How-To: Concert Photography With Strobes and Flashes

Plan and flash your way to unique live music photos

Concert Photography With Strobes and Flash
Concert Photography With Strobes and Flash

When you're shooting a concert, there's typically no such thing as “natural light." You're often greeted with a hard mix of tungsten bulbs and gelled stage lights, which are every bit as tough on your white balance as they are your shutter speeds. Often, especially at big venues, flash is forbidden, but with a little planning and a cooperative concert hall, you can actually go beyond the typical on-camera flash mix in some studio strobes to give your concert photos a truly unique look.

I like to shoot with two studio strobes placed on the stage, mixed with two speedlights—one on the stage and one on the camera. This lighting setup creates three dimensional lighting from multiple angles, using lights as accents and focal points within the photographs. This isn’t a simple “run and gun” setup—it involves a good bit of gear, and a good bit of pre-planning. But if you are willing to put up with the extra hassle and amount of gear, you will be rewarded with photographs that really stand out.

ACCESS

Before you start packing up your gear in anticipation of shooting Pearl Jam on stage at Madison Square Garden, you’ll need to get permission to shoot. You can’t just show up to a gig with three bags of gear and expect them to let you through the door. You’ll need permission from either the band, (which may not be enough on its own), the show promoter, or the venue itself. This will depend on the type of show you’re shooting. If you’re planning on shooting a small local show, permission from the band itself is usually sufficient. But if it’s a larger concert venue, its probably best to get permission in advance. Introducing yourself to the lighting technician and the sound guy will go a long way. Let them know what you are planning on doing, as you’re setting up on their turf. Tell them where you’ll be setting up your lights, and make sure your gear doesn’t get in their way.

Get there early! You’re going to want to set up your lights during the soundcheck, before the doors open to the public. Use the soundcheck to test your lighting setup and make modifications (as much as you can) at this point, so you’ll have less to worry about once the show actually starts. Since you'll probably want to use radio triggers, it's also a great idea to check them with the band's gear. If they're using wireless gear, you definitely don't want your triggers interfering.

GEAR & LOGISTICS

I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II, and use three lenses: Canon 17-40 f/4 L, Canon 24-105 f/4 L IS, and Canon 70-200 f/4 L IS. Between these three lenses, I’m covered from super-wide to moderate super-tele. The size of the venue and the size of the stage will usually dictate which lens I’m using that day. Sometimes I’ll switch between lenses during the shoot, but more often than not I’ll usually find the best focal range and just stick with that for most of the set. I’m not concerned with limiting my apertures to f/4, as I’ll be using strobes and my apertures will usually between f/8 and f/11 anyway.

For lighting, I use two Alien Bee B1600 studio strobes. They’re lightweight, durable, pump out a good amount of light, and aren’t that expensive. The lights are mounted to 7 foot Matthews light stands, which are small enough to not be too much in the way, but tall enough to get the lights into the right position. To compliment my studio strobes, I am also using two Canon 580EX II speedlites. One on the stage, and one on my camera. They’re small, so I can stick the one on the stage anywhere I want, with nothing more than gaffer tape. Usually I like to put it right next to the kick drum, or even *inside* the kick drum if the drummer will let me, to blast some light from the kit. [Editor's note: Excessive vibration can be bad for delicate electronics and speed lights are full of them, so a cheap flash might be a good idea for this one.]

To wirelessly trigger everything, I use Pocketwizards. I have two sets: one for the speedlites and one for the AlienBees. On the camera, the transmitter is the Pocketwizard Mini-TT1, with Speedlite #1 on top of that. The TT1 is a TTL compatible version of Pocketwizard technology—I’m not using the TTL capability here, but it also acts as a normal Pocketwizard and is really small. It has a hot shoe on top, so Speedlite #1 goes right on top of it. Its companion is the Flex TT5 receiver which is connected to Speedlite #2 on the stage. The Alien Bees are connected to Pocketwizard Plus IIs. I put them all on the same channel, and all four lights fire when commanded by the TT1 on my camera.

Regarding channels and wireless triggering, there is a chance that there may be another photographer at the gig shooting and using pocketwizards. If this is the case, you may run into channel interference. So far this hasn’t happened to me, but if it happens to you, just make sure you and the other photographer are on different channels. If you talk about it with him/her once you realize the situation, I’m sure they would be happy to make sure you are both on different channels.

Placement of the lights

What we’re looking to do here is basically flood the stage with light. I want to cover almost every inch of the stage so that no matter where the shot is taken, my lights are going to be hitting the subject from various directions.

I’ve provided a diagram depicting where my lights are placed. The two Alien Bees are each placed in the back corners of the stage, pointed roughly 45 degrees towards center. They're basically pointed at the singer's back. The height of the strobes should be approximately 6 feet, about at head height. The spread of the lights will be wide enough to cover a good part of the stage. If you want less of a spread and a more concentrated beam, you can put grids on the lights, but you’ll have to pump up the power a little bit, as you’ll lose a bit of lights due to the nature of the grids. Put the lights on the stands and place the stands in the back corner of the stage. As a rule of thumb, if you can see the lights, the lights can see you. To test, go stand in the middle of the stage where the singer will be, and turn around. Look at the lights.. can you see the bulbs in the reflectors? Do they look like they are pointed at you? If so, great. If not, move them. It’s not rocket science.

Make sure they are secure and won’t topple over. You can bring sand bags like you would on a typical shoot, but that's cumbersome and not that effective if someone bangs into them. You can use a bungee cord or even some tape to secure the stand to something sturdy on the stage so they won't tip over. However you do it, just make sure they’re sturdy. Not only is your gear expensive, but the band’s gear is expensive, and you don’t want your expensive gear falling down on top of their expensive gear, costing lots of money in replacement or repair fees. You also don't want anyone to get hurt by your gear. That's another reason it's essential to check with the venue before setting up any stands. You could be held liable if something goes wrong.

The second speed light is usually placed right near the kick drum to make it seem as if the light is coming from the drum itself.. If the drummer allows, you can strap it to the leg of the kick drum, or to one of the stands in the drum kit with a bungee cord or some tape. This light basically gets pointed straight out into the crowd. If you’re standing right in front of the stage, facing the band, this light is going to blast you in the face. This will backlight the singer, create some interesting shadows on the front of the stage, and also highlight fans in the crowd who are right up front. Speedlite #1 is right on my camera, and it’s my “front” light.

So we have two lights in the back corners, facing forward. One light center stage, facing forward. And one light on the camera, facing wherever the camera faces. With this setup, no matter where I’m shooting from, there will be light of *some* sort hitting my subjects. The AlienBees will “rim light” the band members, and if the lights themselves are *in* the photo, can act as a sort of visual interest themselves- I like to use the bright spots of the lights as focal points within the images themselves. If you look at some of the photos I’ve included with this article, you can see how the lights themselves are often in the frame, and act as a visual interest within the photo.

Light settings

As with any flash photograph, there are two exposures going on here: the ambient and the flash exposures. They both happen at the same time and each contribute to the overall lighting of the image. The amount of *ambient* light, (or any light that hits the sensor that is not produced by any of the flashes) is controlled with the shutter speed. Slower shutter speed = more ambient light. Faster shutter speed = less ambient light. The amount of *flash* light is controlled with the aperture. Larger aperture = more flash light. Smaller aperture = less flash light. You’ll be using these settings to control the look of your image.

To begin, I try to get all of my settings somewhere around the middle, so I have room to maneuver up and down with any setting I want later on. I’ll usually start with my lights set to around half power. My camera is set to ISO 400 (I don’t mind a little bit of grain, and this really helps with flash power compared to if I was shooting at ISO 100). Shutter speed will vary depending on how much movement I want in the images and how much ambient light I want to let in. I’ll start with my aperture at f/8, and take a test shot. If my settings are off, say there is way too much light from the flashes, I’ll adjust the power down to 1/4 and take another test shot. Once I get into a decent range, where my exposure is good, with a good mix of flash and ambient, I leave the lights as they are and adjust everything from the camera from that point.

Continuing to take test shots, I look at my images. Do I want more light from the strobes? I’ll open up the aperture. Do I want less light from the strobes? Close down the aperture. Adjusting the aperture ONLY affects my flash exposure—it’s not affecting my ambient light exposure. Usually I shoot at between 1/100 and 1 second shutter speeds, depending on how much motion I want in the image.

Shutter Drag

If I use a slow shutter speed, say 1/4 of a second, and take an image, the flash “freezes” whatever it hits, making it sharp in and focus, and then the slow shutter “drags” and lets the movement creep into the image. You’ll get a portion that’s crisply lit by your strobes, and other portions that are blurry and smeared and full of motion. It’s up to you to decide how much of everything you want, so adjust your aperture and shutter speeds accordingly.

If you look at my images, it will be obvious that some of them are double exposures. Depending on which camera I’m using, it may be done in-camera, or it may be done in post-processing. When shooting double exposures in-camera, you’ll need to drop your exposure a bit, as both exposures will be contributing to the final exposure. I’ll usually expose a 1 or 1.5 stops under when shooting double exposures in camera, usually equaling out to a normal looking exposure. You’ll have to try it and see for yourself, what the proper mix for you is.

At some shows photographers are limited to shooting the first three songs only. If this is the case, you better start banging out your frames, because those three songs will be over before you know it. If there is no limit, you can spread out a little bit, and take your time.

As the show progresses, the band will start to get hotter, more energetic, sweatier, and more exhausted. Capture this emotion! Capture this exhaustion! Bands often save their most exhilarating song for the finale. The band and the crowd will typically go nuts. Don’t miss this! It’s most likely when you’ll grab that “hero” shot.

Tearing Down

When the set is over, you’ll need to get your gear off of the stage, but don’t forget that at the same time, the band is getting their gear off the stage, and the next band is probably starting to get their gear on the stage. Try to stay out of everyone’s way, get your gear packed up and away in a swift and safe fashion.

Make sure to thank the band and the stage guys for their help. Hand out some business cards, so people will know where to find the photos once you get them worked on. Make friends! You’ll eventually see these guys at another show, another venue, or maybe even on the street somewhere. People remember a friendly face, and will go out of their way to help out a cool guy if they were treated coolly themselves.

My post-processing routine is a bit involved, and I’m going to save the majority of that for another tutorial, but the basics of it is this: I immediately back up all of my images to my computer the second I get home. This is happening even before I get my coat off. I want to make sure that everything is backed up, safe, and sound. Once they are on my computer, I’ll leave them on the cards, and they’ll stay on the cards until the job is finished and processed and backed up to a second location.

Once the images are on the computer, I’ll load into Lightroom, run through them to make selects, and pick my favorites. This begins the second half of our adventure- the post processing. From here, you can go anywhere. You’ve got 16GB of RAW images at your disposal, it’s up to you to find the ones that you connect with, that you think people will connect with.

_I can’t finish this tutorial without mentioning two photographers that without whom my own photography would not exist as it does, as some of these techniques are borrowed from them and adapted into my own workflow. Matt Miller __was my main inspiration behind the multiple light setup, specifically inspired by his amazing shot of TRIAL at the BURNING FIGHT FEST at the Metro in Chicago. And Justin Borucki__ is the man who got me into music photography in the first place- he was the first to show me the emotion, the exhaustion, and the energy that goes into rock and roll photography, and for that I thank him. _

I hope you found this tutorial interesting- I’d love to see your work, so feel free to show it to me! Check out my work at www.nakleh.com_, my instagram account @nakleh, and on Facebook__. _

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