Guest writer J. Dennis Thomas is an Austin, Texas based photographer and the author of the Nikon Digital Field Guide series by Wiley Publishing as well as the author of Concert and Live Music Photography, Pro Tips from the Pit and Urban and Rural Decay Photography ,Finding the Beauty in the Blight published by Focal Press. He is also a frequent author of articles on photographic theory and technique for Digital Photo Magazine. He is represented by Corbis Images his photographs have been featured in notable publications such as Rolling Stone, SPIN, People, Us Weekly, Elle, W magazine, Thrasher, Ebony, New York Post, Veri.Live, and many more.
Concert photography is quickly becoming one of the most popular types of photography there is. Many photographers out there jump at the chance to shoot their favorite bands hoping to catch that iconic shot. There are lots of articles out there on the web with advice on what types of settings to use and what is the preferred gear, but there’s a very important topic that’s often overlooked. Composition.
A lot of photographers jump into the photo pit with experience shooting in other styles. While it’s true that when it comes to composition, photography concepts are very similar across the board, for concerts and music photography there are certain ways to compose that portray the subject more effectively than when shooting more traditional subjects.
Most photographers know what makes a composition pleasing for the viewers in general, but many don’t remember that not only are they shooting for the fans, they are shooting for musicians as well. Musicians don’t look at photographs the same way as photographers do. Since most photographers aren’t musicians they generally compose thinking like photographers.
I’m in a unique position, not only am I a concert photographer, but I am a musician. As such I’ve had the opportunity to shoot for many bands and musical instrument manufacturers. While there’s nothing wrong with composing images from your own artistic point of view, but if you want to market your images you need to shoot for your audience.
Here are a few of my top tips to help get the perfect composition for concert photos.
Show the face. A very common problem with photographs of a singer is that the face is often completely obscured by the microphone. When shooting the singer pay very close attention and wait for them to back off the microphone. This usually happens between phrases, when taking a breath, or when hitting a particularly loud or high note. The mic doesn’t have to be completely away from the face, but at least allow the singer to be recognizable. In figure 1, a shot of the band Billy Talent, the microphone is clearly visible defining Benjamin Kowalewicz as the singer and his face isn’t obscured at all.
Keep the headstock. The guitar headstock is at the end of the guitar neck. This is where the manufacturer places the logo. In addition the guitar is an extension of the player. Think of it as a limb, like an arm or a leg. To a guitar player cutting off the headstock makes the guitar look severed (This also applies to promo shots). In figure 2 although I could have zoomed in for a close-up shot I composed the image so that the whole guitar was in the shot. The guitar is custom made for Zakk Wylde by Gibson therefore is an important part of the image and as such should be featured prominently.
Use interesting lighting and angles. Let’s face it; you’re stuck in a photo pit that’s about 20 feet wide and 3 feet deep with a dozen other photographers. Everyone is getting pretty similar shots. If you want to sell your images they need to stand out from the pack. Don’t stand in one spot for the duration of your shooting time. Maximize your effort by shooting from as many different angles as you can. Try different lens choices. Shoot an ultra-wide when everyone is shooting telephoto. Shoot from down low. Tilt your camera to get the “Dutch angle”. Shoot silhouettes, spotlight shots, use front and backlighting. Catch some lens flare for effect. Mix up your compositions so that your images aren’t exactly the same as everyone else. In figure 4 I used backlighting, lens flare, and an ultra-wide angle lens to get a shot of Jane’s Addiction that was unique from the photos that the other 20 photographers jammed into the pit with me were taking. For that reason this shot was chosen and featured by Rolling Stone.
Include branding. If the sponsor has hired you this is a no-brainer, but at any event that is sponsored if there is branding on the stage get a few shots of the performer with the brand in the background. Send a few shots of to the marketing and PR people to see if they’re interested. It only takes a few seconds and can pay off in the long run. Figure 5 shows a composite of images taken at the Revival Festival in Austin, Texas, which is sponsored by Grestch Guitars. In each shot the brand is prominently displayed. As an additional tip, stop down your lens aperture to increase depth of field to get the performer and brand in focus. Each one of these shots was taken at f/5.6 or smaller.