Capturing the energy, emotion, atmosphere and excitement of a live performance has long been the ambition of many a photographer. The turbulent lifestyles of rock and pop superstars, both off and on stage, have been faithfully documented by concert and gig photographers for as long as Stratocasters and shutters have coexisted.
Although simple in theory; your subjects are professionally illuminated and strutting their stuff just meters from your favourite lens, there are a few obstacles, both photographic and human, that may get between you and your perfect frontman frame. As as an experienced shooter of acts big and small, at venues ranging from sweaty shoebox sized nightclubs to huge outdoor festivals, I feel inclined to share the humble knowledge I’ve absorbed from seven years of snapping at the feet of some of the planet’s greatest acts.
Right Here, Right Now
The Pit. This is the place you’ll start be shooting from, the no man’s land between the baying crowd and the all important stage. Some pits are deep, spacious and inviting, some are narrow and cramped. Some stages are below knee height whereas your festival main stage may be well over even the most lengthy photog’s head. You’ll be occupying this media arena with other snappers, security, video guys, the occasional crowd surfer, several litres of flying beer and if you’re lucky, the headline act for a track or two. Move about, duck, crouch, stretch or jump if you think it will make a shot work. Shoot from as low as you can, rest your lens on the stage or hold your wide angle at arms length, look for places the other photogs aren’t, make your work original.
Walk away. If the venue allows it head for side stage, normally accessed just around the corner from the pit or through backstage, this can offer a different angle and so can directly behind the act, if it’s doable. Promoters and venue owners love these shots, they show how busy their events are. Of course, you might encounter some of the other people who are working hard to the make the event a success on your travels.
We’re Going to Be Friends
The average show is made up by far more people than just the talent. Depending on who you’re shooting for, you’ll find yourself dealing with at least a few of them. First off, the security, they’re the guardians of the often sought after backstage area and the firm but fair police of the pit. These are the guys you’ll be spending a lot of time with. They are your friends, be nice to them.
Most acts will be accompanied by a medley of staff. Guitar techs, sound engineers, roadies, family, friends and so on. As long as they can get on with their jobs and you don’t get in the way all will be well.
However, should the situation need it you may be required to introduce yourself to the band’s tour manager. Every artist has their own rules, and although these may come from the talent themselves, it’s up to the Tour Manager to enforce them.
You might like to think of them as the mouthpiece that does all the negative chat so the performer doesn’t have to. Their act doesn’t like photos from the side of the stage in case you get in the way of their bathrobes? They’ll let you know. They suddenly decide you can only shoot one song? They’ll let you know. Wrong colour hat? They’ll let you know. They decide they’ll be no lighting on the stage and you’re not to look the act in the eye let alone be allowed to take any photo’s AT ALL at a minutes notice and you might as well go home? They’ll let you know.
The Magic Number
Not just an excuse to use a shot of legendary hip hop trio De La Soul, three is also the number of songs you’ll likely be allowed to shoot. Although the only place I’ve seen it written was a Tom Jones contract, this rule has been in place pretty much everywhere I’ve pointed a camera at a stage.
Unfortunately you don’t get to choose which songs, it’s the first three or nothing. This all means you’ve got a limited amount of time to get what you (and your client) need. You can almost guarantee the act will use the first song to get the audience moving, so expect a well known hit from the moment they walk on. Better yet, sneak a look at the set-list (often taped to the floor on the stage), you might be able to get an idea of what’s coming.
Use your three songs wisely and you’ll walk away with a nice variety of shots. As tempting as it might be, it’s important to not overstay your welcome. Keeping your camera raised after the final strum will have the aforementioned men in black dragging you out of the pit before you get a chance to retrieve your 70-200mm from stage left.
With the above time limit in force, I like to use the natural break between tracks to act as a reminder for my own performance. I like to document an act with three different basic shots in mind, sounds pretty obvious writing it down, but trying to tick the three boxes of wide, regular and close up can easily be forgotten when you’re five minutes into a power ballad guitar solo.
Personally I use a 17-40mm lens for my wide shots, either a 35mm or 85mm (depending on stage size) for regular shots and then a fast 70-200mm for the close ups. I have on occasion used a 400mm to get really close to performers. I find that super telephotos can work well during slower, more emotive scenes where filling your frame with the artist can really capture their mood. Wides are great for showing off the stage and lighting, as well as the audience and arena or venue.
Your regular prime fills in everything else, but more on that later. As mentioned before, your environment may not lend itself well to swapping lenses so it’s important to invest in a decent camera bag. Although I’ve seen some shooters strategically position their expensive glass, uncapped, on the side of the stage, I prefer to keep my precious lenses in a Manfrotto Manhattan Mover 50. The top access acts as a great lens swapping station and the water repellent will protect your kit from even the most aggressive festival downpour or wayward beer bottle.
Most events are going to be dark. There’s no getting away from it. Even outdoor, daytime shows may be at the back of a blacked out stage. Combine this with your limited time frame, your unpredictable subject matter, seemingly random lighting and all other aspects of a gig or concert and you’re going to need some specific kit to get the most out of your time in the pit. Despite the vast amount of lighting effects on the stage, flashes are almost always a big no no, five or six photographers blasting away with high powered strobes are enough to put off even the most seasoned rock star, and whether you get the shot or not, you don’t want to be the one responsible for stopping the show.
All this means we’re looking at a high ISO and some fast glass to get a shutter speed high enough to get crisp, clean results. Modern digital cameras handle high ISO levels with minimum noise and a well processed file will look even better. I try to set a limit of 6400 on my Canon bodies, but make sure to check what you’re comfortable with on your own geat (looking at you Sony users) and know what your technical limits are, although I know I’d rather have a noisy shot with a high shutter speed that a blurred photo at a lower ISO.
Fix a prime below f/2 to the front of you favourite camera and you’re in the right place, I use a 35mm f/1.4 and a 85mm f/2.8 for most of my prime shots, and they’re always wide open. To make the most of this large aperture and the narrow depth of field it produces, we need to make sure our focus is bang on. Take a look at your camera specs, find out what your body offers in terms of cross type focus points. These guys work a lot better in lower light, entry level cameras might be limited to one cross type whereas the pricier models out there can boast over 60. I generally use just the one central focus point, occasionally moving one or two points to the left or right when I get time to reframe a shot. With this technique I prefer to take focus duty away from the main shutter and relocate it to the back focus (AF-ON on Canon bodies) button. I use this to lock onto a performer, focussing on a point i know I want sharp such as their eyes or fingers on a guitar strings. A microphone can also provide a good bit of contrast for tricker lighting or slower focussing lenses. I wait until I get the framing and movement I want and then fire away in short bursts at my camera’s fastest possible frame rate.
Sure, back in the days of old when a photographers pockets were stuffed with rolls of 1600 ISO film one might have to be a little more careful on the trigger, but with our 64gb memory cards and 10fps shutters I say make the most of it. That perfect shot is out there, don’t be afraid to use the technology available to get it.
Light it Up
The lighting setup of your first concert shooting experience has the potential to be both the most rewarding and the most frustrating part. Smaller events might be limited to a few candle strength house lights that will push your sensor to its limits whereas larger venues and festival stages will have a huge, dedicated rig of various spinning, flickering and strobing illuminations that will have even the most sophisticated metering systems in turmoil. Having covered how to deal with low light situations above, I’ll talk you through my way of using stage lighting to add a bit of excitement to your shots.
First off, you need to get your metering technique sorted. As the lighting on stage can be so unpredictable, I find using manual exposure too time consuming, with my camera set on aperture exposure (it works for me) I dial in an ISO setting that’s going to give a decent shutter when metering roughly where a performer will be positioned. While shooting I use my camera’s Auto Exposure lock throughout the set. This handy button freezes your camera’s exposure settings, allowing you to reframe your subject matter without worrying too much about the strobes and flood lights that may or may not be about to go wild. Using this technique I can wait in position for the lights to kick in knowing that the performer will be correctly exposed if they’re in front of a powerful spot light or thrusting through smoke and lasers.
With all the above locked firmly into my subconscious, I can concentrate on the acts. I watch to see when band members interact, see patterns in how performers move around the stage and react to certain tempo changes. After the first song you can normally see the patterns evolve and start to predict how the entertainers are going to communicate, move and respond to each other. I sometimes find myself waiting what seems like an eternity for a moment to repeat itself, a guitar blocking out a spotlight or the light show to kick off during a solo.
The thirty seconds of downtime between tracks can reveal some great emotions. The energetic lead guitarist might be illuminated by a strobe in just the right spot only twice during a show. It’s about noticing and capturing these tiny events that will make your shots stand out from the rest.
I hope my experiences will help and motivate you to get out there and have some fun, that’s what this is all about, after all.