An appealing website, social media presence, a solid portfolio and press kits are, needless to say, no unnecessary luxury for up-and-coming bands and musicians. This includes great photographs and I don’t mean a band photoshoot but spectacular live action photos taken at your own gigs. Since most bands don’t have the budget to hire a professional, photographer Gerard Burgers is here to offer you a crash course on how to shoot impressive concert photos.
Photo’s: Gerard Burgers
- Concert photography: smartphone or not?
- Image sensor
- Shutter speed
- Light metering
- White balance
- Automatic or manual?
- The best position to take pictures
- See also
Concert photography: smartphone or not?
Go to a concert these days and you’ll find the crowd light up like starry night sky, enthusiastically holding their smartphones up in the air to take pictures or shoot a video. And sure, you can use a smartphone to take surprisingly good photos, maybe to capture the mood or for a quick social media post. For high-quality concert photography, however, smartphones aren’t as suited and it’s especially in bad lighting conditions that the results quickly deteriorate. While the technical possibilities of photography have been simplified over the years, things haven’t necessarily gotten any easier. Bad lighting, bright spots as counterlight, constant movement by band members, and unsuspecting people blocking your sight are just a few of the challenges you face. If you and the band want more than just a small chance at a ‘lucky shot’, it’s important to buy or borrow better equipment and to familiarise yourself with the technique required. Usually, all members of the band are needed on stage, so you’ll want to assign the job to a good mate, or to someone else in the crew.
For professional concert photography, you’re likely to end up browsing digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs). These get you more than just a camera alone, as they basically encompass an entire system, including a range of objectives (commonly referred to as ‘lenses’). The image sensor inside a DSLR is usually larger than those found in compact cameras, allowing for a significant difference in image quality. Larger sensors create larger pixels and as a result, there’s less image noise. Noise can happen when you’re working with high ISO sensitivity values and creates less-focussed, ‘grainy’ images. Practically all budget cameras feature small sensors with a so-called crop factor, which means the image angle of the lens is reduced while the focal range is increased. To give you an example: this turns a 200mm lens into a 300mm one to bring whatever you’re taking a picture of, a little closer. This is a powerful feature because large tele lenses can be pretty pricey. Fortunately, the amount of image noise produced by the latest generation DSLR cameras is quite low – even if they come with a small sensor and crop factor. But if, on the other hand, you want maximum quality and the absolute bare minimum of noise, you’ll want to opt for a large full-frame sensor. Considering the bad lighting conditions at many concerts, high ISO sensitivity is a must-have because without ample lighting, it’s going to be difficult to take stunning photos.
The amount of light captured by the sensor is also determined by the diaphragm (the size of the lens aperture) you’re using, as well as the shutter speed. Since camera flashes at concerts are considered ‘not done’ and sometimes even forbidden, you want to look for a lens with high light intensity of, for instance, f2.8. Light intensity is expressed in f-numbers (focal ratio): the lower the number, the higher the light intensity with more light coming through the lens aperture. This classification system consists of ‘stops’ that are multiplied by a factor of 1.4 (the square root of 2, to be precise) and each stop means the halving (or doubling) of the size of the lens aperture. The bottom line is, the lower the f-number, the further the diaphragm can be opened and the lower the ISO sensitivity can be set, thereby allowing for less image noise.
You always need the lowest possible shutter speed to get the sharpest possible photos. The rule is that the minimum shutter speed for hand-held shots is the opposite of the focal point, that means 1/100 sec at 100 mm but…if you’re trying to capture a fast-moving object, like a rock band, you’re certainly going to need even faster shutter speed like, say, 1/500 seconds or even faster. The downside is that less light falls into the lens. To compensate, you can opt for a larger diaphragm and/or higher ISO sensitivity. While the latter does increase the risk of image noise, making concessions is part of the job. You’ll often find yourself forced to choose the largest possible diaphragm to keep the sensitivity at acceptable lows. Only when you’re photographing static or slow-moving objects will you want to tone down the ISO levels or go with smaller diaphragm. Lenses with image stabilisation technology make sure you can use longer shutter speeds for hand-held photography and can easily compensate for up to four stops. In some cases, it’s even still possible to shoot razor-sharp images with a 1/15 sec shutter speed at 200mm.
Camera Objectives (Lenses)
We all know it can be difficult to get those coveted first-row tickets, so in order to get as close to the stage as possible, a tele lens is crucial. If you’re somewhere up front, a 70-200mm/f2.8 lens will do in most situations, and preferably with image stabilisation, because this gives you the ability to work with lower sensitivity or a smaller diaphragm. If you’re a little further out and the amount of light suffices, a 300mm/f4 lens is a great choice, though not everyone can afford to throw a chunk of cash at one. A good quality 70-200mm/f2.8 lens can easily set you back £1500. If you’re on a smaller budget, you could go with a cheaper brand or a second-hand model. Just remember, less light-intense lenses cost less but come with higher ISO numbers. Finally, for smaller gigs and close distances, a lens with a shorter focal point will do the trick. Think something like a 24-70mm/f2.8 zoom lens. For a relatively small amount of money, you can buy great lenses with fixed focal points (so no zoom) and plenty of brightness. You can pick up a 50mm/f1.8 for as little as £100 while a 85mm/f1.8 goes for somewhere between £200 and £350.
Types of Photos
Who doesn’t love a well-taken close-up action-photo? They’re beautiful, but you don’t want to forget to take some pictures of the entirety of the stage and decor, including the crowd, using a wide-angle lens. After all, you should be trying to capture the feel and atmosphere of the place as well as the members of the band, so try to capture the ecstatic enthusiasm of both the band and the audience.
The right technique will always remain a challenge, especially because the lighting is different in every place you visit. What settings do you pick and how do you ensure proper lighting? While there’s no clear-cut and easy answer, and every photographer tends to develop their own unique way of working as they grow, there are a few guidelines you can follow. If you’re not as experienced yet, you’ll likely lean towards choosing automatic mode. What’s important, is that you calibrate the light meter: matrix metering gives you unpredictable results, spot metering only measures a small area of what you’re focussed on and center-focussed integral metering is the best option if you ask me. But no matter which one you choose, there will always be a handful of less well-lit photos in a series. This is actually also a good reason to always shoot RAW-format images, as these can be most-extensively edited. The lighting can then, within given limits, be adjusted, as can the white balance.
The colour of the light often varies dramatically during performances and the white balance allows you to make sure they still come across as true-to-life (or not, depending on the purpose).There are those who turn up the white balance to create artificial light (light bulk, approx 2,700K) and others who use daylight settings (5,000K to 5,500K). The type of lighting present usually determines what’s best but since the RAW format allows for white balance adjustments during post-production, this option is not all that important.
When it comes to focus, lots of concert photographers have their cameras set to the default continuous auto-focus as this is optimally practical for objects in motion. Single-point focus is another commonly used setting and gives the camera a fixed point (eg. the dead-center of the image) to focus on. Top-shelf DSLR cameras often have a programmable function button to assigned a dedicated task to, allowing you to set it so that it freezes the focus when you press the button. This way, you can quickly focus and hold on to the focal point when needed. Since the camera is set to continuous auto-focus, you can capture any unexpected move in sharp quality as long as it takes place within the range of the custom-set focal point.
P, A, S or M?
For automatic operation, go for S, which stands for shutter (speed). Set the shutter speed to the desired value (as previously stated, slower for moving objects) and the camera will keep adjusting to the right diaphragm size for optimal lighting. An extra option here is that you can set the camera to Auto-ISO to keep the sensitivity to a minimum while automatically increasing it when there’s insufficient lighting. The best way to go about things, however, is still M, or manual mode. This stops the camera from doing any kind of calculations and estimations and lets it all come down to your knowledge and experience. Why is this the best? Simply because your camera may not respond to the brightness within the image the way you’d want it to. Example: a picture of a singer with a sea of light behind them. The camera notices lots of light and doesn’t think it needs to jump into action, resulting in a well-lit background but a blacked-out singer. This can be easily prevented by configuring everything yourself.
The Best Place to Photograph From
Photographers always try to maintain a low profile to take the most genuinely authentic and unique photos possible. What I’m trying to say is, try not to be a nuisance to anyone or anything. People pay good money to be up front at a gig and often take the effort to arrive hours early, so don’t overextend while you’re blocking their line of sight. Sure, some golden opportunities can’t be passed up but just make sure to apologetically raise your hand before you move in to take the shot and many, if not all will respect your cause as long as you don’t take ages. So what’s the best place? Up front, you get plenty of chances to capture mesmerisingly expressive close-ups but, on the other hand, being up front can sometimes limit your freedom to move around. Then, if the stage is quite high, it’s better to stay a bit further back since otherwise, the angle can be somewhat unflattering for the band members. You also don’t want to photograph singers while in front of them because, chances are, the microphone or stand will obstruct the view. It’s better to move slightly to the side and wait for the singer to face you.
Try to anticipate where someone is going or what can or is about to happen. When the members of the band get closer together, some kind of interaction is probably about to happen, offering a solid opportunity to bag a great expressive shot. Always be prepared for these kinds of interactive moments, as well as those between the band and their audience! Photographers usually take hundreds of photos within a short period of time, mainly because they’re only allowed to do so for a limited time. Accreditation is what that’s called, and it doesn’t mean that these photographers are just cluelessly taking pics because there’s always an idea behind it since even the tiniest sliver of a second can mean a big discrepancy in the expression or sharpness of two photos taken back to back. As a final tip: don’t forget your earplugs. Go easy on your hearing because you’ll be facing the front end of a bunch of huge speakers more often than you’d maybe like; do a quick last check and move on asap! Also, if possible, work with two ‘bodies’. Do all of the band members, the decor and the audience fit the frame? Or is something unexpected happening? After an intense shoot, you’ll no doubt be anxious to see the fruits of your labour. Utter disappointment over a missed shot will be quickly followed up by sheer joy as you come across a much better shot. It’s all part of the job, and I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world.