Exhilarating. Unpredictable. Poorly lit. Welcome to the fun and challenging world of concert photography.
From weird lighting to equipment failures to stage divers who don’t look before they leap, I’ve learned how to get incredible images despite a myriad of challenges. Shooting concerts has taught me more about lighting, composition, and utilizing my equipment at lightning speed than I probably could have learned in school—and today, I’m sharing some of my hard-won concert photography tips with you.
What to pack
There are two main conditions concert photographers are packing for: indoor concerts and outdoors. Keeping our gear light is helpful in both cases.
For concert photography, it’s more important to have a killer lens set-up than the latest and greatest camera body. Remember that the smaller the number, the bigger the aperture, so any lens with f2.8 or smaller is going to work wonders in an indoor concert’s low light. With that said, you have two options—a zoom or prime lens—and both have their advantage and disadvantage.
Zoom will give you more freedom to get up close or grab a really wide shot, but the downside is they’re a big investment if you’re just first starting out.
Prime lenses offer the most flexibility in terms of aperture. You can pick up a 50mm f1.8 for a reasonable price (compared to a zoom) and produce super crisp images. But you might feel held back at times by the inability to use zoom when you want to get up close.
For a concert with two or three bands, packing at least one extra battery and memory card is a good idea. A card may be corrupted mid-shoot, or a battery could die unexpectedly, so be prepared.
Indoor and outdoor concerts usually warrant the same lens setup. However, outdoor concerts are usually music festivals, which require a little extra planning. The most important thing to do is check the weather: getting stuck without a rain cover for your camera (or you) could unexpectedly end the day or result in some damaged equipment.
Two or three extra memory cards, an extra battery, and a battery charger will come in handy when photographing bands all day. Also, consider bringing either a laptop or tablet. Uploading, editing, and sending concert photos to an editor or getting them online may be a part of your time at a festival. You’ll want the ability to do that quickly.
Getting into the show
One question always asked about concert photography is, “How do I get a press or photo pass?”
There isn’t one way to go about obtaining a press pass; different situations warrant different approaches. A few tips:
Shooting local bands at small venues is the start of many concert photographers’ careers. Start building a relationship with bands and bands’ management: you can often grab a spot on the guest list as a photographer in exchange for photos of the night.
If contacting bands doesn’t work out, there are many local music blogs or small publications that cover local music, and will be looking for quality photographers.
Theatres, arenas, and music festivals almost always require a press pass. More often than not, press passes are given to photographers that are attached to a publication (whether local, national, or international). Those with the ability to provide press coverage are given priority.
Small clubs and bars are often a little more lax on camera policy. If you’re thinking of bringing your camera to a show and aren’t shooting for a publication or band, ask the venue what their rules are. If a venue doesn’t have a strict policy, use that to your advantage to work with your equipment, try different lenses, learn about composing shots, and practice in manual mode.
Where to photograph and for how long
Where you’ll be shooting often remains a mystery until you get to the venue. Many photographers’ favorite spot is the photo pit, a space between the stage and the front of the crowd. A photo pit usually affords a lot more freedom to move around, get interesting images of the band, and take great photos of the front of the crowd.
A drawback of shooting from a photo pit is that you usually get to shoot for the first three songs only. Often, this means that after the first three songs are over, you’ll either have to leave the venue or not photograph anything else while you’re there. This rule is typically at the band or artist’s discretion: they might allow you to shoot for the whole show or they could go even stricter than just the first three songs.
Sometimes, the luxury of a photo pit or designated spot for concert photographers is not going to be there. If there’s chance you might have to shoot from the crowd, arrive at the venue early and ask staff what the photography situation is going to be.
Shooting from the crowd usually means shooting the entire set. This can be nice, since a lot of the best action happens at the end of shows. Planting yourself at the front has its benefits, but after awhile, your photos can become redundant. Move to the back, side, balcony, etcetera to capture different images throughout the night.
If moving four rows up seems like an impossible task, politely ask the person in front if they mind you taking photos in front of them for one or two songs. Once that’s done, move out of the way. Best thing to do is be as polite and as unobtrusive as possible when maneuvering through the crowd.
Overcoming lighting challenges
Every concert poses its own lighting and focal challenges. You can guess at lighting conditions by watching the band’s past shows online or asking the sound tech at the venue. However, more often than not you’ll have to do some quick adjustments with ISO, aperture, and/or shutter speed when the show starts.
Shooting in manual mode will give you the most control during unpredictable lighting.
Know that you will not be able to use a flash, so it’s okay to bump up your ISO to compensate for having a faster shutter speed.
Since your subject is most likely going to be moving around the stage, autofocus is going to be your best friend.
What to shoot (and what to do when the band sucks)
The most coveted concert photography images are always going to be the band. Knowing that, make a plan when you go to a concert:
Your top priority is to get a killer shot of the lead.
Try to get most if not all the band members.
Warning: drummers are the hardest to photograph, since they’re usually stuck in the back.
What happens if a band isn’t super active on stage or every photo you get is starting to feel like a repeat of the last?
This is when you turn your camera to the crowd. There will always be someone dancing, singing their lungs out, or trying to crowd-surf (if it’s that kind of show). Those may turn out to be your best shots. If security allows, after shooting in the photo pit, walk around and capture the atmosphere of the concert; sometimes it’s just as fun as trying to get great shots of the band.