Three Songs, No Flash

Concert photography is one of the tougher fields of photography out there. The lighting is tricky, the subjects are moving, and the shooting angles are limited. Still, for those whose passion for photography is matched by a love for music, it represents the best of both worlds and is its own reward.

The following are some tips to help your images stand out from the hundreds of others taken on any given live music performance.

Set the Exposure

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The Stunning Wall Live (concert tour) by Roger Waters by Jimmy Baikovicius

The typical concert scene will involve dark backgrounds with bright beams of light. Depending on which one is more prevalent in the frame, the camera can be fooled into calculating an exposure setting that is either underexposed or overexposed. Because of this, it is advisable to set the exposure yourself by using manual mode. Shoot a few test frames and adjust until you get a well-exposed image with just enough detail in the shadows and, ideally, without blowing the highlights. When the light changes drastically, adjust quickly and accordingly.

If you have yet to master shooting in manual mode and are more comfortable in either aperture-priority mode or shutter-priority mode, make sure to at least set your camera to spot metering and meter for the subject’s face.

You will want to use your fastest lenses with apertures of f/2.8 or larger and, for reasons highlighted in the next tip, a camera that can be set to high ISO values that are great for low-light shooting.

Forget the Flash

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Divine Fits First New York Show – Music Hall of Williamsburg 9/9/12 by Chris Goldberg

Leave the flash at home or in the bag. Not only is flash photography prohibited in most big venues, chances are you’re far enough from the performers that you can’t illuminate them properly with that speedlight even if it was allowed. In smaller venues where the performers are an arm’s length away, using flash can be annoying to both performers in front of you and spectators behind you. Besides, it’s the surest way to making your photos look flat and uninspiring, overpowering the ambient stage lighting with the harsh light of the flash.

Forget the flash and try bumping up the ISO speed on your camera instead. Sure, this leads to noise but, as the above photo shot in ISO 3200 on a 5-yr old camera shows, noisy and sharp is still better than clean and blurry. Modern cameras are even better at handling high ISO shots and the ISO ceiling has been steadily rising over the recent years that newer bodies can now capture useable images at previously unheard values of ISO 6400, ISO 12800, and beyond.

Embrace the Lighting

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Nine Inch Nails Live @ House of Blues – Atlantic City, New Jersey, 11.06.08 by Nine Inch Nails

Lighting too dark? Color wash too strong? Spot light too bright? You can waste time grumbling about it or you can go and embrace the lighting. Color casts can produce an otherworldly image. Shooting into that spotlight can give you a nice silhouette or a surprising flare effect. That almost nonexistent stage lighting can yield a nice low-key image. Or if it’s just too dark, lengthen the exposure, experiment with slow shutter speeds, and go for a blurred abstract effect. The important thing is you’re shooting instead of trying to fight the light. The variety in lighting is what makes shooting concerts fun after all. Look for videos of previous shows to prepare you for what type of lighting to expect. Or skip that and jump in for a surprise!

Make sure to shoot in RAW. This gives you more leeway in correcting white balance as well as increasing the chances of recovering detail in highlights and shadows during post-production.

Anticipate the Action

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Strike by Lourenco Fabrino

Some musical acts seem to have boundless energy. They dance, roll, jump, and basically do what they can to not stay in place. When shooting such hyperactive subjects, make sure that you have your camera set to a fast enough shutter speed. A value slower than 1/125 sec may not be fast enough to freeze motion. Make sure to develop a good handholding technique so you don’t add unnecessary blur to the picture. Some people “spray and pray” with continuous shooting mode, but it is better to time it right with single shots or controlled bursts of three or four shots.

It pays to be familiar with the performers’ tendencies or at least try to recognize it early in the show. Don’t get distracted. Keep your eye in the viewfinder and your trigger finger ready!

Capture the Emotion

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ON by Igor Zalbidea

Think of it as a form of candid portraiture. We all know that the most interesting portraits are the ones that show emotion, the ones that reflect a subject’s personality. It is important to add that emotion must not only be captured in the musical act above the stage, make sure to turn around and take photos of the crowd enjoying the show as well.

As you might have probably realized by now, concert photography involves a lot of anticipation. As with lighting and action, some familiarity with the musical act, the ticks and habits of the performers, can go a long way towards capturing the emotion at peak moments of the show.

Change the Perspective

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Dan Deacon @ Coachella 2008 by Redfishingboat (Mick O)

A lot of the spectators will be shooting from audience eye level. Make sure your images are a cut above the rest by mixing up your perspectives. By this, I mean shooting from a variety of vantage points and lens focal lengths. Don’t just stand in one spot, shooting with the same lens from beginning to end. Go high with a fisheye for that wild crowd shot, go ground level with an ultra-wide for that guitar hero pose, zoom in with a telephoto for that primal scream, go behind the drummer and capture both band and audience for that big picture.

For larger venues, this probably means that you have to secure a photo pass to be able to go around the stage but you can always hone your technique by starting small and shooting in more intimate venues without access restrictions.

Into the Black

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Melanie. Durango Book and Record Fair by Igor Zalbidea

With extremes in both light and dark, concert photography naturally lends itself to interesting black-and-white conversions. It takes some practice to see in black-and-white, but do it often enough and you’ll soon get the hang of recognizing which scenes look good in monochrome. Look for high contrast scenes — a strong beam of light, rim lighting on a dark subject, a striking silhouette. Shooting in high ISO, in this case, has the added advantage of adding noise which mimics the grain of high-speed black-and-white film.

Also, if all else fails and your image of that climactic moment turns out to be severely underexposed, you can possibly salvage it by bumping the exposure and converting to black-and-white. Do a little dodge and burn and you’re good to go.

As a bonus tip, try to set down your camera for a few moments and just try to enjoy the concert for what it is — a well-rehearsed and well-executed performance.

As with any skill, practice makes perfect. So check out your local concert schedule, bring that camera, shut up and shoot. Three songs? No flash? No problem!

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