Club-Concert-Photography Quick n' Dirty Guide

Being a musician I spent years in different bands playing live on stage, and although I no longer actively do that, it thrills me every time I am at a venue watching a show. It was a natural thing that once I fell for photography I looked for a way to connect these two fields of interest – the birth of a concert photographer! But I should learn the hard way that taking a camera to a concertstill didn’t make me a good concert photographer. It took a lot of trial and error, bad decisions and money spent for nonsense equipment until I finally got to the point where I saw myself as a concert photographer.

When I’m out on a gig I often see band member’s girlfriends standing in front of the stage holding a point-and-shoot camera or even DSLR, often in despair due to the extremely challenging lighting conditions at these dark, small venues. When I witness that I can’t help smiling as that reminds me on my own first attempts on that field of photography. Back then I was shooting film, and I had no idea what the pictures would look like until I had them developed. I was often happy when I had two or three usable images (I write “usable”, I hardly ever got any “good” results”). Then I had my first digital camera, a 1.6MP Kodak DC260 with built in flash and a small display on the rear that at least let me see the bad results I got right away and save money on films. That camera cost a fortune back then. My first reasonable digital camera was a Sony FJ717, it had 5MP and Zeiss optics, and the image quality was really very good for that time. It also let me take more control over the image taking process in terms of settings. Not in a way a DSLR would, but enough to get me into those details. Soon the quality of my shots made a large leap forward, and that was about the time photography really had me on the hook. So – back to concert photography. That Sony camera also featured an articulated screen which made it perfect for overhead shots in a packed concert venue. However, back then (around 2003) even the best digital camera had difficulties with high ISO values. Image quality sucked under low light conditions, all was grainy and the autofocus systems had severe issues locking on to anything. There simply wasn’t enough light.

While the light hasn’t changed over the years, cameras have. Even a low-end beginner DSLR of today would have owned any digital camera back then. And I mean OWNED. Bent over and totally OWNED. So technically, even such a basic camera can deliver a reasonable result good enough to show off on Facebook and the likes.

Here are a few simple hints that will help you set up your camera and shoot not only at a concert, but as well in a dark club or at a party whenever there isn’t much light.

Bump up the ISO

The ISO setting defines the camera’s sensitivity to light. Back in the days of film photography, this value could not be changed and was set by the film type you had in your camera. DSLR cameras allow this value to be set, and the higher it is, the less light will be required to make a picture. Nowadays even a modern beginner DSLR will offer a maximum ISO level of 12800 if not more, but especially beginner DSLRs will show a lot of noise on the images when shot at too high values. Set this to 3200 for starters.

Set the aperture to 3.5

The aperture value defines how much light will be allowed to get through the lens into the camera. This should be set to the lowest possible setting but not lower than 3.2 – explaining why would take this too far, so just take this advice. In most cases, beginner level DSLRs are equipped with a very basic lens that won’t go below 3.5 anyway.

Set the shutter speed to 1/125th

The shutter speed defines for how long you will allow light to enter the camera. A value of 1/125th of a second is fast enough to capture slow movement without blur and yet slow enough to give you camera enough time to work with the light in order to “paint” the picture.

The above are settings for a standard concert situation and represent my starting point when I shoot concerts.

When shooting with the above values set in your camera, use following troubleshooting list to improve your results:

Problem: Image is too dark

Solution: Before changing settings please look if the image really is too dark or just dark. If it is just dark then better leave it that way. If it really is too dark, lower the shutter speed to 1/80th of a second. Going below that will cause blurred images, so stay at that absolute minimum and go back to 1/125th of a second as soon as possible.

Problem: Image is too bright

Even in a dark club sometimes there actually is enough light. Should this be the case and your images are too bright, raise the shutter speed one step. As you can see, image brightness is controlled via shutter speed. To keep things easy and you on the safe side, do not alter any other setting. There are other ways to do it, but as this is a quick and slick tutorial I won't go into this any further.


Shooting live music

I wrote earlier about a few little but important things a newbie photographer should take care of when shooting at a concert venue. This of course applies just to the small venues without a big stage and photo pit in front of it. Now that you know the basic settings for your camera (you did read part one of this guide, didn’t you?), let me give you a few easy to follow ideas on how to improve your images in terms of composition and situational awareness.

IMPORTANT: the following hints are meant to cover BASIC requirements of noob-photographers using basic gear. There may be other ways to do it. Heck, there may even be better ways! Some of these tips even apply for pro-photographers. If you stick to the following, I guarantee you will have much better concert photographs and more fun while at it.

The walkaround

No matter how chaotic things may seem to be at the venues and especially on stage, there always is a certain degree of order. In small venues, the limited space on stage literally forces each band member to stay within a certain area. If the singer doesn’t also play an instrument, he should pretty much remain in the same spot as well.

So when arriving at a venue, walk up to the stage and pay attention to the positioning of the vocal microphones. These give away where musicians will be later during the show. Look at the venue and think of good spots where you could shoot from. Go to these spots and look through the camera viewfinder in order to determine the field of view. Remember NOT to zoom in. Keep your kit lens always fully zoomed out as only then it will allow you to use its maximum open aperture! In many cases this will be at 18mm which is a pretty wide angle. If you want to get closer to the action, you will have to walk closer towards it. Never zoom. We photographers call that “foot zoom”, as we use our feet to zoom in or out.

Be prepared to change position all the time throughout the show. Don’t just stand there in one spot as your pictures will be boring when shot from the same angle all the time. So find four or five spots that suit you best: one to shoot the whole stage, one good spot for the singer, one for the guitarist and so on. Make sure to get good shots of all band members. Also look for a shooting spot by the soundboard. Often the soundboard is somewhat elevated offering a great unobstructed view onto the stage. In any case ask the guys at the soundboard if it’s OK for you to be there during the show. As with security personnel and venue staff, a “no” is a “no”. Be polite and respect their work.


Mind the stage

In any event, never climb onto the stage unless you have checked with the entire band whether it would be ok or not. I have seen photographers literally get kicked off stage by the band or security before they even knew what had happened. The stage is holy ground. If however you are given permission, make sure that the security staff also know about it. It is their responsibility to retain safety and order and the worst idea would be to think they would argue one second with you about whether or not you should be there. Again: these guys work just as much for your own safety so be respectful and let them do their job.

Now that I started writing about safety: a packed venue can turn into friggin’ hell within seconds. Be aware of your surroundings at all times and stay away from trouble. Certain musical genres have a very special audience in terms of unpredictability. Always keep your other eye open as well when peeking through the viewfinder. This can help your situational awareness a lot.

Should you be given permission to get on stage, stay to the sides and in the back. Never walk across stage. To change sides, get down, walk over and then get up again. Especially when on the stage, watch your step. Never step onto cables, move slowly and always plan your path before you move. Never touch or move things in order to get to a certain spot. I saw a guy tipping over a beer bottle which emptied itself over the guitarist’s effect board causing a horrendous hum and buzz, and after a forced 10 minute break the board was beyond gone due to a short circuit. They fried the photographer for that.

On the move

When moving through crowds move slowly and plan you path. Avoid moving through areas where there’s much dancing, hopping, head banging going on. Let people know you are there by gently touching them on their shoulder. Be friendly and apologize if you step onto someone’s feet. Never push people aside but wait for gaps to slip through. Carry your camera above your head. People will see it and be more willing to let you pass – you are the photographer! Up there it is also unlikely to get hit by someone or spilled with beer, blood or vomit. You laugh…I say you haven’t seen what can happen.

There is no need to rush – unlike big shows where you’ll only be allowed to photograph the first 3 songs, in small venues you will be able to shoot the entire set. Take the time to see how the camera settings work. Make breaks and check the images you’ve already taken. Drink water. Wear earplugs. The latter will help concentrate and simply prevent hearing damage, especially when you get close to speakers or on stage.

Don’t use flash

Most beginner-DSLRs have a built-in popup flash – when shooting concerts do NOT use it. If it pops out automatically your camera is set to auto mode. Check the first part of this tutorial to get the right camera settings which is really important and the key to good pictures.

The reason why I urge you NOT to use the built in flash is the fact that most venues don’t allow that anyway as it distracts both the artists and the crowd. Secondly, the performance of these tiny flashes is so weak that they will be effective only on a very short range, spilling the foreground with ugly, harsh light while leaving the background in darkness. In addition to this, there will be nothing left of the moody stage lights – don’t use flash.

Following the pattern

When I shoot a show I always follow a certain pattern. In the beginning I check my global camera settings which normally doesn’t take more than a minute. Then I go for the must-have shots: a few of the whole band, then a few of each band member in action and a few of the crowd in front of the stage. Once I got those I start experimenting with special viewing angles, compositions or unorthodox camera settings. While I would not encourage you to experiment with camera settings during a concert shoot (unless you really have the time and remember the basic settings I taught you in the first part of this tutorial), there is nothing wrong with going after special shots. Also remember that there might be other interesting spots at the venue worth photographing: the bar, the entrance, the area in front of (!) the restrooms, basically any other place where people gather and there is enough light. A photo-journalistic approach to the entire evening at that venue might give your band pictures a very good framing, helping you tell the story of the entire night at that venue rather than just the show itself. The stage has high priority, but do not forget about the rest.

Another sort of rule comes to my mind: until you have the important shots, don’t get caught in conversations and try to stay sober. When you are there taking photographs, take that task serious and try to give your best in order to return home with a good result. Once you have all the “money-shots” there still will be enough time to chat and enjoy the show.

The day after

So you got home with a couple hundred shots, had a good sleep and now want to share your work – again, think first. Take the time and look at the pictures on the screen of your computer. Evaluate your overall performance and make a first, rough selection of your favorite shots. Make sure to have a good “must-have” images among your selection. Then browse your initial selection and make a new selection containing just the best of the best, again making sure to have all the “must-haves”. No matter how tempting it may be to just publish or upload all of your work: don’t do that. Select what is good and keep the rest for yourself. It will help you see where there is room for improvement – I still learn from my own current work. Believe me, it is a very rewarding feeling to come back to your older work just to see how much you have improved over time.

Some thoughts about publishing

As a photographer – be it pro or newbie – you alone carry the full responsibility of what you shoot, when you shoot it and how you shoot it. The people in front of your lens must be able to trust you – not only in your skills as a photographer but also from an ethical point of view. In direct words, never take a picture you wouldn’t want to have taken of yourself. This simple rule will help you stay out of trouble in almost any situation. If you catch someone in an awkward situation, pose, or both, don’t shoot or at least never ever publish that shot anywhere – no matter how funny it may be. Always respect other people – those you like and those you don’t. In some events it might even get you into legal trouble, so stick to the rule above and everything will be fine.

Sometimes parents will bring their kids to a show. In ANY event, ask the parents for permission first whether or not you may take pictures of their kids. They will want to know if and where the pictures will be published, and some might even ask for your card so you can send them pictures. Be prepared and have answers ready. Whenever unsure, stay off the shutter button.

When publishing pictures on social media it is best not to publish images showing anyone else but the bands. It is OK to upload general crowd shots, but never upload images that could interfere with the privacy of individuals – especially couples. What looks like a beautiful romantic shot could end up in two people getting seriously in trouble with their “real” partners. When I see a romantic scene and can’t resist the shot I walk over and show them the picture. If they want to have it, I take their email address or give them my card and send it to them ONLY. I once was contacted by a girl who was completely off the hook because I had published a picture where she was standing in the background smoking a cigarette. She said her parents would kill her if they found out she was smoking and begged me to take the image down as soon as possible. You see – small things can have big impact, so take your responsibility as a photographer seriously.

Gear suggestions

Photography gear is expensive, period. Investing in something cheap is a bad idea, as in almost every case you will end up buying the real deal sooner or later. However, there are a few things that are absolutely worth their money without being too expensive.

Fast prime lenses

Both Canon and Nikon offer a very inexpensive, fast 50mm prime lens. This fast 50mm lens will let you shoot better pictures in low light, allowing you to drop the maximum aperture to f1.8 and use higher shutter speeds. Image quality is limited, but in most cases those limitations won’t spoil your concert shots.

Black Rapid camera strap

When shooting concerts, a standard camera strap will be more in the way than helpful. Before I get lost in describing this thing, take a look at this YouTube video. Jared Polin of pretty much says and shows all about it. By the way, his website is a great place for learning photography as he shares his 12+ years of experience in a very detailed yet entertaining way – should you ever want to get out of auto mode and learn more about photography, his video guides are second to none.