Tips & Tricks: Live Music Photography

Our Tips & Tricks series aims to give beginners, amateurs and professionals alike more ways to approach different aspects of photography and videography. For each installment, we’ve enlisted the expertise of our staff and have received their feedback on method and equipment.

Shooting live music can be a tricky business. It’s usually dark and, in most cases, you have very little control over where and when you can shoot, But it can also be an intoxicating, energizing venture. We asked Tony, our resident live music photographer, for some tips and tricks for getting the best concert photos you can, and here’s what he suggested:

There are steps you can take to prepare for the shoot before you even get to the venue. Most important for getting emotionally charged, impacting shots is to know the music really well. You have a very limited time to get your photos (many concert venues will only let you photograph during the second or third songs), so it’s important that you’re able to anticipate the “big moments” in each song.

tony 4
Photo by Tony Shumski

Don’t be shy in asking for access, especially if you’re already a fan of the band. Strike up a conversation before the show and let them know how excited you’d be to photograph them. It helps if you already have a portfolio of concert shots, but if you don’t you can always offer to shoot for free to build that portfolio. (If you’re asking to shoot their set, you probably don’t want to charge them for it anyway.) Also don’t be afraid to contact the venue and ask for a press pass. Some places are harder to gain access to than others, but it never hurts to ask.

Photo by Tony Shumski
Photo by Tony Shumski

Scout your position before the show starts and plan which angles you’ll want to capture. This means getting to the venue early and claiming a spot from which you’ll feel comfortable shooting. Knowing the venue beforehand will also help you decide which lens to bring: if it’s a smaller venue, like a bar, a wider angle or medium zoom lens will work, while you’ll probably want that longer zoom lens for more outdoor festival or arena-type venues.

For festival goers, mind the schedule. Plan your day by prioritizing which bands are most important to you to photograph. Even with the most careful planning, however, you can definitely end up missing most of a band’s set, so get some shots while you’re making your way to the front. This will guarantee that you will at least have some shots if the set ends before you have a chance to get in the perfect position.

Photo by Tony Shumski
Photo by Tony Shumski

Make sure you’re bringing the right equipment. Your life will be a lot easier if you have a camera with good low-light capabilities like a Nikon D600 or Canon EOS 6D. Bring a fast lens (at least F/2.8, but preferably as low an f-number as you can get; you could always rent a lens, you know), and a bag and a strap that are easy to work with and will allow you quick access to your gear. You’re going to want to bring as little equipment as possible, especially if you’re in a festival setting. So make every gear choice count: a camera, two lenses max, a bag, a strap, and some backup memory cards.

Before the show, practice autofocusing in the dark. A good trick is to gain autofocus and then switch to manual focus so that your camera won’t constantly be trying to find autofocus every time you want to take a shot.

Photo by Tony Shumski
Photo by Tony Shumski

Shoot in RAW. You will be glad you did later on when you are editing your photos. You will have a better opportunity to bring up the levels in possibly underexposed areas.

When you’re shooting, get the shot you want rather than cropping later. The more you have to crop, the more noise you’ll be able to see. Compose the shot exactly the way you want it.

Photo by Tony Shumski
Photo by Tony Shumski

Likewise, wait for the right shot. Praying and spraying is not a good strategy here. If you’re just holding down the shutter release, you’re not really paying attention to what’s actually happening on stage. Get out from behind your camera, be invested in what’s happening on stage, and make your shots count when you take them.

Take advantage of all the stage clutter. Guitars, mic stands, amps, etc., will give your shot some depth and can be used as interesting framing devices. Don’t think of music equipment as being in the way of your shot; use it to your advantage to create a scene.

Photo by Tony Shumski
Photo by Tony Shumski

Be aware of your light sources and especially how they fall on the lead singer. Decide which angles are best. And do not use flash. This cannot be stressed enough. It’s already distracting enough for a lot of musicians to have photographers pointing their cameras at them, they (and the other concertgoers) don’t need to be blinded by flashes, too. Chances are the venue’s lighting, even in dark situations, will be dynamic and dramatic.

Photo by Tony Shumski
Photo by Tony Shumski

Lastly, when you get your shots onto the computer to edit, focus on levels and curves. Tony’s workflow starts with bringing RAW images into Photoshop and adjusting the color balance (consistency in color is very important; reds, blues, yellows, etc., should be consistent in every shot). Then he focuses on exposure, balancing between brightness and noise. Don’t deal with contrast in brightness in RAW (focus on levels and curves instead). If the color is too bright, desaturate.

Photo by Tony Shumski
Photo by Tony Shumski

To see more of Tony’s work, check out his Facebook page. Have some tips & tricks for the MPEX Experience? Email michael@mpex.com with suggestions!

Midwest Photo

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