Concert photography is not only exciting, but it is also a great way to challenge yourself as a photographer and capture once in a lifetime moments. I mean, what else is cooler than saying you got to photograph your favorite musician performing live music and have a collection of great concert photos to share? A live music event is a photography atmosphere that is unlike anything else.
My name is Jake Coughlin, currently residing in Tampa, FL. I have been a professional photographer for the past 12 years, and my main focus is concert photography. I have traveled all over the country, photographing bands of many levels. I hope that this article will offer a few concert photography tips to up and coming photographers.
How to Get into Concert Photography?
You may have asked yourself, how can I get started with concert photography and shoot concerts? Don’t expect to photograph concerts, at an arena level, right off the bat. Most medium to large sized shows require a photo pass to be able to bring your camera into the venue. These photo passes are generally limited, issued by the band, and usually only to those who are on assignment with a publication.
When I first started, I started by photographing local bands at the small hole in the wall venues just to gain experience shooting in low light situations. Basically, I would reach out to bands on social media and ask if I could come out and photograph them. More often than not, they would agree. I would offer my concert photography services, free of charge, so that I could build a portfolio and gain confidence.
Another very important reason to start out with small local bands is so that you can learn to shoot in low light conditions. Most of the time, small venues don’t have much stage lighting, so it can be a challenge to photograph. This will allow you to really learn your camera and proper settings for those low light concert photography situations.
Recommended Gear for Shooting Concerts
Photography gear for concert photography is so subjective and largely based on personal preference and budget. Many concert photographers may have the same recommendations or something different. What I may use for concert photography might work great for you, or it might not. These are just recommendations on where to get started, camera gear wise.
For those who aren’t sure what lenses to buy for concert photography, a 24-70mm f/2.8 is always a good starting point. This will give you a nice focal range, especially for small stages, and it is a fast lens. Another solid choice, once you get to larger stages, is a 70-200mm f/2.8. Again, this is all personal preference, based on your shooting style. I’ve seen a lot of photographers use prime lenses as well.
As far as camera bodies go, a full-frame camera will be your best option in the long run for taking concert photography seriously. The overall camera sensor size on a full-frame camera is much larger than a crop sensor. This will allow the most light into your camera, which is crucial in low light conditions. If you don’t have a full frame camera yet, that is ok. A crop sensor will still work just fine for concert photography but may require a higher ISO to allow more light in.
What Do You Do When You Arrive at the Concert Venue?
Ok, so the local band has agreed to have you come to photograph them that night. Before arriving at the venue, make sure that you have all the gear that you need. This includes extra batteries, multiple memory cards, cleaning cloths, etc. Bring a backup camera if you have one, as the gear is electronic and can fail at any time.
Once you’re at the venue, make sure to introduce yourself personally to the band members, if possible. It makes you look good and shows professionalism as a concert photographer. You can also use this time to ask what time the band is going on stage, as this often changes the day of. Then, get your gear ready to go and dial in your camera settings for the stage’s lighting conditions.
Once the band takes the stage, try to be courteous of other people there watching the concert. Crouch down and try not to be in the way while taking photos. Move around and capture different angles.
Do not hold your camera above your head, as this will block the view of other photographers and concert goers from seeing the stage performers.
Most importantly, do not go on the stage and do not use flash photography. Using a flash can actually get a photographer banned from a venue, especially the larger ones. Learn to use your camera and adjust camera settings correctly to let in as much light as possible.
When the band has finished playing, thank them for letting you come out and photograph. Then be sure to verify the contact information on where to send the photos once they are done being edited. Deliver the photos to the band in a timely manner and ask them to give you proper photo credit if they are being shared on social media.
Recommended Camera Settings for Concert Photography
Settings for concert photography are not always set in stone. With a variety of shooting environments and stylistic differences among photographers, settings tend to vary for music photography. The settings that I have listed below are a great starting point and should cover about 90% of low light scenarios. Feel free to experiment and try new things once you become more comfortable shooting live music. You’ll quickly learn what settings you prefer once you have your own unique style.
Shooting Mode and Photo Format
When taking concert photos, I always recommend avoiding aperture priority mode and using manual mode. Manual mode full control over your music photography in moments of seemingly impossible low light moments. Some photographers also like to use burst mode on their cameras, which is totally fine. Just be prepared to go through a lot of photos at the end of the night when editing in post production.
Speaking of post production, I always recommend shooting in RAW format. This allows the most control when editing. The files are larger and save more detail, so more drastic edits can be made if needed. Having a RAW image to work with can mean the difference between having good shots or the perfect shot.
Metering is a light reading done by the camera. Spot metering mode is the recommended choice for concert photography. It tells the camera to focus on what the focal point is on rather than the entire frame. This is important because the background stage lighting is constantly changing, with bright lighting bursts, so having that precise metering point is crucial.
Shoot at as wide of an aperture as possible, especially in low light venues. A wide aperture will allow as much natural light in as possible. If you have f/2.8 available, shoot in f/2.8. If you have f/1.8, use that, etc. In a low light environment, generally speaking, the wider the aperture, the better. When you’re approved to start photographing at larger venues with better lighting, f/4 can be used to deliver a more narrow depth of field. This also applies to shooting outdoors at festivals.
As far as ISO goes, I generally start off around 2500-3200 and adjust from there. More modern cameras can handle high ISO without too much of an issue, but older cameras tend to get quite grainy around ISO 3200 or above. If your venue is well-lit, you can probably get away with ISO 1600 or so. Again, these are just base numbers but experiment as needed.
Shutter speed, in my opinion, is the most tricky setting of all. You want to be shooting at a fast enough shutter speed to be able to freeze the motion but not too fast that you don’t allow enough light in. I like to start my shutter speeds around 1/250 and increase from there if needed. If you can shoot at around 1/320-1/400, do it. A fast shutter speed will capture the band’s motion a lot more cleanly, especially if they are a band that moves around a lot. Slower shutter speeds will cause lots of motion blur in photos, creating blurry images.
Last but definitely not least, ensure your camera’s autofocus is set to continuous. This will allow the camera to continuously track the subject as they are moving across the stage. Not only will this increase the number of in-focus shots, but it will also make following the musician easier in the viewfinder.
Tips for Concert Photography at Larger Venues
Now that you’ve gotten practice with shooting concerts in smaller venues, you should have a nice sized portfolio of great concert photos put together. This is where the fun part of finding a publication comes into play.
I would recommend checking social media platforms, such as Facebook, for helpful groups for concert photographers. These groups tend to have publication editors looking for photographers in various areas of the country. Reach out to these editors and show them your portfolio. 9 times out of 10, the publication will also require that you are able to write because bands PR (public relations) also request a written review of the concert to go along with your photo gallery.
Another thing you can do is reach out to your local radio station and ask if they need anyone to photograph concerts for them.
Now that you’ve become a contributing music photographer for a publication, the editor will most likely ask you to start covering concerts at bigger venues. They may also ask if there is any preference in which concerts you can cover. What happens is the editor will send the band’s PR team a request to cover the show. The band’s PR will then respond with a yes or no, typically 48-72 hours before the day of the concert. Sometimes you may hear back sooner, and sometimes you might not get approval until the day of the show.
Getting Approved to Photograph at a Larger Venue
Once you are approved, an email will be sent out with who your media contact will be at the venue. The email will also provide photo rules for the night, which is usually the first three songs of the band’s set, photographed from either the photo pit in front of the stage or from the soundboard, which is typically located in the back of the venue.
Depending on which location you’re shooting from will determine the size lens that you need to bring. I will always recommend bringing a lens for the photo pit and a lens for the soundboard, as shooting locations can change last minute. If you are shooting from the soundboard, bring the longest lens that you own. For me is typically 200-600mm.
When you arrive at the venue, the email that you receive will also say where to pick up your photo pass. The photo pass usually allows you to photograph all of the bands performing that night, but if unsure, definitely ask. One thing photo passes do not do is allow backstage access. Don’t even try it.
Once you have your photo pass, proceed to the designated location that the email stated. If you find yourself lost, just ask. Most of the venue staff are more than willing to help you out. When you find the designated meeting area, you may or may not be escorted to and from the photo pit or soundboard by a venue representative.
Photo Rules at a Larger Venue
The same rules that I discussed earlier apply. Do not get on the stage. Do not use flash. And do not hold your camera above your head to get a shot. When the first 3 songs of that band are done, leave the photo pit or soundboard immediately. Staying longer can cause you to get in serious trouble with security or the venue media representative. There are exceptions to the 3 song rule, which you will know about ahead of time. Again, if you’re not sure, always ask.
After you are done photographing, you will have to put your camera away. Shooting from the crowd is generally not allowed at bigger venues, but if you’re not sure, ask.
You will then either store your gear in a designated location or your car, then proceed to your seat to watch the rest of the concert. Be sure to take notes if you’re writing a review.
Delivering Completed Photos
After the show, the general rule of thumb for turnaround time to your publication is 24-72 hours. I always try to have my photo gallery and written review completed as soon as possible so that the editor can get it posted on the website right away. This is so the photos and reviews are still relevant when being posted to the publication’s site. The editor will also send the completed photo gallery and review to the band’s PR team. Please also make sure that the photos submitted to your gallery are flattering for the artist (no double chin, unflattering angles/faces, etc.).
Some bands’ PR teams will also have you sign a photo release with various rules. For example, these can consist of things like not being able to share the photos on your portfolio website or personal social media account and only through your publication’s website. You are also not allowed to sell the photos or use them for any commercial use.
In conclusion, concert photography can be incredibly rewarding to be an arm’s length away from your favorite artists while photographing them. Being a music photographer and having a photo pass/media access is a privilege and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Always be on your best behavior, as there will always be eyes on you.
Hopefully, these concert photography tips will help you on your music photography journey. Last but definitely not least, have fun. Take this time to enjoy the moment and capture some of the most awesome concert photographs of a lifetime. I will promise you this, there will be moments, as a concert photographer, that you will never forget.
Who knows, maybe someday you can get hired by a band to be their personal touring concert photographer. Dream big, and work hard. The sky is the limit!