Thoughts, experiences and best practices for concert photography written by Lost In Concert Founder, Brendan Shanley.
So, you wanna shoot a rock show?
Of course you do. It sounds awesome, right? Getting the up close and intimate shots of artists as they rock out literally inches away from you. Getting into the show for free. Meeting the bands and photographing their portrait. Late nights and loud music—I was born for this party. If this is your idea of what photographing live shows is like, you’ve got another thing coming.
For years I’ve been enjoying the lush live music scene all across the country. One thing that’s always annoyed me is the strict camera policies for the concert goers. In 2009, I started Lost In Concert with the mission to help people live and relive concert moments through better photography. Today, Lost In Concert is a widespread collective of photographers and writers who all share a similar love for the live music experience. It’s this love for sharing and a love for live music that keeps us creating new content regularly—despite other jobs and commitments. The most common reply I hear when I tell someone I shoot live music is, “Oh man! That’s great, huh? I love going to shows.” I laugh a little every time because I completely understand this point of view. Hell, I used to think the exact same way. And while it is certainly still fun, for me and those like me, the concert experience is completely different.
Where does the process begin?
To shoot shows you typically have to shoot for a publication of some sort in order to be granted photo and press credentials for a show. If you aren’t affiliated with a media outlet I’d suggest emailing your portfolio to the outlets whose work you admire and aspire to be like the most. Hell, email us if you’re serious about upping your game. Some photographers may also build a reputation for themselves as concert photographers and can gain credentials on behalf of the band directly. If you want to start down this rabbit hole but can’t find a media outlet that will work with you, usually based on lack of portfolio, try finding out which venues in your area don’t have strict camera policies. Every city has some place like this. Start building your portfolio by shooting at these venues and by trying to meet local bands and getting them to have you shoot their shows. You’d be surprised what you can get if you just ask for it. I’ll walk you through some important points you should know about before you answer the initial question: So, you wanna shoot a rock show?
For me it all starts a few months before the show. I’ll receive an email from a band’s PR or management company explaining that they are coming to town soon. This email falls somewhere amongst the other dozens of messages about another band’s new video, EP announcement, label signing, member change, or whatever other message the industry considers newsworthy. Sorting through the email aspect of this alone takes hours. You will need to decide which shows you want to feature live coverage for and reply accordingly. Or compose a new email message to the band you want to shoot outlining your proposal of coverage. Now that your proposal email has been sent it’s time to play the waiting game. IF you hear back there might be a request for you to help promote the show with a preview of some sort. Often times, you may not hear back with a confirmation until a day or two prior. This is a large departure from my days as a fan where I’d wait in line at the Ticketmaster booth and get hard tickets the moment a show went on sale.
So now you’ve heard back from the agency handling the media credentials for the show. This email is probably not from the band, the venue or anyone who will actually be at the show. I would recommend always having an on-site contact name and phone number if you can. I’ll explain why in a bit. Right now, we’ve got to start preparing for the show. After all we have less than 24 hours before the doors open. Before packing your gear bag for a show you’ll want to know the answers to a few questions:
- Will I be shooting a portrait of the band before or after their set?
- Will there be a photo pit? Where in the venue can I shoot from?
- How long will I be able to shoot for?
- What if I arrive and I’m not on the band’s list?
In taking a closer look at each of these questions we’ll be able to reveal a lot about shooting a show.
Will I be shooting a portrait of the band before or after their set?
I start with this question because this alone dictates whether or not I’m going to pack a speedlight or off-camera flash. 99% of venues you will shoot at do not permit the use of flash during the performance. You don’t want to be ‘that guy’ in the pit. Firstly because the security will likely throw you out if they see you shooting with flash during the performance. Secondly because it’s really annoying for the band and the other photographers in the pit. Yes, I have caught someone’s flash from the crowd more than once in my photos. They don’t know any better in the crowd though. Still, I wish the audience would put down their cameras and start dancing, partying or rocking out more. Along the same lines as flash photography, if your camera has a focus assist light setting for auto-focussing you should be sure that’s set to off. It’s a total faux pas.
If I have arranged to shoot a portrait of the band I’ll pack my Nikon SB-900 speedlight. Speedlights are great for traveling light. I may also bring a small light stand and/or a shoot through umbrella if I think I’ll have the space for it. If you don’t want to carry the stand, having someone else simply hold the light works just a good. If you can, try to keep the speedlight off the body of your camera. Adding light from one side or the other will greatly improve the interest of your image. It can also help to accent or build upon a light source that’s already there. If you’re keeping the speedlight attached to your camera’s hot shoe try to diffuse or bounce the light. When shooting with the speedlight off-camera, I use either my Phottix Odin, or my Cybersync by Paul C. Buff, transmitters and receivers to wirelessly trigger it. Both are a great, more affordable alternative to the ever popular Pocket Wizards. Keep in mind when shooting a portrait of an artist that you may only have a very short period of time. Sometimes under 1 minute. If you’re shooting in a venue’s green room / dressing room the space could be very tight and the decor may be really old and worn. This is definitely not always glamorous. Sometimes you will get lucky and not only have a more sizable amount of time with the band, but you’ll be able to leave the venue and take some outdoor shots. You could also bring the band to a nearby establishment you enjoy. Do your research of the area you’ll be in so that when this opportunity arises you can act on it properly and with confidence.
When bringing any equipment that’s battery powered it’s a best practice to bring backup batteries. Yes, this goes for your camera bodies as well. While you probably won’t be shooting long enough to go through even 25% of your speedlight batteries, I’ve seen batteries lose their charge at rest and this can really put a damper on your shooting. Don’t forget about the batteries inside your wireless transmitter and receiver.
Will there be a photo pit? Where in the venue can I shoot from?
For those who are totally new to this term or concept, the photo pit is the area at the front of the venue in between the barricade and the stage. The photo pit is reserved for those on assignment with proper media / photo credentials. Sometimes there will only be about 2 to 3 feet of space running the length of the stage. Other times there might be 15 feet or more depending on the venue. But just because the venue has a photo pit when you were there the first time doesn’t mean it will be there next time. Often times this will be at the band’s request and you’ll have little prior knowledge if there’s going to be one.
What’s some basic etiquette of the photo pit? Remember you are sharing this space with the other photographers. Be polite, look before you leap and have fun. When I step into a pit I always will say hey or introduce myself to the other photographers, especially if I haven’t met them before. After 10+ years it’s really fun to walk into a pit and be on a friendly level with some of the other photographers. In showing respect for others you’ll undoubtedly receive it back. Unless you’re shooting with an iPad or a point and shoot. Then you shouldn’t have been allowed in. Apologies if you fall under this profile but come on, really?
Be mindful that when shooting in a pit there are certain dangers that present themselves rather unexpectedly. If you’re shooting a louder, faster, more upbeat band, you can pretty much bet that there will be some crowd surfing going on. Generally people who are crowd surfing wind up in the front of the venue and will inevitably be pulled over the barricade into the photo pit by a security guard. If the guard can’t get there in time then the crowd surfer runs the risk of being launched into the pit. This is also where you run the risk of being kicked in the head or having your gear kicked or stepped on. When you bring gear into a pit, try to find someplace safe to stow it where other photographers, out of control fans and security guards won’t step on it. Heck, find a place where you’re not going to step on it. I usually look for a place near one far end of the pit so if I choose to change lenses I can go to my bag and do it there without being in the way of someone else.
There are also a handful of venues that do not have a photo pit. This makes things interesting since you’re expected to provide stunning photos all while dodging the beer drinking, potentially moshing concert goers. Likewise in the pit, treat the concert goers with respect. They’ve paid good money to see the show. Just because you have a photo pass doesn’t mean you’re more important. Ask politely if you can occupy someone’s place for a moment. Most often they’ll let you. Arriving early makes it easier to get up front.
If you’re shooting at a theater then you’ll likely be placed at either far stage-left or far stage-right. If that’s not bad enough these are usually the kinds of shows where the audience is sitting the whole time and sneering at you for every shutter actuation that occurs.
Another situation is the infamous soundboard shoot. After arriving at the venue you made it all the way to the front and got really excited when you saw that big pit. But then you saw the stainless steel containers and the security guard motioning you towards him. Little did you know that those containers were full of some gas to power the confetti cannon next to it. You won’t be able to stand there and instead will have to try your luck from the soundboard. In most medium-sized venues you can get away with some decent shots. Unfortunately, everyone else is going to have the same angle and potentially even be using the same lens. In a larger venue you might wind up several hundred feet away from the stage. If you know this is going to be the case then you should look into renting a lens with a 300mm or greater focal depth.
How long will I be able to shoot for?
This answer is almost always the same no matter where you go: 3 songs. Yup, that’s it. You get approximately 15 minutes of unpredictable subjects and lighting to capture the golden moments of the show. This also means that you’re only going to have 3 songs to enjoy that view your friends think is so awesome. After your time is up you’ll be forced out of the pit and sent to return to the GA area with the rest of the concert goers. If it’s a show that has assigned seats then you may need a separate ticket in addition to your media / photo credentials in order to enjoy the rest of the show. If you don’t have one then you may have to leave the venue after those 3 songs.
In some random cases a band will request that you only shoot the second and third songs or the first two or some other random combination. If you’re shooting at a venue without a pit then you might be able to shoot for the entire show. You might want to consider not doing this though. You run the risk of pissing off more of the fans if you’re getting in their way the whole time. I get it that you want to get “the shot” but being respectful is pretty high up on my personal bylaws. Another reason I don’t like to shoot the entire show because I don’t want to come home after and have hundreds more images to sort through and edit.
Take heed to the 3-song rule if the venue specifies it. If the rule wasn’t made clear in the past and I decided to shoot around the venue after the first 3 songs there have been times where I’ve been approached by security and asked to stop shooting. If they are really upset I’ve seen security throw photographers out of venues or even worse, request to delete all the images on their memory card. It’s a bit harsh if you ask me but it’s still the rules.
What if I arrive and I’m not on the band’s list?
When you have many different people working together to put together the lists of those granted media / photo credentials, errors are bound to happen. Upon arriving at the venue it’s standard to visit will call to pick up your credentials. Don’t be surprised if once in awhile a tour manager forgets to turn in a list or your name has slipped off it. Keep that confirmation email handy. Sometimes the will call attendant will be really nice and the email will be enough proof for them to grant you your credentials. If it’s not you should either contact the person who sent you the confirmation or if you’re lucky you might even have an onsite contact you can call. Hopefully you arrived early enough to make sure there wouldn’t be any problems since you’re only going to be allowed to shoot the first 3 songs.
Now let’s take a closer look into some of the gear and technique necessary to capturing these live performances.
Do I need to bring more than one camera body?
I typically shoot a show with only one camera body. So don’t feel like you can’t do it if you only have one. I like sticking to one for a few reasons. It challenges me to make the best photos I can with the lens I’m currently shooting with. There’s less to keep track of and less to swing around and hit something. When you’re shooting a concert you might find yourself moving quickly to follow the shot you want. Having the second body could slow you down in this case.
I shoot primarily with a Nikon D4 and a Nikon D700. I may shoot Nikon but have a bunch of friends who shoot Canon and Sony. Personally, they are all good. No worries if you’re shooting with a non full-frame body, but if you can afford the larger sensor the image space you’ll gain and increased noise reduction will definitely help. I started shooting shows with a Nikon D70s. It doesn’t look like much these days, but with the right lens I can achieve great results with it.
Andrew Bird shot with a DX Nikon D70s. First image shot with 50mm Prime at f1.4, 1/90, ISO800, EV-.5. Second shot with 55–200mm at 200mm, f5.6, 1/45, ISO1600.
There are some benefits to shooting with 2 bodies. I’ve shot in pits that have literally had up to 70 other photographers in them at one time. I’ve also had the pleasure of being alone at times. When there are a lot of other photographers your movement can be restricted. This makes it incredibly difficult to change a lens and to move to a new vantage point. Shooting with more than one body means you do not have to change your lens. Changing lenses at a concert can also seriously increase the risk of getting your sensor dirty. If you shoot concerts regularly I suggest having your sensor cleaned at least every 2 months. Obviously, another good reason to have a second body is for backup in case of equipment failure.
I’m just starting out. What’s the best lens for me?
If you’re just getting started with concert photography, or almost any photography, I recommend your first lens to be a 50mm 1.4f. You’ll want the 50mm prime for its sharpness and ability to utilize the available light. Remember, no flash photography here. By shooting at 1.4 or 1.8 you can keep the ISO down to maintain more of the image integrity. A lot of people ask if there’s really a difference between 1.4 and 1.8. Or if the difference is worth the cost. I say yes there is and yes it is. If you’re shooting a concert, odds are you’re gonna be in the dark. Especially if you’re shooting the opening act. Most venues and concerts save the impressive lighting for the headliners to make them look more grand.
Matt Kearny at The Riviera, Gomez and Courtney Love of Hole both at The Vic—all shot with the 50mm Prime f1.4. These were all shot very early in my career.
The 50mm 1.4f lens is great when you’re focussing in on one band member and want the backdrop and lighting behind the artist to fade out some. If a guitarist is playing into your lens and pointing the neck of the guitar your way you can also build the depth of the shot by focussing on the face leaving the guitar to blur out as it gets closer to you. This lens is also my favorite for traveling since it’s so compact and lightweight.
If you’re shooting with a kit lens or another introductory lens that will only open up to f4 don’t worry. All hope is not lost. For some concerts you will find that there’s ample lighting for you to use such a lens. In fact, you may even find yourself dialing up to f5+ if you’re trying to achieve a more bursted look from a stage light. Check out what I mean:
Owl City at The Aragon Ballroom shot at F5
What other gear is in my bag? Why?
My first bag for shooting concerts was the Lowepro Mini Trekker AW bag. This bag has an All Weather cover which pulls out to cover the whole bag and protects it from rain or other elements. This has saved me and my gear more than once while in transit to or from a gig. The bag is a backpack style bag which is good for balance and stability when I choose to ride my bike to a venue. It’s walls are padded extremely well and there’s plenty of room for a speedlight, 1 or 2 camera bodies and up to 3 lenses. If I choose to bring a fourth lens with I can easily strap it in a lens case to the side of the bag. Plus there are smaller zipper pockets for all the other goodies that we’ll discuss.
More often than not these days, you’ll see me at the show rocking my InCase Ari Marcopoulos bag. It’s a great size for a single body and 3 lenses.
In addition to the Nikon 50mm f1.4 which I always pack I also bring a Nikon 70–200mm f2.8 VR2 and a Sigma 35mm 1.4f Art Series. I used to bring a Sigma 24–70mm f2.8, but really prefer shooting with primes if I can help it. Since I’m shooting on full frame bodies it is very important to me that my lenses also be full frame (FX in the Nikon world). If you’re investing in a new lens and plan to someday have a full-frame camera body you should consider going with the full-frame lens if you can afford it. Shooting a full-frame body with a cropped (DX) lens can achieve an interesting excessive vignetting but I bet you’ll be happier to use that sensor space for capturing more of the scene. I didn’t start with these lenses. Some images that I’m still proud of were shot using a copped 55–200mm f4-5.6 lens.
Thom Yorke at The Aragon Ballroom shot using a Nikon kit DX 18–70mm lens at 70mm, f4.4, 1/125, ISO2500 on a Nikon D700 FX body. Notice the strong vignetting. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti shot using a Nikon 55–200mm lens at 200mm, f5.7, 1/125, ISO2500 on a Nikon D700.)
I absolutely love the Nikon 70–200mm VR2 lens. Yes, it’s heavy and comes with a high price tag, but I find the weight helps me keep steady. The VR2 will take care of that when I can’t though. I’ve shot fully zoomed in with a shutter speed of 1/60 and had images of a moving subject come out crisp. This lens rocks when you get stuck at the soundboard or you need to get a shot of the drummer who might be way in the back of the stage. Another great time for this lens is when you’re on a balcony or in a pit where the stage is 20 feet in high. If I’m shooting a main stage at a festival I will likely use this lens the entire time.
You may be wondering why my 24–70mm is made by Sigma. The honest answer is I bought it on Craigslist for $375 cash. And it’s a full frame lens. I couldn’t pass it up at the time since I had recently switch from my old DX Nikon D70s to the FX D700. That Sigma lens is by far the best deal I have ever gotten on camera gear.
Same goes for the Sigma 35mm 1.4f prime Art Series lens. It’s a great deal—even new! I use it all the time for shows and even in the studio for portraits. Point being, while I do love the Nikon gear, you can make great images with almost any lens if you use it right.
Only on rare occasions will I pack my Nikon 14–24mm f2.8 lens. For me, this lens is more of a specialty lens. When shooting at 14mm you should expect there to be quite a bit of distortion at the edges. Some photographers think this is a neat effect but I prefer to reduce this type of distortion when I can. This is a great lens when you’re shooting to capture a very large area such as the entirety of a venue or a very large stage with multiple band members at once. Although originally shot as a landscape image, an image I shot at the Oprah Finale with this lens appeared on the cover for the April 2011 issue of Live Sound International magazine.
Stage setup for the Oprah Finale at the United Center during Rascal Flatts
Reel Big Fish fans at The House of Blues Chicago
In the rest of the smaller pockets of my bag you’ll find ear plugs by Ear Love, a Nikon lens cleaning cloth, dual rapid straps, extra memory cards, batteries, a Sharpie and some business cards. If you plan on going to concerts 2 or more nights a week you should absolutely be wearing ear plugs. I prefer to wear mine since they are designed to cut out the ultra high and low frequencies which are most harmful leaving only the quality sound of the music I want to hear anyway. I love the dual BlackRapid straps for weight distribution and also since they split apart if I’m shooting with only one body. Lastly, carrying a Sharpie with you can come in handy more than more people think. Let’s just say that manipulating or copying certain marks with a Sharpie can sometimes get you into places you want to be.
What are my default settings when the show starts?
My default settings for any show will start with the ISO at 1600 and move from there depending on the lighting setup. Typically I will move that from as low as 500 to as high as 2500. I’ve had moments where 6400 was necessary but it’s uncommon. I start with my shutter speed at 1/160 and try not to go slower than that unless I’m intentionally going for a motion or blurred look. I start with my aperture around 2.8 and will vary again depending on the light and my desired look. On Nikon cameras you can control the color perception of the sensor through the Picture Control in the menu. I start with this on VI – Vivid and sometimes will switch back to SD – Standard depending on if I like the look I’m achieving or not. VI can sometimes be a bit too saturated.
JC Brooks at Metro and Yuna at Lollapalooza
I have my focus settings set to auto focus and single point so I can control the region of the sensor the focus falls into. If I’m shooting a band and the person I want to get a photo of is moving around extremely fast I’ll switch to continuous focussing. Sometimes this is great but you will want to practice with this setting before relying on it for an important shot. If the band is going crazy with fast strobe lights you do not want to be in auto focus. No matter how fast of camera and lens system you’re using you’ll be hard pressed to get the shot you want. Sure you could get lucky, but let’s rely on skills first. You are always more reliable than your gear. Some lenses will have a M/A or M setting on them. What’s nice about this is when you’re shooting with Auto Focus and the M/A is also set you can easily switch to manual focus just by twisting the focus ring. When you want to return to Auto Focus you just let go of the focus ring and continue shooting normally.
When choosing between shutter modes of Single, Low Speed Continuous and High Speed Continuous I prefer either Low or Single. You might think that by shooting 11 FPS (frames per second) that you could possibly miss that shot you want. However, if you’re shooting that fast the odds are that you’re hoping for a shot to happen and not planning it or predicting it. With the subject moving around you’ll be firing off shots focussed where the subject was 2 seconds ago and not where they are now. Personally, I don’t like to go home with hundreds of blurry shots. Get used to shooting smarter and you’ll have more fun when it comes time to edit and process your images.
How many images will I shoot at a show?
For each band I shoot a live set for I usually take about 100 to 250 images during those first 3 songs. If you’re shooting 500 or more you might want to consider investing in a storage company—and refining your shots before pushing the shutter. Make the most of those 3 songs but don’t open up like your camera is some kind of Tommy Gun. Remember, you have to go through these images later.
What are some of the atmospheric conditions to expect at a venue?
Unlike the olden days of shooting concerts where smoke machines were not as necessary due to the fact that everyone at the show was smoking something, today’s venues are often quite clean. You may notice a lot of concerts today use smoke machines. This isn’t to replicate the ambiance that someone is smoking, however. Smoke carries light in wonderful and interesting ways. Smoke pulls light through it and amplifies the lights span while softening its appearance.
Lykke Li at Metro and The Black Keys at Lollapalooza
You might also run into situations where a band has set up mirrors or even a disco ball to blast the lights into other directions. This can look really great combined with some of that smoke to reveal lots of light trails. For larger productions you will likely see spotlights being used. Typically there are more than more in use and they are located at the highest point in the venue. I love when spotlights are being used because it makes focusing and getting a great exposure much easier.
Art vs Science at Lincoln Hall with LED Laser Lights and a Disco Ball
On the other hand, you may find yourself shooting a concert where the band has decided to project visuals onto a screen behind them. This is really great for the guy in the crowd who dropped acid before coming into the venue. Unfortunately you’re there to take photos and not trip and now you can expect there to be practically no lighting at all since they’ll want to put all focus on the visual screen. This can however be a good opportunity to capture a nice silhouetted image of the artist. Another difficult lighting scenario we touched down on earlier that can be great for silhouetted images is intense strobe lighting.
Broken Bells at The Vic Theatre with a large projection in the background. Not ideal shooting conditions.
Break it down, now.
The following are a few very different portraits I’ve shot of artists backstage at venues Chicago along with some of the details that make the show what it is. First let’s take a look at the idol heartthrob Graham Colton. This guy is awesome. We chatted for awhile backstage at Lincoln Hall before his set and had some time to shoot a few portraits after the interview. The shot was achieved with one speedlight placed far camera right set to approximately half-power. This was shot with a 50mm prime at: f10, 1/250, ISO320 on a Nikon D700. The speed light allowed me to pretty much ignore any garbage ambient light the room was putting off while adding a bit of drama to the image.
Next we have Rachel Williams formerly of Sleepy Sun. After watching Sleepy Sun nail an excellent performance at the Double Door in Chicago, my writer and I met up with the band for somewhat of a ‘session’ backstage. Everyone was having a good time and Rachel felt comfortable enough to spin around upside down on the couch. It was during such time that it made perfect sense for me to lay on my stomach against the floor while the tour manager pulled a nearby lamp off a table and held it camera right midway over Rachel’s head. The lampshade made for a natural diffuser. Another band member aimed a small fan towards her head on the floor which also happened to be in the room. Yes, some of this was directed but parts of it were just about being in the right place at the right time and having the wit to know the shot when you see it. I’m convinced this shot would not be as cool if it hadn’t been shot with my 50mm prime. The technical side reads: f1.4, 1/100, ISO4000 on a Nikon D700.
Lastly we’ll look at the lovely Class Actress herself, Elizabeth Harper. This situation was completely different that the aforementioned two. After rounds of texting and waiting I finally was able to meet Elizabeth after her set at Lincoln Hall. We met by her merch table where she’d been selling merch (and drinking lots of whiskey). She escorted me backstage for a “quick” portrait. I did not have my speedlight with me which was just as well considering how in and out this experience was. Another challenge other than time you will find yourself faced with is how to make portraits in the same venue completely different. Believe it or not this shot was taken literally 3 feet away from the Graham Colton shot shown above. On the opposing wall was a couch and next to the couch a table with a small beverage refrigerator. When light is scarce you will look in the most random places to bring more into your frame. This small refrigerator made for the perfect cool rim light in this shot. It’s cool tone almost makes it feel like outdoor window / skylight. Another major difficulty with this shoot was that the artist wanted to see each shot after it was taken to say yes keep it or no delete it now. I typically don’t offer this luxury but she insisted. This photo was taken with a Nikon D700 using a 50mm prime lens at: f1.4, 1/160, ISO4000 (lots of noise reduction in post).
That’s it, huh? I can totally do this!
Well, mostly yea. I use Adobe Lightroom for editing and pretty much solely use that for all the editing needed. The program’s cataloging and advanced editing capabilities including brushes allow me all the tools I require to tell the story how I saw it. When I edit any image I consider the story of what I saw and how to best relay that. Usually, I can edit a selected image in anywhere from 2 minutes to 20 minutes. Yes this is a big range but I want to make sure the image speaks the volumes to make the viewers feel like they were there. I especially love the Lightroom ability to edit my dodges and burns with a feathered brush.
More than likely you will also have to package and deliver the images to the media outlet at their specifications for publishing. During which time you’ll hopefully be hearing about your next gig! Let the cycle start over again.
There’s a lot more than meets the eye to concert photography. Like anything you will probably get better the more you do it. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and rock it!