photo that shows a certain atmosphere and lighting is our main method to pass it to the viewers. In concert, you will rarely have fixed light on the stage. Fixed light may make it easier for you to photograph, but also produces images that are more boring and banal.
Do not ignore the constraints. Compact cameras, old cameras or lenses with over 2.8 Aperture can cause problems when trying to capture the subject lit properly. This is because of the changing lights that are usually dark, which characterizes the majority of small performances. One of the recommended solutions is to shoot silhouettes. We prefer choosing a silhouette that is very clear so that the viewer can see and understand what the subject in the frame is even if it’s without light. This kind of photo we’ll shoot when there is no light on the subject and the only lights are behind the band / singer / dancer.
That way with a simple camera we can get special pictures. Please note that if we’ll not define in the camera that this is what we want, it will choose for us a long exposure or using the flash in order to light the stage. What we need is to set the camera manually to allow underexpose. Whether negative exposure compensation (EV) is defined for those of you using automatic or semi-automatic, or for those of you using the manual mode just increase the shutter speed or close the aperture until the image is completely dark when there is no backlight. In order to produce the silhouette we will measure the right exposure from the stage and then shoot with the parameters that were obtained. The back light will show as it should – and the figure will be completely dark. In these situations it will be hard to focus the camera, so focus on the character when there is light, or shoot with manual focus.
In most shows the dominant color is red. Lighting technicians like this colored lights that photographers usually hate. You should be careful that the red color will not “burn” and you will lose the data in those areas. Better take the photo a bit underexpose in raw and then add some brightness so no details will be lost in those areas. Another way to handle this is to make friends with the lighting technician and ask to use specific lights – you’ll be surprised, it works. If you didn’t had any success with these two methods and found yourself in front of the computer with picture that was exposed inaccurate, converting to black & white can save this image.
Until now we have talked only about the technical issues to photograph a concert, but we must not forget to address the composition as well. Also in concert it is not enough that the photo technically is perfect, you should also need a story and a good and interesting composition. Sometimes a close up image where you can only see the guitar for example will be enough and sometimes you will want to catch the whole band together. It all depends on your artistic taste and equipment’s constraints.
In concert photography there are no rules, you’ll have to see in each show the lighting effects in order to decide how you will photograph and display the same band. In conclusion, the concert photography is not an easy task, but with a little practice – you can get beautiful results.
Guy Prives is a concert & people photographer. Photography for Guy is another way to look and see the world from unique and different angles.
He discovered his love of photography during a long trip to South America and this passion to capture the moment with a click of the camera has been with him ever since. Ordinary things (sights) can become extraordinary when captured through the camera’s lens.