11 Tips to Become a Better Concert Photographer

11 Tips to Become a Better Concert Photographer

I attended the Canon Roadshow, held once a year, where Canon gets to show off their latest gear. We got to have lunch with the Canon people, and we also had great keynote speakers who told their story and presented their work and how they do what they do. One of the speakers, Laura McCullagh, shoots live music events. She's shot acts like Die Antwoord and Mumford and Sons, to name a few. We were fortunate to get some pointers from her on how to get great shots.

Environment and Equipment Requirements

Before every gig, she checks the environment and what gear she’ll need. She’ll pack differently for a club, a festival stage, or arena show. She’ll check if she needs flash, or if she’s going to push up ISO. She mentioned that at big events, flashes are not allowed, and the photographers only get the first three songs to photograph, and then, they’re asked to get out of the pit.

She’ll also check if she can get media accreditation, which allows you into the pit. She mentioned that although media accreditation is great, it’s also ok not to have it and shoot the event from the crowd’s point of view. Events are not planned and designed for the people right up front. They are made for the people in the back, near the sound desk. There, you’ll have the perfect sound and the perfect view. To her, this is often of the best spots to photograph the event. If she knows the venue, she has an idea of the angles she can shoot from, what the obstructions are, and what lenses to pack.

Watch Out for Hazards

Drinks and drunks are deadly to gear. If you can, just notice what’s going on around you, and be aware of potential stage divers, mosh pits, and headbanging.

Include Context

Don’t crop too tight. Include the instruments. Shoot the brands and decals too, and include the interesting features of the event. If you crop and capture just the head of the lead singer, it’s just a random guy. But if you add the microphone or guitar, it gives it context.

Look Out for Expansion Opportunities

Shooting live events is a great place to meet people. The bands are there, the sponsoring brands are involved, and the media is there to get their scoop. From these gigs, she started shooting other events too. She shot portraits of musicians, which later became press shoots, and now, she shoots bands for the sponsoring brands, press releases, and album artwork.

Shoot the Drummer

The lead singer is the showman. They're the main attraction, or they might think they are. Her advice is to shoot the whole band. The other members are often the most interesting. Each member has a unique contribution to the band, and they are playing the instruments, which add a lot more context to the photographs. The drummer is most difficult to shoot, but visually, they’re caught up in a web of drum stands and microphone cables, which can make for very dramatic and appealing images. Shoot all the members; shoot the drummer.

Musicians Who Play to the Camera

Engage with them, make eye contact, and don’t hide behind your camera all the time. Don’t just observe, show them that you want some action to photograph, and they’ll surely bring it to the party.

Patterns and Timing

There will be lights flashing at these events. Brightly colored strobes will flash as the song reaches its final verse  and builds up to the abrupt and unexpected end that leaves the listener with unanswered questions, but for the photographer, lights can help or wreck a shot. She tries to pick up on the rhythm of the lights so as to not get a blown-out shot. The band members also have a certain rhythm to their setlist. If one of the members does a jump and you miss it, he’ll most likely do it more than once. Be ready for that shot.

Setlists, Instruments, and Lifestyle Images

Getting the details adds context and makes the event real. It also gives insight into the band and their dynamics. Whose handwriting is it, who decided on the setlist? All these questions can be unlocked by shooting these details of the gig.

Crowd Interactions

Shoot the people enjoying the show. This is the true fan, the person who’s there to have fun. They are also the ones who will go through the images you post online to reminisce over the festival, the people they met, and the great time they had.

Wear Earplugs

This sounds stupid and obvious, but it needs to be said. She’s seen so many photographers in the pit, right in front of the speakers with no protection for their ears. Just get a pair of good earplugs; they're your ears for crying out loud. They're quite vital organs; they provide one of your senses.

Share Your Best Work

She doesn’t spend too much time editing, and she surely doesn’t share every photo. She chooses the best and showcases those. Think about the viewer. Don’t overload them with images. Select a few that make the event special, and they'll make people who didn’t go feel like they missed out, and they'll go the next time.


Some Extra Tips for Those Getting Started

  • Start by shooting festivals. They have great variety. It’s a mixture between music and the lifestyle around it, and the crowds are loads of fun.
  • Go out in your town, and shoot the bands you like. Start local, and take it from there.
  • Know your gear. You need to have no tension when you’re shooting. Know what you need and what your gear is capable of, and get the best out of it.

Most importantly, she urges that we should all work hard and trust our gut, even if shooting certain things is just a hobby and you have to do other things to pay the bills. Her final advice was to always find time to shoot what you love.

I recommend you follow her blog to stay updated with her shooting.

All images used with permission of Laura McCullagh.​

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13 Comments

Joseph Drago's picture

Concert photography can be a lot of fun. I' made a lot of good friends through it when I started out. I would add that you need to follow the venues/bands rules or risk getting thrown out and even banned from a place. Not a great way to bolster your reputation by getting thrown out of places. Second I would add that you shouldn't sign any contracts without reading them. Many big name acts make you sign away a lot of your rights. You may just want to shoot them anyway but know what you're getting into.

Ariel Martini's picture

"although media accreditation is great, it’s also ok not to have it and shoot the event from the crowd’s point of view"

i think it's ok only if you're not shooting professionally, for any media outlet. bands often restrict photos to the first 3 songs for two main reasons: don't disturb the audience (although cellphones nowadays are much more of a nuisance than a few pro photographers -- or ipads even), and don't spoil parts of the concert that aren't intended to be publicly available (not to mention sweaty and melted faces).

the more you are in the game, the more you have to accept the rules.

Fritz John Asuro's picture

True. And also, the concert management/PR will definitely check the photos for your media outlet, in my case, magazine publication titles. And if they see "unusual" angles, it can get serious and legal stuff is on it's way.

Ariel Martini's picture

it's the crime you produce the very evidence against you

And for outdoor bigger gigs please leave your flashes at home most importantly your chinese yongnuo ones with a messy af pattern... or you will ruin other photographers pictures with the red dots and lines...

Matt Allan's picture

I totally agree about shooting the drummers. It can definitely be a tough task but if you take a few seconds to look for the gaps you can usually find a way to get this done.

Drummers are people too. ;)

https://fstoppers.com/photo/124295

Logan Sorenson's picture

- Ear Plugs (mentioned)
- Respect Security...
- Be Ready for Anything while you're there...
- Be respectful of other photographers, don't hog the best spots in the pit for too long...
- Use the fastest shutter speed you can...
- Don't be afraid of ISO, get the moment rather than worry about noise...
- Two Bodies, Two Lenses. If you can, you want to be able to get the wide, get crowds and the performers. Get tight and include context (mentioned)...
- Get more than one shot, when timing things for a singer to do "x", chorus comes on, etc...Take a handful of shots to get the right one, it's more like sports photography than you'd think.

So much to do, so fun =)

Rich Kessler's picture

Always shoot the drummer :)

Anonymous's picture

Nice, NINJA of Die Antwoord is awesome to shoot.
(http://www.woutervellekoop.nl/2015-01-29-die-antwoord-heineken-music-hall/)

Their lighting can often be horrible though - lots of UV/Blacklight

Thanks for this information, it was really helpful to me.

Indeed, liquids are deadly to your equipment as a photographer. If you are at a concert taking pictures, take care to steer clear of anyone with drinks. That can be difficult, but something you have to be aware of. http://www.nycheadshot.com/pricing.html

Yeah, what is live music photography if you don't give the drummer some. Nice article.

Thanks,
-Chris "AoxoA" Hooper of Austin TX.
https://aoxoa.co/live-music-photographer-festival-concert-photography/
https://aoxoa.co/austin-edm-photography-dj-photographer/