If you love music and photography, why not combine the two? It can start off as a hobby, but might grow into a money making business. Live concert photography is challenging and also one of the most rewarding types of photography. In this article I want to share some tips with you, taken from many years in concert photography.
Having grown up in Vienna, the city of music, I tend to gravitate towards concert halls and similar venues. But music is universal and there is a wide spectrum ranging from the pianist at your local pub, jazz in the park (Image 1), school concerts, up to large rock festivals.
There are similarities which you will encounter in any life music scenario. Planning and quick action are all important. Once you missed that special moment, you can’t go back in time, or ask the singer to pose again for you. If you are in the wrong spot, then the background might spoil all your images. If your exposure or focusing weren’t spot on, then you missed what could have been a great shot. But let’s start with the hardware.
Camera, Lenses and other Hardware
You can get started with whatever equipment you have. Even a phone camera can get you decent shots, however, a better camera will make things easier. Lighting is challenging at best and often downright awful, with coloured spotlights shining straight into your lens (Image 2). You’ll often need to push your ISO to 3200 and beyond, so one of the latest cameras, ideally full-frame, will give you cleaner images.
Image 2 – Auckland Singer Lou’ana
Mirrorless cameras show you how the sensor captures the scene, which makes it easier to nail the optimum exposure. And they have another advantage: they can be totally silent, which is vital in a concert hall environment. On the other hand, for a rock concert you might consider packing in some ear plugs if you want to get close to the action.
A 24-105 mm f/4 zoom is the standard lens for many photographers and it can give you excellent results. Needless to say, fast lenses will help. If you limit yourself to two lenses, then a pair of 24-70 and 70-200 mm lenses are ideal, both f/2.8 of course. Having said that, all my concert photography was done with f/4 lenses, my favourite being a 70-300 mm zoom, which gives me that extra reach. A super wide-angle lens often comes handy for dramatic perspective (Image 3).
Image 3 – Inauguration of the new organ at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell, Auckland
Flash is a no-no in concert photography. Even if allowed, it annoys performers and audience alike, and it ruins the whole atmosphere. You will always see photographers setting up their tripods, probably in the hope of getting sharper images. But we are photographing living people, so you won’t get away with much lower than 1/125 sec and that’s just fine with hand-held photography. Image stabilised lenses and/or cameras are almost the norm today. A tripod will only slow you down and is only useful if you shoot video.
I strongly recommend you shoot in RAW. Lighting is always problematic and RAW gives you heaps of leeway for post correction. The colour temperature will be all over the place and is often impossible to correct in JPEG. If you need to supply some photos straight away after the concert, for social media or press, you can set your camera to RAW + JPEG with only a slight speed penalty.
I also recommend manual exposure because the camera is easily fooled by the extreme lighting conditions. Most importantly, you can’t fix a badly focused shot in post process. Stacks of photos have been ruined by getting the microphone in focus instead of the eyes. If your camera hasn’t got the latest autofocus that can latch onto the eyes, I suggest you go for single-point autofocus, or even manual focus. Switch to continuous shooting when the action heats up in order not to miss that one special shot. And don’t hesitate with ‘chimping’ – you might think you’ve nailed a perfect shot and later discover that the lead singer had her eyes closed.
You might try your hand on some ‘arty’ shots like the one I took (hand-held!) of Rita Paczian during a rehearsal (Image 4).
Image 4 – Rita Paczian conducting a rehearsal at Auckland’s Town Hall
Planning and Preparation
Find out about the band or the artist you want to shoot, watch them on YouTube and look at photos taken by other photographers at that particular venue. This gives you a good idea where to position yourself. Establish contact with bands, artists, conductors and organisers. Many will be happy to use you as their photographer, especially once you made yourself a name and can show them your portfolio.
The action moves quickly and it is vital that your gear is ready to go, right from start. Familiarise yourself with the autofocus settings before the concert and don’t start off with the camera set to ISO 100 – you’ll loose the first few shots, followed by fumbling around with the settings in the dark.
Look out for special, unconventional images that stand out, like the harpist shot through her instrument (Image 5). Rehearsals are great photo opportunities – you can move around, people are more relaxed and you get shots which you won’t get during the performance, like the thumbs-up the singer got from the conductor (Image 6).
Image 5 – Harpist Susan Tong at a Christmas Concert
Image 6 – New Zealand Tenor Patrick Power and Rita Paczian
We all want to look cool in our photos, and this also applies to singers, conductors and the band’s drummer. If they like your photography, they’ll invite you back again (Image 7).
Image 7 – Tenor Simon O’Neill in Auckland’s Town Hall
Taking shots of the organist from behind makes for pretty boring images, but wait for the last note on the last page and you can capture the relief after the intense pressure of a public recital (Image 8).
Image 8 – Zosia Herlihy-O’Brien just finished the last bar of Leon Boëllmann’s ‘Suite Gotique’