10 Tips for Great Concert Photography

!!! (Chk Chk Chk) by Amber Gregory

I remember how panicked I was in the weeks leading up to my first official concert photography assignment. I poured over the web in search of information that was straightforward, geared toward the newbie who hadn’t gone to art school and felt intimidated by the aloof, professional photographers among us. It’s hard to ask questions!

That is why I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned since I began shooting concerts professionally–my dream come true. I am not about ego or what I like to call “photographic penis enlargers” (bringing your gigantic flash to a venue and shoving said flash into the artist’s face for an hour–stay classy, ya hear?). I am about communicating with other photographers, finding common ground, sharing knowledge and helping each other succeed.

Anyway, check out these tips and look at some of my photography for proof. Feel free to ask me any questions you have or suggest any other tips that I haven’t included here.

Ten Tips for Great Concert Photography

1. Shoot with an SLR–and know how to use it. in manual mode, with manual focusing. You will need a pretty powerful camera to be able to shoot in unpredictable low-light conditions like concert venues, and flashes are concert photography’s biggest no-no, so you don’t usually have that to fall back on. I shoot with a Canon 5D, and it is powerful enough to handle any lighting conditions, so far, without a flash.

2. Make sure you have taken the time to get to know people in the industry–however you can do that, do it!–because you will almost always need a photo pass. These are not easy to get, and its all about who you know.

3. Whatever lens you choose, be it wide, telephoto or somewhere in between, you must always shoot wide open at f/1.8 or wider. This ensures that you will let enough light in to get crisp, vivid shots without a flash in dark conditions, and really gorgeous, bright effects when the lights flare. What it comes down to is this: the last thing you want to be doing when shooting a band is worrying about shutter speed.

That said, sometimes f/1.8 or even f/1.4 won’t be light enough if you have noise problems at high ISO levels. I always shoot on ISO 1600 when shooting nighttime or indoor shows, and its never done me wrong! I have heard that some believe you should never go above ISO 800, but fortunately, the 5D coupled with the f/1.8 aperture can handle these situations with very minimal noise.

4. Before a show, do your homework! There are so many things that are beyond your control at any given show, and every show is unpredictable in different ways. That said, there are still important ways that you can prepare.

Before I shoot at a venue for the first time I spend a couple of hours searching online to get the general feel of the venue–who works there, who goes there, and whether there is anything I need to be aware of. Do they typically ask photographers to leave after the third song, or do they let them stay? How do they feel about the complimentary tickets often reserved for photographers (I’ve been refused entry to a San Francisco music venue because I mentioned that I would be picking up tickets along with my pass)? If the path of least resistance involves buying my own ticket and I can afford to support my favorite artists, I won’t hesitate.

5. Along with that same vein, I find it really fun and beneficial to research the bands–opening acts too!–that will be there. I’ve experienced both sides of this coin recently. In September, researching an opening act for a concert I wasn’t even photographing ended up introducing me to one of my favorite bands on earth, and some solid new friends in the unsigned band I had bothered to care about. On the other hand, last week I photographed two DJs in San Francisco for two hours, came home and had to spend two more hours just trying to figure out who they were! I recommend the much more fun, and interesting first option.


6. Take as many shots as you can once the band takes the stage. Don’t overthink it. Relax! There are people looking at you from the audience with envy, wishing they were you. You won’t get a thousand great shots or even a hundred (and sometimes not even ten)–but if you relax, stop thinking and let the vibe of the performance overtake you, I think you’ll be surprised at the magic you’ve captured.

7. To quote Wheaton’s Law, “Don’t be a dick!” Many concert photographers have told me time and again that it takes consistent effort and a kind, cooperative attitude to build positive relationships with venues, bands, management and fans–but it takes only one negative experience for all of them to write you off. If a security guard tells you its time to get out of the front row, I would suggest listening to them. In a profession where networking is arguably more important than talent these days, you can’t afford to make enemies over something silly like that.

7. Guard against overprocessing your photos after the show. I’ve found that if the lighting is decent, I don’t have to do much, if any, processing at all. I shoot entirely in RAW so there is a conversion that takes place but I try not to go overboard. Since my background is in web design that can sometimes be a challenge–believe me–but it is incredibly satisfying to take a photo that requires no adjustments.

8. Make sure you have all of your materials together and easily accessible in your camera bag before leaving the house. It is really stressful to be running out the door with your bag half-on, drivers license and cash and extra flash cards flying in every direction. It really pays off to be organized–you can even prepare your alternate lens and leave it resting in the bag until you need to use it, making what could have been a very sketchy lens switch nothing at all. Oh, and also? Wear comfortable shoes that allow you to move around easily. Really.

9. It is so important to be confident and aggressive if need be to get the shots you need. It is easy to become intimidated or overwhelmed sometimes if a situation is not what you expected or there are other photographers present. I have no idea why photographers are not very nice to each other but it does not have to be so. Just be confident. No one is staring at you. You are there to take photos, so take photos! It will all be over too soon. You are living the dream. You have every right to enjoy it!

10. Finally, I hear a lot of talk from other concert photographers about how when they walk into a venue to shoot a show, the thought of enjoying themselves simply doesn’t cross their mind. It’s just a job to them. I have always thought that this is incredibly sad. I went to a concert in SF last year and listened to a photographer–a paid photographer–complain about his job the entire concert. Meanwhile there I was on the other side of the barricade getting yelled at to put away my point-and-shoot. Concert photography is perfect for those who have a burning passion for both photography *and* music. Enjoy the show! Enjoy the ones you don’t think you’re supposed to enjoy! I am always up there rocking out and screaming with the best of them–and I hope I always am. Come join me…I promise not to have lens envy.