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A few years back, I received a message from a follower asking what my top 10 concert photography tips were for new music photographers. The following is the list I came up with and posted on the photographer section of my publication at the time. Since I’m trying to grow this blog, I figured I’d transcribe the list (with a few updates) over here.
One of my greatest concert photography inspirations, Todd Owyoung, wrote a great guide with tips on this. It goes over everything from respecting other photographers and security in the pit, to the “courtesy tap” when you need to run in front of someone and managing your equipment (and yourself) in confined spaces.
Network with everyone. Other photographers, bands, the management, even the fans. You never know what connections someone has.
Alongside this (and tip #5), meet and support the local bands. This can lead to a great partnership as you grow together. You’ll be forced to learn new techniques and how to shoot in even the worst conditions until they grow out of smaller venues. Additional suggestion courtesy of Joe Justice/Justice Images.
Don’t be afraid to make friends with security, either. They’re there to save you from a crowd surfer’s kick to the head and/or camera. Also worth noting, while they have the power to boot you out of the pit if you’re an inconvenience, they can also turn a blind eye and pretend they don’t see you stand on the barricade for a quick shot, or continue using your camera after the first three. Thanks to Peter Ticali/Yourbandshots.com for the elaboration on this point.
Note: I am a pretty shy person and this was one of the hardest things for me to do. I am a huge supporter of Facebook, as I can express myself via photos and writing much better than on the spot speaking. I try to post at least one preview photo on social media accounts within a couple hours after the show, and then I share that with the band, event page and venue if I can.
If you’re still shooting on shutter or aperture priority, I’m probably judging you. At the very least, you need to know what your f-stop, shutter speed and ISO are. Lighting changes sporadically from song to song and chorus to verse and you should have every button on your camera memorized and be able to quickly change from an aperture of 2.8 to 7.1 when the white strobes suddenly go on.
Also, post-processing is a major advantage in today’s world of digital photography. Shooting in RAW allows you to fix strange stage lighting colors that result in alien skin or red/blue light blow outs without losing much photo quality. Check out some of my editing tutorials if you need help with post-processing!
Galleries range anywhere from 10 photos to 100 photos, but you’ll notice that the one with 10 photos will likely be composed of shots that are stunning enough to make posters out of every single one. Obviously, if you’re not shooting freelance/for yourself, you may have a minimum number of photos you have to turn over. Even then, make sure they are the absolute best from the set.
There are a few good reasons to do this. First off, it gives you a chance to warm up and feel out the venue and lights. Usually the main act has better lights than the opener, but you can still get a general idea of what settings are going to work.
Second, you never know what the future holds for that band. You might be the first photographer to get good shots of them on stage. That could lead to promo shoots or CD release parties, then in a year or two – who knows – maybe you’ll be capturing them on their first headlining tour.
They’re usually farther back than everyone else. Or high up on a riser. Or poorly lit. But try your best to get at least a couple good shots of the drummer, because they’re the ones that the photographers give the least love to, and getting that one perfect shot of them is so, so worth it.
Before I shoot a band, I first check to see if any of my inspirational photographer friends have shot them on their current tour. If so, I might ask them if there are any moments to look out for, if they brought their own lighting or if they’re just using house lighting, and sometimes even go so far as to ask for setting recommendations.
Next, I look up the band’s setlist. And then I watch live videos on YouTube of the first three songs from the most recently posted setlist. I watch multiple videos from different cities and venues for each song – looking for any consistent movement. Somebody might jump at a timed moment in the song, or all the members might gather together on one side of the stage and pose for a photo opp. No matter what, it’s always best to go in with a general idea of what to expect.
No one ever told me about this in the beginning and I’m really not sure why. I started finding myself opening both eyes to get a feel for what was going on outside of my viewfinder. Turns out, you can entirely train yourself to compose a shot and still manage to see what else is happening at the same time, and it seriously helps to make sure your camera is focused on the action.
In addition to following concert photography tips #7 and #8, you can also take a second and watch for patterns. Usually the lights follow a certain movement and color scheme during the verses and then change to something else for the chorus. Often, the drummer will stand up at a particular part of the chorus, or maybe spin his drumsticks in time with the music. Maybe the vocalist jumps off a riser at the hook.
Another inspirational photographer (Allen Ross Thomas) put it best when he said, “Do not chase a moment that has already happened; instead, anticipate the next big moment and be positioned for it.”
I save this one for last because it is the most important one.
Looking at it from the outside in, you’re up in front of the barricade amongst a small handful of other people with expensive equipment. The general assumption is that you must be a “someone” and that you’re probably making bank. Most of us in the business already know that is far from reality. We aren’t in it for the money, we’re in it because there is nowhere else in the world that we’d rather be.
Your images are a reflection of you, your interest, your mood and your niche. If I’m at a show and end up shooting an artist that I find uninteresting, I get home and all my shots of them seem boring and subpar. However, if I get home from shooting a band that I love or a show that I’ve been looking forward to for weeks, then usually my images are even more stellar than I might’ve expected.
Not to mention, having that one fleeting second of eye contact with an artist you admire… there are few things in the world that beat that feeling.
11. Don’t be where everyone else is.
12. Keep an extra memory card and battery on hand.
13. Remember, the most expensive camera in the world still can’t teach you photography.
14. Don’t judge other people by their gear. You never know which cell phone in the pit might belong to the significant other of an artist on stage.
15. Try to make eye contact, and be appreciative when it’s returned.
16. Ear plugs.
Alright guys, that’s all I’ve got for now. If you’ve got any great concert photography tips to add, please drop them in a comment below so we can help future generations of music photographers for years to come!
If Mr McMurtrie is still reading this :
1) You have a cool job.
2) Your pictures are terrific.
3) This article should be a mandatory read for all those “all you do is turn up and press a button” types who think being a working photographer is easy.
4) Do you use hearing protection? I would guess that constant exposure to live music would require it.
I'm a rainbow haired music photographer, travel blogger and graphic designer... but unlike many others, I haven't quit my day job! I'm currently living in Barbados, sharing my favorite beach photos, experiences, adventures and just hoping to add a little color and inspiration to your life!
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Excellent tips and advice! I love your work.