By Sarah Arnold, QA
I’ve been surrounded by music my entire life. I grew up in a family of musicians, one of whom toured the world in the sixties. Being drawn to concert photography was only natural for me as music was such a vital part of our family. I loved feeling the music through my feet and eventually through my fingertips while photographing the musicians on stage. Starting at the age of 14, concert photography has become a large part of my photography business. I’ve learned a lot over the past 10 years through huge amounts of trial and error. Here are some of the things I’ve learned that can be useful to anyone just getting started in concert photography.
Don’t be shy. The majority of the concerts I’ve shot, I’ve walked straight up to the band and asked them directly, “Would you mind if I take photos?” 99% of the time, they are excited a photographer is interested and have absolutely no problem saying yes. You have to be a bit of reporter when trying to track down the band. I usually find where they’re located backstage or wait until they are on stage setting up and simply approach them. In many cases, I’ve ended up becoming friends with the band members and am given stage passes as well as put on the guest list for future shows. Stage passes are key for great shots of the crowd and band interaction. These shots are usually the ones bands use for marketing purposes, which in turn can bring a lot of traffic to your site when the band gives you proper credit. This brings up a very important rule: ALWAYS make sure the band is giving you credit when they post your photos. ALWAYS. This can be a verbal or written agreement via email. You can also draft a quick and simple photo session agreement before releasing photos to the band.
Want this shot? You’re gonna need a stage pass!
Plan ahead. Some concert venues require permission from the venue as well as the band, sometimes as much as three weeks prior to the event. In such cases, reaching out to the location on social media is a good way to start. Mention that you’re a photographer, share some previous concert galleries you’ve photographed, and tell them you would love their permission to photograph at their venue. Persistence is key in this case. Follow up with them if you don’t hear back. Not hearing back from the band manager? Try reaching out to individual members of the band. Still not hearing anything? Reach out to other bands in the line-up. Ask if they would like your photography services. Even if you don’t get approval from the headliner, you can still shoot for the opening bands. They can report their experience back to the headliner and, in the future, you’re more likely to get approval once they’ve seen what you’re made of!
Get official. When shooting for festivals, the best approach is to start at their official website. They usually have a “media” section where you can request to be part of their media team. This process can be a bit more picky. You must have a concert portfolio and usually they require a list of all the gear you own and plan to bring. Most of the time you’re signing a contract saying they have full rights or “own” your work, but you’ll get attribution for the shots you’ve taken. The bigger the band, the more likely they are to take full rights from you — meaning you can’t sell the photos. If this is the case, make sure you’re being compensated properly. Keep in mind you won’t be making money selling prints and digital downloads. Calculate this into your final price so you’re walking away happy and not feeling taken advantage of.
Gear up, Buttercup
The bare necessities.
Concert halls by nature are dark, making low-light lenses a necessity. The lower the aperture, the better (f/2.8 and below) because the lens opens up wider, allowing more light to reach the sensor. This means you can get away with using lower ISOs, minimizing the graininess of your photos. You’ll still need a faster ISO setting given the lighting, approximately 1000 to 2000 in order to not get too much movement. A shutter speed of 1/50 of a second is the lowest you should set your camera to when shooting drummers and other band members who are likely moving very quickly.
Don’t let graininess overshadow the emotion you’re capturing.
Don’t get flashy, kid.
Whether it’s natural spot lighting or a colorful light show, concerts have unique lighting systems. Usually the stage lighting used produces a much more natural capture, while flash can distract the musicians during their performance and can interfere with the experience for those involved. A good rule of thumb is to refrain from using a flash. It won’t add anything to your photos that the stage lighting isn’t already providing for you.
Say yes to starbursts and no to flash.
Beware the spots.
When relying on stage lighting, you have to be careful that your shutter speed isn’t TOO fast. Lights pulsate in a way that the eye can’t see, but the camera can. So you don’t end up with spotted lighting, a slightly longer exposure will allow the sensor to have full light on the entire band. When I shoot concerts, I tend to have my camera set to aperture priority. This way I ensure I stay at the lowest aperture and don’t miss capturing key moments while adjusting the manual settings thanks to constantly changing light.
Streaking is only fun in college, not in concert photography.
Get the shot!
Details, details, details. Bands love getting close-up shots of each member working their craft and playing their instrument like a pro. One shot I love to capture is where you can see every single band member’s face. This can be tough given all the equipment on stage, the placement of the drums, band member movements, etc. But getting a full shot of the entire band is a money maker. Some of my favorite shots are when the band members interact with each other. It shows a bit of fun and the relationship that the band has with each other.
Forget cowbell, 2016 is the year of the tambourine.
I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille.
Moving around is key. You want to get entire venue shots showing the band and the concert attendees from behind, as well as those awesome detail shots taken from the front of the stage. The bigger the band, the more likely the front of the stage will be crowded and difficult to navigate. Staying in one place is easier, but you’ll miss some great shots. Usually if you show concert-goers your camera, they’ll move out of your way to allow you to change location. This is another example where having a stage pass comes in handy. You can skip the crowds by being directly on the stage.
Sold-out crowd = visual bragging rights.
Nail that action!
Overshooting is better than undershooting. Capturing those hair tossing, spit-screaming moments can be tough, so I have my camera on multi-shot mode when I anticipate some action is about to happen. Within four or five shots, there’s usually that golden moment that results in a perfect action shot. Watch the musicians and their mannerisms. Is the singer highly animated? Does the bassist toss their hair around? Capture that! They make for great photos. I love watching drummers because they usually have great facial expressions and use every muscle in their body to keep beat. Watch for band members jumping around. Air shots are fun to capture and fans love buying them.
All about that bass.
Capturing character and the beat.
When the curtain closes.
Fix it in post!
Since you’ll be using higher ISOs, graininess will be inevitable. When editing with Lightroom, I use a tad bit of “Noise Reduction” > “Luminance.” This makes a surprisingly huge difference in the amount of grain that appears within your images without making the image look too doctored.
The only noise in the photo should be the band.
Don’t sell yourself short.
I get paid for my work in a variety of ways. Sometimes the band and I have agreed to a price before the concert (which is usually an hourly rate since one set is typically an hour). However, a lot of the time, I’m showing up to a concert where the band doesn’t know me and I’m trying to get my foot in the door and need to show them what I’m made of. In this case, I bring business cards and let them know their photos will be available for purchase on my website.
Share the wealth!
This is where the beauty of SmugMug comes into play. With SmugMug, I can set up a gallery to show up on a map. Band members can use this map to locate their event and view their galleries. It’s also where they can purchase downloads or prints, and share the gallery on social media for their fans to purchase from as well. Using watermarks and a right-click message, I make sure my work is protected from theft. These features have helped my business grow in such an unexpected way. Thanks to SmugMug, I can shoot for strangers and sell my work without having to meet them or get any of their information in advance.
No “Where’s Waldo” here!
The dark art of concert photography can truly be a vividly beautiful experience. Whether you’re photographing a large festival or just checking out your local band, you can learn so much about your camera, how to interact with big clients, and how to market your business. Follow my tips and you’ll drastically improve your results and how you connect with the artists on stage. What are some of your experiences in concert photography? What bands would you like to shoot? I would love to hear in the comments below!
Check out more concert photos by Sarah Arnold here.
Play us out, Sam.