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How To Photograph Rock Concerts – The Basics

Copyright Anirudh Koul

Photo by Anirudh Koul

Live concert photography can be an exciting, yet, nerve-racking time.  The lights, the stage, the crowd….there are so many things out of your control as a photographer but that needn’t stop you from obtaining great results with a few hints to help get you started!

Introduce Yourself

This should be your first step in shooting a concert and getting the best results.  If you do not already know the artist personally, put in the effort to introduce yourself.  It can be email, phone call or one of those old fashioned “snail mail” letters.  Whichever route, get to the point quickly and let them know who you are and why you’ll be shooting the concert.  The second point will be the most important.  As artists themselves, musicians typically have a keen eye on their image and copyright as they are two of the biggest factors in doing what they do (as well as obviously turning out great music).  If you’re wanting to shoot for your own private portfolio, say so.  If you’re looking to sell images taken at their concert, you’ll need to be prepared to discuss things a bit more in depth.  But if you’re simply looking to have some fun and try a new style of photography and if the musician is more approachable, simply offering use of select concert photos to them may create a win-win situation.

The same can be said with building your portfolio.  In the beginning it may be necessary to work ‘on spec’, meaning you only get paid if they see something they like and purchase the rights to certain photos.  This is fine when you’re starting out trying to make some money at concert photography as you are being paid in experience (PIE) and also paying your dues to build a portfolio and reputation.  Later, with a passel of quality work to show off, it’s easier to negotiate a fee to artists more willing to pay for photos.

No matter your motivation for shooting a concert, having a chance to say, “Hi” to the artist(s) can help make your job during the concert easier.  It can also help open doors of opportunity such as when you have to…

Scout The Concert Venue

Copyright Anirudh Koul

Photo by Anirudh Koul

If you get a chance before the concert, scope out the location first to get an idea of how the seating is setup.  If this is a small concert in a bar or small hall, which it will likely be if you’re just starting out, plan a trip the day or hours before the concert to take a look at how the venue will be situated.  Will it be standing room only?  If there’s seating, will you have enough room to maneuver between seats to get the angles you want?  Also as important, is there a place to store your unused gear while shooting?  Check to see if there are multiple locations to shoot from.  A concert shot from just the front row, center, won’t convey the feel as well as one shot from in front, behind and amongst the crowd.

Bring Your Fastest Lens

Once again, depending on the venue, a flash may be of little use.  Even if you’re close enough to use a flash effectively to light the performer(s) it can be distracting if there is not a light show included with the concert.  It is better to trust to a fast lens to help capture the action.  One of the my favorite lenses for concerts is a 70-200mm f/2.8 and while I don’t get my hands on one very often, it far exceeds my normal kick around 28-300mm f/3.5.  While it might not seem like a large difference, the 70-200mm allows for a slightly slower ISO, helping to reduce image noise (explained later on).  It also allows for more close up action and quicker focusing.  Remember, the lighting can be all over the place during a concert and a faster lens will allow for better focusing due to more light coming through the aperture.

If you don’t own a particularly fast lens, there are many places online where one can be rented.  DPS has a post entitled Where To Rent A Lens Online, written by yours truly, to help you along.  Also check your local phonebook as it may be cheaper to acquire a lens in-town.

Switch To Manual Mode

Copyright Anirudh Koul

Photo by Anirudh Koul

Switching to Manual Mode can be a daunting task the first couple of times you try it, but it does help.  The problem with an automatic setting is the high contrast varied lighting can produce.  For instance, the image at right is from a larger concert for the Backstreet Boys.  While most of the frame is black, shooting in automatic exposure mode would likely produce blown out lights and artist (little guy on the right side, well exposed) to help compensate.  Setting the camera on Manual Mode will allow for greater control especially when lighting changes quickly.  Which leads us right into the next tip!

Get Spot On

Copyright Kevin Klöcker

Photo by Kevin Klöcker

If you’re interested in capturing the lead singer and band members during a concert, you’re going to want to choose spot mode for your metering.  Most concerts have a large amount of darkness to them and using evaluative, or full frame, metering will attempt to compensate for all that black, often over exposing the main subject.  Especially when they are lit with a spotlight.  To get around this anomaly, switch to Spot Metering early on and get a good reading off the lead singer.  If you’ve made contact with the band and venue management as described earlier, you should be able to gain access to a sound and lighting check before the concert.  Having this opportunity can save a lot of time during the concert in adjusting your camera.

Once you have the metering set for a spotlight situation, it will be fairly easy to adjust the shutter speed to compensate for slightly darker settings (such as shots of the drummer, who often don’t share the spotlight).  A quick review once in a while will let you know if your settings are working.  Once you have set your shutter speed and aperture, the metering becomes less and less important as you get a feel for the effect of different colored lights on stage as well as intensity.

Watch The ISO

ISO can be your friend in shooting a concert if you are without a flash.  But it will take some testing to see how much noise you are willing to withstand.  As you know, playing around with ISO will have a direct impact on your shutter speed (most concerts are shot with a shallow depth of field to bring in as much light as possible) and it’s important to match your shutter speed to the action.  If it’s a fast moving rock concert, a shutter speed of 1/60th or more will be needed to prevent excessive blur.  If it is a sit down type of affair, you may be able to get by with speeds a full stop slower.

Copyright Peter Carey

Photo by Peter West Carey

While grain can be an issue if you’re forced to push the ISO much above 400, it can be used to an advantage.  Using filtering or actions found in your favorite photo editing software to change your image to black and white (see this DPS article for more information) can be a solution to high grain.  The shot to the right from a recent concert with singer/songwriter Alyse Black was shot at ISO 3200 as the lighting and zoom contributed to a dark scene.  With too much noise for my liking, taking the image black and white turned the noise into grain I found acceptable given the artist’s style.

Conclusion

Concert photography can be a fun and exiting experience.  The basics of covering a concert for the first time including getting to know the artist, doing a bit of preplanning to know what the environment will look and feel like, picking your fastest lens(es), switching to both Spot Metering and Manual Mode to have the most control of exposure and keeping an eye on ISO so you are aware of noise in your photos.

In my next post I’ll include some more advanced techniques for getting the most creative results at a concert. 

Update You can read this next post at How to Photograph Rock Concerts – Beyond the Basics.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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