It’s always good to hear tips and techniques from seasoned photographers. But sometimes they forget about the “simple” things that beginners need to know, opting for more advanced topics. I had the opportunity to photograph a concert type of event for the first time in my photography career. Sure, I had read through the concert photography tips available on the web, but I still had to learn many things as I went.
On February 28, 2009 I ventured up to Hollywood for a little performance at the Whisky a Go Go. The main reason I went was because my pal Bryan was playing that night with his band, The Scarlet Paradigm. Playing right before them was Chico and the Sapphires, and they both totally rocked! Seriously, check out their pages and listen to their tunes. These guys are good. You can also see my Flickr sets for both The Scarlet Paradigm and Chico and the Sapphires.
Rather than offer up advice on the topic as if I actually knew it well, I offer up a few concert photography tips from a beginner’s perspective. Here’s what I learned in just a few minutes of shooting that night.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Before you go photograph your first concert, read up on the tips and tricks articles out there on the web (I’ve got a list at the end of this article). Also be sure to scope the venue beforehand or at least talk to somebody that’s been there before. Find out if they’re photographer-friendly, if you need a special pass, if they allow flash, what kind of space you’ll have to work with, and what the lighting might be like. Showing up completely unprepared will only cause a lot of stress and ruin the evening.
BRING FAST GLASS
I’ve seen this tip in just about every concert photography article out there — but for good reason! Concerts are generally dimly-lit and you need all the speed you can get your hands on. I brought my 50mm f/1.4 and my 105mm f/2.8 lenses. The f/2.8 wasn’t too bad, but the f/1.4 was noticeably faster. If you don’t have really fast glass, you can either borrow some from a friend or even rent one for the weekend. And if all else fails, just bring what you have and make do.
CRANK THE ISO
Even if you use fast lenses, you’ll still have to crank the ISO to anywhere from ISO800 to ISO6400 (or higher). Using large apertures and high ISO values will allow you to shoot at faster shutter speeds. Depending on the performers, you might need something as fast as 1/250 seconds or faster to avoid motion blur. I ended up shooting 99% of my photos at ISO6400 and I got speeds anywhere from 1/6 seconds to 1/1500 seconds with a majority being in the neighborhood of 1/90 seconds to 1/500 seconds. And yet, probably half of my photos showed signs of motion blur (the bands were very lively).
Lots of people go to see bands perform and local venues usually have limited floorspace. Everybody else is there to enjoy the performance, so don’t be that person with the giant backpack shoving your way through the crowd. You’ll have a hard time moving around and finding spots to shoot, plus you’ll be bumping up against everyone with your bag. Bring one or two camera bodies and one or two lenses total. You’re going to find good shots with whatever lens you bring and you don’t want to be changing gear every couple of minutes. So pack smart.
PUSH YOUR FILM
If you decide to shoot some film, just remember that you can push ASA400 film as far as ASA3200 without losing a ton of quality. Just do your research on which film/developer combos will allow you to do this. I shot a roll of Ilford HP5+ (ASA400) at ASA3200 and a roll of Ilford Delta3200 at ASA6400 by push developing with Rodinal.
DON’T BE SHY
It can feel a bit awkward to push your way in front of people then stand there with a camera in front of your face. But nobody is going to invite you right up to the stage so you can get a shot. Get in there, take a few shots, and move somewhere else. If you keep moving, you won’t tick many people off plus you’ll get a lot of different angles.
When it comes time to process your photos, just don’t over-do it. The lighting will probably provide enough color and contrast to be interesting. Just do a couple things to recover highlights and shadows, reduce noise, and try to show what you actually saw. Converting to black and white is also a good option (due to the noise) and you’ll probably have more freedom with your tweaks. Plus you can sometimes get the noise to look like grain if you convert your colors correctly. And if you want to get into Photoshop for a little more creative control, check out these Concert Photography Photoshop Actions.
AND HAVE A GOOD TIME!
No matter what, be sure to enjoy yourself. The band you’re photographing is made up of artists like yourself. Artists like to have people enjoy their work — it makes them feel good inside. So pull the camera away from your face every once in a while and just enjoy it.
I know I didn’t cover every single tip and technique for concert photography, so here are a few other articles that dive into other aspects of it.
- More Thoughts on Concert Photography
- How To Photograph Rock Concerts – The Basics
- How To Photograph Rock Concerts – Beyond Basics
- Wide Angle Tips and Tricks
- Three Songs, No Flash
- 6 Tips to Take Great Photographs at Music Concerts
And if you have concert photography tips and/or example photos, drop a comment below! You’re a smart crowd and I always enjoy learning new things from the community.