Tips for Photographing Live Music

Tips for Photographing Live Music

Living in the live music capital of Texas, there is no shortage of opportunities to experience incredible shows while taking some memorable shots. Capturing the excitement can be tricky, however, as dim lighting and moving subjects don’t usually play well together. Here are some tips for making the most of your next concert.

Get Close to the Action

By far the most important aspect of great live music photography is being close to the action. You want your images to feel like you were on stage, next to the performers, right in the midst of all the action. Sure, you can zoom in from afar for a similar look, but at longer focal lengths camera shake becomes more noticeable and you typically find yourself having to get above the heads of those in front of you which negates the use of most tripods.

My advice is to get to the show early, secure your seat up front, and be ready to shoot. It is much easier than arriving late and fighting your way through a crowd. On the flip side, I have noticed that when wielding a large camera, particularly with a larger lens, most people will move a bit for you to get closer as it appears you mean business. Don’t be shy. Find an opening in the crowd and scoot your way through. There always seems to be a path if you look for it and are patient.

By getting there early and securing my spot up front, I am able to get shots of the performers that are tight which isolates them and makes the viewer feel like they are on stage.

Shoot Wide, Shoot Tight

Part of the problem with shooting live music is all the extraneous detail that trickles its way into your shot. There are usually other photographers on stage, tons of gear, and spectators on the sides, all of which can remove the viewer from the focus of your image and into an undesirable direction.

Combat this by shooting very tight shots of your subjects; their faces, their hands on the guitars, the drummer sticks as they crash down. All of this detail looks amazing when viewed as a tight closeup and even more so with a compression factor that comes from using a telephoto lens.

By getting to the concert early enough, I was able to secure a spot front and center which allows you to get up close and personal with your subjects. The proximity gives the viewer that feeling they are on stage.

Conversely, shoot wide and low. This is not easy to do and absolutely requires you to be up front and center stage. By shooting at a wider focal length, a low angle, and pointed up, your performers will have that look of grandiosity that they rightfully deserve. Time these shots to the chorus of each song or moments when you know the beat is going to intensify. Shooting wide will inevitably capture those extraneous details we are looking to avoid but shooting at pivotal moments in the song when the lead singer is screaming out or the guitarist rocking a solo will help focus your attention on their expressions only. These moments are also typically accompanied by incredible stage lighting effects which further accentuates your subjects and dims down the background.

Again, get close to the stage. As close as possible. Then squat down and shot up using the widest angle you've got. This was 24mm which by most accounts is not very wide, but at a low angle, the effect is accentuated.

Shoot Often

I cannot tell you how many times I have shot a particular sequence, checked my LCD, and thought, “Wow, this shot is going to be incredible,” only to realize in post it was out of focus or just barely off in expression.

Digital is cheap so you should shoot as many frames as you can when it comes to live performances. Set your camera to continuous shooting and fire away. Milliseconds matter when it comes to moving, uncontrollable subjects and the slightest variation can make or break an image. Their mouth may be slightly closed in one or their eye(s) barely open. Often this is too difficult to judge on location, not to mention you don’t want to miss a key moment while chimping your shots. Do yourself a favor and shoot a lot.

This was shot at 200mm with my camera's APS-C mode turned on and was one of probably 35 shots in this sequence. Combine that with a flicker of amazing stage lighting and the right moment, and you have a captivating image.

Monopod?

Monopods are generally associated with video work as they are more portable than tripods, and therefore easier to work with on the fly. They should not be underestimated for photography, however, and if you have one, it isn’t a bad idea to bring with you to a concert. Typically, you will be shooting in low light and at longer focal lengths. Even if your camera or lens has internal stabilization, it will still be difficult to get a steady shot. Monopods are unobtrusive, easy to carry, and lighter than most tripods.

If you don’t have a monopod, try using your tripod with just one leg extended. It creates the same effect as a monopod and allows you to pivot and move with virtually the same level of ease. Forgot your tripod? Use your friend’s shoulder as a brace or the rafters if you’re close enough. Not ideal, but in a key moment this could make or break a shot.

Bump Up Your ISO

I agree, this is not always the best exposure parameter to adjust, particularly above certain thresholds for different cameras. But when it comes to getting a grainy shot that is in focus versus one that is blurry, which would you choose?

Obviously, you’ll want to use the fastest lens you can. Anything f/2.8 or lower would be recommended. This will allow you to shoot a faster shutter speed and I would argue you’ll want stay above 1/250 of a second at a minimum to freeze the action.

Perhaps your fastest lens is only 50mm f/1.8? Better to shoot wide open at the fastest shutter you can and crop in later as you may not be close enough at 50mm. You’ll lose some resolution, but again, there are tradeoffs to accept and this is probably more ideal than having an image be unsharp and grainy. Otherwise, crank up the ISO to a level that allows you to achieve 1/250 s or faster and use a denoiser in post.

This image was taken at ISO 1,600, f/2.8, and a shutter speed of 1/250 s. There was some noise present but the stage lighting and pause in action made for a generally sharp image (the backup dancer is slightly blurred primarily due to f/2.8). Don't be afraid to boost your ISO.

Conclusion

Live performances are some of my favorite images to shoot for personal reasons. The color of the lighting, the spectacle of the scene, and the intensity of being close up to the action. Next time you’re thinking of going to a concert, try some of the tips and share your images below.

Log in or register to post comments

28 Comments

Brian Gray's picture

When shooting shows from the audience, respect the crowd and the artist. Using monopods or, even worse, tripods in the middle of the audience is just plain rude. Please and thank you, pardon me, work your way up front between songs. A camera with a big lens isn't a permission slip. You don't seem to have a live music portfolio so I can understand why you may not have learned that yet.

Have some discipline on the shutter button. Loud shutters are distracting, especially when it is constantly clacking. Musicians are creatures of habit will commonly repeat actions. Don't be afraid to miss something, it'll probably happen again. Turn off focus beeps, focus assist lights and shoot through the viewfinder.

Even when shooting wide, you need to pay attention to composition and focal plane. I guess you were trying to share the young lady's shorts as subject matter? Wide and up, it may not flatter the performers and can be distracting or even uncomfortable for them.

Finally, you probably won't be the only person with a camera. Be respectful of other photographers, especially the professionals on assignment, and help them get their shots. You might get a shot you couldn't otherwise, perhaps even learn something from a more experienced music photographer.

It's rare that I interact with people in the audience without a pass. Pros are almost always inside a barricade for the first three songs. After that, we either get to shoot from a balcony or stop shooting. Great point on the monopod/tripod. Plus lots of venues see them as weapons if you're not a credentialed photographer.

Brian Gray's picture

I shoot on assignment in a ton of small venues for new and up and coming artists, none of them have pits or special access. I have also had to shoot shows without a pit, removed at artist request, while still only getting the first three. It helps to be nice, makes friends up front and let people know you are working and will be out of their way for the best bits of the show. Monopods or tripods equate to stop, drop and open up shop and do piss off fellow concert goers and photogs, alike.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

YES!! Leave the monopod/tripod AT HOME! almost every venue will deny you entry with it.

That would depend on the venue, actually. If it's a soundboard shoot, and you're using a 300mm+ lens to cover it, you'll want to bring a monopod, because it will be incredibly difficult to take photos while actually holding up a heavy lens and keeping it still. Now, if someone bring a monopod/tripod into a pit, or the audience, yeah, that's not allowed!

Mark Bowers's picture

Hey Brian! I appreciate the feedback. Where is your music portfolio BTW? You have nothing on your Fstoppers profile so its hard to tell if you are for real or a troll. I don't shoot music for a living, just for fun-so I wouldn't be showing this on my profile. Doesn't mean I don't know what I am doing. Never said to extract the full tripod out nor would I recommend bringing one. Just said in a pinch it would work.

Also, most monopods are not that obtrusive. I use them frequently and have never had any issues. Yes, you cannot take them to most shows but it just depends. Use your judgment. You should never be afraid to do what you need to do to get a shot. And this doesn't equate to being rude either. Never did I say to be pushy or rude. "There always seems to be a path if you look for it and are patient." does not = push and be rude. If you can wiggle you way up front to get a good shot with your small monopod, do it! You're not breaking any laws, there are no "rules" here-only those who do what they need to do and those who bitch about those of us.

I completely disagree on the shutter issue. If its an acoustic, small venue MAYBE you will hear the shutter. Otherwise, a non issue in a loud crowded set. And you are wrong in missing the moment. Most moments are just that, momentary, and if you don't get the right facial expression or pose the shot is gone never to return. Music is one of the only genres I would suggest firing away at, most I would agree not to.

You should always pay attention to your composition. In my "wide" shot, the stage comes to a convex behind her head bringing attention to her facial expression and upper body. The microphone brings you out of the bottom right quarter into her face as well. The shorts are barely noticeable. Maybe that's where your wandering eyes go but not mine.

Finally, who said anything about being rude to other photogs?? At no point did I mention being rude to anyone. I would never recommend that. You've made a lot of points based on nothing I said or recommended.

Brian Gray's picture

I have a little time...

I was hoping my tone wouldn't have been perceived by you as combative and perhaps your response isn't intended to be either, but based on your first paragraph, it seems I have touched a nerve. Apologies.

Monopods can certainly be obtrusive and to the point of other commenters, they are normally banned from venues. Having been hit in the head by a monopod as an audience member and having shots ruined by monopods as a photographer, I am quite confident in the fact that they can be obtrusive. Also, "you should never be afraid to do what you need to do to get a shot" is quite an arrogant and rude thing to say given when at a show you are surrounded by people that paid to be there. There are rules at every venue. By all means, climb up on stage and see how gently the staff treat you while you explain you were just getting your shot. I merely want to reinforce that being polite is helpful.

Shutters, especially on full-frame DSLR cameras, are audible to those right next to you even in a loud room and very noticeable to the audience in an acoustic setting. Self awareness helps here. You will miss shots whether it is shooting music, sports or your pets, be it because of focus or chimping or compositional flaws, and you have to live with that. I admit I miss more shots than I "get", or at least I see reasons to cull shots from post-shoot workflow. It comes with the territory, but it also doesn't mean I am going to test the buffer of my camera at every show.

In your wide shot, it was well-framed for the facial expression you are wanting to highlight, but her face is not in focus. Next time, if her face is your intended anchor to the image, focus and spot-meter on her face and recompose.

I made points based directly on what your article said and explained my positions. Monopods and tripods are rarely accepted in any venue and do detract from other people's experience. Your wide shot is focused on her shorts or, generously assuming, the back of her strumming hand. Shutters are audible. My tips on focus lights and beeps were just things I see new music photogs doing that can be irritating to the artist and fellow audience members. Finally, maybe seek out other photogs and not just rewrite the rulebook as you see fit. When a photographer does something to raise the ire or security or the venue, it usually makes life harder for the people that shoot in those venues weekly. A guy that had his own rules made sure all photographers now get escorted in and out, often missing openers and getting no chance at crowd shots, at a venue that was at one time very photographer friendly.

Pleasure conversing with you. Enjoy the rest of your day...
- http://www.photobriangray.com #notatroll

Brian, I'm very much in agreement with you.

If you're in a more intimate concert setting, you are definitely right, it's better to not "point and spray" with your shutter. Now, a loud concert venue? Sure, fire away.

Monopods and tripods are INCREDIBLY obtrusive, and inherently dangerous when in a crowd of audience members, or a crowd of photographers in the pit. The ONLY time I want to see them in use is if it's for a soundboard shoot. Otherwise, trying to hold up a camera with an additional 4-8 lbs of weight on it, and keeping it steady, is incredibly difficult. Then, and ONLY then, should you be using a monopod, and NOT a tripod.

By the way, I love your work. And if you're ever interested in my work, feel free to take a look at https://www.facebook.com/foobarstudiosphotography

I'll be following your work!

I wholeheartedly agree with the commenter here , tripods in a crowd are ridiculous , unless your shooting video for the artist , same goes for focus assist lights in the pit , NOTHING more annoying than the red dot on the face of the performer because the photog hasn't learned their shit.
Also please no heavy backpacks , they are completely impractical in a pit situation for the user and highly annoying for your fellow togs , also no giant hats , no flashguns on cameras especially if it's not switched on.
Please be aware of the need to share space with others working and please don't plonk yourself in one place in the pit and not move for the whole 3 songs , your shots will look the same , move around , capture the whole story .
Shoot every member too
I'm sure there are a bunch of others too , no one likes phones in the pit ( I don't care what you say phones aren't cameras). And please if you're new to the game and have a question about settings etc do it before the show starts , not during , asking questions is cool it's how we learn , we have all been there. Wear earplugs.
I've shot for a while so I've seen a lot of weird shit in pits , even a sketch artist once !
And finally cos I'm a self promoting whore check my instagram at
https://www.instagram.com/glensfilter/
Happy shooting :)

Mark Bowers's picture

Glen-I appreciate the feedback and love the IG page. Really great stuff and you're in Austin! I already replied to Brian's comment which is the one you were agreeing with I assume. Never did I say to bring a tripod and splay it out. That would be stupid honestly and be completely inefficient. I just suggested using one leg out as a monopod and frankly, I see nothing wrong with this. Do I bring a monopod or tripod to a show often? No, definitely not. Most of my lenses have IS and if not, my camera body has internal IS. If you don't have these advantages and are hoping to get out to get some great shots for a portfolio then I see no issue with having a monopod. They are really not that obtrusive at all. Not sure why everyone got so up in arms over that suggestion.

Everything else you've mentioned is spot on tho for sure! Really great points. Moving around and getting every member is definitely recommended.

I find it humorous when, from the audience seating, I see various flashes go off from other audience areas. The only thing their flash is doing is lighting the back of some guy's head.

Rui Bandeira's picture

if you get too close you will end up doing portraits of the musicians, and in that way you will no be showing the stage ant the show...if you do a portrait the viewr cant say if the band was on a big stage or on a small venue, and it cant tell if the image was from last night show or from last year show...

This isn't true at all, easy enough to shoot close and wide. It's not necessary to have the photo tell people how big the stage is or where it is. FWIW, credentialed photographers are almost always close and have no way to move back. This one was taken while pressed against the stage by the crowd.

Mark Bowers's picture

Rui-I certainly appreciate you taking the time to read and comment on my article. I think having tight, close shots is very impactful and usually the best types of shots at concerts. It helps isolate the subject amidst a see of chaos on stage and yes, it shouldn't be all you shoot but it should be some of what you shoot.

Rui Bandeira's picture

haaaa
i got the impretion that you were sugesting to alwais shoot close.
;-)

Mark Bowers's picture

Getting close is more about being close to the action. It has nothing to do with the composition and focal length. There was also a section titled "shoot wide, shoot tight".

This article ignores one very obvious fact. Almost all venues don't allow cameras in without credentials. That makes explaining how to get credentials far more important than shooting tips, until you can go in with your camera, it really doesn't matter. I also agree that tripods/monopods don't belong in the audience. The only time I use them is when we are required to shoot from the soundboard, which is usually on Jupiter and requires 400mm. And there aren't that many seated shows these days. I shoot shows one to three times a week, mostly in large venues, and have shot at three seated shows in the last year. And it's important to look at something more than just a straight on shot of a performer, there can be much more interesting shots.

Mark Bowers's picture

Thx Spike! Great points for sure. I see no issue at all with a monopod honestly, they are not near as obtrusive as everyone is making them out to be. Would I bring one with me? Not often if ever these days. Most of my lenses have IS and if not, my camera body has internal IS. If you don't have these advantages and are hoping to get out to get some great shots for a portfolio then I see no issue with having a monopod. Also, did I say to shoot straight on for every shot or is this just a recommendation? The shots I included for this article were a very small example for the sake of having images. I by no means suggest shooting straight on ALL the time.

As far as credentials go, yes this can be an issue depending on the type of show you are attending. Most will not allows larger cameras. You should always check in advance cause it is a real pain to make it all the way to the show only to be denied access because of your gear. On the flip side, there are PLENTY of concerts that don't have any rules around this. If you are just looking to get some cools shots of musicians, then find a small band at a local bar and go shoot. Many times I have had the band approach me afterwards and ask for the images so they can promote which is mutually beneficial.

Gary Miller's picture

No monopod, no tripods, no continuous lifting of your camera in front of your fellow photogs, no backpacks, take your damn flash off your camera if it's not being used(which it pretty much shouldn't be) you are sticking your flash up into other people's shots, dont use a flash if it says "no flash" but n your acceptance email, I've seen band reps stop us from shooting and kick us all out because of one dumbass, don't jump in front of someone who is shooting just because there is a millimeter of space available. Don't camp out, we all need our shots too. Don't set your gear on the stage during the show (I've seen artists kick lenses off the stage). No phones (or if you need to, step back away from the other photogs and take a quick shot) I've had to do this as house photog a cpl times as my boss asked for a social media shot they could post right away. I'm against it at all times personally though.

Lastly: Follow the rules set forth by the band and/or the venue!!! First three from the pit means just that. Not 3 1/2, not shooting as you're walking out etc. security will remember that and you will get a reputation that will be difficult to shake.

I know this post has a lot of the "don'ts" in it but if you follow them other photographers will notice and be more apt to talk with you or help you out when needed.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/GaryMillerShoots/

Mark Bowers's picture

Hey Gary, thanks for reading and commenting. I do appreciate it! I simply disagree with the comments about no monopods. Most are really not that large or obtrusive and if this is something you need to get a good shot then bring it and use it. Do I personally use one often? No. I have no need for it. But if you are looking for some good shots, in low light, for possibly portfolio work then use what you need to use to get the shot. Period. There are no rules to this unless the venue has them so all of this commentary about respect this and respect that really is a moot point if you are trying to get out, shoot, and make a name for yourself. I guarantee you someone else will if you don't and you'll be left behind.

The points about flashes or backpacks is absolutely true. I would never do this and honestly, it wouldn't do much anyway given a certain distance. A big bulky bag will only slow you down as well. Phones are fine I would say but sort of silly if you're already using a big camera.

Camping out it totally acceptable-IF that's what you choose to do. I wouldn't recommend it b/c variation is always a good idea. Plenty of concert goers do it all the time and there is no issue with it at all. Find a good spot and listen to the music. Having a camera doesn't make you subject to any different rule(s).

Also, I'm not necessarily going to a show to look for help from other photographers. I'm there to get good shots. Period. At the end of the day, I will do what I need to do to achieve that within the confines of it being legal and allowed per the venue. I am never rude to others and would never suggest that but eventually you will irritate someone. It's inevitable.

Gary Miller's picture

You say you are never rude to others but the content of your comments to me and the others here show a staggering level of unprofessionalism. Mono/tripods are obtrusive to the people behind you, camping out and keeping others from getting their shots is very unprofessional, The fact that you aren't interested in input from other photographers shows your level of arrogance too. I've been doing this for 36 years and if I ever think there's nothing to learn from others I may as well hang it up. If where I am in my career is getting "left behind" I can live with that. At least I know I'm doing it right.

Mark Bowers's picture

Gary-every commenter I responded to I thanked for reading my article and commenting, yourself included. That is not rude at all. The fact that I have a different set of opinions does not make me rude. Every one of my responses was well thought out and technically speaking, valid depending on how you feel about each subject. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to using a monopods unless they are not allowed at a venue. Who are you to declare it is RUDE for camping out and taking photos? People listening to music find a spot and camp out all the time. I'm 5'6" so basically anyone in front of me at a show prevents me from seeing the stage but I don't go around bitching saying its RUDE. It's a fact of life. At shows people are going to get a good spot, stop, and listen. Period. The fact that I have a camera makes no difference. Stating what you think does not make you right-that seems to fall in line with the whole "alternative facts" approach to making a point which drags down everyone. I am simply not interested in taking feedback from other photogs at a SHOW. Online and in a normal, non-hectic shooting environment are more appropriate for tips and sharing of ideas. I relish those sort of opportunities and often mentor others looking to be professional by offering paid assistant gigs or simply tagging along on shoots. I have no doubt you are professional and have been doing well for "36 years" but that doesn't necessarily make you right when it comes to matters of opinion. The article was a set of "tips", not facts, and are simply recommendations to follow if you deem them to be valid.

Gary Miller's picture

The responding comments to your write up were also tips, not facts. And saying thank you then telling people such things as "there are no rules here only those who do what they need to do and those that bitch about those of us" is in fact rude. I never presumed to insist that you agree with me, you on the other hand have felt the need to make sure you tell all of your responders how wrong they are. And not sure if this is you being "unobtrusive" in this photo at the show most of your articles pics came from but I'm sure the people behind you were really enjoying watching the show through your view screen.

Mark Bowers's picture

Nice shot there Gary! Good thing it wasn't me with the tripod. Pretty cool it was the same show. You weren't close enough to the stage otherwise you may have avoided that nuisance. Fact of life that people will be in your way, whether they have a tripod, monopod, or are just plain tall. You stating its rude won't ever change that. Again, your declarations of what is considered rude are simply your opinions. Nothing much else to say at this point, I just always try and respond to comments. Good luck to you!

Gary Miller's picture

If I was shooting the show it would have been from the pit. I was sent this by another person who preferred not to comment. And even though that's not you, that is in fact what you look like from behind when you do your thing with a mono pod or your trusty not extended folded up tripod. As you stated you are not a pro concert shooter which is very obvious with the "tips" you give. I just thought that you may appreciate some real tips that are actually useful from someone that does know their way around a concert shoot. That's the one thing I was actually wrong about... Oh, and the thought of you mentoring anyone in live music photography made me throw up in my mouth a little bit.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

Mark clearly can't get it through his head, after all us Pro concert photographers are nicely explaining the ACTUAL rules to concert shooting. NO MONOPODS or even TRIPODS. If you know what you are doing you NEVER need one anyways.

It seems that the majority of the comments in response to this article are more of the pissing match variety, than anything useful to those who might have an interest in one day photographing a live music show.

For those who are interested in shooting live music:
The information shared in this article is quite useful, albeit so is some of the information found within the comments. With that being said, always keep in mind that what works for one photographer doesn't always work for another. Experiment with your equipment, find your style, and capture the emotions you want to convey to your audience. As Dave Grohl once said: "You can sing a song to 85,000 people, and they'll sing it back to you for 85,000 different reasons." As a live music photographer the emotion you want to capture is totally different from the emotion the other photographer next to you is trying to capture. There is nothing wrong with that! Your photographs are your own interpretation of the music.

The lighting will make or break your photo, but the lighting you find at live music events is like no other anywhere else... and it can make for some really impressive photos. Learn to use this light to your advantage, use it to add to the story you are trying to convey. There's a lot going on with the lighting in the background at most live music shows, don't let this intimidate you; concentrate on finding the right settings that will give you proper exposure on your main subject, and let the light in the background add to your photo. I find with most concerts, a shutter speed of 1/200 to 1/400 will meet all your requirements. An aperture of f1.8 - f3.5 and your ISO 800 - 1600 should give you a photo you are happy with. Again, find what works best for you!!

In closing, always be cognizant of the house rules, make sure you understand the rules before you start shooting, and be courteous to those around you (crowd & other photographers).

For those that think this is a pissing match:
Really? C'mon...

The information you're sharing here isn't to show up others on the forum; it's to help out someone who is passionate about the same thing you are: photography. Not everyone is as talented, or has the same understanding of photography you do. Maybe the information you share here inspires someone to pick up a camera and photograph something they are passionate about. Don't let your bickering be the reason they never pick up a camera.

Rob Swackhamer's picture

I would disagree with the monopod/tripod suggestion. Given how small some venues can be (and conversely how large some crowds can be) you most likely wouldn't gain much from using one plus it would be a pain to carry.

Three things I would offer from my experience shooting concerts and directing those shooting that I'm working with (especially from my time shooting shows in Austin):

1: Expect the lighting to be terrible. Especially since most venues around have a lighting set up that equates to "We don't care if you can see the drummer" plan for that and shoot accordingly.

2: Bring a good zoom with you so you can 'shoot around' the crowd. You can still get some amazing shots that way.

3: Remember that the fans come first. Be respectful of their time at the show. If there's a spot you think you can quickly get some good shots from ask whoever is there if you can get some shots there for like 30-60 seconds. After you're done thank them and give them a high five/fist bump/'cheers' with your beer/whatever. That smooths over your short intrusion a lot.