What I Learned From Shooting Live Music at a Festival With Only a Prime

What I Learned From Shooting Live Music at a Festival With Only a Prime

Shooting live music appears to polarise photographers, with some enjoying it and some disliking the lack of creative control. While it isn't my favourite genre to put my camera to work, I do get some satisfaction from the atmosphere, unusual lighting, and singular poses. I noticed, however, that I had a bad habit: I didn't move very much and simply reframed the images using different focal lengths of my 70-200mm. So I decided to take a risk.

Admittedly, it wasn't an earth-shattering risk, but it was a risk nonetheless. I had been deployed to a music festival where I live in England and while most of the role was more familiar - behind-the-scenes portraits of acts backstage - I was also asked to shoot some of the acts live from the pit. For the uninitiated, the pit is not the clammy muddle of angry teenagers, but rather than aisle running between the stage and the barriers. It's a little awkward an angle for portraits, but it is still prime real estate. Well, only for your eyes. It is not at all prime real estate for your ears and if you forget your ear plugs, as I did for the first act, expect to be saying "what?" a lot for the next few days.

To unpack my self-criticism with live band photography it's that moving isn't easy. There's always lots of photographers, videographers, and security guards packing out this sliver of territory. Not to mention speakers protruding left and right. Every photographer around me was using zoom lenses and a few were switching to second bodies with ultra-wide-angle lenses for a different take on the same image. It was raining heavily which really made everything more difficult and my decision far more questionable, but I had arrived at the conclusion that if I only had the options to move or not get the shot, I would start weaving around the pit.

The prime I opted for was the Canon 135mm f/2, known sometimes as Lord of the Red Rings. It's quite the title for a lens (though not so much for an Indian takeaway) and it's warranted. It is hands-down my favourite lens but it's no where near my most used. In fact, it's probably around 4th or 5th in my most used rankings, but that's because it doesn't align well with my usual line of work (commercial photography). For portraits and headshots, I will use it at some point during every shoot because its results are beautiful. The combination of f/2 with the focal length creates beautiful and cinematic images, made only better still by the sharpness of its results wide open. Its aperture was absolutely crucial in this situation too.

Shooting live music is tricky. Even if you've never had the chance to try it, I'm sure you can guess why it's not easy. In case you can't, I'll lay it out: the light is constantly changing and aggressively. There's lots of movement but not necessarily enough light to capture it and in almost all cases, at least that I've been involved in, you are prohibited from using flashes. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, you have zero creative control outside of moving your own feet. As with all event photography, from weddings to festivals, there is no second chances; if you miss that perfect moment, it's gone forever. Iconic images of live music are where perfect moments meet perfect settings and positioning of the photographer. When you shoot a music festival, however, there are further issues to overcome. For example, the weather. It had been raining almost the entire weekend I worked photographing the artists and was now like navigating a swamp. While Clean Bandit played their set, there was a localized monsoon I was desperately trying to defeat while attempting to recall whether the 6D is weather sealed and if Canon would fix it if I lose my battle with the elements (it is, but they would not). Also, the 10 or more other people who are tunnel-visioning as much as you are, doesn't help.

In the interest of lucidity, the lighting cannot be left as an obstacle to be overcome as it is pretty much the only reason I enjoy photographing live music. The sense of drama and atmosphere it creates is second-to-none when in conjunction with the smoke and movement. It is a key element to the addictiveness of shooting musicians mid-concert and one of the primary reasons that live music is a unique scenario to photograph.

I am by no means a veteran live music photographer, but in my experience even if you're shooting with a zoom, using any other camera mode than "manual" is going to drastically hinder your results. DSLRs are fantastically stupid beasts and no metering and assisted settings could handle the rapidly changing state of play. For that reason, I strive to find out early what shutter speed and ISO combination would capture the most atmosphere while remaining crisp. You have to accept that there will be a lot of throwaway images; sometimes the lights will all go out and plunge you in to darkness, other times you get a military grade searchlight beamed directly in your squinting face, washing your image out. However, if you aim for the middle, a good deal of images will be in that "ideal" sector, and some will sit close enough either side of it that you can rescue the under or over-exposed shots. That said, you still need to react to change. I kept my finger on the dial and would often change the shutter speed without looking at the screen, based purely on the brightness of the scene if it persisted longer than a second or too. Live music photography is no place for chimping unless you absolutely have to.

So, what did I learn from using only a prime? First and foremost, I could be a lot less British and polite about moving past people to get a shot I wanted. It sounds inconsiderate, but it's somewhat expected as everyone is striving for that shared goal. A polite dialogue on potentially relocating to someone else's "patch" is not possible, thanks to both time constraints and the anti-social volume that comes with being several inches from a speaker several inches taller than you. Secondly, you'll see the musicians differently, and this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you will see shots that fit the focal length perfectly and in many way, you will hunt for those. On the other hand, you will miss some shots a 70-200mm (etc.) could have captured. Rather, you could have perhaps improved on a shot with a wider or tighter crop, or better isolated the subject from the background.

My third lesson is one I already knew going in, but it gives you a lot more leeway than you might expect, namely the difference in widest aperture between my 70-200mm zoom and my 135mm prime. The jump from f/2.8 to f/2.0 is visually hard to decipher. That is, if I took a shot at 135mm and f/2.8 on my 70-200mm zoom and then again at 135mm and f/2.0 on my 135mm prime, very few would be able to point out which is which. I'm pretty sure I could do it, but I doubt I'd be able to do it with 100% accuracy. However, the worth of that 0.8 reduction in aperture value is that it is a full stop; that is twice the amount of light being let in. That difference can not only allow you to shoot using a stable shutter speed when the lights dim, but also raise your shutter speed when they're brighter ensuring that the subject is sharp despite constant movement. The difference in depth of focus is negligible in most cases at this range, and if anything, it's a plus as backgrounds at live music are often distracting and messy.

What tips would you give to readers just starting out shooting live music? Leave them in the comments below.

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mike b's picture

Great article. I used to do concert photography with a zoom and I got myself in the habit of exploring as much of the venue as I could to get a variety of different shots. Most venues lock photographers into the tiny 3ft gap between the stage and the barrier, and that's hardly enough to get enough variety.. not to mention having to maneuver around various tiers of security guards. Another thing I learned was to offer to take shots of the stage mixing engineer because they usually have a pretty big say on who gets to lollygag around the mixing console (which is usually JUST off stage right/left) and you can take use that vantage point to get really good crowd interaction shots.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Interesting, I hadn't thought to befriend the mixing engineers. That's a hell of a stage shot too!

Austin Largusa's picture

I shoot live music at least twice a month and the best advice I can give you is:

A lot of what you want to capture during the concert or set won't be available logistically when it's live. But during rehearsal, as long as you have permission, you can literally go ANYWHERE. Oh and having some knowledge of the songs is good. You know where the climax is. You know where the cool drum solo or bass riff is.

Robert K Baggs's picture

That rehearsal tip is great advice if you can do it!

Jonathan Brady's picture

Great article. FYI, the 6D has an astonishing lack of weather sealing. It's merely comprised of tight seams.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Thank you. Fortunately, I fashioned a very upmarket camera sleeve out of a bin bag!

Jonathan Brady's picture

Here's a teardown video... https://youtu.be/N6ZMJiOjFSk

David Gillispie's picture

I've been the personal photographer for a band on 2 national tours now. I was just given notice literally this afternoon the band will be on a huge national tour next month and to get ready. I'm confident shooting live performance and all the insanity that goes along with it but, I still get the jitters before the tour starts and I have that first show under my belt. Your article couldn't be more timely for me personally! You did a great job of pointing out the necessities, pitfalls and things you can't control with live performance capture. You have inspired me to pack a prime just to feed the creative creatures throughout the month tour. The only thing I could maybe add is deciding if you want to stick with an autofocus variety/drive variety, manual focus or a mix of both. Just be prepared. Like you mentioned - you need to shoot a massive amount of frames and hunt for the keepers! Thanks for this read!!

Robert K Baggs's picture

Thanks, David. I know that feeling well. The lead up to any shoot I just want to get going to stop the jitters. Good luck on the tour!

Bob McClenahan's picture

Shot a music festival last year with just the Nikon 200 f/2:


Robert K Baggs's picture

Really nice. How did you find just using a prime? The 200mm is quite a long prime too!

Peter Blaise's picture


135mm f/2 single focal length prime lens, versus 70-200mm f/2.8 variable focal length prime lens, on a 20 megapixel full 35mmm frame camera.

Very clear images of stable subjects ...

... how about captions, with contents, author, date, location, next time?

Why do we think our images do not deserve identification?

My prime lens is a variable focal length super-zoom, so I can crop in-camera.

I know the differences between a single focal length prime lens, and a variable focal length prime lens, in terms of potential maximum light-gathering qualities * , and in terms of accuracy or distortion in the captured image resulting from a simpler light path, higher speed shutter, greater dynamic range above system noise.

But, digital has evolved the ease with which I can achieve pleasing image presentation qualities far beyond film days, where we now have much less noisy high sensitivity capture, faster and continuous autofocus, high shutter rates, including high-resolution still-image-grab from video, plus post-capture algorithms for distortion reversal, vibrance, clarity, defog, sharpening, interpolation for smooth enlargement.

* Too bad Minolta never scaled their f/1.2 4x variable focal length zoom prime lenses, and f/1.4 8x variable focal length zoom prime lenses, from Super 8 to 35mm.

James Hill's picture

For an absolute n00b, how does one get into photographing events like this? Do you need an existing portfolio of work? Do you try and talk to the band directly or go to the promoter, event management, the venue management, or... Someone else?

Jernej Srebrnič's picture

You should start on small scale, local events and such. You can also contact local news companies, as most photographers at shows get there based on press related jobs, at least as my experience goes. Offer photos for a press pass or something along the line and some would probably gladly agree, especially if the event isn't something that of upmost importance.

Michael Hickey's picture

Live music photography depends a LOT on your access. General media pass, first three songs, from the pit or FOH and you can pretty much expect average photos. All access... and the possibilities are endless and the sky is the only limit.