Concert Photography Lesson 2
This is the second lesson in my Concert photography course. Lesson 1 dealt with gear, and lesson 2 will deal with composition for music photographers and the basic shots you should try to get during a shot. Not all these shots will be possible in a single 3 song shot, but it is a rough guide to help people going into there first few events so that they know what images that should be trying to get. Most of these ideas are what I teach to my assistants before their first trip into the pit with me. Now with that being said, time for lesson 2.
Trying to teach composition is like trying to teach someone to be creative, it is very difficult to do. But when dealing with music or concert photography, there are certain kinds of shots that publications like to get. In this lesson, we will go over some of the different compositions you should try to get at each shoot that you do. These are not really composition rules, but more guidelines that I give to my assistants when they start to shoot gigs for me.
1. Vertical portrait
So we will start off with the basic cover shot. This is a vertical portrait basically, that is used by newspapers and magazines and will be your bread and butter image that most publication will require. More than 60% of all your photos should be vertical portraits.
This should always be one of the first images that you should get. Now when shooting in the pit, I always tell my assistants that there are three locations that should be shot at. The positions are as follows: center of the pit, far left in the pit and far right in the pit. It is important to shoot all three locations whenever possible for each shot. If the pit is packed with other photographers, then it might not be possible to hit all three locations but it should be possible to hit at least two locations. Left of right location depends on the lead singer, to be honest. See more information about this later in the lesson.
As soon as you have your vertical portrait, rotate your camera into horizontal mode and shoot a horizontal picture of the artist as well. That means two shots per location of each artist. Once you have your horizontal and vertical shot, time to move to the next location as quick as possible and shoot the same setup. So by the time You have finished shooting all three locations, you should have 6 photos for each artist in the band excluding the drummer. We will get to the drummers a little later on in the article.
What is important to note when shooting this image is not to crop off the headstock (head of the guitar). Many of my assistants will come to me after the their first show and they would be shooting way to tight and they end up cutting off the headstocks. In a future lesson, I will tell you why that is important.
2. Open or closed side shots
When it comes to shooting singers, there are three options depending on the hand that they use the microphone in. The first option is the open side. How this works is that if the singer is holding the microphone in his right hand, then you want to be shooting from the right-hand side of the pit so that you are shooting into their open face. The singer’s arm and microphone will be hiding his face from the left-hand side. An example of shooting from the open side is shown below.
Shooting the open side also refers to shooting the opposite side of the guitar head as the guitar headstock and the microphone, as they also tend to block the musician’s face. See the example below.
Shooting the open side in the pit should always be your first shot when shooting the vertical portrait shots of the musicians. Before you go to the show, you should research the bands that you are going to be shooting and remember which sides are the open side and closed side for the musicians. More about preparing for a show in a future lesson.
Now it is possible to shoot the closed side of a musician and you can get very good shots there but they are more difficult to get because the musicians face is often hidden for long periods of time behind their microphone and arm combination, or their guitar.
Sometimes you have very little control of shooting open side or closed side as the singer will consistently pass the microphone from one hand to another. When this happens, all you can do is pick the side you think has the best lighting and wait to get the shot you want.
Now the last problem with shooting open side or closed side is the horrible microphone eaters or huggers. These are the singers who hold the microphone in both hands and sing into it, completely blocking there face. The best way I have found with dealing with these kinds of musicians is to shoot them dead on and use their elbows to draw your attention to their eyes. You create leading lines with there elbows and draw your attention to their face or in most cases, just their eyes. See examples below.
But shooting straight on is not your only options, depending on the artist, you can find some open gaps in the singing stances on stage and capture their face but this takes time to do and you do not always have time to go hunting like this. This is normally only possible if you have shot the band before you and you know what to expect.
3. Boot on the monitor shot
This is a great shot for guitarists, they love seeing this shot and so do many music magazines. Most guitarists will put there lead leg onto the monitor at some point while they are jamming away, get to their open side and get the shot of it if you can. Most guitarists will do this a few times during their set, so if you see it but miss it, just work your way over to that side of the pit and prepare for it. As for the composition of this shot, if you crop a bit of the boot, that is fine, just don’t crop his upper body or his guitar.
4. Rule of thirds and the eyes
The rule of thirds in one of the oldest photography guidelines when dealing with composition and it applies to concert photography but it has one little addition that should be followed. The direction of the eyes determines the composition for the rule of thirds.
No matter if you are shooting horizontally or vertically, the eyes should always be looking into the negative space in the image.
5. The eyes are the soul of the image.
One problem you will run into many times is the issue of the eyes. To very blunt about this, no matter how good the photo is if the musician has their eyes closed in the shot, the shot is almost always useless unless there is some great display of emotion on their face. So many of my assistants will follow my composition guidelines perfectly but they will bring me shots with closed eyes in them and then the shots are worthless. I have also lost great shots because I shot the musician as they blinked. This will happen to everyone at times and it is something you got to learn to deal with.
Sunglasses are your friend, if a musician is wearing sunglasses, then you don’t have to worry about the eyes, but we are not always that lucky. The worst possible luck you could get is a folk or pop singer who always closes their eyes when they sing.
I had to learn how to cheat the system to get shots of these types of musicians. When they sing, they always close their eyes, so no matter how patient you are, there is no shot to get, but they love to talk to the crowd in between their songs, and then their eyes are open and you can get the shot for your publication. It is cheating because they are not performing, but your publication or the viewer will never know that.
6. Group shots.
The next photo that you should be looking at taking is group shots or interaction shots between the band members. These shots are usually done in horizontal mode and you shoot these as they happen. You have got to be prepared for when they happen and shoot them quickly. You got to watch your depth of field with these shots though, especially if you are shooting from the side of the pit. A group shot with one person out of focus is no good and cannot be used. So these shots are much easier to take from the central location in the pit. Always remember that depth of field decreases as focal length increases.
7. Full Stage shot
This can be a tough shot to nail, and a lot depends on the stage you are shooting. You will absolutely need a super-wide zoom to get this shot and a bit of luck. The shot really does not sell well to publications but bands love the full stage shot and they often use them on their social media accounts. If you are shooting a huge stage and the pit is really small, then this shot is not really feasible but if you can get it, you should always take the shot.
8. The Drummer shots
Shooting the drummer is where it can get very difficult. The drummer is usually at the back of the stage, has terrible lighting and you need a much faster shutter speed to shoot him than other members of the band. Adding to all of this is that he is often blocked by other members of the band so getting a clear shot of him is not always easy. The best location is usually center stage and using a long zoom, zoom straight past the lead singer and you should be able to get a few shots of him. Try to get a vertical and horizontal shot of the drummer while he is either on his downswing or while he is playing with his drumsticks. Nailing the drummer shot is not easy and takes time and practice.
If possible, I always try to get a vertical shot of the drummer, as most drummers are looking for profile pictures for their social media accounts and they will crop your horizontal shot to get their profile pic, so may as well shoot one for them.
Now if you got an all-access pass and have stage access, then things get a little easier. Then you can get a variety of shots. If you have stage access then you want to shoot the drummer from both sides of the stage in horizontal mode.
The final shot that you should always try is by going to the back of the stage area, most of the times you can find a small hole through which to shoot the drummer from.
I will do a separate lesson on drummers in the future. They are difficult to shoot but if you can get access to the stage, there is so much that you can do with them. I love shooting drummers so I always push my assistants to try and shoot them as well.
9. Breaking the third wall
Most bands are there to perform to the crowd and the photographer is not part of that equation but if you start to get know by the bands, then sometimes the artists will start to ham it up and start to play for you. You can get some greats shots when they do this.
That is me shooting the shot above. Once you have a good rapport with the bands, then getting unique shots is always possible.
10. Always shoot the signs.
Anytime a musician motions or makes a sign to the crowd, shot it. In China, the horns are extremely popular, all the musicians do it, and I will shoot it every single time I see it. Even if you are in the worst possible position in the pit, if you see the artist on stage making a sign, shoot it as best as you can.
11. Hide the lights
Now, this is something that I try to get all my assistants to do, I try to get them to use the artist that they are shooting and attempt to hide the stage light behind the artists head. This will cause a halo-like effect to appear around the artist, as if he is being back lite and if you are lucky, then you will get some nice light rays as well.
12. Include the crowd
The crowd is a vital part of any show, so trying to find an angle in the pit or from the stage to include the band with the fans is very important. If you are lucky, a band member will go crowd surfing or stand on the security barricade, but if you are not so lucky, then you can either shoot from the side of the stage to include the band with the crowd or if the stage is small and the pit is small, you can stand as close as possible to the stage and shoot with a super wide lens, including the crowd and the artist in the same shot.
If it is at all possible, shooting the sound check is a great way to get some images of the artists in a more relaxed state of mine, they are not performing at the time and you can get some really nice intimidate images. But you must have access to the sound check. Sneaking into the sound check to shoot is never a good idea as you could lose your pass to the show if you are caught.
14. Jumping shots, hair flicks, and stomp shots
I like to group these three shots into one category because they are all equality hard to get and takes time and practice to be able to shoot them. I will detail in a future lesson on how to improve your luck to get these kinds of shoots but if you are in the pit, you should always be on the lookout for these shots.
15. The Grand finale
Shooting the bands’ group photo just as a show ends is very important. Again these photos are not too popular with publishers but they are hugely popular with the bands. I will move heaven and earth to make sure I am on stage to shoot this shot at the end of each show. In the begin, if you are new to the scene, you will only be able to shoot the first type of composition from the pit but as you get to learn the different venues and make friends with the local security guards working the shows, you will be able to get on the stage to the shot of the band and the crowd together.
16. Environmental shots
Shooting environmental shots is really difficult because to shoot them generally means you have to leave the pit, so they are usually taken after your time in the pit is over. The difficulty in getting these shots is that many venues will kick you out of the venue after your time is up, and I mean they will drag you by the arm to the exit and tell the security staff that you cannot come back in that for that show. But if you find yourself with time to shoot one of these shots, what you need to do if either gets to the side of the stage or in straight on in an elevated position and shoot down onto the stage. For these shots, the musicians are not the focal points, but the crowds and the lighting is the important part. To be honest, I suck at these shots and seldom go for them. I usually give one of my assistants the task go getting the shot for me. For a lot of outdoor venues, that means climbing up trees or small buildings and shooting off them.
17. Crowd shots
I love shooting the crowds at concerts and music festivals. They are the heart and soul of any event and it is extremely important that you capture it. You cannot be timid when dealing with the crowd. You got to shot them, and this is the one time that using flash is ok. I always use flash on my crowd shoots, even in the day time. Flash helps to freeze their motion, takes away any nasty shadows around their eyes and most of the crowd will have almost no lighting on them at night, so they will be extremely dark. But if you are going to use flash, make sure the security knows that the flash is for the crowd only. If they think you are going to use flash on the artists, they will kick you out.
18. What not to shot
There are things that you should not be shooting, or if you do, do not publish them. The music scene is filled with musicians that have many loyal fans, and sometimes these loyal fans happen to be very pretty girls who would do anything for their idols. When you see a musician backstage with some girls or boys, don’t shoot it. The same goes for drinking. All musicians drink, if they get drunk or do something crazy, don’t go publishing the image and causing them embarrassment. The music community is really tight and if you do something that hurts one musician, I can guarantee you that he will never want you or your publications to shoot him again, and he will tell his friends and it can lead to a vicious circle. Be smart, and do a professional job. Don’t be a paparazzi.
Secondly, don’t be a fanboy and ask to talk selfies with the artist. Asking to take a selfie with a musician is the fastest way to lose all credibility with them. If you present yourself as a professional, you will get treated like one, or at least you should be treated like that.
I always give my assistants this final piece of advice when they first start to work for me. If we shine some light on the musicians, they will often return the favor a hundredfold. I have found this to be very true, so many bands here in China will get me passes to events, give me stage access that no one else has, backstage access or give me access to the dressing room. Musicians should be your friends, and never someone you prey on. Both of you need to make a living, so doing it in a way that is mutually beneficial is always the best option.
Next week we will be going overexposure and how to set and maintain it during a show.
If you have any questions about this lesson or any questions in general about music photography, just leave a comment below and I will answer it as soon as I have some free time.
Until next week, happy shooting.