How to be a Concert Photographer
In today’s text, we will show you how to be a concert photographer, show you the best camera settings when photographing a concert, useful tips, but you will also be able to read a little more about the history and origin of concert photography itself.
Music photography came to life with Rock & Roll, and the images were mostly black and white. During the “film” era, photographers preferred color negative film and medium format cameras, especially Hasselblad. Today, many more concerts are photographed with digital SLR cameras, because digital convenience allows for quick detection of mistakes (lighting, depth of field, etc.) and the photographer can see some new, creative approach.
Despite the decline in the use of film, some concert photographers continue to shoot with film because they prefer that aesthetic, and others feel that negative film captures more information than digital technology. During the 1950s and 1960s, every band that appeared on the radio attracted public interest, and posters, photos and magazines were just as important as records.
At that time, the most respected music photographers were Gered Mankowitz (Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix), Robert Altman (Rolling Stone Magazine) and Ethan Russell (Jim Morrison, John Lennon). They laid the foundation for what would become a very popular and lucrative career in the following decades.
With the arrival of long hair bands, glam rock and Sunset Strip bands in Hollywood, music photography reached a whole new level. There were so many bands and musicians, that there were just as many music photographers. Everyone needed a photo to promote, to get a contract with one of the record companies. One of the most famous photographers of the 80s is Mick Rock (Lou Reed, New York Dolls, Thin Lizzie, David Bowie), and Karl Larsen, who worked as the main photographer at House of Blues and photographed some of the biggest acts of this decade. Today, music photography is a little different, and photographers more often choose freelance jobs, unlike the previous ones who worked for magazines and concert halls.
That way, I can work for unknown bands and expand my horizons, rather than specializing in a certain genre or style suitable for the concert hall I would be photographing. For those still interested in music photography, there are plenty of options. Bringing music and photography together is quite satisfying, and music photography brings two different art forms together to bring a whole new dimension to what would otherwise be simple photography.
Best Camera Settings for Concert Photography
Correct camera settings are key to answering the question of How to be a concert photographer and get quality concert photos in low light conditions.
- Manual mode
Manual mode gives the flexibility needed for this kind of photography. It is important to check the histogram to determine if the exposure is correct and to correct the settings if necessary. For beginners, it is recommended to use AV mode (Aperture Priority – fixed aperture).
- Large lens aperture (lowest value)
It is essential to use the lowest aperture values of the lens as this allows the largest possible amount of light to fall on the sensor and is the most important setting in low light conditions.
- High shutter speed
Considering the multitude of movements and movements on stage, it is mandatory to use a high shutter speed (1/200s and higher), otherwise the photos will be blurry.
- High ISO value
The ISO value refers to the sensitivity of the analog film or camera sensor. The higher this value, the less light is needed for correct exposure. Depending on the device itself, a good starting point for the ISO value is 1600. Also, in case of slow shutter speed, i.e. slow exposure time, it is necessary to increase the ISO value.
- Point measurement
Spot metering is a precise way of measuring the light of a certain small part of an object or scene and is done in the middle, on about 2-4% of the viewfinder surface. To get the correct exposure settings for concert photography, it is essential to use spot metering, as it allows focusing on the artist who is most often illuminated by a spotlight, while the rest of the stage is in darkness. When using evaluative metering (in automatic shooting mode), the camera will read the light in multiple areas and the result will be overexposed faces and dark backgrounds.
- Middle point of autofocus
In low light conditions, the most correct focal point is the central one. If we want to avoid that the artist is always at the center of the composition, recomposition is necessary. This is achieved by shifting the focus to the artist’s face. To be able to use this way of focusing, it is necessary to use the Autofocus single setting (AF-S with Nikon, One Shot with Canon), otherwise the camera will continue to focus even during the repositioning of the frame.
- Auto white balance
The use of automatic white balance is preferable when shooting in RAW format because in this way the settings can be changed in post-production.
- Burst Mode
Setting the camera to Burst mode allows you to take multiple shots at once (three to four), which is an advantage when shooting motion and in low-light conditions.
- The flash is never used
In addition to the fact that photos with flash do not produce quality photos, the use of flash is prohibited at concerts.
- RAW format
Shooting in RAW format allows great freedom in post-production. In the case of JPEG shooting, the camera’s processor adds contrast, saturation, and sharpness, which can sometimes look good, but doesn’t leave much room for additional processing. When shooting in RAW format, images are saved as raw and unprocessed, and all settings can be changed later.
Useful Tips for Photographing Concerts
Every concert is different, so every concert should be approached as a new challenge. The concert may be held in the same, familiar space, but the demands of the performers, the number of people at the concert and several other conditions can significantly change the photography strategy.
The most important advice is to protect yourself and your equipment first. No photo is worth the injury or destroyed equipment. Photographers often neglect the camera strap and don’t put it around their neck but just carry it in their hands, which is the worst thing a photographer can do to their equipment during a concert.
Although a photo pit has been introduced in large halls and photographers are in a safe space between the audience and the performers, very often the limitation of photographing only the first three songs forces photographers to continue taking photos outside the safety of the photo pit to capture the best possible moments. At concerts where the photographer is part of the audience, he must be prepared for the fact that the equipment can be damaged, not only by impacts but also by liquids (water, sweat, rain…).
Considering that during the concert the movement of the photographer is relatively limited, he must know the best positions from which he can photograph those special moments. If the entire concert is photographed from the same position, the photos will not be interesting or faithfully portray the atmosphere of the concert. Therefore, changing the position during the concert is essential to obtain variety and dynamism.
Very often the result of photography depends on the lighting. The lighting at concerts can be all kinds: flashy, colorful, stroboscopic, red (worst for digital photography), non-existent, etc. For stage lighting, a pair of reflectors are most often used, which have a strong light output and the ability to change the color of the light.
In the past, colored foil was placed in front of the reflectors to change the color of the light, but the new LED reflectors can change color with one click of the mouse. Considering that lighting decisions are made by the lightman at the request of the contractor or manager, the photographer is not able to influence the lighting.
The two worst types of lighting that will make it very difficult for a photographer to take photos are red lighting and stroboscopic lighting. Under red light, the camera has difficulty distinguishing different lengths of light, and it is very difficult to get details and good contrast in the photo.
Strobe lighting is discontinuous lighting whose interval is very small, and it is very difficult for the photographer to snap a photo before the lighting changes completely. In such a situation, it is best to wait for the light effect to change or to take photos in burst mode, but with the possibility that even then we will not get good photos.
To get the best possible photos and answer the questions about how to be a concert photographer, it is necessary to use these unusual light conditions to your advantage. Very often, performers on stage have unusual light sources, unusual colors and installations that are interesting motifs.
The whole scene is transformed, so the photos will be interesting. In addition to light, the effect of dry smoke is also used to create a mist and a mystical atmosphere. All of these props work to the photographer’s advantage once one learns how they work.
The photographer must also be alert during the entire concert and watch the performance. Performers very often perform incredible things on stage and it is most important to record these moments. If the concert has a calmer atmosphere, the photographer can use various effects. An often neglected but incredibly good effect is the use of double exposure because in a way the photographer shows the movement.
If the performer allows it, the photographer can climb on the stage itself. Emotions and facial expressions not only of the performers but also of the audience are an essential element of the concert atmosphere. Laughter, crying, aggression and other emotions will lead to a more interesting photo.
It is also important to remember that at a concert there is not only a performer, but also an audience that often interacts with the performer, either by singing, dancing, stage diving, mosh pits, etc. It is important to capture a photo of each member of the band and a few group photos because the band is not just the frontman but also everyone who plays in the band.
The question is often asked which lenses are best to use for concert photography. There are no rules here, although telephoto lenses are better for photographers who are far back in the audience. Fixed focal length lenses can be useful, but it is better to use lenses that can take on the role of multiple lenses in one to keep the equipment as compact as possible.
Wide-angle lenses and fisheye lenses give an interesting effect and perspective distortion.
A flash is an undesirable piece of equipment at concerts. The performers are very often out of the range of the flash and flat light photos are not interesting. It is also important to put yourself in the position of a performer who is sometimes pointed at by twenty cameras. Using flashes in these situations is tiring and distracting for the performer.
There are countless useful tips when photographing concerts, but besides taking care of the equipment, the most important thing is to capture the atmosphere of the concert and the flow of emotions in a few photos.