Concert photography: What I learned in my first year

Found in: Photo Tips
May 09 2011
by Kelly Revelle

Have you ever wondered how to take great pictures during a live performance? Or, have you thought about getting into the concert photography business? If so, this article should help you get started.

There are many variables to consider when you plan on shooting a concert. Is my camera good enough? Are my lenses fast enough? Those may be important questions to ask yourself, but the very first hurdle and probably the biggest you will come across is how to get in the door.

Before the concert

Most local clubs and bars that offer live music will be more likely to let a photographer come in and shoot. You will want to stop in at an off hour when the place isn't packed and talk with the manager. You may offer up a few images to him as a gesture of good will, but it shouldn't be too hard to get in the door. When you do show up for the show, make sure you get there early enough to meet the people working the door, the bartender, and the band you will be shooting. Getting there before the place fills up not only allows you to see the layout and look for angles to shoot from. You can also talk with the band without having to yell over noise of a small venue full of people. Remember to have a handful of photo releases for them to sign, if you plan on adding them to your website.

Once you have everything signed and your gear ready, find a safe place to stow your bag. This is where being friendly with the bartender is a good thing. They usually don't have a problem tucking it safely behind the counter with them. Depending on the kind of music being played, a heavy metal show, for instance, can get rather rough up by the stage, and you don't really want to leave your bag up there to be trampled on.

First concert

At the local level, there probably won't be a limit on the number of songs you will be allowed to shoot. This is great when you are starting out because you can really get a feel for what is working and what isn't.

I would shoot the first set straight up. That is, I would shoot the standard shots that I was comfortable with. They can be, for instance, close cropped head shots of the lead singer belting out a sustained note or the guitar player wailing on a solo. Look for facial expressions, but be sure to include a little bit of the microphone or the majority of the guitar. Otherwise, it just looks like a guy yelling or, at times, a guy who may have smashed his hand in the car door. The point is that if you don't allow enough scene in your image, it may not look anything like a concert photo.

I will use the second set of the night to try something new. This can be anything you want it to be. If you have covered your bases and got images of everybody involved, some shots of the guys interacting with each other on stage can be a great addition to the set. Whatever you do, DON'T forget the drummer. He will be the guy on the back of the stage, hopefully on a riser, hiding in the shadows.

Gear

Let's discuss the scene and equipment for a few minutes. The room WILL be dark. Period. If you find yourself shooting in a bar and the stage lights are bright enough to shoot at ISO 400, and there is still great colors in play, don't tell anybody! Some of us may not believe you, others will just have to hate you, and everyone else in a 100 mile radius will be driving over on the weekends to shoot there, as well. Most of the time, you will find yourself shooting around ISO 800 or greater, if your camera can handle it and when combined with some rather fast glass, you can capture some great images.

Do not think that you need the latest and greatest camera on the market to get reasonable results. I started out with a Canon 450D, also known as the XSi. I used a 50mm 2.5 macro and a Tamron 28-200mm f/3.5-6. I soon found out that I needed a better telephoto since the images I was able to get were rather lackluster and dark. It will take quite a bit of work to bring these back to life in post-processing.

Building the portfolio: volunteer

Another good way of building your concert portfolio is to volunteer for your city or county fairs and events. Most summers, somewhere near where you live, I'd be willing to bet there is a local music festival or benefit concert going on almost every weekend. It may take some leg work on your part to find out who is hosting it and the contact info, but I would say the local Chamber of Commerce would be a great place to start. All they usually ask in return are images for their websites or promotions. With any luck, they may even pay you for these. It won't be much, but still, anything is nice at this point and this type of show. This can be your first experience at shooting musicians that are household names because the majority of the acts are bands that choose not to do the mainstream touring anymore.

My first show like this was Clint Black.

Concert photography: Clint Black. Live on the Levee 2010.

As you can see, the lights are not as dramatic as you would hope for, because these are mobile stages, set up under an open air tent structure, and the shows start in the afternoon to early evening before the sun really sets. Even though these conditions are not great, it is still a great opportunity to practice and build that portfolio.

Building portfolio: getting into the "pit"

The next big step is the hardest: getting access to the "pit" in front of a big name artist in an arena or amphitheater. This is where you will bang your head against a wall out of frustration. For my first two shows, I managed to secure the photo pass myself. That was just blind luck and a lot of Google. I had been looking at the concert lineup for my area and saw two that really struck an interest with me, Jonny Lang (top), and the "Red Rocker" Sammy Hagar (bottom).

Concert photography: Jonny Lang solo. The Pageant, St. Louis 2010. Concert photography: Jonny Lang. The Pageant, St. Louis 2010.
Concert photography: Sammy Hagar abd Vic. Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, St. Louis 2010. Concert photography:

I started searching terms like "Jonny Lang tour manager 2010" or "Sammy Hagar Record label." You won't find a direct answer this way, but this is a good place to start. Look for a name, then Google that name with the artist name. You may find a hit or even better, a company website for the promotion managers firm. Here you can find the contact info. Bingo! Well, not quite. Here is where you'd better have a decent portfolio to back up your request, because the management is looking for exposure and not wanting to cater to every yahoo with a camera. Ideally, you will have a publication to add to the offering. This greases the skids to get you access. I'm still not sure why the first two artists agreed to letting me shoot, but I'm not complaining. I was lucky enough to meet up with the editor at Concert Photos Magazine shortly after the second concert. Now, I can make my request with the local venue promotion staff and have a reasonable chance at being approved.

Technicalities

So, now you have an access. Let the games begin! I can guarantee you have not seen the awful/beautiful lights you are about to experience. Awful, because you can't rely on the camera's metering and beautiful, because when you do get the exposure right, it's magical. I often find my camera's meter telling me that I am about 2 stops or greater underexposed. Don't worry about what the camera is saying just yet. Rely on the histogram and somewhat on the LCD. You will know when you are on it with the exposure. I can't stress enough at this point how important to have some fast glass. I decided around this time that I needed a telephoto that could hold its own in the dark. The Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 filled this need for me. I run 2 camera bodies when I'm working in the pit. I have my old 450D and a newer 7D. Since the 70-200 is a fixed aperture at 2.8, I put that on the 450D. With the faster aperture, I can get very clear images at ISO 800. I do not want to push anything beyond that with this body. ISO 1600 is just too noisy. I mount my wide angle on the 7D. The 17-40mm f/4L by Canon is a fantastic lens. I would prefer the 28-70 f/2.8L, but that isn't in the cards right now. The f/4 works just fine because the 7D is rather quiet through ISO 3200. I have found my selection of lenses covers all of the bases I needed.

Lucky for you, with the main band going on last, you get one or sometimes two bands to "warm up" on. You get a feel for the atmosphere of the room and the lay of the stage. You will still only get 3 songs with the openers, but it will give you a chance to shoot and review before the main act. Make your setting changes now! The first three songs tend to lead into each other, and the artist will generally be rather energetic for this. If you're lucky, you may get a private show from them. Be ready because you never know when they may turn and strike a pose or lean in to your shot for you. I have missed a few ones myself because I was focused somewhere else. I try to shoot with both eyes open. This may sound strange, but if you try it, you will notice your eye cup will channel your vision as if the other eye is closed while your peripheral vision will still let you know what's happening around you. This not only helps keep you aware of what's happening on stage but it also may save your butt if the crowd gets out of hand at a metal concert.

Cover your bases. Get several tight shots of the lead singer and each member of the band. If you notice a solo or two guys going back to back or something similar to this, have the wide angle at the ready. Again, don't forget the drummer.

Working the "pit"

While it may seem chaotic in the pit, be courteous to the band. Don't jump up and down or stand around and sing with them. You are there for a job, not for the best seat in the house. Be mindful of the fans at your back. They paid a lot of money for their seats. If needed, explain you will be out of their way in just a few minutes. Most of the time, they will understand. Lastly, be aware of the other shooters. They are here for the same reason you are. If you just nailed your shot, move, so others can get theirs. When moving around in that tight space, never cross in front of someone else. Not only could you ruin their shot, you could collide and damage their gear. Not cool. Go in there with a light hearted attitude and get your job done. Oh yeah, have fun because it can be a real head rush.

Final words

So, what's in my gear bag? As stated above, I have my 450D and 7D, Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 and Canon 17-40 f/4, and also my Canon 50 f/2.5. Don't forget to bring fresh memory cards (at least two for each camera), extra camera batteries, straps for both and most importantly, ear plugs. Hopefully, you will have a long run of shooting concerts and want to still hear the music in a few years, so protect your ears now.

I am, by no means, the ultimate authority on concert photography. I am still rather new to the avenue, as compared to others I shoot with. I wrote this article from the perspective of what I wished I'd had known going in my first show. You will probably find something that works better for you, or you may totally disagree with me on some things. That's cool. I just hope that if you are just starting out and have no idea what to expect, this may give you a good starting point.

Cheers and keep on shooting!

Guest writer: Kelly Revelle

I started my Photography business in 2010 in the St. Louis, MO area after 11 years of honing my skills by experimenting with the medium. We are an all on location style studio specializing in infant/children and Senior Photography. I decided to start shooting music because I liked the challenge and had a huge appetite for all types of music. What could be more fun than combining your love of photography with your love for music?

Web-links:
www.520photography.com
www.facebook.com/520photo
@520photo on twitter

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