There are the stories, I’m sure you’ve heard them. Annie Leibowitz hanging out with the Rolling Stones. Bob Gruen photographing John Lennon on New York rooftops.
Let’s face it, second to being an actual rock star (we’ve all used a hairbrush as a microphone at some point, right?) being a music photographer and capturing all of the action, has a certain allure to it that for many of us, is hard to shake. But how do you actually do it? How do you photograph a rock concert or show?
Let’s start by getting one thing straight, your first show is not going to be a recording artist at the height of their fame. Even if it was, you will not have the skills you need to be able to do it justice. These shows come with time, effort and a good portfolio. The best thing to do is start with lower expectations.
Step 1. Find a band to shoot
Although it may seem a little daunting, this is pretty simple. There are two ways to go about it.
Firstly there is Social media. Search for musicians in your local area. Many towns and cities will have Facebook groups for live music, which is a great place to start, and most bands will have some sort of Social Media presence. You can check out their music, see what photos they already have and find out where they are playing. From here, you can simply send them a message and see if they would be happy for you to take photos at their next gig.
The other way is to go to venues in your local area that put on bands. Get out there, talk to the bar staff, talk to the locals. Ask if they have any restrictions on photography in the venue, etc. This way you can see what the venue has to offer in terms of lighting, as well as being able to approach bands directly and build relationships with people who can help get you in front of bands you want to photograph.
It is simply is a case of speaking to people. Being an introvert myself, I know this can be hard, but sometimes you need to suck it up and put yourself out there.
Step 2. Know your camera
This is the key technical thing you need to be aware of. Do you know how to change your ISO with your eyes closed? If not, you should so practice until you can. Shooting live music means you will generally be in very dark conditions and unless you are able to access things quickly, you may miss the perfect shot.
It might seem pretty boring learning this stuff and, to be honest, it is, but consider it the homework you need to do in order to begin your journey into music photography. Imagine the lead guitarist hitting their rock god pose only to find that you have been staring at your camera, trying to remember how many clicks you need to change your ISO by one stop and completely missed it.
While we are on the subject of knowing your camera, you really need to shoot in RAW. Live music images generally need to be processed to get the best color from them and RAW gives you the largest amount of data to work with.
Although there is technically no pressure to deliver amazing images for a shoot like this, you should approach every shoot like a dream assignment and deliver the best images possible. Seeing the band members reactions to your amazing photos will make all the memories of the boring stuff fade away.
In the same way, learning the exposure triangle is never the most fun but it is the thing that really helps you cope with the demanding situations you will face when shooting live music. Which brings me nicely to my next point.
Step 3. Learn to shoot in Manual Mode
Lighting in live music is complicated at best. At worst it is downright terrible. Camera meters will generally struggle with the type of lighting you are going to be facing. While aperture or shutter priority is great, what happens when those fail you?
Shooting in Manual Mode means that if you find there is heavy backlight on the performer, you know how to move past it. It is the difference between looking at the back of your camera and wondering what is going wrong, to looking at the back of your camera and knowing how to fix it.
Manual Mode is something that will really help you up your photography game no matter what you shoot. It is the basic principle of photography that you really should take the time to learn. There are so many great resources available for this, it simply needs practice and isn’t as hard as it seems at first.
Having the knowledge to be able to fix exposure problems is something that takes your photography game to the next level. Why? Because you have the confidence to be able to handle the lighting, rather than hope that it is going to be okay.
Step 4. Gear
While I am no means a gear nerd, or an advocate of buying gear for the sake of it, if you are wanting to do this regularly you really need to consider a lens with a fixed f/2.8 aperture.
Most music photography means almost exclusively low light shooting situations and having a lens with a wide aperture means you can get more light into your camera. In terms of focal length, the 24-70mm (or 17-50mm if you are on a crop sensor camera) is the most used lens in almost every music photographer’s bag. The wide aperture also has the advantage of blurring the background, which is useful in venues that don’t have the most attractive backgrounds.
You can purchase these lenses reasonably second hand, or you could always rent them. A cheaper alternative is the legendary Nifty Fifty lens, but it has big limitations for shooting music and even more if shooting in a small venue. While I love the 50mm lens I can’t really recommend it as a one to purchase for music photography when starting out.
I must stress though, these lenses are nice to have. You can shoot a show with any lens and any camera, but if you are considering this in the longer term, it will be a worthwhile investment.
Step 5. Shoot Day
It’s here. You’ve found a band to photograph, you know your camera and have learned how to shoot better in Manual Mode. It is time to go to the show.
The first thing is to make sure you get to the venue in plenty of time. This means you will not be rushing around and it also means you can check the venue, say hello to the band, and get yourself prepared. You may be tempted to have a drink for some liquid confidence, but I would advise against that. You need to be at your best and a few drinks aren’t always helpful.
It is always a good time to check the basics. Format your memory card in the camera. Make sure you have a spare card at hand, check your camera is in the right mode and the lens is clean. It sounds really simple when you are reading this, but honestly, this is the sort of thing you will easily forget due to nerves.
On one of my first shoots, I forgot to put a memory card in the camera, so when the show started, I had to rush into my bag and sort it out. Luckily nobody noticed and the shoot went well, but this mistake is the reason I am so anally retentive in my pre-shoot ritual and you should be too.
Step 6. Etiquette
This is a big one!
You need to make sure you behave appropriately. The most obvious thing is to be mindful of those who are watching the show. You need to be aware of them and make sure you are courteous. A general rule of thumb is to not stay in one place too long. People generally want to see the band, not just the back of the photographer’s head.
Some fans will also be quick to let you know. I have been sworn at, had beer thrown at me and been threatened with violence. While you want to tell them off or snap back, you must remain professional and rise above it. To the band, their fans are number one, so make sure you treat them the same way.
If there are other photographers shooting the show, always say hello and be polite. It is nice to see people you know when shooting shows and having friends to bounce ideas off, etc., is always a great thing.
When shooting the show, the general rule of thumb is if you want to go behind someone while they are taking photographs, gently tap them on the back and carefully walk behind them. It is a simple gesture, but one that people always appreciate. Again make sure that you don’t stick in one spot, make sure the other photographers can shoot from the same place as you. Get your shot, move on, and let others have their chance.
Now we come to one of my pet peeves. Please, pretty please with a cherry on top, don’t hold your camera over your head and blindly take photos. While it may get you a shot you like, it is the most annoying thing for the fans, for the other photographers, and for the band themselves. It also screams “I don’t know what I am doing”. Just don’t be that person, please.
Step 7. To flash or not to flash
The next thing to consider is using your flash. Now many smaller bands will not mind this, or at least they will say they don’t. But imagine being in a dimly lit space and having someone fire off a camera flash at you 10 times a minute. It soon becomes annoying!
The best solution is to try and avoid flash wherever possible. Modern cameras hold up really well at higher ISOs, so you should not have a problem. Photographing live music, generally means shooting at ISO 3200 or even 6400, but this is something most newer cameras can handle well enough.
Shutter speeds should be 1/125th or higher and your aperture will generally be as wide as your lens will go.
Now having said all that, what if you do need to use flash because the lighting is just that bad? Firstly be frugal. As tempting as it is to fire off hundreds of shots, it will just annoy everyone. Pick your shots carefully and shoot sparingly.
The other thing when shooting flash is to make sure you pick up some ambient light or your shots will lack atmosphere. Start with an exposure that gets close to where ambient would be, then add flash as a small fill. This not only means you get more atmosphere in your shots, it also lessens the flash power, which is better for the artist you are photographing.
Don’t be afraid of slowing your shutter speed down when using this technique. 1/30th of a second or even slower can add some cool effects to your shot and will help keep the atmosphere.
Once you move into bigger bands, it is a simple rule, first three songs, no flash allowed. Break this rule and not only will you be removed from this show, but you will find it hard to get your next pass. The music business is a small world and lots of promoters know each other, lots of tour managers talk and if you annoy one, your name may spread. Practice not needing your flash now, then when you move onto bigger bands, you will be more confident and be able to do the show justice.
Step 8. Composition
Composition is incredibly important in music photography. Simply put, there are shots to get and shots not to bother with. The most common shot that I see from those starting out in music photography is one of the singer’s face covered by the mic. This shot is considered a no-no in professional music photography, simply because it hides the singer’s expression.
When shooting, you need to pick your moments and move around frequently to be able to capture the best images possible. Do your research before the shoot. Look at popular music websites, look at professional music photographers and see what the best in the business are doing, then apply this to the band you are photographing.
Every band wants to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. While you can’t provide them with this, you can give them photographs that look like they could be in the magazine.
Step 9. Post-Processing
This could be a whole tutorial in itself, so I will keep it brief. You will need to work with the color. By shooting in RAW this will give you the best data to work with later. You generally will need to tweak live music images, especially the color balance and JPEG simply does not give you enough scope to do this.
The most important thing is getting the images out quickly. When shooting professional bands, this means as soon as possible after the concert. When you are just starting out it is still a good idea to get the images to the band while the gig is still fresh in their minds.
Step 10. Practice
You’ve done it. You’ve now photographed your first show. I am sure you had a blast and the band loved the images. So what now?
Do it again and again, and again. Get out there and shoot! This will make sure you are constantly improving, but also allows you to start to build a reputation in your local area and building up a portfolio. This is key in moving to the next level and shooting bigger bands. They want to know you will take photos that make them look good.
So how do you shoot bigger bands? Well, that’s a story for another day. For now, you need to get out there and practice. What’s stopping you? I can’t wait to hear how it went. Please share your rock concert photos and questions in the comment area below.