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.
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).
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.
If your camera allows you to change the type of light metering you should set it to spot mode.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well there’s some of my homespun lessons on live music photography. Hope it helps some other amateur snappers.
I’ve just published a revised, expanded and improved version of this article – concert photography masterclass.