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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.