Camera settings and techniques for concert photography – Part 2

December 15, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

There are probably as many opinions about best techniques for concert photography as there are photographers, and the hints and tips shown below are just some of the things that work for ME.  At least as a base point.  I wouldn’t say I adhere to my own advice all the time, and once you have a few decent shots in the bag you can start experimenting and trying different things.  Some will work and some won’t but the important thing is to learn from it, ready for next time.

I’ve had the privilege of shooting at least 400 concerts in the past five years, for a wide range of different bands.  At least half of these have been shooting a whole show (with the band’s approval), rather than just the usual three songs.  Anyway, my point is that I’ve learned through trial and error (and that means a lot of mistakes, with over 200,000 photos taken at concerts) what works for me and what doesn’t in different concert situations.

Concert photography is a difficult skill to master simply because to get the best results you often need to push your camera to its limits, and to do that you need to know what those limits are and how your camera will react to certain settings in any given situation.  And as well as coping with the technical limitations, you then have to think about things like composition, anticipating specific moments on stage, and being aware of other photographers and the audience around you etc.

In no particular order, here are a few more nuggets of advice/experience/suggestions/anecdotes – call it what you will – based on responses I’ve given by email to people asking me for advice…..

  • Always make sure your shutter is fast enough to capture the action, even if that means compromising on exposure.  There are exceptions to this if you want to produce a particular ‘arty’ shot but, usually, too slow a shutter speed will result in disappointingly unsharp images.  You can, to a degree, fix an underexposed but sharp image, but you can do nothing with a well exposed but blurred image.
  • Personally, I find that if my shutter speed is less than 1/60th of a second then the majority of my images will be completely useless.  They may be well exposed but they will be blurred or at least too ‘soft’.  Between 1/60th and 1/125th I will find probably half of them acceptably sharp, but if the light is good enough for me to go above 1/125th (and especially above 1/200th) then nearly all of them will be sharp enough.  Of course, you can’t just set your shutter to 1/200th all the time, because very few concerts are lit well enough, and you’d find all the images far too dark to use.
  • I generally start by setting the camera at 1/125th and the aperture as wide open as it will go.  I take a few shots and check them, then adjust the shutter speed up or down depending on whether the images are too dark or too bright.  If I can also stop down the aperture a little without compromising the exposure I will do that as well.
  • After every few shots it’s a good idea to check an image or two on your screen and then tweak the settings by maybe increasing or reducing shutter speed or selecting a different aperture or ISO to improve the brightness or sharpness of subsequent images.  It’s a constant process of adapting to the specific venue and the stage lighting you are presented with.  Eventually it may become second nature and you will sense subtle changes in the general lighting levels between different songs and can adjust accordingly, but it doesn’t hurt to check now and then – as long as you don’t do it at a moment when you should really be concentrating on what is happening on stage.
  • Facial expressions often make a photo, but they are fleeting and if you wait until you see the perfect expression before shooting, the chances are you’ve already missed it.  Also, in the pressure cooker of shooting three songs in the photo pit, jostling with lots of other photographers, you don’t always have the luxury of choosing your moments, and the temptation is to fire away as much as you can.  However, observation and anticipation will help to improve your timing.
  • My approach here is NOT just to fire away without any thought for what is going on.  NOR is it to wait until I see the perfect moment before clicking the shutter.  Instead I would recommend watching and waiting for those moments where you ANTICIPATE something about to happen on stage – some interaction between band members, a particularly emotive part of the song, the guitar solo, a pause in the singing, where perhaps the vocalist might move away from his mic stand…etc.  Anything like that.  Then you can fire off short bursts of 3-4 clicks of the shutter, hoping that among them you with have caught THE MOMENT.  Review your images later and you will be surprised at what you’ve captured.
  • If a performer is looking at you, or at another band member in shot or at his instrument, it usually is a more interesting shot than if he’s looking out of the side of the frame.  If they are looking out of the frame, try to leave more space in the image in the direction they are looking, so that they appear to be looking into that space.
  • Never use images containing unflattering expressions.  The band and their management won’t thank you for it and may object to you photographing further shows.
  • In general photo passes are hard things to come by, especially for more established bands.  You either have to be shooting on behalf of an accredited publication, or else know somebody in the band or its management.  Sometimes, freelance photographers like me can get photo passes but it depends on how good a portfolio you can show and who you approach, when and how (and often what mood they’re in) so it’s a little hit and miss.
  • If you do manage to get a photo pass, DO NOT abuse the privilege.  Always be aware of the audience around you – they have paid for their tickets and don’t want to see you stood in front of them all night.  Also, do not do anything to distract the band members on stage.  This includes obvious things like not using flash, but also try to limit your movements around the photo pit to between songs, or at least don’t go scuttling across from one side to the other just when the lead singer is at the front of the stage during a particularly emotive part of a song.  He/she will not be impressed.  Finally, take note of what Security say.  When they say it is time to leave the pit, don’t argue, just leave quietly and quickly.

I’ve just scratched the surface here with a few selected items, and will add more nuggets soon.  For those budding concert photographers out there I hope this helps.  For the more experienced, I’d be very interested to hear if you have any useful nuggets of your own, or even if you disagree with the approaches I’ve suggested.

 


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