Tips for better live music photos
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shooting live music. Depending on the genre of music, the size of the venue, the quality of the house lighting, the rowdiness of the crowd and any photographic regulations imposed by the band or venue, your approach to getting the shot can vary greatly.
It is for all these reasons I find live music photography irresistible; no matter how much you prep, you simply never know what the rock and roll gods will throw at you. And the combination of difficult lighting, fast moving musicians and a mass of people competing for sight lines makes getting the shot all that more sweet. Especially when your shot conveys the pure, unfiltered energy of a live performance.
I've been shooting live for about seven years, in both stadiums and basements, dive bars and dance halls (I currently run a site called NWSoundExchange.com, which seeks to visualize Seattle's DIY music culture), and I've picked up on some general tips and principles that help me feel a little more prepared each time I walk into a new venue. Some of these tips come from advice given to me by more seasoned music photographers I've bumped into over the years, like Mick Rock, others come from shooting hundreds of shows and learning from my own mistakes.
Of course, these tips alone won't guarantee you the next cover of Rolling Stone. After all, excelling at live music photography requires on-the-fly thinking and problem solving, creativity, as well a mastery of photographic principles. But hopefully these tips will at the very least inspire you to bring a camera long to the next concert you attend.
By the way, the most important tip of all for shooting rock and roll is this: showing up with your camera to the show is half the battle. If you can make it that far, well, the rest should be pretty easy.
Do your homework
The Screaming Females are a very high-energy band. The lead singer/guitarist Marissa is known for her epic guitar solos. Knowing this going in gave me the foresight to position myself directly in front of her.
I'm not trying to sound like your mother, but seriously, do your homework before shooting a show! Fifteen minutes spent watching Youtube videos can clue you in to how a band sets up on stage and who in the band you might want to keep your camera pointed at. This way, when you arrive at the venue, you can position yourself perfectly to get the most high-energy images.
Leave the extra gear at home
This image was shot during a very crowded and rowdy show in the basement of a dive bar. Bringing only one camera rig and an extra lens (kept in my pocket) meant I did not have to worry about stashing my bag anywhere and could easily move around within the crowd to make my shots.
Roll light! Being able to move around is crucial for getting good shoots. Also no one likes the guy in the crowd wearing the massive camera backpack.
I used to shoot live music with far too much gear: two bodies, a flash and a few extra lenses. These days I keep it much more simple: a full-frame camera, 35mm F2 lens and a flash. I do occasionally bring a wider or more telephoto lens, depending on where I'm shooting. But at the end of the day, the less I'm worried about switching gear, the more I'm tuned into the music that is happening in front of me.
If you must use a flash, bounce it
Shooting a show under a highway underpass was a unique experience. This was a show where I had no choice but to use a flash. Still, I used it sparingly, waiting for the most decisive of moments to pop a frame.
No matter what, I always go into a concert planning on shooting available light only. Of course this can be wholly impractical if the venue you're shooting in is literally beneath a highway overpass with no light of any kind. It's in situations like these that I'll bring out the on-camera strobe.
Flashes should always be used sparingly in a live music environment. The whole point of a concert is for the crowd to experience and enjoy the music happening in front of them, and constant pops of bright light can detract from that enjoyment. Don't make the concert about you. Be there to document the experience, not take away from it.
I also bounce my flash off the ceiling whenever possible. This results in the light falling back down on your subjects nicely. If you shoot direct flash, not only will you blind your subjects, but the lighting will look much less natural.
Fast glass is your friend
This images was shot at ISO 12,800 1/500 sec at F2.2 using the Nikon 35mm F2 D lens.
Zooms are great, but they are often not fast enough for shooting live music without flash (which should always be your goal going into a concert). Many photographers show up to concerts with a full-frame camera and a 24-70mm F2.8 lens, which can be fine. But I prefer to use primes with faster apertures. I'm not talking expensive glass, but rather lenses like Canon and Nikon's 50mm F1.8.
When shooting using only the venue's lights, my ISO is usually cranked all the way to 12,800 (I shoot with a D750) and my shutter speed hovers around 1/200 - 1/320 sec, the slowest speed I feel comfortable using in such an environment. This gives me little wiggle room for a slow aperture. Thankfully, the Nikon 50mm F1.8 D is pretty sharp by F2 and even better by F2.2. The point is, given the choice, always opt to bring along your fastest glass. Also don't forget to micro adjust your lenses!
Avoid eye level composition
This image would probably have been a total snooze-fest had it been shot at eye-level.
Shooting images at eye-level is lazy and boring. So get super low, get high up; if you have an articulating screen, put it to use! But whatever you do, avoid eye-level. Your composition will thank you.
Try to shoot in full manual
This one is not set in stone, but generally speaking, you'll learn more and have a better understanding of light and how you camera works if you shoot in full manual mode. Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority can both be useful in some live music shooting scenarios, but if you're serious about getting better, keep it on the big 'M'.
Whenever I walk into a new venue, I always try to guess and dial in the exposure without looking at my camera's meter (advice given to me by a good friend). The more I do this, the better I've gotten at 'reading a room's light.' Try it yourself! You'll probably find that over time your intuition about exposure will improve.
Know when to use AF-C, AF-S (and know your camera's AF system)
Focusing and recomposing using AF-S can be a good method to achieve creative compositions, just as long as the subject doesn't move too much from the time you acquire focus to the time you take the shot. Of course, this image was taken using a manual focus lens.
Continuous autofocus is generally your best bet for live music photography. It goes without saying that if you're shooting a moving subject, AF-C makes more sense than AF-S. However, there are times when switching to AF-S can be useful, especially when trying to get creative with a composition.
When shooting live music in a dark environment, even the best cameras will likely struggle with subject tracking, meaning you are left with either using AF-C and keeping your focus point over the subject (which restricts your composition) or focusing and recomposing (if the subject is not changing depth from the camera). The latter is a method best used when the subject is relatively still.
Also, many modern cameras have central AF points with increased sensitivity for low light and low contrast scenarios. Knowing whether or not this is the case with your own cameras is definitely worth investigating.
Photograph the crowd
Live music is about more than just the band on stage.
Don't forget to turn around and snap some photos of the crowd. An image that conveys the flavor of the environment and the energy of the crowd is a great addition to any set of live music photographs.
I've found the best time to turn around and get this shot is toward the end of any high-energy song, but not after. This ensures those in the frame are still sucked into the music, allowing you to go largely unnoticed. The last thing you want is folks staring at the camera like a deer in the headlight. One person blatantly acknowledging the camera can ruin the overall feel of a good crowd shot.
Look for interesting light
We already talked about how you should avoid using a flash whenever possible. Assuming you've followed that advice, you'll largely be at the mercy of the venue lighting, which is not necessarily a bad thing!
Look for interesting beams of light and reflections to incorporate into your image. Using the venue lighting creatively can help you to better convey the mood of the performance. Also, be sure to be patient. One of the advantages of not shooting with a flash is that you can fire as many frames as you like, without bothering anyone. This means you can experiment to your heart's delight.
In general, the rule of thumb with gelled lighting is this: avoid shooting skin tones lit by red lights as they tend to blow out all detail (unless you're planning to convert to b/w in post). Wait instead for the lighting to switch to any other hue before taking a shot.
Find the details
A cowboy hat at a punk show?
Most live music imagery revolves around one of two subjects: the band and/or the crowd. Obviously, making photographs of said subjects is what shooting rock and roll photography is all about, but don't forget to look for interesting or unusual details in and around the venue.
Even the most subtle details, like a pair of bare feet on stage, or a strangely out-of-place man in a cowboy hat, can add a new layer of intrigue to a set of already interesting live music photographs.
Be ready for the action
The last thing you want to do is get caught fumbling with controls when something epic is happening. I've certainly been there, missing excellent shots because I was too busy staring at my camera settings. It's a terrible feeling.
To avoid this, try your best to be very in tuned to what is happening in front of you at all times. Change settings with your eye to the finder and only look at the back of you camera in between sets. Oh, and above all, don't chimp during a set!
Keep one eye open
Shooting with both eyes open allows you to better predict when something visually interesting might occur.
This one also goes along with the previous point. Practice keeping both eyes open at all times when shooting live music. Better yet, try to keep your non-shooting eye honed in on the drummer. I've found that if you're in tune with the drummer, you can often use their body language to predict when something interesting might happen.
Try the 'pop and drag'
It can be a bit cliche, but it can also convey a band's energy really well if executed correctly.
The old 'pop and drag' goes a little something like this: Mount a flash on your camera and point it at the ceiling, drop your shutter speed down to somewhere between 1/15 and 1/50 sec, while keeping your ISO reasonably high (it's OK to stop down a little using this method). The general idea is to 'pop' the light from the flash, which bounces off the ceiling and falls back down on the band that you're photographing while 'dragging' your shutter. Because of your slow shutter speed, the flash won't completely freeze your subjects, causing blurring and glow.
The most important thing to remember when trying the 'pop and drag' is to experiment with your settings. Depending on the height of the ceiling and color of the ceiling, your flash output may vary greatly. If you'd like to use this method, I advise getting to the venue early to dial in your settings before anyone arrives.
Back up from the band, use the crowd
This one is pretty simple: While it makes sense to try and shoot a show as close to the band as possible, its also nice to change up your perspective and pull back a little. Moving back will allow you to get more creative with your framing. It also can help to convey the energy of the room better.
It's OK to underexpose (shoot Raw)
I often underexpose by two stops to get a faster shutter speed, then push in post.
This one is dependent on the camera you are shooting, but Raw files from most modern full-frame cameras can hold up just fine being pushed a stop or two in post (much further if you're converting to b/w). When you're shooting in an environment where your settings are maxed out but your images are still too dark despite being at the maximum native ISO, it van be very reassuring knowing you can still push two stops when you get home.
Just make sure you're shooting Raw.
Use creative aides
Everyone knows star filters are played out, which is why just about no one uses them. All the more reason to pick one up and make photos that look a little different. Just don't rely on creative aides as a crutch!
Everyone's a photographer these days, and rock and roll photos are a dime a dozen. So if you're serious about setting your images apart from others, what do you do? Try experimenting with creative aides, like gels, star filters, prisms etc. to give your shots a slightly different look.
Star filters have not been cool for a very long time, but used selectively, they can be really effective. Take a look through this article, how many star filter photos can you find? More than you realized now that you're looking for them? The point is, being subtle is important when employing creative aides. Don't be a one-trick-pony and don't rely on them too much. But used selectively, they can give some really cool results.
Shoot with heart, edit with brain
This phrase is my religion when it comes to shooting live music.
What exactly does this mean? For me it means, go to the show, have fun, be polite, dance and take photos without overthinking. Let the music envelope you, feel the energy, interact with the crowd, chat with the band, be a part of what's happening. Doing so will allow you to subconsciously be more connected to the whole situation. Also, don't be afraid to shoot 'too much, ' (so long as you aren't using a flash).
I used to be upset with myself when I came home from a show with 1000 images to shuffle through. But as I've gotten better at editing, I've gotten better at quickly pin-pointing the good stuff from the bad after the fact. And at the end of the day, if you got one killer image from a show, but shot 100 or 10000 images, no one will know but you.
B/W is your friend when editing
This image looked terrible in color. A conversion to black and white saved it.
B/W is the little yellow pill of the music photography world. A quick conversion can turn a noisy, ugly image into something much more attractive. Or, in the case of the image above, in which most of the detail in Dave's face was blown out due to bad colored lighting, a quick conversion turned an ugly duckling into a tattooed rock and roll swan.
Have fun and be nice to everyone
When shooting a show it is important to remember that you are very unimportant in the grand scheme of the event. Please, please don't be that photographer ruining everyone's good time by constantly popping flashes and blocking people's view of the band.
Live music is a lot of fun. Photography is a lot of fun. When combined, well, you get the point. At the end of the day, don't take away from that inherent fun. Be polite to everyone in the crowd, ask before you step in front of someone to take a shot and don't stand in their way too long. Use your flash sparingly. Don't bring a massive bag and definitely do not wear a bag while shooting in the crowd. Respect gets respect and the golden rule certainly applies to live music photography.
Add your tips below!
Got a solid tip for live music photography? Please share it in the comments below!