As both a musician and a photographer, I have spent an extensive amount of time photographing at various types of concerts. This article is going to offer a number of suggestions to improve your concert photography in a wide variety of situations. Much of this article will include information related to a concert I was fortunate enough to photograph just a couple weeks ago, the band Phish, at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia. Other tips will be related to classical concerts, both for intimate settings/recitals, and for large scale venues like orchestra concerts.
Get the right lenses for the job
In virtually every concert setting, one of the most challenging factors is the amount of light you will be working with. Most of the time flash is completely prohibited, so you need to be prepared to gather as much light as possible with fast glass. The lenses I always take for concert photography are my Canon 24-70 2.8, Canon 70-200 2.8, and I actually also usually pack my 100mm 2.8L Macro. A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to get a press pass to photograph my favorite band (Phish,) and for that show, I also rented a 16-35 2.8 on the advice of Nick Page. There were only four press passes issued for the show, so we had enough room in the photographers to set out our lenses. One of the other guys noticed my 16-35, and I noticed his 15mm fisheye, so we traded. The next time I head out to a big rock show from the pit, I will definitely take both the 16-35 AND the fisheye.
2. Know The Proper Etiquette
Each genre of music has its own conventions and traditions. In rock, obviously you aren't going to be shooting at the “wrong time.” That changes very dramatically when you start shooting other types of concerts. The most challenging type of music to shoot at appropriate times is in a classical recital or concert. In classical concerts, it is especially important to be mindful of the volume level of the music. If the musician(s) are performing an incredibly soft section of music, it is not necessarily appropriate to be clicking away with a shutter. When shooting classical recitals, I always set my shutter to the quiet mode, but that's still an audible sound. The best thing to do is to wait until a peak where the music is in a louder section, and then take the shots you need. If you are not used to attending classical concerts, when you look at the program, try to identify any songs that includes multiple movements (usually indicated by roman numerals.) Traditionally there is no clapping between those movements, and it's a good idea not to break the silence in between them if it's a particularly dramatic piece of music.
3. Use The Quiet Times For Creative Shot Planning
The inability to shoot while the music is very soft is actually a very handy way to help slow you down as a photographer, and encourage you to plan out some creative shots. Classical performances are often not very interesting visually. If you shoot like crazy through an entire recital, it's almost guaranteed that 95% of your images will be redundant, unnecessary shutter clicks. Take the time where you can't make noise, and try to find creative ways to frame the performers. This really varies tremendously depending on how the stage is set up, and whether the artists are moving, or stationary. I have a recurring engagement with a Piano Society to photograph piano recitals. Depending on the pianist, there often is a very limited number of facial expressions to capture. Whenever possible, I try to play with reflections off the piano lid, or any other creative angle/approach that I can think of.
4. Try To Get Access To Rehearsals
During rehearsals, it is sometimes possible to arrange access directly to the stage. With proper lighting and angles, you can often take superb images of a performer, and it will appear as though they are in performance, even when they are not. The photo above was taken during a run-through just prior to the actual concert. This particular student was located in the middle of the stage, where there is no possible way to get a good photograph of them performing during the a concert. Having access to the stage let me set up this shot. There was a student directly in front of him, who's back was in the original shot. Content Aware fill in photoshop instantly removed the shoulder and music stand that were in the shot, and even extended the bow to fill the empty space. That minor edit which took only 10 seconds in photoshop made a vastly stronger image.
5. Don't Throw Away Over-Saturated Photos From Strong Concert Lighting
Stage lighting can be extremely aggressive and hard to deal with in terms of producing a visually pleasing image. In the image above, you can see how saturated and over-done the blue was from the stage lighting. But rather than consider the photo as useless, it is extremely usable as a black and white image. Another possibility is to go into the HSL layer, and just pull down the blues until they are less overwhelming. The saturation can be pulled down as well. The greatest word of advice, though, is to use the incredible power of post-processing to bring back images that might at first glance appear to be “throw aways.”
I mentioned earlier the experience I had with a borrowed fish-eye lens. Concerts are by their nature very ‘artsy' events. As a photographer capturing these events, it's great to think ‘outside the box.' The fish-eye lens gave an absolutely spectacular view of the stage. While using this lens, it's very helpful to be centered on the stage. Most stages will have a visible marker to show center stage. There is often a piece of gaffer's tape or an “X” marking the center spot. The fish-eye shots that I took off-center were not compositionally strong. When positioned exactly at the mid-point of the stage, however, a terrific perspective of the performers, stage lights, and even the rigging up above, all came into the frame. This photo was overwhelmingly red, and as I described above, I went into the HSL layer an pulled down the red saturation quite a bit. It's still a predominately red shot, but the beams of green and orange light are really striking. I used the small “bullseye tool” to isolate those colors and strengthen them a bit.
7. Don't Automatically Opt for you Most Open Aperture!
One thing I immediately learned when Phish started their performance is that a big-time rock band has a LOT of lights. I was taking photos of the stage prior to the concert, and I was set at ISO 8,000, f2.8, and could get down to 1/200th of a second. As soon as the band took the stage, and the light show started, I was instantly blowing everything out. I had spoken to the house photographer, and he had shot the night before, and he warned me ahead of time that he ended up at ISO 1250. So, as soon as the concert started, I immediately went to his setting. It really paid off. Another concert photographer I had spoken to offered the advice to never open up as wide as possible. His reasoning was that you need at least some depth of field in order to allow for the subtle movement of musicians, and you want the guitar players' hands AND faces in focus, and at 2.8 or lower, the depth of field could be so shallow that you would have one sharp, but the other starting to be out of focus. Although the stage light adjusted quickly and wildly, while set at ISO 1250, I could leave my aperture at 4.5, and still have a relatively fast shutter speed. This shot was 1/1250, so you get the jumping guitar player fairly sharp and crisp. This band isn't exactly jumping around like a death metal band, so 1/1250 was definitely fast enough to stop their movement. Another shot of just the drummer was able to stop his drum stick in the air crisply enough to read “Vic Firth” on the stick. Of course I sent tht image to Vic Firth!
This advice came from Nick Page. I have to give a shout-out to Nick for all the help he gave me before I went to this shoot. He answered a number of questions on the Improve Photography Facebook Group, but then he answered even more when I reached out with some additional questions on settings. All of his tips were amazing, but I think the one that I appreciated the most was to turn on the “blinkies,” so that you can see blown out highlights when looking at an image on the back of the camera. The goal here is to expose so that just the very slightest areas of extreme lighting are blown out, but the overwhelming majority of the lighting is not. This works out wonderfully, because your camera is actually showing you a mini jpg of the photo on the LCD screen. There is less dynamic range there, so those tiny bits of over-saturation will be just fine in your RAW file. We all shoot RAW, correct? Yes… of course we do!
9. Assume Nothing, but Don't Panic
Photographing during this light show was like photographic gymnastics. The lighting changes were often wildly extreme. It would go from excessively blaring brightness, to ultra-dim dramatic shadows and mood lighting. I found myself trying to estimate the number of stops that the stage had changed, and started to adjust by counting clicks. The band only allowed photographers to shoot the first three songs, so the first tendency is to panic, and try to fire off as many as possible in that short time allowed. One of the best pieces of advice that I picked up before this opportunity was to stay very calm, and just trust your instincts. I have been a huge fan of the band Phish for over twenty years. The opportunity to photograph them in concert was just incredible for me, but the opportunity would have been wasted if I would have just started shooting carelessly. It's better to get 50-100 good shots, than to get 500 haphazard and chaotic ones.
NOTHING trumps good light. The image to the right uses extremely large windows to throw wonderful light on these two subjects. The white balance in this particular room is a nightmare, thus the conversion to Black & White, but the light that comes through the large windows in this recital hall is incredible. The large curtains and the walls are all an orange color/peach color that somehow managed to make flesh tones look weird, no matter what I did, so in order to process them efficiently for delivery to the client, I switched over to Black & White, and let the lighting really work its magic. The client absolutely adored the “timeless beauty” of the black & white images, and the artistic vision. To be honest, I simply adored the fact that I got great looking images without trying to figure out the goofy coloring in the room!
After shooting the Phish show for this article with ImprovePhotography.com, I reached out to the contact with whom I arranged the press credential. It turns out that only four press passes were available for the concert, so I was pretty darned lucky to be granted one of them. I started to write a thank-you email that I was going to spin off into a request to come shoot more high-profile concerts. It seemed a bit too self-serving, so I just left it as a “thank you” email, plus an offer to allow the venue to use my photos as long as they agreed to give proper photo credit. They were absolutely thrilled with the gesture, and I received a very kind and enthusiastic reply. The opportunity to build a relationship and hopefully to foster good will, and hopefully to create more opportunities to shoot seems to outweigh the impact it would have had if I had piggy-backed another request for a pass with the “thank-you.” Time will be the judge as to whether this was a good choice or not, but there were certainly a lot of great vibes shared between the venue and I for the opportunity to create and then share some images of my favorite rock band.
Good luck, and Happy shooting!