Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How to photograph concerts


Over the 40 years since I took up photography the field has changed tremendously.  First there was the supersession of film by digital imagers, then the arrival of electronic exposure automation, and now the proliferation of cell phone cameras.  The cameras in modern phones make everyone feel like a pro.  Until they get somewhere challenging, like a concert venue.  That’s where limitations of skill and equipment become obvious.

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
Before we begin (since I talk a lot about the importance of "good equipment") . . . I want to make this point:  The biggest factor in getting good photos is YOUR skill, and mindset. The gear is secondary.  By way of illustration I offer this image of bluegrass legend Del McCoury which I shot from in front of the stage at an outdoor festival using a Canon G9 point-and-shoot camera in manual mode.


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?

That’s a question that is answered in several parts.  First of all, look at the pros photographing a big concert.  Note their positions.  They are right in front of the stage, often behind a crowd barrier where they have relative freedom of movement across the front of the stage.  They may be right there on the stage.  And if they are back in the audience they often have very long lenses and solid tripods.

Getting to those places at a big show requires photo credentials.  Depending on where you are, you might get a pass from the venue itself, or you might get a photo pass from the band.  Sometimes you will have both.   Credentials are handed to photographers from the venue or the local news media, national media, and occasionally independent photographers.

Getting credentials is the subject of an article all by itself.  Suffice it to say, credentials mean access, and access means better results.  If you build an impressive portfolio you have a decent chance of getting some recognized media to sponsor you; to agree to run your images.  That can qualify you for those all important credentials.

Credentials for country star Toby Keith
How do you build a portfolio without the credentials?  You start places credentials are not required.   Most nightclubs will let you in with a camera.  The lighting is bad and the rooms are crowded but you can learn to work there and get good images.  Another place you can go is public concerts.  Many cities sponsor free concerts on town greens, and the big state fairs often allow photography at their events.  Those are all good places to learn.

Xfinity Honor Court Stage, The Big E, West Springfield, MA
As for outlets . . . many communities have local papers that may be happy to run your images of local shows.  Having your pictures published in the Yourtown Record will obviously make you more legit when you ask a manager of a venue for a pass to get in.  Self publishing on the Internet is another option, though it won't get you much cred with the bands unless you have a huge following.

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.

Moving on, the next area is equipment.

It’s possible to get publishable photos with a point-and-shoot camera but consistent professional results are best obtained with professional gear, which in this case is a DSLR with a long lens. The most common lens for concert work is the 80-200 2.8, preferably in the image stabilized version. Systems from Nikon and Canon dominate the field.  I use a Nikon D3s with a D800 for backup and longer reach (the D800’s 30MP sensor can be cropped more)

The concert environment is very challenging for camera automation.  Even the best systems WILL fail to meter correctly at times, and it can happen in any show when the lighting changes to something the camera can’t handle.  The only way to tell how your camera’s exposure meter will cope with a given situation is to try it.  Some cameras can be used in aperture priority metering mode; others cannot.  If the resultant exposure is way off you may prefer to select manual mode and set the shutter and for a reasonable compromise based on the stage lighting. 

Shutter priority and program modes are not useful for concert work because the lens is customarily used wide open so your only variables are ISO and shutter speed.  You want to use the lowest possible ISO for concert work.  You will be forced to pull up dark areas in developing, which will accent high ISO noise.  Higher ISO also means lower dynamic range, and you need all the range you can get for this work.  Obviously the better cameras do better in this regard; concert work is truly a situation where the best equipment will run circles around lesser gear and the state of the art advances every year.
Journey in concert
Responsiveness is another concern.  Ideally you want a camera with very little lag time between pressing the shutter and actually taking the picture.  Good cameras are almost lag-free.  For best results you want to watch the performance through the viewfinder and take shots as they appear.  Expressions and poses are fleeting; often lasting just a fraction of a second.  A camera with a half-second lag to take the photo will not be very useful in that environment.  
Austin Mahone dancers with DJ Rayvon

Focus is another challenging area.  Professional-grade SLRs have multiple selectable focus points.  Many newer cameras have face recognition programs, or other programs to choose the closest subject or the closest person.  I suggest you avoid those operating modes because I have not found them effective in this kind of work.

Instead choose a specific focus point and make sure it is locked on the eye of your subject.  If you make a mistake and lock onto something else like a guitar neck your image will probably be junk.  Depth of field at 200mm-2.8 is very shallow.   This requires a lot of practice . . . it’s easy to lose track of where your focus is locked and lose a whole series of shots by focusing on the wrong thing.

Now we have the most challenging thing of all . . . picking up the camera and putting it to use.  High-end SLR systems are heavy, more so with a long lens attached.  It will take some practice for you to become proficient holding the camera on target and steady.  It took several years for me to become steady enough to get sharp images with a 70-200 lens.  A common rule of thumb says the lowest hand-held shutter speed is 1-2 times the length of the lens.  So the slowest shutter for a lens zoomed to 200 would be 320 or so – somewhere between 1/200 and 1/400 of a second.

In an ideal world that is what you would do, but in the real world, you might need to shoot that image at 1/30 or 1/60 to get enough light.  This is the biggest challenge of this kind of work . . . getting sharp images when light is dim.

All I can offer is this:  Practice does not make perfect, but it does make you better.  People who shoot lots of frames with long lenses DO get better at it. 

What about flash, you ask?  Flash will freeze the action and eliminate much of the shake problem.  But it does so at the cost of washing out the stage lighting which is a large part of the “feel” you are trying to capture.  Also, flash is prohibited at most bigger events.  No one likes to see a flash popping and distracting you as you try to watch a show.

There are some circumstances where you may use flash productively but most of the time you shoot concerts under natural lighting.

Finally we have framing.  Framing is the art of filling the camera frame with the image you envision.  That is the hardest thing of all.  When you begin taking pictures you tend to focus on the spot the focus is locked on.  So you pay attention to a performer’s face.  What else is in the frame?  Is he positioned attractively?  How about the background?  Are there lights behind him, and if so are they silhouetting his head or body, or glaring into the lens?

You may get a good effect from stage lights shining into the lens, or you may have a ruined image.  The only way to know what will happen is by practice.  When it comes to effects from lighting, you will have more editing flexibility if you shoot in RAW format.  That’s what I do.  JPG gives smaller files but some things that are unrecoverable in JPG are easily fixed in RAW.

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

Are there any other reflections in the frame that will give you trouble?  Consider angles in your compositions.   Most people – when they start taking pictures – do straight up and down shots.  That is, people who are standing are photographed standing.  But it does not have to be that way.  Rotate the camera 20, or even 45 degrees.  See how the resultant images look.  Be creative!

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.

One of the things I learned early on was to do my cropping in the camera.  The better you compose you initial shots, the easier your subsequent editing will be.  Some people assume they can crop to zoom; doing so compromises your images because you throw away most of the potential pixels.  Try to strike a balance . . . frame a little big to allow for composition errors, but zoom in close enough to mostly fill the frame with what you want to show.

Remember this:  If you have to ask if you are close enough, you are too far away.  The best concert photos tend to be shot at distances of 20 feet or less; many are much closer.  There is no such thing as “too close” in rock and roll photography  The better known you get,  and the more people appreciate your work, the more leeway you will have to work close – even right up on stage.  That’s where the best stuff is captured.

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
This image of renowned background singer Darlene Love (think Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, Elvis and hundreds more) was shot from fifteen feet away on the stage during a daylight show.  There's no substitute for proximity.

Darlene Love, as seen in the movie 20 Feet From Stardom
What about using a longer lens?  It won't usually work out, for two reasons. First, the long lens would render the background right next to the subject, where the closeup isolates her with background blur.  Second and most important - as the two images above show - when you are close the performers will sing to you and that magic cannot be captured any other way.

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 . . . .



The final tip I offer is this: Pay attention!  Know what’s happening in the show and anticipate the action with your camera.  Have the lens zoomed, framed, and focused BEFORE the performer starts his solo, so you have the best possible chance of catching a magical moment.  Rather than scanning and hunting for images, follow the musicians with your lens, and let the shots come to you.

Musical Director Michael Jacobson fills in on tambourine
Good luck out there!

John Elder Robison

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

3 comments:

Unknown said...

In the first group of photos the photo to the immediate right of the Tour Pass is of Flown Clair Brothers S-4 PA Cabs?

John Elder Robison said...

Yes, KISS leased sound from Clair in 1978-79 and those shots show their stage and backstage. Good catch! Were you with Clair back then?

Unknown said...

Actually no. I had a small PA Rental company a few years ago, and I remember seeing bands touring with S-4's when I was a teenager. They were much better sounding than the horn loaded stuff that a lot of people were using. They would most likely compete with modern systems as far as sound quality with the exception that they wouldn't array as well in any place but a small or medium sized theatre venue.