Monday, April 1, 2013

Concert Photography - 5 Tricks to Success

A large part of my clientele consists of musicians - mostly rock and metal bands. I have accumulated (the hard way!) plenty of experience regarding concert photography. It can be a very rewarding but also quite demanding kind of photography. If you have tried it yourself, you have surely noticed that results can be inconsistent. Some photos turn out amazing, others far less so. Well, today I will share a few tips so that you increase your "keeper rate"!

1. Know the Music

This might seem self-obvious to some of you, but not so to equally many others. Know the music of the band you are about to photograph. What kind of genre is the most basic information (surely, it's one thing to take photos of a blues band, and a different to take photos of a thrash metal band). But in addition, if this band has decided to trust you with taking photos for them, take some time to listen to their songs. If possible, see them play in advance and notice mannerisms and all kinds of little things here and there that add the necessary personality.

2. Know the Space
It is of chief importance to know in advance the space where you will be taking the photos. Will it be a small venue, where you will have little room to move around? Will it be a big venue, where the players will be spread far apart? And needless to say, make sure you know before-hand where you can and where you can't stand during the show. The last thing you want is to be in somebody's way knock somebody down during the concert! Check the space carefully, take test shots, set up any possible equipment (e.g. flashes - although usually you won't need or even allowed to use those)

3. Know your Equipment
Yet another seemingly obvious factor, which is similarly overlooked. If you plan to carry 10 lenses and start swapping during the gig, you're doing it wrong. Each has their own style, but I generally favor an ultra-wide for enhanced perspectives and a fast portrait lens for individual shots. If you have a good fast zoom (something in the 17-55 DX range or 24-70mm FX range) it will do fine - although personally I'd prefer a separate ultra wide and an even faster portrait lens (either the 50mm f/1.8 or the 85mm f/1.8 would be two good options)*. Dedicate a few minutes while the band setup their equipment and do sound checks to take some test shots and check focal lengths and distances

* read some additional information about this at the end of this article

4. Know your Limitations
It would be awesome to take a super-sharp, noise-free photo of the entire band playing, even if they are in different distances. Is it possible? Not without couple of flashes. If that's not an option, no point fretting over it. Do what you can under the circumstances. A photo with a short depth of field, a photo that is a bit noisy, or a photo that isn't entirely sharp, is not the end of the world if all other things in it are great. Have a clear idea in your head of what you want to achieve, and how you can get there. Which takes us to the last point:

5. Know your Aims
Band photography is in its scope a rather simple kind of photography (like with all portraits, you only have to capture the essence of the person you're photographing). However, the way to reach that can be infinitely complex. Know your aims. Know what it is you're going for, know what it is you're trying to achieve. Don't snap photos hoping some might be good. Have a plan not for one or two or three photos, but for the entire set. Feel free to experiment, but also make sure you maintain some consistency that is compatible with the band's essence (example: if you're photographing a thrash metal band, you can't have 4 members in super-sharp, harsh, aggressive photos and 2 in smooth, creamy, blurry ones).

As I mentioned above, concert photography is like portrait photography: You must capture someone's true essence, and help bring it to the surface. The tricky part is that you are required to immerse yourself in someone else's art. But once you do that, once you manage to capture with your art someone else's moments of inspiration, it is a result which is filled with reward.

Some Words on Equipment:
Inspired by some reader comments, I decided to add a little something about equipment choice. Your first concern is unobstructed view. It doesn't matter how close or how far back you are, if there are hands waving in front of you, it's a show-stopper. If you can't get to the very front row, then you must find a spot further back that is on a bit higher ground.

With these in minds, if you can get right under the stage (front row, that is), here are your options:
(obviously enough, the zooms are more versatile but worse for very low light; the primes less versatile but better for very low light)

DX user:
Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8
Sigma 50mm f/1.4

FX user:
Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8
Sigma 50mm f/1.4

If you can't get right under the stage, things get more complicated. A fast long tele is a must, and probably a tele zoom would be the only option. Whether you are a DX or an FX user, consider these options:
(The Nikkor is the absolute best; the Tamron a budget-friendly option)

Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8
Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8


  1. Anonymous4/07/2013

    Great article thanks .
    Would you consider an 18-200 lens any use at a concert?
    Ie is it fast enough. I'll be using available light and no flash or would I better using a 50mm 1.8 prime lens and trying to stand near the front?
    Many thanks Tracey

  2. Hi Tracey,
    Thank you for your comment. I assume the concert you're referring to will be indoors and in, typically for concerts, low light. If that is the case, I would strongly favor the 50mm f/1.8. I wouldn't say the 18-200 (or any lens, really) would be useless - that would be too strong a word - but it would significantly complicate things.

    The 18-200 is only f/4.8 at 50mm - that's 3 f stops difference, which is a lot. At 200mm, it's f/5.6, meaning over 3 stops difference compared to the 50mm f/1.8. In other words, where you could get 1/125 with the 50mm f/1.8, you would need 1/15 or slower for the 18-200. VR is irrelevant here, since we're talking about moving subjects.

    I think your biggest concern, as you yourself pointed out, will be space: position AND freedom of movement. If the concert in question is popular and many people are expected to be there, the front rows will be crammed. Being near the front would also mean being very restricted in your moves (so, only if you held the camera high above you would - possibly - get a nice unobstructed view). Ideally, if plenty of people are expected, try to secure yourself the very front row.

    Mind you, this isn't particularly connected to the 50mm lens. You would face similar problems with the 18-200. 200mm isn't that long a focal lens either (you couldn't stand more than, say, 30m/100ft away - and that for general shots, not close portraits). Plus, the problem here is unobstructed view, not distance! So, unless you would be able to stand on higher ground being a bit further back, the 18-200 doesn't really add anything (on the contrary, you'd have to go around all the speed issues I referred to above).

    Hope this helps! Feel free to ask more :)