Concert photography is exhilarating and addictive. There are often 5 subjects on stage, lights beaming down in all directions, a crowd of thousands of fans screaming behind you and half a dozen photographers either side of you, all trying to get the winning shot.
Words and Photography by Dominic Gould
With so much going on, getting the right shot can be a daunting experience. What if you have to change lenses halfway through a song and miss what would’ve been your best shot of the day? What if you spend the whole first song fiddling with settings while the lead singer dives into the crowd and you miss the most exciting part of the set? These questions go through everyone’s head, but if you’re reading this article you’re just a few minutes away from knowing how to capture great images at a concert.
“The humble ‘Nifty 50’ is an amazing lens for music photography.”
What You Need
Let’s talk about gear first. For a camera, what you need is a solid full-frame camera (like a Canon 5D or a Sony A7). These cameras have a big sensor so they’ll be able to see in the dark a bit better than their small-sensor competitors. You don’t need the latest and greatest camera that was just released with pages of special features though. The 5D II is what I used for 2 years or so before upgrading and most of my favourite images were taken on that camera.
As for lenses, if you’re just starting out and don’t have $1000 for a single lens, don’t worry, there are still options out there. The humble ‘Nifty 50’ is an amazing lens for music photography. For lots of my images I use a 50mm f1.4 which cost me under $200 – it has a nice bright f1.4 aperture and not being able to zoom isn’t the end of the world! Using a prime lens instead of a zoom forces you to get creative with your movement and composition anyway.
This photo was shot on a 50mm lens:
And here’s a link to a video of Adam Elmakias shooting a concert with just his 85mm lens, to show you what’s possible with just a single lens:
If you do have the cash in hand however, I couldn’t recommend a 24-70mm f2.8 lens more highly. This lens is, in my opinion, the perfect lens for music photography. It has a fairly bright aperture at 2.8, as well as a really nice zoom range from a wide angle 24mm to a tight 70mm. This lets you get some epic shots right at the front of the stage and also some shots from a distance. This lens, complimented by the 50mm is all I ever use.
This photo was shot at 24mm using the 24-70 lens:
And this photo was shot at 70mm using the 24-70 lens:
“I wouldn’t go any lower than 1/250th of a second for live music.”
How to Use It
Now you know what gear to use, what on earth do you do with it? You need to have full control over your camera so turn that thing onto manual mode. For live music photography the settings are super easy.
First, crank that ISO! I normally have my ISO sitting between 1600 and 3200 – I’d rather get a bit of a grainy photo than not get the photo at all.
Next, open up that aperture! Set your f-stop as low as you can – if you have a prime lens you could go as low as f1.4 or if you have a good zoom down to f2.8. This will let in as much light as possible through your lens.
Last is your shutter speed, this also determines how much light comes in but also changes the motion blur of your subject if they’re moving. I wouldn’t go any lower than 1/250th of a second for live music. If the venue has some good lighting you can sit comfortably on 1/500th.
Also, you need to be shooting RAW, not JPG. This is an uncompressed file so you can play around with colour and brightness as much as you want when you’re editing.
This is what my camera settings generally look like for live music photography:
Aperture: f/1.4 (with my 50mm lens) or f/2.8 (with my 24-70mm lens)
Shutter speed: Between 1/250th and 1/500th
Mango Street have a great video on gear, settings and how they shoot at a concert:
“During daytime concerts, I’ll often use the sun to create the illusion of a spotlight.”
Composition and Creativity
Composition is something a lot of people struggle with at first in the unpredictable setting of a concert but it quickly becomes second nature with practice. For example, some concerts have patchy lighting that won’t work well for your photos but because that’s out of your control, you have to adapt and figure out what you can do differently.
I photographed Stonefield once and all they had were weak spotlights moving around the stage really quickly. I was trying to get photos where you could see the band members but the lighting made it too difficult. I ended up taking nearly 800 photos of their 3 songs simply trying to get a clean shot. I had to compromise and get creative with the way I captured the light on the subject. This was my favourite of the night:
Incorporating the stage lighting in your composition is an awesome way to get striking images, I particularly liked this photo of Anderson Paak where I stepped side to side trying to line myself up with the spotlight and waited for the artist to come towards me. I probably missed a few shots of him on the other side of the stage but I think it was worth it to get a unique shot:
During daytime concerts, when stage lighting is sparse, I’ll often use the sun to create the illusion of a spotlight:
“It’s a really thrilling feeling when you know you can get a great shot of a musician or band you admire.”
Shooting a highly anticipated concert is hands down one of the most exciting opportunities for a photographer, so keep practicing and experimenting. Never would I have imagined five years ago that I’d be taking photos of Interpol or Anderson Paak. It’s a really thrilling feeling when you know you can get a great shot of a musician or band you admire.