Concerts are a symbiotic experience, each one unique to the music, the musicians, and the audience. The reciprocal nature appeals to us on a visceral level. It’s a way to connect with people over a shared interest and at times, a shared adrenaline rush. Of course, it is then natural, to want to capture the natural high only found when your heart is in sync with the bass drum. As photographers our first instinct is to bring the camera along and take the experience home with us in the form of photographs. Concert photography is a particularly difficult medium because of the varied and rapidly changing lighting situations, masses of people, and quickly moving musicians. Here are the basics for concert photography that will live up to your memories.
Shutter priority mode
If you are new to manual mode or just not comfortable using it in such an erratic environment, consider shooting in shutter priority mode. This mode allows you to set your desired shutter speed and will then set the other variables to properly expose the photograph. This mode is not fool proof and will sometimes under or over expose but most of the time it will get you in the ballpark.
High Shutter Speed
Bump up your shutter speed. Musicians are playing to their crowd. The move from one side of the stage to the other, jump around, leap of amps, head bang, move to the tempo of the music, and even stage dive. In order to capture crisp images you are going to have to up the shutter speed. The faster the shutter speed, the less your photographs will be effected by your moving subject. It will help to alleviate blur that can make a great photo unrecognizable. Remember, when you set faster shutter speeds, less light is hitting the sensor inside the camera. Make sure to adjust the other settings to accommodate the lack of light.
Employ a wide aperture
Opening up the aperture allows more light in and can help to accommodate for the loss of light caused by the high shutter speed. Shooting at large aperture, indicated by a small f number, is going to give you the freedom to up the shutter speed so your photos are more than just a series of blurry messes.
Meter for the face
Unless you are aiming for some artistic shots that don’t involve the musicians face or have it blown out or underexposed for a specific reason, meter for the face. If all else fails, you will still be able to see who the picture is of. Often bright stage lights and shadowy corners reek complete havoc on metering so make sure you are using spot metering. Spot metering allows you to choose a small portion of the frame to meter for. Essentially, you are telling your camera to ignore the unhighlighted areas and only measure the light reflecting off you subject.
Start by shooting bands you have seen live before
For your first foray into concert photography think about attending a show featuring a band you are familiar with and have seen live in the past. Like sports stars, rock stars have signature moves they often deploy at calculated moments during a song. Having seen the band in concert before helps you to anticipate when these iconic moments are likely to occur and prepare for them. If you haven’t seen the band or bands live, check out some of their performances online to give you some insider information on how they typically perform. Keep an ear open for radio singles. They are typically the songs the crowds and, in turn, the musicians get most excited and animated for.
Up the ISO
ISO is another photography component that affects the sensitivity of the sensor inside you camera where the magic happens and photographs are made. The larger the number the more sensitive the sensor is to the available light. There is, of course, a catch. As you raise your ISO, you also introduce what is called noise. Noise is a grainy texture which was very common when film was a popular medium, but as digital photography has taken off and the industry has tended to try to find ways to reduce it. Now it’s considered distracting and undesirable in most instances. Cameras have individual thresholds where noise goes from expected to unacceptable. Learn where that limit is on your camera and keep it in mind as you set your ISO and other settings.
Shoot in RAW
Shooting in RAW gives you more options when it comes to post-processing. With the movement, the low light situation, paired with the light shows which feature high intensity theater grade lighting, and the mass of people you are sharing you space with, there are going to be photos you really wanted to turn out that didn’t. With RAW in comparison to JPEG, you have access to more file data and thus can reign those lost details in the highlights and shadows in. When you shoot in JPEG, the files are compressed and any data deemed unnecessary is disregarded and not filed away, thus eliminating the ability to recall that data. Be advised, RAW files are considerably larger than JPEG files. They will fill a memory card up in a short period of time. Use a large memory card or bring extras.
Don’t use your flash
There are a few reasons using flash is frowned upon. The first is blinding the musicians and people are you with the bright, intense light. Technically speaking, using a flash ups the chances of blowing the highlights and battling with the stage lights for an outstandingly over-exposed image. Many venues don’t allow flash photography during performances and have been known to ask photographers abusing their liberties to leave in the middle of a performance. It also washed out the ambient stage lighting that adds some much depth and visual interest to concert photographs.
High speed continuous
Much like sports, a high speed environment calls for high speed continuous mode. This mode essentially takes a burst of photographs for as long as you hold down the shutter, unless your camera needs time to buffer, or your memory card is too slow or is full. Using this mode allows you to get the shot without having to time everything perfectly. However, take care not to 'spray and pray'. If you’re shooting in the blind hope that if you keep that shutter button down you’ll end up with one good shot out of a few hundred, then you’re missing something. Take the time to evaluate the scene and your subject before pressing the shutter.
Many venues don’t welcome “professional” cameras into their venues unless you are there for a reason, meaning you have a press pass. Most venues consider a professional camera any camera with a removable, changeable lens. You should always call your intended venue ahead of time and see what their policy is. Some security teams will downright deny you access to the venue if you show up with a camera that isn’t approved. That being said, I’ve brought my DSLR with a short prime lens (usually a 35mm or a 50mm) into many camera unfriendly concert halls without any issues. Huge zoom lenses will be a red flag to the security at the door so avoid bringing them in, even if they are already attached to your camera, unless the venue welcomes professional grade cameras.
Pick one lens and stick to it
A concert is not a super safe environment for opening your camera up to the elements. Sweaty people who are probably drinking, dancing around, swaying, bleeding from the mosh pit, and eating popcorn and/or nachos equates to a hundred variables which are all likely to end in your gear getting goofed up. If you pick a lens for the night, you don’t have to open up your camera to the elements.
Get there Early
Even if you have a press pass, it’s best to get to the venue early to stake your spot. If you do have a press pass, many venues only allow you to be in the area between the security barrier and the stage for the first few songs. After that, they clear it out and you have to vie for your own spot in the crowd or leave if you don’t have a ticket. This varies both by concert venue and show. I’ve been to shows where I have a press pass and am allowed to stay in the crowd and watch the show, other times even at the same concert hall with the same security team, I’m escorted directly out after my allotted time. If you don’t have a press pass you are going to want to get to the venue early and stake out a good spot in line, especially if it isn’t one of the very few venues that openly welcomes photographers and their giant 70-300mm zoom lenses. This is especially important if you are using a small prime lens without any zoom capabilities. The closer you are to the band, the better your photos are going to be.
Wear ear plugs. Doesn’t that go against the entire reason you are at the concert? Well, no. Ear plugs filter out white noise and bring the music down to a level your ears can both safely handle and actually translate. Sometimes when you are at a concert, the sheer volume of the music makes it hard for your brain to translate to lyrics because it’s just trying to handle the sensory barrage. Ear plugs are especially important if you plan to make a habit of concert photography or even just attending shows. Loud music causes long term hearing loss, especially after extended exposure.
Concert photography is one way to look back on an incredible performance. Remember to be mindful of potential blur and tricky lighting situations. Most of all, remember to enjoy the show. Get some great shots and then put your camera away and let yourself enjoy the music.
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