Live Music Photography

July 07, 2016

Live music photography presents a whole new set of challenges, even for experienced photographers. You will be up against poor or rapidly changing lighting conditions, questionable colour casts from stage lighting, sometimes unpredictable subjects, and shooting in confined spaces battling it out with an often intoxicated and excitable crowd and/or other photographers.

The first thing to consider is your gear. The good news is that latest advancements in DSLR technology means that even entry level camera models can give good results in low light. However, a kit lens just won't cut it in these difficult lighting conditions so consider investing in a zoom lens with a wide maximum aperture of f2.8, or try a prime lens with a maximum aperture in the range of f1.2-f2.8. Whilst prime lenses are not as versatile as zooms, they often give superior sharpness and to an extent you can “zoom with your feet”. Choose a focal length appropriate to the size of the venue – a small, cramped venue won't give you as much room to move so a shorter lens (such as a 50mm) will be more useful. Keep a lens filter and hood attached to protect your lens from bumps and drink spills and overenthusiastic punters, or even performers! Be particularly careful when changing lenses in the pit – make sure you have your spare lens at the ready for a quick changeover. It is wise to carry a spare memory card and battery.


Flash photography is often forbidden during live music performances, but if you are allowed to use it keep it to a minimum to avoid disturbing other concert goers. To avoid losing the ambience provided by the stage lighting, experiment with a slow shutter speed to capture the light and background detail whilst the flash freezes your subject. Reduce your flash compensation, use a diffuser or bounce the flash off a white or neutral coloured ceiling to soften any harsh effect.

If you are relying on the available light, you will sometimes find the stage lights give an unnatural colour cast (often red). Sometimes this can be used to great effect if you like a high contrast duotone effect. However, it can often look unsightly or compromise the detail. You can sometimes bring down the red (or applicable channel) in photo editing programs, but often the natural skin colour is unsalvageable and in this case your only option might be to convert the image to black and white. White balance is an important consideration here, and a harsh red colour cast may be lessened somewhat by setting your white balance to the cooler end of the scale.


Shooting at wide apertures means that it can be harder to nail your focal point, especially in the dark. If your goal is to have the face of the performer in focus try to position your focal point on the eye area. If you want to focus on their instrument, look for some light or texture that the AF can grab on to. Although it will make it harder on your AF system, consider disabling your AF assist lamp to keep a lower profile and to avoid annoying your subjects!

Whilst it is obviously tempting to bump your ISO sky high to compensate for the poor lighting, you need to get to know your camera and how far you can push it before the noise becomes unacceptable. This is personal taste of course; if you like some noise on your images set your ISO to 1600 or 3200 and go nuts! Just be careful not to overexpose and lose detail. On the subject of exposure, use spot or centre weighted metering for the most accurate exposure on your main subject. Of course you can completely ignore this advice and create a killer silhouette shot by exposing for the background!


 

Shutter speed rules remain pretty much the same as for all hand held photography – use the reciprocal of your focal length as a guide. If you are shooting at 50mm, try to shoot at 1/50 second and faster for sharp images. Keep in mind that if you are not using a full frame camera, you will need to take into account the crop factor, so 1/50 will become 1/80 (the nearest shutter speed to 1/75). All this said, slower shutter speeds can also be used to great effect to show movement.

Finally, one of the most important things is permission and etiquette. Be respectful of your fellow punters, keep the flash out of their eyes and get there early so you are not pushing your way to the front to get the shots. Best to ask the band (or their manager) before you start snapping away, especially if you are planning on using flash. For larger venues and events, you will need to apply for a photo access pass. Once you have built up a portfolio of smaller gigs, try contacting online music websites and offering to shoot for them in return for access, or contact the promoter or tour manager. Very few music photographers make any money from it, but you meet lots of interesting folk and invariably have a rocking good time.