How to Shoot and Edit Your Concert Photos

Concerts and events can either be exciting and fun or quite challenging for us photographers due to the low-lit environment and having to share the space with other photographers, all while being crammed into a tight space. Luckily, a little bit of planning and preparation can go a long way to avoid any disasters while shooting.

I've been covering concerts and events for about a decade now, and along the way, I've learned a few things to help me take better photos and prepare better in case there are any unforeseen issues. It's amazing what 10 minutes of gear-checking and packing can do to avoid any mistakes or disasters while shooting. 

Iron Maiden captured by The Image Engineer, Live in Cape Town

Iron Maiden performing live in Cape Town, South Africa. Captured on a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II. 1/640 at f/2.8, ISO 800

Be Prepared

As I mentioned before, concerts and events are usually packed full of people. It's not exactly practical to lug around a Pelican case, two tripods, and two camera bodies, so the most important thing to remember is to try to pack as light as you can. To prevent you from fumbling around and knocking people over the head with a tripod, plan the shoot a few days before. Start by doing a gear check and packing only the gear you absolutely need. 

This is what I normally pack for a three-hour event or concert:

  • Two camera bodies
  • Two lenses (wide and telephoto/zoom)
  • 3-4 memory cards
  • 3-4 batteries
  • Laptop and card reader (if needed)
  • Small backpack

Now, your circumstances might vary, but I use the above list as a good starting point and plan accordingly from there on. One or two camera bodies should be a good start. Using two bodies with different lenses, say a wide-angle and a telephoto zoom, will prevent you from stumbling around and possibly dropping valuable gear while doing a lens change, and you'll be able to cover both wide angles and close-ups by just switching camera bodies. Switching your camera(s) to burst fire will also help you get the shot; just be mindful of how many shots you're firing off to eliminate future headaches of having to cull thousands of images when you're editing. 

Jinjer captured by The Image Engineer, Live in Johannesburg

Jinjer performing live in Johannesburg, South Africa. Captured on a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II. 1/250 at f/3.5, ISO 1600

Take enough memory cards and batteries to last you through the entire event. There won't be time to charge if it's a one-day event or concert. If you're shooting a two-day event, chances are you're able to set up a charging station in your hotel or accommodations. 

Another thing to keep in mind is if your client requires the photos to be sent off as soon as you shoot. In this case, it's important to pack a laptop and memory card reader (if your laptop doesn't have one), so you can dump and process images to send off as soon as possible. Most cameras these days have Wi-Fi, which allows you to send them directly to your phone or laptop, where you can do quick edits before sending them off, speeding up the process even more.

Leave the tripod at home. If the brief requires you to take photos of people or a band playing at a concert, you'll just get in people's way when setting up a tripod. Chances are you'll be shooting at a minimum 1/160 of a second (depending on what lens you're using — increase your shutter speed if using a telephoto) at f/2.8, ISO 800 (or higher) for these types of events. 

Steven Tyler with Kings of Chaos captured by The Image Engineer, Live in Cape Town

Steven Tyler performing with the Kings of Chaos live in Cape Town, South Africa. Captured on a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II. 1/160 at f/8 ISO 1,600

This leads me to one of the most important things to plan: lenses. More often than not, the concert or event will be dimly lit, so choosing the right lenses for the shoot will help you capture the moment at the right time. Pack two lenses, one wide-angle lens, and one telephoto zoom lens. The wider f-stop you have, the better. You want as much light to hit the sensor in these low-light scenarios as possible, so shooting at an f-stop of between f/1.8 and f/2.8 will be highly beneficial. If you have two camera bodies, mounting the two lenses on each body will eliminate the need to swap lenses and avoid possible disaster if you drop it in a crowd of people. Make sure the autofocus on the lenses and camera bodies is as accurate and fast as possible. In a critical moment, you might miss the shot if you're using a lens with a slow autofocus motor. 

The last thing to mention is to keep your flash at home if you're shooting a concert. Most concert venues won't allow you to shoot with flash, as it's distracting for the audience or band performing. Other events might be different, such as weddings or corporate events, where the use of flash is often necessary.

Alestorm captured by The Image Engineer, Live in Johannesburg

Alestorm performing live in Johannesburg, South Africa. Captured on a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro. 1/800 at f/2.8, ISO 250

Once you're done planning, pack the gear into a small, compact bag, like a sling bag or something similar. This way, you'll be able to navigate through the crowd with more ease. Make sure your cards are formatted and batteries fully charged. 

The Shoot

One thing to always keep in mind when shooting concerts and events is to be mindful of the people around you. While you are there to do your job, the people attending the show have paid quite a bit to be there. The last thing they want is a photographer to stand in their way, bump them with an oversized bag, or fire a flash off constantly. With concerts, you usually only have the duration of three songs to take photos of the band performing. Give the fellow photographers in the pit a chance to shoot in your spot after you take a few shots, then move to a new spot and fire off a few more shots. Wash, rinse, repeat. By doing this, you won't be in front of too many people in the crowd, and you'll allow other photographers the freedom to move around more. 

One thing I always do at shoots like this is trying my best to be invisible. Pretend you're a fly on the wall. Take a few moments to observe, take the shot, and move on.

Editing Your Photos

After you've copied and backed up all the images you've shot at the concert or event, it's time to start sifting through them and select the best of the best. In these situations, I usually end up selecting about 100 images and narrow them down to about 20-30 images in the end. My workflow (yours might be different — we all have our preferred way) consists of loading Adobe Bridge and labeling all the good shots on the first go. I'll then go through the labeled shots again, culling a few more shots, and repeat this process until I've reached my goal of 20-30 images.

Once I'm satisfied with my image selection, I'll select all the images and load them in Adobe Camera Raw, where I'll do basic adjustments (exposure, contrast, color correction, noise reduction, etc.) before opening the shots individually in Adobe Photoshop and doing further adjustments there, which I explain more in depth in the video below.

Conclusion

Iron Maiden captured by The Image Engineer, Live in Cape Town

Iron Maiden performing live in Cape Town, South Africa. Captured on a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 16-35mm f2.8 L II. 1/640 @ f2.8 ISO 800

The process of shooting concerts and events can be an exhilarating experience if you're prepared for it. I remember the first couple of concerts I shot were a major learning curve for me. I was fresh out of college and eager to shoot my first concert. With all that excitement, you sometimes forget to plan the necessities; it happens. Sometimes, I didn't have the right lens, or a memory card would fail, or the only battery I owned would run flat. It's a learning process, as it is with any genre of photography. The important thing to remember is to enjoy the experience and learn from your mistakes, no matter what happens. A few years from now, you'll look back and laugh at yourself. 

What tricky situations have you found yourself in while shooting concerts or events?

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13 Comments

Christian Lainesse's picture

If you see lasers, leave your camera(s) in your bag. It's also a good idea to have a towel, in case liquids (from drinks or water bottles) start flying around and you or your gear need a quick wipe.

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Two great tips! Thanks for sharing. I'm scared to death of lasers at a show. I remember reading a few articles about it a few years back and still shocked that it can cause so much damage to your sensor.

Alexander Ramos's picture

Love these shots, especially the ones with Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden! UP THE IRONS! \m/

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Thanks so much for checking it out, Alexander! Much appreciated

Nice work Fred!!! I bring a bag full of gear to shows because depending on the venue I am at the lighting may be good or terrible. I shot a show at The Milestone Club in Charlotte, North Carolina and the place was lighted with three LED strip lights and taking a quick meter reading I had to shoot at ISO 25,600. Good thing I brought my prime lenses (20,35,50,85) to that one.

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Thank goodness for primes! I've rocked up at small venues before where the only light available was 4 red and blue LEDs. Lit from the rear only. Because of the red and blue intensity, I lost all detail in the skin tones. Modern cameras probably handle those two colors better these days, but my poor 5D II struggled, even with a 50mm 1.8. You just never know what the lighting situation's going to be like until you arrive at the venue. Better to always be prepared.

I use C1/2/3 so I can swap from C1 high frame rate, tracking auto focus, shutter speed priority, auto iso to C2 single shot focus, single shot frame rate, auto iso, aperture priority to C3 manual exposure, manual iso, single shot focus, single shot frame rate for flash work. just one other thing, avoid changing lenses at a gig... at Reading festival a good few years about I saw one photographer get a bottle land in his open camera body filling with liquid...

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Great tip on using the custom functions. They do come in handy when you've only got a few minutes to shoot the band. Definitely agree on not changing lenses while you're shooting a gig. I've seen too many incidents with cameras drenched in beer.

Andres Entuna's picture

Thanks for the advice :) It is very interesting to me that on your sample photos here in this article, you got great well lit shots at 1/250 and ISO1600 at most.. I also keep my aperture F2.8 or lower only, but I found myself going 1/125 and ISO3200 to get as well lit photos like this.. Maybe because I only have an APSC camera, and I assume you are using full frame bodies :)

Andres, it has to do with the venue and not the camera. I shoot with DX and FX cameras and the issue I run into is the venues and how they light an event. I shoot primarily thrash and death metal and a lot of people are of the mindset "Oh metal band, they like playing in the dark!" Bigger venues and particular shows light better, when I shot Five Finger Death Punch and Heilung I was at ISO 3,200. For smaller shows I am at ISO 12,800 even with fast glass.

Andres Entuna's picture

Ahhh, I see :) I'll never be afraid to push the ISO up anymore because of this. Thank you for the insight :)

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Exactly what Robert said. Big shows, like the Iron Maiden gig I shot pictured above, were lit incredibly well - I actually ran into overexposure problems while shooting it - specifically the Maiden gig. In fact, most of the big arena A-listers seem to bring in the big guns when lighting their events. I've often shot with my Canon 5D II and a 7D and the results match perfectly. Thank the lighting engineer for that. Most of the smaller club gigs I've shot often have inexperienced lighting guys or they use cheap lights with a low output. As Robert said, people seem to think Metal bands should play in the dark haha!

Thanks for this. I shoot a lot of opera and burlesque (not simultaneously) and deal with all kinds of wonky situations but the worst has been lighting, particularly LED as you mentioned. I've always been nervous about going below about F4.5, but have the luxury of cranking the ISO (Nikon D4, mostly) because I shoot relatively close to the stage and the clients aren't bokeh types. I was interested to see how even at 2.8 your images appear sharp throughout.