A pro walks you through shooting live music in small- to medium-sized venues.
A lover of live music since his teens, Jamie Howard began shooting concerts in Galway, Ireland over ten years ago. After honing his skills, he began selling to local clubs and acts, leading to his current positions as a house photographer at the Roisin Dubh in Galway and as regular contributor to Hot Press, Ireland's famed music magazine. Howard also freelances in other areas of photography (portraiture, still-life, and fine art) and has had several exhibitions. In this article, he describes in detail how he tackled three very different concerts and how he made his shots at each.
Whether you simply want a souvenir of your favorite act, photos of your children at the school recital, or aspire to be a professional music photographer, learning to photograph under available stage light is important. The inherent lighting conditions, while making for atmospheric shots, present challenges and require a certain amount of specialized equipment, film, and technique to get optimum results. Shooting in smaller venues, especially bars and clubs, also creates more practical problems, from potential drink spillage on equipment to the threat of gear theft both at, and transporting to and from, the venue.
The risk to equipment needs to be weighed against the potential of getting great, and potentially profitable, photographs. Of course, there are great benefits to shooting in smaller venues. The restrictions in place at larger concerts (such as needing a press pass, only shooting during the first three songs, no flash, being stuck in a photo pit with several other photographers, and such) are often absent. (But if you are taking photographs with anything larger than a camera phone, it is advisable to get clearance from both a venue and artist representative.) Concerts in smaller venues tend to be more spontaneous than in vast arenas, so you can get quite extraordinary photos, ones that really capture the unique energy of intimate rooms. Plus, you may photograph an act right before their rise to stardom -- shots that may have resale value later.
What you should strive for in a live music photo is technical excellence, dramatic lighting, high-interest or key moments, and dynamic composition. While two of these elements often mean a sellable/publishable shot, with three you will have something that really stands out. Nailing all four is tough. But do it and you're onto a truly winning photograph. Don't let these criteria hold you back. Shoot if it looks or feels right. With practice, getting good live photos will become second nature. It also helps to be versatile in style, gear, and format to keep your shots from becoming stale. Sometimes shooting digital is the best choice (especially for press), and at other times black and white film may be the way to go. If shooting for a client, ask their preference beforehand.
As always, sharp focus, no camera shake, and decent exposure are the goals. How to achieve this is a bit tricky. Large venues often have near-solar intensity stage lighting, allowing available light photos to be taken with almost any camera or lens. More often than not in smaller venues, you will be dealing with dim, but dramatic, light on the performers, and a dark background. You'll need partial or spot metering of the performers, fast ISO (400+, digital or film), and your fastest lens wide open (2.8 or higher, preferably, but if you don't have superfast glass, crank the ISO up to 800-3200 ISO) to take advantage of it. If your camera does not support spot or partial metering, you can zoom in on the performers face and take a reading, or you can take a guess and under-expose by a stop or two, then check the histogram and adjust accordingly. And depending on the sophistication of your camera's metering systems, you may be able to get away with a program or automatic mode, though spotlights behind the stage often confuse the camera.
In order to freeze most of the motion of the musicians, you want to use a reasonably fast shutter speed. On a wide angle I wouldn't go below 1/30 sec, and for my longer lenses I try to stay above 1/100 sec. For this reason, tripods or vibration-reducing lenses are only really suitable for shooting primarily static performers. For shooting gigs, I currently use a Canon 85mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.8 on either my Canon 10D or A2 bodies. In addition, I have a Konica Hexar 35mm 2.0 film rangefinder. Shooting digitally, I use between ISO 400-1600, usually Camera RAW on Automatic White Balance. The films I use are FujiPress 800 or Fuji Superia for color (with an 80B correction filter to remove red color cast), and Fuji Neopan 1600 for black and white.
At the concert, take your light-readings off the performers, avoiding any bright lights or reflections behind them. If using a DSLR, take a few test shots and check the histogram to ensure your exposure is reasonable. A histogram highly skewed towards the blacks is quite normal (as are spikes in the white end if there are backlights), but some information in the mid-tones is crucial. Adjusting levels later may still be needed if the light is especially dim, but this always introduces noise, so it's better to expose properly at this point. Use a higher ISO if needed -- the noise of a higher ISO, exposed properly should be less than the noise introduced by pushing an underexposed image at lower ISO. Move around in front of the stage looking for good shots if possible, but respect the performers and the audience and try not to interfere with anyone's enjoyment of the gig.
Using a large aperture means very shallow depth of field, so focus is critical, especially when shooting close with a standard or telephoto lens. If close enough, focus on the eyes of the main subject. Shooting further back or with a wider lens is more forgiving, but care is still needed, especially with subjects that move in and out of the plane of focus. When light allows, I stop down the aperture to f/2.5, which is slightly more forgiving.
Ideally, I try to come up with quality photos at the moment of capture, but this is not always possible. If the light is particularly poor, I hedge my bets by taking a series of perfect exposures with slower than preferred shutter speeds and a series of shots at higher shutter speeds that will be underexposed but with no risk of camera shake.
Whether shooting digital or film, the next step for me is getting the photos on the hard drive. I usually need to do a bit of post-processing, so I either import my CF cards or scan the film, doing in-scanner exposure and color adjustments to bring the best data into Photoshop CS for finishing.
Next, I quickly check all the photos in the Photoshop CS file browser, first flagging those that are sharp and well-exposed, then flagging the shots worthy of further work. One of my local venues has very difficult lighting, often leaning heavily toward the reds, even with the color temperature corrected. It often takes quite a bit of tweaking in Camera RAW (or at the scanning stage for the film) to get the exposure and the colors within an acceptable range, and at the higher ISO settings this often introduces significant noise in the background, so I adjust the luminance smoothing slider till I'm happy. Using Photoshop, I have found that a combination of Gaussian blur followed by Unsharp Mask seems to reduce the appearance of noise.