Let’s get one thing straight: shooting a rock concert is great fun. It is great fun because it’s unpredictable, spontaneous, and full of potentially great shots. Musicians tend to be expressive, especially when they are performing to a huge crowd of adoring fans, so the results can be images full of emotion and energy. However, this energy is also the cause of one of the biggest challenges in live music photography. Capturing the gyrating rock star can be a tricky business. So here are some tips to help you capture that Rolling Stone cover.
1. Use an SLR.
Rock ‘n’ Roll bands tend to be full of energy, moving around the stage, dancing, jumping, and flailing limbs around, so any shutter lag is going to cause a problem. An SLR camera will have almost no shutter lag, allowing you take the shot at exactly the right moment. It is possible to shoot concerts on non-slr digital cameras, but the shutter lag must be taken into account, and the photographer will have to anticipate the climactic moments, which often requires them to be quite familiar with the music that is being played, or the artist themselves.
The other main reason for using an SLR is so that the photographer has full control over exposure and is able to shoot in Manual. Some pro-sumer SLR-type digital cameras allow manual exposure and can be used, but often has the a fore-mentioned shutter lag issues.
2. Shoot at 800 ISO
In most cases you should aim to be shooting at 800 ISO. If the light is so good you can get away with 400ISO, go for it, but try not to resort to 1600 ISO unless you really really have to. At most large, festival-type gigs there should be ample light to shoot at 800 ISO. If you’re using a DSLR, 800 ISO shouldn’t show too much noise, but will allow for shutter speeds that are fast enough.
3 .Use Fast Shutter Speeds
The first reason to use fast shutter speeds is to to hand-hold without camera shake. The general rule is that your shutter speed should equate to the length of your lens, so if you were using a 50mm lens, you could “safely” hand-hold at 1/50 or above. If you were using a 200mm lens, you would need a shutter speed of 1/200 or faster. With practice it is possible to keep your hand steady at slower speeds, and you may, for example, be able to get away with 1/160 at 200mm.
You also need to keep the shutter speed fast enough to keep the energetic musicians sharp. However, creative use of motion blur can also be very effective.
4. Use Fast Lenses
In order to allow the fastest shutter speeds you will want to use lenses that have wide maximum apertures such as a 50mm f/1.8 and a 70-200mm f/2.8. The wider aperture lets in more light, allowing faster shutter speeds. Also, lenses that have wide apertures tend to be “pro” level lenses, which will be sharper and give better contrast than lenses have smaller maximum apertures. Unfortunately, this also means that they are often quite expensive, so hiring lenses such as a 70-200mm f/2.8 for a particular festival or concert is often the best way to go about it. Both Canon and Nikon have a 50mm f/1.8 that is relatively inexpensive and very sharp, and would is an excellent concert lens if you can get close enough to the stage. If you don’t have a photo pass, try a fast telephoto such as the 70-200mm f/2.8 and try for the front row of the crowd!
5. Shoot in Manual
If you’re looking to catch that super rock-star pose you don’t want to be wasting time while the camera sorts out the exposure for each shot. In manual exposure mode you can figure out the exposure and just shoot. Of course, if there is a dramatic change in lighting you will have to check your exposure and adjust if necessary.
6. Spot Meter
Matrix metering is fantastic if you’re shooting a landscape. But the concert stage is likely to be full of very dark areas and very bright areas which are going to fool the camera if you are in this mode. Spot meter the performer’s face for the correct exposure. Of course, you are in manual mode with the lens wide open, so you should only need to adjust the shutter. If you find the light is so good that it gives an unnecessarily high shutter speed you can stop down a bit for extra depth of field or sharpness.
7. Shoot Raw.
Because the lighting can change getting a perfect exposure every time can be very tricky, so shoot in raw mode to give a little more leeway in exposure compensation. Having this leeway can free you up to focus on the performance without getting to worried about getting the exposure perfect.
8. No Flash
Basically flash is out, after all, the lighting guy doesn’t want you to wreck his work, and flash will just ruin the atmosphere anyway. However, there may be times when the lighting is appalling and you have no other option, but try to be creative. Using a slow shutter speed with the flash which lets in some ambient light. Using this technique you can create some nice motion effects. But it’s best to try not to use it.
9. Get a Photo Pass
It’s hard to get a good shot when you’re at the front of the mosh pit with sweaty people slamming into you, not to mention having your gear crowd-surfed from your hands. Without a doubt, the best place to be is in front of that safety barrier between the mosh pit and the stage; the photo pit. To get here you will need a photo pass, unless you can smooth talk the security, and good luck to that! The bigger the gig the harder it will be to get a pass, and for the large gigs you basically need to be shooting for some sort of press, or if it’s a festival, have proven yourself to the promoter enough that you are given the role of official photographer to provide promo shots for them. A good place to start is to approach a small local venue that has live bands and ask if you could shoot there. Probably you will have to negotiate some sort of deal where they get copies of the shots to use. This is a good way to get some shots for your folio.
Also, keep an eye out for new and small festivals who may want someone. Once you have some shots in your folio you could approach a magazine such a local street press or student paper who may then be able to vouch for you at the bigger gigs.
Another good idea is to get to know some local bands. Bands always love photos of themselves and might just be able to get you into venues with them to shoot.
10. Have Fun
Presumably you’re wanting to do music photography because you like music. If you enjoy the process it’s going to come through in the shots, so don’t stress, enjoy the challenge and even groove along a bit as well.