How To Photograph A Concert

If you’ve visited my blog before you’ll be no stranger to the fact i love photographing live music, the combination of being at a concert and getting to use my camera to capture the moment is something that’s always appealed to me.  After photographing my first concert i was hooked and i knew it was something i wanted to do a lot more of.  I’m fortunate enough to have photographed dozens of bands at a wide range of venues and feel i have now got a good amount of experience, this has helped me refine my workflow to the point where it’s a repeatable and reliable process.

MC Ad-Apt

So, what do i mean by workflow? To me, it’s about my approach to the concert, how i shoot the gig, what i do after, how i select and process the photos and how i deliver them to the band. Having a strict process can help you deliver consistent results and enable you to be confident and well prepared for the task in hand. During this blog i’ll detail my approach to concert photography and hopefully you’ll be able to pick up some tips along the way, or maybe just compare it to your own and give me some recommendations on how i can save time or better prepare. I’ll break the process down into 5 steps and describe each one in detail, starting with preparation, shooting, import, processing and finally; export.

Preparation

For me, this is a really important part of the workflow, if i’m well prepared then i’ll be confident and have a good feeling about the concert, there’s nothing worse than rushing or feeling like you haven’t prepared properly; turning up with the wrong kit, at the wrong time, with low batteries or half full memory cards could be the difference between creating brilliant images and having a night to forget.

Venue – i always research the venue if it’s somewhere i haven’t been before; ideally i want to know what the venue’s like, what vantage points there are for me to photograph from (raised bar, balcony etc), how high the stage is, what the lighting setup is like and even things like parking. Once i’ve answered most of these it will allow me to make a good judgement about what kit i’m going to need. Is it a really small club or a large academy type venue? Will i need my 20mm, my 50mm or perhaps my 24-70mm? If it looks dark i’ll likely take my 20mm and 50mm as they have larger maximum apertures (1.8 & 1.4) than my 24-70mm (2.8) which in low light can make all the difference.

State Champs Cologne

Credentials – this is a pretty important one. What level of access do you have for the concert? Have you been invited to photograph by the band? If so, you’ll likely have AAA (access all areas) and you’ll be able to photograph the whole show from pretty much anywhere you want. If you’re being given a Photo Pass (most common type) this means you’ll usually have access to the photo pit (between the crowd and the stage) for the first three songs, then depending on the venue and staff, you may be able to photograph the rest of the show from the crowd. If it’s a much larger venue or a stricter promoter / performer, you might only be able to photograph from the sound desk which is usually positioned quite far away and you’ll be shooting ‘front on’. There may be occasions where you need an escort to get into the venue or into the photo pit, make sure you know what level of access you have, what the rules are and where you need to pick up your pass. Always double check rules if you’re thinking of using a flash as well, most of the time you won’t be allowed to unless you have permission from the band or it’s a small pub / club type venue with more relaxed rules.

Senses Fail Starland Ballroom

The Band – this one might seem a little obvious but there are a number of small advantages you can gain from doing your research here.  If you already know the band or have photographed them before then you should have a good idea of what to expect, if not, it always pays to look up some previous set lists to see what they’re likely to open with, maybe watch a couple videos from previous concerts and get an idea of the energy that they bring to the stage.  You might end up learning that the singer is left handed, so you’re better off standing to his right to capture an unobstructed portrait; maybe the guitarist spins his guitar during a certain part of the opening track, or the drummer might even stand up and cross his sticks before he sits down. If they’re a bigger band they might have pyrotechnics or other additions to their set that you can make a mental note of.

Senses Fail

Your Kit – This one should be pretty straightforward, i always make sure i have two fully charged batteries and two formatted memory cards.  I’ve never had to swap a battery or memory card but it’s nice knowing the spare is there just in case i need it.  If i’m uncertain of the venue or what lens i might need then i’ll occasionally take a spare, but it’s not ideal to be changing lenses in the dark and certainly not in the photo pit. I like to travel light and be confident in my preparation and ability. Don’t be afraid to take too much for your first few concerts, if that makes you feel better than thats fine, the more you shoot you’ll start to realise that you need a lot less gear than you first thought! Also, don’t forget one of the most important things you’ll need; ear plugs, these will be an absolute life saver, you can do some serious damage to your hearing if you don’t wear them, so make sure to have a couple pairs in your bag, coat or car, never rely on the venue to provide them.

BBC Introducing

Shooting

So, by now you should be inside the venue, have the right kit with you and a good bit of knowledge about the band you’re going to be shooting.  It always helps to ask for the stage times when you pick up your pass, if the venue is busy it can sometimes take you a good 5-10 minutes to get through the crowd and to the photo pit, if the headliner is on at 10pm, i’ll try and be in place 5 or 10 minutes before that. If you have a bag on you, ask security where you can put it, you don’t want to be wearing it whilst taking photos and it will obstruct other photographers and the security, i usually leave mine under the stage to one side so i can grab it on the way out of the photo pit. Being in position early also gives you a bit of time to check over your settings and shake off any nerves you might have.

If it’s your first time photographing a concert then you’ve probably been wondering what settings you should be using to get the best results; this will vary greatly depending on what lens you’re using and how much light there is in the venue. You might wonder if it’s best to shoot in auto or perhaps aperture priority, to use spot or evaluative metering. Personally, i always shoot full manual when i’m at concerts, whilst cameras might be great at choosing the right settings in most environments, when the lighting is changing so often it can really throw off the metering on your camera, one moment your camera might change to 1/1000th of a second because its been hit with a spotlight and then as the light moves it drops down to 1/8th which isn’t much use to anybody. For me, it’s important to get a clean and crisp photo, i don’t like motion blur when i’m shooting live music, so i tend to want my shutter at around 1/250th of a second, which freezes most things; from there it’s a case of changing my aperture and ISO accordingly to make sure i get a good exposure, no worries if it’s a little under exposed, you’ll be able to recover that pretty easy in post processing. Some bands my be a lot more stationary than others,  you might find that 1/60th of a second works fine, other times you might really struggle as they race around the stage, this is where doing your research will give you a head start.

Senses Fail

If your camera is capable of shooting in RAW then this will be a massive help to you as well, i won’t go into too much detail here but essentially it will allow you to capture more image data from the sensor, perfect for boosting the exposure or shadows when developing the image that would otherwise not be possible if you were shooting in JPEG.

Don’t forget that you’ll also need to ensure your shutter speed is fast enough to account for the focal length of the lens. To avoid any shaking or blur, typically i’ll aim to have my shutter speed no slower than 1.5x the focal length, for example if i’m shooting with a 50mm lens that means around 1/80th of a second minimum. Some cameras and lenses will have built in image stabilisation to help you shoot at slower shutter speeds but this is still a good rule to follow.

By this time you’ve probably got a good idea about the sort of photos you want to capture, if you’ve only got 3 songs in the photo pit then that time will fly by, so make sure you get a couple good shots in the bag before trying anything else, i usually concentrate on the singer or frontman for the first song and make sure i get the safe shots before moving on the the other band members. If you’re really confident you can also try and get some silhouettes or other slightly more creative efforts as well. Whilst you’re in the photo pit it’s important to be aware of your surroundings,  it’s really easy to trip over in here, watch out for security and other photographers and be especially careful of crowd-surfers coming over the barricade, you might also need to keep an eye out for the band if they jump into the crowd or get close to the edge of the stage. Try not to spend too much time previewing your photos, just a quick glance every now and again should give you an idea about exposure and whether you need to adjust that shutter speed. Once your 3 songs are up the security guards should motion for you to leave, which you need to do as quickly and safely as possible.

If you’ve been invited to photograph by the band and you have access to the stage you MUST remember to be very careful of where you stand,  how you access the stage,  where you place your bag, how close you get to the band members and how much of a distraction you are to the crowd.  Your job is to be as subtle as possible; if i’m planning on taking close up photos on the stage or standing behind the drummer i will always mention this to them before the set to make sure i have their permission and they are aware of it, you are entering their space and you need to make sure you’re not creating any risks for yourself or the band.  You should also introduce yourself to any of the crew as well and don’t take it personally if they ask you to leave or get out of their way, it’s the crew and technicians job to make sure the set runs smoothly and that the band can get all the help they need, you are the least important person here.

Senses Fail Starland Ballroom

If you’re allowed to carry on photographing from around the venue it will be a much more relaxed affair, but try not to get in the way of people who are here to enjoy the event, now might be the time to try some more creative photos or some wider ‘crowd shots’.

Importing

You’ve just finished up at the concert and you’ve got a memory card full of amazing photos, so what do you do now? First thing i always want to do is make sure my photos are backed up.  I’ll import them into Lightroom from the SD card and then copy them across to an external hard drive, which means i now have 3 copies of the images; from here i’ll view all of the photos and i’ll rate them using the ‘star’ feature in Lightroom, there’s no right or wrong way of how you select and edit photos, whatever works best for you. If the photo looks good and i think it’s worth editing i’ll give it a rating of 1 star, if it’s ok but nothing special then i won’t star it, if the photo is poor then i’ll give it a rating of 3 stars.  From here i can apply a filter in Lightroom to show me all the 3 star photos where i’ll delete them and pretend i never took them, before moving on to the processing or editing stage…

You can also apply settings in bulk during your import, now might be a good time to think about that if you want to automatically add copyright information or a develop preset to all of your images.

Processing

Once all the images are imported, I’ll then filter by the 1 star images which are my ‘keepers’ and start working my way through and editing them. I’ve got a couple standard presets that i use for my music photography which help my images maintain a similar look and feel to each other, most of my edits will be cropping or making local adjustments to shadows or highlights,  i’ll often use the graduated filter which works great to help bring up the exposure or darken an image from one edge whilst looking quite natural. Now is also a good time to adjust the overall exposure of the image if you were deliberately under exposing to maintain a fast shutter speed. If you’ve edited an image and really like the look and feel of it, you can always copy those settings to another photo or make a new preset from those settings,  giving you a good baseline to work from on future photos.

Capsize Band

I don’t like spending too much time processing the images,  i want to edit them and get them posted on social media or sent to the band as soon as possible and the most fun for me is actually taking them, not processing. I also think that you should try and get the best results out of camera rather than getting a little lazy and relying on post processing or editing to help you out.  When i’m processing images i’ll usually listen to the band i’ve just been photographing, that can help me create a mood in my images that reflects their style, whether it’s bright, fun, colourful, gritty or dark. If i really like a certain image i’ll often process it in colour and black and white to see what works best, you’ll also be amazed how many times you can rescue a photo by converting it to black and white.

Capsize Band

You shouldn’t put too much pressure on having a high number of images from a concert, as a minimum i want to get 5 or 10 images, if you have 50 then chances are most of them will look quite similar and people won’t want or need to see that many. Bands will often only want a handful of photos from the concert to share or post on different forms of social media and maybe some to use for future promotional material, so even 5 or 10 would be enough for them, they’ll be busy looking forward to the next concert or event by which time your photos will be out of date.  If you do get others, they can always be used for your portfolio or a blog post like this!

As a final note, once i’ve edited all of my favourite photos, I’ll give them a rating of 2 stars. This means i can quickly filter all the best images if i want to export them again or post to social media, copy settings, make a preset etc. You can also add key words to images in Lightroom which is a good way of quickly filtering and finding images.

Exporting

By this stage you’ve got all of your original files backed up onto a hard drive and you’ve now edited all of your favourite ones. Once i’ve finished editing my images, i’ll export them onto a hard drive into a separate folder for ‘processed’ images; that way i’ve got the edits and the originals separately if i ever want to go back and make some changes or try out new presets. When i export the images i’ll do so in the largest file size possible with maximum quality (100%), this ensures that if i ever want to print the photos or bands want to use a specific image in higher resolution then the copies on my hard drive are the best available quality for doing so.

State Champs London

For sending myself images to post on social media or sharing a folder of photos with the band i always use dropbox which i find is a great tool and requires little effort, simply drag the folder of exported images into your dropbox folder and let it sync in the background, you can then copy the link to your folder and send it to multiple people at the same time. They do a great basic account with 2gb of free storage which is more than enough to get you started, people can then choose what photos they want to download and use themselves.

If i’m exporting images to post on my blog, social media or send to the band then i’ll usually do it at slightly smaller file sizes, just to make the process more manageable; i do this by putting a file size limit on my export options in Lightroom, usually something like 8mb, i’ll often reduce the size of the image to help with this as well e.g. from 6000 x 4000 to 3000 x 2000 (the images on this blog are even smaller at 1440 x 960).

Senses Fail

I hope you’ve liked reading some of my tips and have picked something up for yourself, if you’re going to be photographing a gig soon and have any questions, please feel free to comment and i’ll do my best to answer. If you don’t want to ask publicly then head over to my About page and send me an email. Most importantly, remember to have fun!

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