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.
Shooting stage light is a bit like shooting a stormy sky at sunset: with ever-changing light and high-contrast colors, it is a spectacle for you to capture, not control. Make use of backlighting, side lighting, and smoke caught in spotlight shafts, but try to make sure the lighting draws attention to rather than from the performer or performers. If you are able to move around the venue, you will have more opportunity to find unusual lighting, but even if you are restricted to a single spot, you can wait for a moment when the light is most evocative.
I tend to use manual mode when shooting live music. But if the light show is particularly dramatic, I often switch to aperture priority to keep up with the ever-changing light (if I feel the shutter speeds will be high enough). I always use partial or spot metering (metering off the main subject's face), and my exposures are usually fine in this mode if the light is adequate. You may need to play around with exposure compensation. Some dramatic light shows have quite a bit of back-lighting, and the meter will tend to underexpose. Trial and error, and some practice, will help you come up with a system that works.
This is often much easier at smaller venues where you may be freed from the three-song rule. High-interest moments usually happen later in the gig. The more you shoot live, the more you will get the feel for when something is going to happen. If you are familiar with the act or the music, you may be aware of a signature move (a jump, spin, or a dramatic guitar move, for example), which you can capture. Otherwise, you may hear a build-up in the music that leads to a dramatic gesture, as in the case of this shot of one of The Wailers.
Remember to pay attention to details, as you may notice something interesting to keep an eye out for. Seeing a birthday cake left onstage early on, I made sure to save some space on my memory card for a shot of Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy blowing out his candles near the end of the show. Even then, I made sure I shot a burst of ten during this key moment, with only one turning out exactly as I'd hoped.
Key moments need not always be so obvious, so don't ignore the expressions or poses more subtle performers make. When shooting quieter, mellow acts, the best shots are often between the songs when the musicians are interacting with each other and the audience.
Here's where your own style and shooting eye come into play. Many of the compositional tricks that apply to other areas of photography work well here, or you can experiment and try to come up with something new. Shooting close and wide allows for some interesting compositions with multiple performers, performers and the audience, or even performers and the stage. If a concert is less than full, you can use your increased mobility to find interesting angles and vantage points. Using a longer lens close might seem limiting, but it can make for striking, detailed photos of the performers filling the frame. Acquire all the equipment you feel you need and can afford, but also remember to make the best of what you have.
The Jimmy Cake Live at the Warwick
The Warwick is one of my favorite venues for watching and photographing concerts. Unfortunately, it is actually a ballroom/disco that hosts concerts on an irregular basis, so there is no permanent stage. The set-up and the lighting vary from gig to gig. The bigger name acts bring their own light shows, which make it easy to shoot, but with the smaller acts on smaller budgets, I need to make do with whatever the situation is when I arrive.
The Jimmy Cake lies somewhere in the middle with an OK lighting setup. A 10-piece instrumental band that often gets the crowd moshing, I photographed this concert exclusively on film. I used my Konica Hexar 35mm f/2 (Fuji 800 Press, and 80b filter, underexposed2/3 stop) and Canon A2 with 85mm 1.8 (Fuji Neopan 1600 black & white film).
Though the light on the band was reasonably bright, it was also rather drab in the color department. I wanted a nice full band shot, but I had to shoot almost a whole roll on the Hexar to come up with a picture I was happy with, and I still couldn't get all members in the frame. Though the Jimmy Cake gets the crowd moving, onstage they stay rather still below the waist. The interesting shots were in the faces and upper body. This was an ideal situation to shoot black and white close-ups.
With Fuji Neopan 1600 film at f/2, I was able to shoot with shutter speeds above 1/200th, freezing most action, which is what I wanted. Because of the intense dancing of the crowd, I chose to stay in one spot (stage right), and even then found myself slammed into regularly -- much beer flew in my direction. I had to keep one eye on the band, the other on the crowd, and rely on quick reflexes to get the shots and protect myself and the equipment. Luckily, I succeeded at both. Not being able to get physically close to or zoom in on the musicians to stage left made for some interesting compositions.
The film was processed at my local lab, with the black and white sent away as usual, and I had 3x5 printed just for reference, which were very acceptable. I later made black and white prints in the darkroom, and scanned both the black and white and the color negatives. The only changes made on the computer were slightly tighter cropping, dust/scratches touch ups, and standard levels adjustments.
Musical portraits in a way, these photos were enthusiastically received by both the promoter and the band, and were used for promo posters to accompany an article in The Irish Times, one of the largest daily newspapers with a nationwide circulation.
Jimmy Cliff Gig
A difficult gig. Originally scheduled for a larger venue, it was moved to a smaller stage at the Roisin Dubh at the last minute. My 50mm 1.8 was broken, so I had to choose between using my Konica Hexar 35mm f/2 with Fuji Superia 800, exposed at 500 with 80B colour correction filter, my 85mm 1.8 on my Canon A2 with the same film and filter, or the 85mm on the Canon 10D. A few spot readings of Jimmy Cliff showed I had no choice but to go for the 10D at ISO 1600. Even then, the shots were about one stop underexposed at the best of times.
It was a full house. The crowd was jam-packed up front and I found myself forced into one tight spot. (Luckily, the crowd was enthusiastic but peaceful.) So I was shooting dark-skinned subjects against a dark background under very poor lighting. I was extremely close to the stage with an effective focal length of 135mm. Getting a shot of the full band was impossible. I had to concentrate on catching Jimmy Cliff as he moved energetically in and out of the light. Given this type of situation, I always try to get a few shots of the other members of the band. I shot Jimmy Cliff, but I also got a separate complementary shot of one of his back-up singers -- here they work nicely together, either to illustrate a gig review or mounted together in a frame for the venue's wall.
Toasted Heretic Gig
This show was the triumphant return concert of Toasted Heretic at the Radisson SAS Galway, part of The 2005 Galway Arts Festival. A Galway band on the rise 10 years ago before taking a long hiatus to get married, write books, and have children, this was a major show in town. Though sold-out, the venue wasn't cramped, and the crowd of old fans was content to stay a few yards from the stage, leaving stage front to the 13 Galway photographers who showed up with press passes. The guitarist pictured on the right of the photo is a photographer himself, and the only stipulation was "First 30 songs/only using flash." A rather unique scenario: no hassle from the crowd and no rules. It was a bit difficult jostling for position, but all the shooters treated each other with mutual respect.
The light was bright and dramatic, so I chose to break the "rules" and shoot available light as usual. The main spotlight was on lead singer Julian Gough, so I took some readings off him and found I would be able to shoot at ISO 400, using my Canon 10D and both my 85mm 1.8 and my 50mm l.8. Though I had my Konica Hexar as well, the 35mm lens was a bit too wide, as the stage was rather high and the band more distant than at some of the smaller venues.
The band members really enjoyed themselves and put on a great show, with Julian Gough striking some unusual poses that made for good photos. Habit got the best of many of the photographers, who chose to quit shooting halfway through, but I found I got my favorite shots near the end of the night. (They never did manage 30 songs, however.)
Selling the Shots
Using these tips and examples, most photographers should be able to capture excellent live shots under difficult conditions, within the limitations of their equipment. Getting great music photos is extremely rewarding, and if you are able to do so consistently, you may quickly find yourself in demand. The acts, venues, and the press are always in need of good live pictures; so if your work is good, get it seen. Build up relationships within the industry and in your area. Show your work either as prints or as e-mails. Be persistent, but not pushy. Promoters and venue owners are often the best place to start, as you may be able to get access to a wide variety of gigs. Gugai, co-owner of The Roisin Dubh in Galway, uses my work on a regular basis and describes music photography as follows:
"As I own the venue, I tend to look for a shot that really captured the atmosphere of the night. You can tell what the room was like sometimes just by looking at a photo. When it's done right, it not only frames that moment, it will also remind everyone who was there just how it felt and give them a little shiver of excitement. The best live shows can be intensely personal experiences and the best photos are the ones that remind us of that."
The photos I took for Gugai when he was a promoter were instrumental in building a strong enough portfolio to freelance for the national magazines and papers, so if you are thinking of shooting music for profit, developing a similar connection is ideal. Promoters often like shots where the venue is recognizable (stage backdrops, logos, etc.), and often want large prints, so sharp hi-resolution shots are important. When shooting for the press, the most important thing is sharp, good contrast images with recognizable performers. Due to the limitations of newsprint, simple strong shots often reproduce best.
Regarding potential profit, this can be tricky. Shooting for the press is straightforward, often with set rates. Promoters and venue owners may want everything from 11x14 prints, hi-res cds for use in promotional materials, or low-res pics for website and slide-slows. Negotiate carefully for fair compensation. Acts are always interested in photos. However, if the act is up and coming, they are often low on cash. If the act is more well-known and financially secure, they may have more live photos than they know what to do with. Get a truly unique photo, however, and they may come knocking on your door.
Enjoy the shooting and the music, and get a set of earplugs (trust me).