Hasn’t everybody dreamed of immortalizing the concerts of their favorite artists? When I started taking photos, concert photography always left me with a feeling of wonder and passion. Just by looking through the pictures, I could feel the warmth and emotion of the music! Hey, I want to do that! But how do I get started? So here is a quick and practical guide that is based on my own experience and the difficulties I have encountered. I hope it will help you grasp the Holy Grail and take your own first concert photos!
“Tryo – Le Haillan”
In my opinion, it is in this act that the word photography is most fully defined. Painting with light…that’s exactly what this is. Concert photography is a very specialized genre, there’s no doubt about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be more difficult than other genres. You just have to be aware of the difficulties it involves. Everybody knows that luck smiles only on those who are really ready to seize upon it.
- The equipment
Let’s rid ourselves of a burden: the equipment. Even though it’s not indispensable for this practice, having affordable equipment is always a big plus. Indeed, light conditions that are often difficult and ever-changing require the use of relatively high ISO settings, at least 800 or 1600, sometimes more. High ISOs are the preferred playground of high-end devices, but let’s be honest, most recent cameras, even low-end, can do the job.
However, what you will need is a reflex or a compact with an interchangeable lens, because what’s important here is the lens. You’ll want to choose a large aperture. As I said before, sometimes light is the problem. There might even be none at all.
As for me, I chose to have a group of large aperture fixed lenses, like a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8. The advantage of these is their quality/cost ratio. There are large aperture zoom lenses, but in general they are a lot more onerous. The drawback with fixed focus lenses is that you will need to change them regularly, and what’s more you’ll have to do so in the dark! If you’re methodical and you’ve got the right bag (Shoulder Bag A7 by Manfrotto is what I have), time wasted will be minimal. It’s your choice!
- The request for accreditation
OK, so now what? So I know what equipment I need. Now what? I go to the concert with the camera of my choice and then I just say, “Hello! I’m here to take pictures”. Is that it? Sorry…at most concerts, at least in concert venues, but also at large music festivals, cameras are not really welcome. Well, that’s nothing new.
Can you image going to a concert where everybody is there to take pictures? You’d be dealing with the noise of the cameras and people crowding in to take their shots. With such awful scrambling, nobody would want to see a live show and so live concert venues would lose their magic. You should also remember that artists have the rights to their image. Just like anyone, they don’t want to go out on the Internet or the front page of the newspaper and see unflattering photos of themselves. That’s while you’ll need access privileges. That’s the precious authorization you’ll need to be able to get into a concert venue with your equipment and move in front of the barriers to get those shots you want.
And now the fun begins. To get access, you’ll need to show a portfolio, which includes concert photos you’ve already taken. So it’s kind of a chicken and egg problem. You’ll have to get that first concert under your belt. Nevertheless, to put your precious album together without access privileges you’ll have lots of choices. Above all, you’ll want to check into the local scene in your region. You’ll find local groups playing regularly in bars, at small festivals, or events for example, and that will be more than enough to get started. You can try things out, start over, experiment…just take pictures.
The key word for a successful outing is “Emotion”. That should be your objective, what you’ll want to transcribe into your images.
“Kyle Eastwood – Le Haillan”
Once you’ve got your book together, you can start following the concert schedule at venues nearby. You won’t want to try to start out with some major stadium or the biggest headline acts. Take it step by step. To take good concert photos, you really need to love music. Don’t go to every single concert out there with the singular goal of assembling some enormous portfolio. Rather, you should choose concerts according to your specific tastes in music.
Getting access privileges can be different every time. There are lots of possibilities: contact the group directly when you can, and that might also mean the agent, production manager, or group manager. Take a look at the group’s website if they have one. You’ll find out that type of information. Sometimes contacting the venue is a good way to get information and sometimes even access. Don’t expect to get access for every concert you want to go to. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and sometimes not.
With your access pass in hand, you’ll generally have only three songs and no more to get the shots you want. When you’re taking photos, be respectful of the artists, other photographers, and of course the spectators who paid to see the show.
“Snarky Puppy – Bordeaux”
There is no magic formula for taking great pictures, but there are some steps to take to get the best results possible. The main difficulty will be the low ambient lighting on stage. In order to get speeds that are high enough to capture the movements of artists, if that’s what you’re going for, you’ll have to open the diaphragm of the lens from f/2.8 up to f/1.4. But be careful, because the more the diaphragm is open, the shorter the depth of field. With that type of aperture, you’ll easily get part of the face in focus but not the rest. Watch out because the performers might move out of the zone in focus. You’ll also want to increase ISOs, and not by just a little either! In the best case scenario, 800 ISO is a minimum, and 1600 is generally the way to go. If you have to go higher, don’t hold back, since newer equipment is going to be good enough.
My choice is to use my camera in manual mode. It’s not an absolute must when you’re doing concert photography, but that’s what I prefer. In manual mode, I can control for all the parameters: ISO, speed, aperture. Manual mode is a bit complex, but it is effective without a doubt once you really get to know your camera.
On some cameras, there is a very interesting alternative to manual mode. That’s manual mode with automatic ISOs. You choose a speed and an aperture which will remain set, but the sensitivity will change for the right exposure. Be careful: this mode can be tricky. If light is low, sensitivity can go up tremendously, and photos won’t be easy to salvage in post-processing.
Lots of concert photographers use aperture priority mode by defining a large aperture. Combined with a spot measurement mode, you’ll be sure to get the right exposure for your photo. Indeed, a matrix measurement mode will take the whole frame into account and the black background of the stage too, and it will tend to overexpose your subject.
In any case, I recommend against using a flash. It will diminish the luminous atmosphere of the stage. You’ll do better taking advantage of available lighting to truly capture the vibe of the concert! Of course, generally speaking, flash photography won’t be allowed anyway.
Once your photos have been taken, you’ll really want to go through the “development” step with software like Adobe Lightroom, just to give them that extra pizazz they might need. Given these challenging conditions, taking photos in RAW format will make it easier to work on contrasts and possibly eliminate noise due to the higher ISO. Working with this format will also let you skip setting the balance of colors, since you’ll be able to adjust them after taking the shot.
As for the settings, you’ll also need to know how to head off the beaten path there too and surprise yourself and surprise your viewers too! Why not try different things, like using very slow speeds and creating an intentional blur? That’s another great way to capture the energy of the artists!
“Lord Dying – Mérignac”
Concert photography is like any other genre in some respects. Even with so much movement on stage and so many lights, you’ll still need to attend to composition, otherwise you could take photos that are flat and show no emotion. The rule of thirds works really well here too, but you can also try framing your shot differently. Let the angles cut by the arm of the guitar guide you as you set up a new composition! To contend with unsightly wires and microphones, the square format might just do the trick.
That’s enough description. Now have a look at some examples for inspiration:
“Festival Ocean Climax – Bordeaux”
Backing away is a good way to show more than just the artists on stage. Sometimes the venue will exude a certain vibe all its own.
“Festival Ocean Climax – Bordeaux”
The crowd is really important too. Without it there’s no concert, so don’t forget about it.
“Fred Wesley and the new JB’s – Bordeaux”
Who ever said that concert photography was just about taking portraits? Don’t forget about the details: the hands, shoes, clothes, the faces, the instruments…
“John and the Volta – Mérignac”
Make the most out of back lighting!
“Laurent Lamarca – Bordeaux”
With microphones, you’ll have cords to manage, and they’ll be right there in your face!
“Electro Deluxe – Bordeaux”
So now it’s your turn! Grab your camera and enjoy the concert!
Products used: Manfrotto Shoulder Bag A7
An enthusiastic self-taught photographer, Clément took inspiration at first from his environment, and then he moved toward concert photography, which allowed him to wed the flavors of two of his great passions, photography and music.