Concert Photography Lesson 1
Welcome to Lesson 1 in Concert or music photography. I will be writing about 15 different lessons on how to be a music photographer. It is winter now in China, so I have a lot of free time to kill so I will be releasing one lesson each week, up until the music season starts here in China again and I have to go back to work. Most of the lessons will be based on questions I get asked all the time. These will be technical lessons on how to shoot concerts or festivals, but I will not be taking on how to get access to a concert or a festival to shoot. There is lots of information online about that already but very little information about how to actually shoot an event. So I will go through all the basic stuff you need, the equipment, how to get the correct exposure in a show, the composition, workflow, and editing, and finally how to make money.
But before I start, I will say that these lessons are not for beginner photographers. You need to be comfortable shooting in manual mode on your camera. If you are still shooting in one of the automatic modes and you are not comfortable shooting in manual mode, then you are not ready to learn concert photography. So you have been warned. I will not be covering basic information like how to set the aperture or what it does or shutter speeds on your camera. I am writing this as I would teach one of my assistants. I expect my assistants to know the fundamentals already so that I can get onto the job of teaching concert photography and putting him or her to work.
So for lesson one, we are starting with the basics. The gear.
I have a lot of gear that I use when I shoot and I use all of it. But that does not mean that you need to have all this gear to shoot a concert or the festival. Music photography is more about skill and technique than gear. So to start off this discussion, I will list what you will not be able to use at a concert or festival to get good shots.
None of this will work
- Mobile Phones and yes that includes an iPhone. Just don’t be that dosh-bag who comes to shot an event with his phone, pretending to a photographer.
- Tablet pc and Ipads. Serious, why would you even take a photo with that??? I wish Apple and the Android tablet makers would stop putting cameras in them.
- Point and shoot cameras such as the Sony RX100’s, Fuji x100, etc. Some of these are fine cameras but fixed lens cameras are not really suitable for this type of work.
- Leica M mount cameras. Although some people love their Leica cameras, manual focus with a prime lens is not going to cut it, especially with the short focus ranges that the lens offers.
What you will need.
- A camera system with interchangeable lens.
- A couple of lens covering the wide-angle up to 200mm and beyond.
- A flash for shooting the crowd or doing portraits. A manual flash is ok, but a flash with TTL metering would be better.
- A good high-quality camera bag.
- Memory cards, extra batteries and the most important piece of gear, earplugs.
- If you want to make money from this then you will also need a computer or tablet computer with you at the event as well.
So let’s start with the camera.
The camera you decide to use is important, but it is not a deal breaker. The type of camera you use will determine the iso range you can go up to. So if you are shooting with a mirror-less camera and an EVF, you will have two problems to deal with. First, the Iso range will be limited for many of the mirror-less cameras especially the micro 4/3 cameras. The next biggest problem with mirror-less cameras will be the EVF. Although most EVF is great in the daylight, when you are shooting in low light, most EVF starts to lag a lot. I have tried to use my Fujifilm XT1 a few times at shows now and the EVF was always painful to use and distracting. The lag in low light as well as the stage lights blowing out in the EVF is a nightmare to deal with. OVF is far superior at night when shooting concerts or festivals.
If you decide to use a DSLR you can choose to go full-frame or APS-C sized sensor. The choice is really up to you. Each has its own benefits. Full frame cameras generally have better iso performance but you will lose out on reach. The crop factor on the APS-C sensor can be a huge benefit sometimes when you are shooting a huge stage and 200mm is not long enough to get the shot. Personally, I use both, I normally take 2 full frame cameras with me and an APS-C camera as well, mostly to shoot video but if I need the reach, I will quickly grab it and use it.
As for auto-focus, everyone things that shooting concerts needs super fast auto-focus, but I disagree. Shooting a concert needs accurate auto-focus but not super fast auto-focus. Your shooting will always pre-focused before you shoot it. It is not pre-focused, then you are doing it wrong. So the auto-focus on the mirror-less cameras is more than good enough and the auto-focus on any DSLR camera is perfect for this type of work.
But in general, I will say that DSLR is a much better choice for this line of work than mirror lens cameras.
Next, we will look at the lens.
The lens is the most important investment you can make for your photography. Invest in glass, not cameras. When it comes to shooting concerts, you have two choices, primes and zooms. Primes are faster than zooms but zooms are more versatile. Versatility is the name of the game with regards to music photography. Invest your money into some zoom lens. You will need to cover three focal distances, firstly you need to cover the wide end for the stage shots, group shots, and crowd shots. Somewhere starting at the 16 to 18 mm on the full-frame is best.
Finally, you need something for the long end, so 200mm or longer.
When you shoot a show, you don’t know where you will be shooting from, sometimes it is on stage and then you need a wide lens, other times it is in the soundboard and then you will need a 600mm lens. You got to be prepared at shows and you cannot say, Uh….I am sorry, I don’t have the equipment to do that.
The speed of your lens is important as well, but a lot of that also depends on your cameras iso range. F2.8 lens is kings here, so the fast zoom lens is the best, but they are also the most expensive. f4 lens is ok, but they will be difficult to use at night. It all depends on your camera. If your camera can really only shoot up to iso 3200, then you will need the f2.8 lens. If you can get to iso 6400 or higher, then f4 lens will be ok. It all depends on your camera set up. I mostly use f2.8 constant aperture lens now but I have used slower lens in the past.
My advice is to avoid the lens without constant aperture. The zoom lens that starts out at f2.8 and goes to 5.6 or higher. Shooting with those lenses is possible but it makes a difficult job even more difficult at night.
The flash. You may need a flash at a concert but never to shoot a band or a performer with. Most places will tell you no flash, and if you break that rule, you will most likely get kicked out and your publication will either get blacklisted or they will not get access to the event for a while again. Concert photography is not about flash photography, but you do need a flash for shooting the crowd or if you have to shoot a band portrait behind the stage for your publication. So you need to have a flash in your bag at all times.
Camera bags, the most neglected aspect of concert or music photography. A bad camera bag will destroy your shoulder if you are shooting an all-day festival, and a good camera bag will make shooting in the most disgusting environment, a painless experience. No matter what camera bag you decide to use, make sure it is waterproof, offers good protection to your gear and that it can fit all your gear in it. Most festivals will not offer a safe place to keep your gear, stuff gets stolen all the time, so you got to carry your gear with you. If it rains, a show does not stop, so your bag must be water resistant or waterproof. Think carefully before you buy your bag. Do buy the cheapest bag you can find or you may end up losing all your equipment in a rainstorm.
Fast memory cards are important, make sure you get a bunch of memory cards, don’t go over 32gb per card and swap out the cards when they are close to full. Get the most expensive and best cards you can afford. Cheap cards tend to fail more often and if you lose your images, you lose your job. It is as simple as that. Always carry spare batteries for your camera with you. That should be obvious but so many people only have one battery in their camera. Shooting even a single performance concert can be a long day. You may need to shoot pre-show stuff and portraits, and then the show and maybe backstage stuff at the end. That could be a lot of shooting, so make sure you are prepared with enough batteries and memory cards to last a whole day.
The single most important thing that you need to shot a show though, is your earplugs. You got to protect your ears. You will be standing right in front of the speakers in many cases, you will be able to feel the bass go through your body, if you don’t protect your ears, you will lose your hearing in the future. You cannot enjoy the music if you cannot hear it.
The last thing that you may need is a computer or tablet computer. If you work in this industry, time is a precious commodity, and your clients will want the images within minutes or hours(if you are lucky) of the show ending. I carry my surface pro 3 tablet with me to every single event, I normally I have 40 minutes to upload 10 images for my clients to use on their websites and I then have until 12 that night to upload the rest of the images. You need to be able to work and edit fast, so while you are traveling back from the venue, you need to work. Photos that are one or two days old are useless and not worth money. Speed and quality are what people get paid for. So a computer or tablet computer is important if you want this to be your job.
That is the general gear you will need to be a concert photographer. Next week we will be looking at some common types of photo compositions that you should be shooting and what mistakes to look out for in your work.
If you have any questions, leave a comment and I will get to it.
So until next week,