How to photograph concerts
Yet that was one of the first places I set out to take pictures, back in the 1970s when I was an engineer for Britannia Row, KISS, and other bands. Back then I used a Polaroid SX70 which made 3x3 square color prints. I still have some of them today, along with a few of my old passes.
I never knew how to get good close up images at the shows. Most of my pictures were taken from far away, and many depicted amplifiers and gear instead of people (I am, after all, autistic.) But it was OK, because my images back then were really just for me and my family. They sparked my memories and reminded me to tell the stories, and that was enough.
|An April Wine First Glance tour pass, and some images from the road with KISS|
As I got older, things changed. I began communicating through imagery, and images like I took back then did not tell a story by themselves. They simply were not good enough. I wondered what I could do about the situation, and the answer became clear: Learn how to take concert photos like a pro. I had examples to refer to, like these from my days with KISS:
I don't know who took those long-ago images of my guitars and gear (most people would say they are images of Ace Frehley and the KISS crew but I see it differently) but they are a hell of a lot better than anything I could do. Maybe that's why they are on my wall, and my own SX70 images are in a drawer!
However, times change. People grow and learn. Today I'm able to take descriptive images at concerts and with practice and the right gear, I'm sure you can too.
|The Beach Boys Sept 2013|
Could I have done better with a $7,500 pro-level Canon or Nikon system? Sure. But you can get good results with almost anything, even this $250 camera.
So how do you get good photos at a concert?
|Credentials for country star Toby Keith|
|Xfinity Honor Court Stage, The Big E, West Springfield, MA|
The image above shows the main concert stage at The Big E, New England's biggest annual fair. As you can see there is no barrier in front of the stage, and you can walk right up and shoot to your heart's content. There are stages like this all over the country. Just announce yourself to the crew and/or band, and follow any instructions they may have. Watch for signs that prohibit certain kinds of camera (usually video) and stay out of the way of the band and crew. You don't want to piss them off. Share your shots, and who knows - they may buy some. That's how reputations are made.
|Journey in concert|
|Austin Mahone dancers with DJ Rayvon|
|Eagles guitarist Don Felder|
Some performances are held outdoors in daylight. For those you have to be more vigilant about what's behind the performers. You don't want an ugly background ruining an otherwise good image.
|Jim Peterik (right) and the Ides of March guitarists, Sept 2013|
This is so important I'll say it again: Always pay attention to the background. You can photograph the most beautiful singer in the world, but if there's a porta-potty and a dumpster in the background, your image won't be going too far.
The image of Austin Mahone below is a good example. My wife was photographing in "the pit" - the area between the crowd barrier and the stage - when Austin spotted her during his opening song. The resultant image - with his finger a scant 18 inches from the lens - is striking and could not have been shot from any greater range.
|Austin Mahone up close - Maripat Robison photo|
|Darlene Love, as seen in the movie 20 Feet From Stardom|
Don’t forget backstage and behind the scenes opportunities, if you have access to those areas.
You may want a different kind of camera for backstage work. A less conspicuous rangefinder (Leica or Fuji X-Pro come to mind) may let people relax and offer you opportunities you would not have with an SLR. But you have to earn a place back there first - so tread gently and work hard.
In this rangefinder image, shot at ISO 6400 with hand focus, the Master of Ceremonies and The Management look my way as Tommy James and the Shondells played on the stage behind me. It's not as exciting to the public but images like this capture the moment for key people and they too make memories that last, along with building goodwill for the photographer . . . .
|Musical Director Michael Jacobson fills in on tambourine|
John Elder Robison is a NY Times bestselling author and photographer. He's the author/creator of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby and thousands of images, articles and stories. He lives with his wife and family in Western Massachusetts. Find him online at www.johnrobison.com