Showtime: A Beginner's Guide to Concert Photography

February 10, 2017

When am I am on assignment to cover a concert, I am generally photographing two bands, the opener and headliner, and usually get to shoot the first three songs of each act. Photographers tend to wait inside venues longer than they are taking photos, unless they are shooting directly for the band. We are usually anticipating the start of the show, trying to do things to pass the time. Sometimes we know other photographers there on assignment, but not always. And that gives you a chance to meet new people.  Usually, it’s the fans standing against the rail waiting for their favorite band to start who strike up a conversation with you. They have waited for hours outside on the entrance line, sometimes in extreme heat, or extreme cold, to get the best spot up front. But then about 15 minutes before show time someone like me walks in, and gets right in front of them. And they want to know how…why…who they are.

Duran Duran at Terminal 5, New York City

So we strike up a conversation. These die-hard fans love music, and they, lots of times, have some type of camera on them, taking photos to keep as memories and to share with their friends on social media. And the question I always get from these fans is “How do I do what you do? How did you get started?” So today I am here to tell you the best way to be on my side of the rail.

No one, no matter how good of a photographer they are, gets to work my spot inside the rail that quickly. It takes hard work and perseverance. You need to hone your skills, learn how to edit, and take lots of photos.

The obvious first thing to do would be to get a camera. There are many options today. Mirrorless cameras being one of them. But no matter how good they are right now I always recommend starting with a DSLR. You don’t need to run out and buy yourself a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. Take baby steps. A great camera body to start with is something in the Canon EOS Rebel series. It is what most photographers start with. Pair that with a fast lens like an EF 50mm f/1.8 STM, and you have a great kit to start capturing some amazing moments at concerts. If you have a little more budget to work with, a fast f/2.8 standard zoom — like the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM for Canon’s APS-C sensor cameras, or the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM if you’re a full-frame shooter, is a sufficiently versatile lens that will cover most of the range you need.

But most venues don’t allow professional photo gear inside. Many won’t even allow fans to bring cameras with interchangeable lenses. So the first thing I recommend is to find out venues that do. Check ahead of time with the arena or venue, to see if fans can bring photo gear, and if there are any restrictions. Most clubs do, and a lot of times they have no photo pit, so you have the same chance at the same photos that I do. Find those venues. Buy a ticket. Get there early. And get a spot up front. These venues without a photo pit usually don’t have the three song limit that working music photographers must generally follow. So you get an entire 90 minute set to get photos from the show.

The Black Keys at Roseland Ballroom, New York City

You will probably take way too many photos, and that’s okay. We all did it at first. We don’t want to possibly miss something. As your confidence grows, the number of photos you take will shrink. But no matter how many photos you take you need a way to manage your collection and edit those photos. There are a number of programs out there that will do it, including the software that came with your Canon camera. The software that I personally use is Adobe® Lightroom®. Lightroom has two main functions for me. It is a cataloging software that allows me to manage all of my photos so I know where they are and keep them organized, and it is also an editing software. A powerful one. And for music photographers it is probably all you will ever need. I haven’t installed Photoshop® on my editing machine since 2011. I leave Photoshop to the glamour photographers; I am not doing skin touch-ups on the musicians I photograph.

Here are some basic tips to keep in mind:

  • Shoot RAW. EOS cameras can either shoot JPEG or RAW image files. RAW images aren’t actually finished images yet. They are strictly a gathering of the brightness data from each pixel, and contain much more information than a JPEG will contain. A RAW file gives you more information to work with for editing, so you will be able to recover highlights and shadows more easily. Music photography is, in my opinion, the hardest type of photography to get technically sound photos because of how dynamic the performers are and how quickly, from second to second, the lights change onstage. Even if you nail the exposure on one photo, you may be over or underexposed on the next one — and that could be a second or two later. RAW will help you save images.

Soundgarden at Irving Plaza, New York City

  • Assuming you have an understanding for photography, and are not completely new to handling a camera, there is a baseline of settings to have your camera set-up for when you go to a show. Set your white balance to auto. Lighting at concerts changes from second to second, and your camera will do a good enough job to allow you to fix colors in post-processing, if need be. Each camera has their ISO limits, and knowing them will be important. But setting your ISO to 3200 is a good place to start. On my EOS 5D Mark III and my 6D I know I can comfortably shoot to ISO 6400 with acceptable noise. It’s always better to have a little noise rather than a blurry or underexposed photo. Set your aperture wide open, depending on the lens you are using. I shoot mostly with Canon L-series zooms where f/2.8 is my limit. But if you are shooting with prime lenses, open up the aperture as much as you need to in order to keep your ISO at a comfortable level. I usually start with my shutter speed set to 1/250, which will allow you to shoot most bands without any blur. But if the band is very energetic, you may have to push it as fast as 1/500.
  • I shoot manual exposure mode, which most professional concert photographers do. But starting out, using aperture priority or shutter priority is fine as well. If you are shooting a heavy metal band, you may be able to set your camera to 1/350 in shutter priority mode and let the camera pick the aperture and ISO (with Auto ISO) until you are comfortable shooting shows. Modern SLRs even allow you to set a limit as to how high the auto ISO will go. Spot metering on the performer is my choice for metering concerts. You need to meter properly for your subject, no matter what the lights are doing in the background.
  • I use a single focus point, the center point, and I recompose my image after I lock in focus, to get the subject out of the center of the frame. Some people use AI Servo AF. For me, selecting an off-center focus point, switching to that point in-camera and making sure they aren’t in the center of the frame takes up too much time in a fast-paced photo pit. If you are comfortable doing it, try and see if it works for you.
  • Framing photos is something that is both objective and subjective. There are fundamental “rules” you need to understand about concert photography, which really come from rules of portrait photography and then adapted a bit. Can these rules be broken? Yes. But you need to understand the rules first to know how and when to break them. Once you get a handle on the rules, you can then spend time at shows focusing on how you like to frame a photo.
    • Be sure not to cut off the performer at a joint. So when framing, or cropping in post, do not cut them off at the ankles, knees or waist.
    • For guitarists, their instrument is an extension of their body, so do not cut off the headstock of the guitar or anywhere on the neck.
    • Show the instrument in the artist’s hand.
    • The most basic rule of framing is to use the rule of thirds. If you have not heard of the rule of thirds, look it up. The most basic way to explain it is to keep your subjects out of the center of the frame — the most prominent parts of a performer should ideally be intentionally off-center.  A performer’s head and face, for instance, rarely should be left in the exact center of the frame.

Prophets of Rage at Warsaw, Brooklyn, NY

  • Learn your editing software. Watch videos online for the specifics to the software you chose. There is not a lot of editing in music photography, but you still need to know how to edit music photos. You will find that editing will be an important part in defining your style as you move through this journey.

So now you’ve taken some photos, you’ve selected the best and edited them. But what good is all of that if no one sees them? Put your photos out there and see the type of response they get. Find forums specific to music photographers and get opinions. Reach out to other music photographers and ask for comments or critiques. Have a thick skin. Learn what you are doing right and doing wrong. And if all those people are telling you is everything looks great, find new people to ask. Your photos may not be great, yet. And until someone tells you how to improve they won’t be.

Get on social media. I’m sure you have an Instagram and Facebook account. If this is something you want to take seriously, make sure you have an Instagram account that isn’t littered with photos of your cats and your lunch from the local food truck. Get a dedicated Instagram account for your photography if you have to. Instagram is a good first step. Learn how to tag and hashtag so people start to see your photos. Because that’s the point of this if you want to move forward. You need people to see your photos.

Get a basic website. There are many pre-built sites you can work with. Start with somewhere people can find you and that you can point people to for them to see your work. Keep it simple and easy to navigate. No one navigates around a cluttered site.

Think you’re ready to shoot for a publication? There are plenty of smaller blogs looking for people to provide content to them. They usually don’t pay, but they also aren’t making much on advertising, so it’s a benefit to you both. Ask photographers at shows who they are shooting for. Use a search engine after a show and search for reviews and you will get links to various publications who covered that show. Try and find the editor’s contact information. Send them an email. If you don’t hear back, send them another a week or so later. Send out your info and website link to as many editors as you can. Sooner or later you will find the right person at the right time who likes your style and wants new content. Just remember that you usually get one shot with an editor. Don’t send your portfolio to Rolling Stone just yet.

Florence and the Machine at Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY

I was once where you are, through every step I have described to you. It’s a growth process. Even those with a true talent in music photography have a big learning curve. You will look back at photos you take in the first few years and cringe at times. I do. We are our toughest critics, and that’s normal. If you aren’t, you won’t go far in this field. But if you are, and you are okay with working hard, taking criticism, spending hours in front of a computer, and saving your money for months to buy new equipment, then you are about to get into one of the most fun and rewarding careers I could ever imagine being a part of. Sometimes I still don’t believe it.

To see more of Joe's work, visit www.joepapeo.com, follow his Instagram at @irocktheshot, or his Facebook at Joe Papeo Photography.

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