Tips for live music / concert photography

Kaiser Chiefs

UPDATE

I’ve published a revised, expanded and improved version of this article – concert photography masterclass.


I get the occasional email asking for advice on how to take better live music photos, so i thought i’d assemble a guide of sorts here. Consider it just my opinion, i’ve never formally studied photography, i’ve plenty to learn, but i have taken photos at a lot of gigs and taught myself a bit. So i figure i’ll share what i’ve learned. What follows is specifically thinking about taking photos at concerts but most is equally applicable to any situation indoors with low lighting.


The Camera

It’s going to be very tough without an SLR, you really need a camera that you can control the ISO settings and the aperture and shutterspeed. I use the Canon Rebel XT aka 350D (update: now upgraded to the Canon 5D).

Mu at Spectrum

The Settings

ISO

You’ll probably want to set your ISO level to 800 or 1600. At 1600 the images will be getting grainy with digital noise, but that’s sometimes unavoidable. If you’re in a venue with plenty of light set your ISO lower, you’ll get less noise.

Metering

If your camera allows you to change the type of light metering you should set it to spot mode.

Aperture

You’ll want a lens that has a wide aperture, f2.8 or lower. There are 50mm f1.8 lenses that are quite good and cheap these days.

At f1.8 you’ll be able to shoot at faster shutterspeeds because the camera is letting more light into the lens. But there’ll also be a smaller area that’s in focus so you have to be very exact with your focus point.

Shutterspeed

In a low light situation you’re going to need to shoot at reasonably low shutterspeeds in order to get enough light in the camera. But remember the slower your shutterspeed the more likely your shots won’t be sharp, either because the subject moves or your hands move.

I used to shoot as low as 1/40th – 1/60th second but realised i wasn’t going to get pin sharp images at that low shutterspeed. I now try to shoot at least 1/125th second or higher. Sometimes the images are underexposed, but if the image is sharp and slighty underexposed it can be rescuable in Photoshop. If the image is not sharp then there’s no amount of Photoshopping that can rescue it.

Also consider that if you’re using a zoom lens you’ll need to shoot at higher shutterspeeds as camera shake from your hands will be more evident.

Wolfmother in concert

Aperture and Shutterspeed combined

While taking photos i’m often switching between Manual, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority in order to get the best result. If you’re just starting i’d set your camera to shutter priority, take some test shots and once you get to a setting that’s got enough light and is still sharp stick with that. On shutter priority the aperture will adjust automatically depending on the available light.

All digital photos have Exif data stored in them, this records all your camera settings for each photo. When you’re reviewing your photos later look at the Exif data and note the aperture and shutterspeed of your shots and you’ll begin to work out why the shots turned out the way they did. If you’re curious, all my shots in Flickr have this information available (for example).

Getting the shot

You can be technically adept but still take crap photos, the trick is knowing when to click the shutter. Watch the performance for a moment, where is the light on stage? You may have to wait for the performer to move into the light.

My favourite shots are ones that show emotion and energy. Go for a shot when the singer steps away from the mic, you don’t want it obscuring your shot. Try and get one when the singer is “in the moment”, reaching for a high note or gesticulating.

The other thing to remember is that if you’re shooting digital you can take lots of photos. Go nuts.

Selfish Cunt

Editing

After you’ve taken hundreds of shots at a show, cull them down to the best 20 or 30. Then cull that down to the best 3. If you’re going to show other people your photos don’t show them everything, just the very best. They’ll assume all your shots are that good.

Photoshop

Sometimes your photos may need a tweak in post-processing. This isn’t unique to digital photography, people have been tinkering in dark rooms forever so it’s certainly not cheating to adjust your images in Photoshop. I usually just adjust the levels. Make the blacks really black, bring up the contrast a little. Don’t change too much though, it’ll just look obvious and cheesy. Take a look at this guide to editing your digital images.

Flash

Generally forbidden and a big no no in concerts but sometimes it’s unavoidable to get a decent shot. I wouldn’t use an on camera flash, an external flash will work much better. If you’re in a small venue try bouncing it off a ceiling or wall. And don’t go crazy with the flash, it’s very distracting to the performer and audience, so if you have to use it keep it to an absolute minimum.

Zia

Etiquette

Be nice to those around you. Don’t shove your way to the front, if you want to get closer tap someone on the shoulder, smile and ask if they mind you moving forward to take some photos. If you need to stand right in front of someone ask them if they mind and promise you’ll only be there for a minute. Keep that promise and move on.

Don’t use flash, or if you have to, use it very sparingly. It’s distracting to others and will probably make your photos look crap anyway.

Respect security, if they tell you to stop taking photos it’s not worth the hassle to argue. Just put your camera away and enjoy the show.

Green Day

Well there’s some of my homespun lessons on live music photography. Hope it helps some other amateur snappers.

If you want to share and discuss your concert photos the Concert Photography and Live Music groups on Flickr might be a good spot. But feel free to leave comments here too.

UPDATE

I’ve just published a revised, expanded and improved version of this article – concert photography masterclass.

89 thoughts

  1. I like you stuff alot but we seem to have different approaches. I disagree about the flash comments completely. On camera yeah, flash sucks unless it’s B&w then the flatness looks OK .Get a set of pocket wizards and gel some nikon sb-whatevers and emulate the preexisting lighting set up or invent your own with different colors. if you are in a shit bar or club this may be your only salvation, this will not apply to big shot bands with their own lighting tech in a stadium or huge show. .. mount the strobes on light stands, one in the corner 45 degrees to your left the other slightly behind 45 degrees to your right. experiment see what works for you (that’s the fun part of lighting). keep em outta everyone’s way and pray that drunk people don’t knock them over. Gaffer tape the stands to the floor if you’re scared or if the club’s hopping. also if a goofball knocks it over take your taser out of your pocket and zap him/her in the throat. shoot at 1/8 or 1/16 power at whatever iso you can get away with, hopefully 400- 800. expose correctly and you have crystal clear shots with very little to no noise. I try to position them at 45 degree angles on either side of me, at certain angles you can use one as a rim light, backlight or key. The light will look different as you move closer to one or the other. It’s a common way to shoot action sports like skateboarding and bmx. I like this blog and don’t mean to sound like a dickhead, I found that off camera flashes can be used effectively instead of $3000 f 2.8 telephotos..Granted, the pocket wizards are expensive but worth every cent in my opinion. and you can keep it at 5.6 so even a cheaper lens will yield super sharp picts. I just feel that every asshole and his sister at the show has a fucking point and shoot and will flash constantly during the performance anyhow. If you can’t beat em..
    Your flashes set fairly low and the duration is quick and not that obtrusive .It’s going to be about the same intensity as the point and shoots. relying on ambient light in a sketchy place begets grainy/noisy ass, blurry picts. ( for me at least) people who want to pursue this area of photography will most likely be starting out with their friend’s band that plays at the local shit hole with red cellophane wrapped around three forty watt bulbs for lighting. maybe this will help?

  2. How about a tutorial on how to smuggle a 350d into a venue? So many places are stopping anyone with anything other than a cameraphone getting in!

  3. Hey man, just re-reading your tips before going to see Lake Trout tonight in chicago. Even though i probably wouldn’t have an issue with the camera in the relatively mid-size venue they’re playing at, i contacted them on myspace and asked their permission anyway, which was given so i am set. It’s also a good conversation starter. I’m using a Canon S2 IS which is not an SLR but has pretty good manual control and the image stabilization. I’ve gotten some pretty sick shots at bigger shows with good lighting; my favorites are from Slayer/Mastodon/LambOfGod a few months ago: http://www.flickr.com/photos/max_cascone/sets/72157594173849535/
    I hope you get a chance to check them out. I put those pics up before seeing your advice about picking a very small set of pics to show publicly; even still, the 121 pics up there are about 20-25% of the pics i took over the course of the show.
    Like I said I’m using the Canon S2 IS but am now pining after either a Nikon D50 or RebelXT. The price diff between the Rebel and D50 would pay for a nice high-aperture lens, and i’ve already invested in the SD cards for the S2 so i’m leaning towards the D50. Any suggestions?
    Thanks!
    Max

  4. Well i use the 350D and love it – so that’d be my recommendation. People also tell me that Canon performs a little better than Nikon in the high ISO range above 800.
    But those SD cards won’t work in the Canon. So it’s a tough call.

  5. I definalty want to be a music photographer. Im in digital photography class right now and im looking up stuff about this job for a paper. so thanks your information really helped.

  6. Thanks for a brilliantly and succinctly written article! “Pin sharp” is an elusive goal, especially at a poorly-lit, rocking-out show. However, sometimes the best shot is all blur and motion.
    I think knowing the band is the most valuable tool in the photographer’s bag. That and asking permission; bands love to have photos taken, and all except the most popular will happily say yes to a request to document their show. Politeness goes a long way, especially in the world of rock.

  7. Hey great advice! I was about to use my flash tomorrow but you made a good point about the annoyance factor of the flash. So tomorrow night I work flashless and keep my fingers crossed that something will turn out. Besides I suck with a flash anyhow, but since this will be my first concert taking photos I thought I would need to use the flash…guess not. Thanks again!

  8. Hey, Thanks for this page its full of great advice. I also own an EOS 350D and have just started using it for live stuff. Can you recommend any particular lenses? At the moment I am just using the stock standard one but am wanting to get something a bit more specific. As you mentioned there are some 50mm f1.8 lenses that are not too expensive kicking around at the moment, do you feel that with a 50mm lens you can get close enough to the action or do you use something bigger?
    Thanks.

  9. Dan,
    Thanks for your reply to my earlier post (Aug 5 ’06). I’m pretty sure I’m going to go Canon, partly because two of friends have rebels so lenses could be shared; and partly due to the supposed better performance at high ISOs. I was looking at the Rebel XT/i, but I’ve recently been thinking about the 20/30d. The 30 has spot metering, which you say is key, and I don’t think the Rebel has it. You get such incredible pics with the Rebel though that I’m rethinking the 20/30d and reconsidering the Rebel. I don’t really like the way it feels in my hand, but that could be fixed with a) a battery grip or b)getting used to it. What do you think? Is a 20/30D worth it for what we’re buying them for?
    I’ve got a photo pass to Mastodon tonight in Chicago. I’m sick, but this is a show I will not miss, especially with a pass.
    Peace
    Max

  10. If you’ve got the money i’d get the 30D, mainly for that addition of spot metering, which would help with live stuff. But as you know, i use the Rebel XT (350D) and am totally happy with it. So i’m sure you’ll be happy with whatever you choose.

  11. This was very informative and very helpful! Appreciate your shared knowledge on photography – and I’ll use my flash less now.

  12. nice pic dude and appreciate your shared knowledge on photography…
    I take too…music photography may be next time, u must see my photo….

  13. Thanks for your quick reply again Dan. Yeah, the 30D is twice the price, and probably not twice as nice… but definitely nicer. I’ve seen a bunch on Craigslist for pretty good prices. How do you feel about used cameras?

  14. Great advice. Thank you so much… but like the other poster, I’d love to get a specific advice from you on a nice lens for the rebel. Tell us which one you have or recommend. Thanks!

  15. hey
    id just like to say that i have found your website of some great use
    i have just started a national diploma course on photography
    but thatnks for the tips!

  16. Hi
    I am doing a photography course and concentrating on music photography. What kind of Flash would you recommend? I have a Nikon F80 film slr.
    Thanks
    Claire
    Glasgow, Scotland

  17. I’m not familiar with Nikon flashes at all i’m afraid. Any flash where you can direct it up, left, right and backwards ought to do the trick.

  18. Dan,
    I love your article! I’ve been shooting live music for 13 years (worked for “On The Street” in Sydney when I first started) now I’m based in San Francisco.
    When people ask how it’s done I’ll be sending them here to get the scoop!
    Awesome shots!
    p.s. my stuff is at http://www.haliphoto.com

  19. I just wish I had an article like this when I started with my live photography. I had to learn on the hard way. These are great tips, and even though Im doing this for over a year now, I learned a thing or two. Thanks for sharing.

  20. hey, im 15 and ive been asked to do some photography for a local live venue, as im not so great at photography as of yet i found your article really healpfull
    thankyou

  21. HEY DAN!
    awsome work.
    I wanna know how you get your camera into venues. Im not from TO but how many places will let you shoot and/or do you often get a pass?
    im going to see PROPAGANDHI on wed. and i wanna shoot this show!!!!!
    dunno if its possible. THEY are going to blow everyone away! holy shit.
    thanks , mp

  22. hey Dan!
    Great site
    Love all the advice you have given, its very cool. just have a quick question, i’m a student and cash is tight, really cannot the rebel xt at the moment, so is there any other affordable camera you would recommend for someone just starting out?
    Thanks,
    keep up the great work

  23. Andy – if you want to get really good shots it’s going to be tough without an SLR. Fuji makes a smaller camera that goes up to 1600 ISO, the F10, that could be ok.
    As would other camera’s that give you manual control over aperture and shutterspeed.

  24. Hi, thanks your website was very helpful, I go to so many concerts its so not funny, I cant always get a camera in, but now that i have a deceint camera i am looking forward to taking more pics, I bought a Kodak Z612 12x optical zoom and 6.1mp, maybe take a look at my site http://m420swed.spaces.live.com/ and let me know what you think. all the INXS pics are with the new cam from about 200 yards back, the Def Leoppard are with the old camera from 2nd row lol what a difference!!

  25. Hi Dan
    great tips – thanks a million! after reading this i went for the canon 350d & picked up a f2 50mm fixed lens. while i miss the zoom, i think it gets some pretty good shots.. the only problem is, as people have said before on here, getting an slr into a venue..
    ach well, I can keep trying :-)
    posted some shots at http://www.flickr.com/photos/scooooter
    Cheers,
    Scott

  26. Nice article and good tips. The two things I would add is to try and try again, for me it has been all about trial and error, trying harder and making more errors until you find what works, then tweak the levels in photoshop to make it better. I really like your advice about narrowing down to two or three shots, rarely are there more than five moments in a show that have different emotions and come out in the camera clearly. The newest thing I have been trying is your advice about underexposing to get a clear shot and fixing the levels in photoshop and it has opened a whole new door for me. Also if you have a digital SLR, shoot in RAW.

  27. Hi There!
    Thanx for all the really useful info!!
    I’m just starting out and have recently got the
    Fuji FinePix S5600 Zoom Digital Camera [5.0MP,10xOptical Zoom] as a gift!
    In yr opinion,Is this any good for music photography?
    Many thanx again!

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