Shooting Concert Photography: Tips From the Photo Pit Pro (Premium)

Lead photo by Gretchen Robinette.If you are just starting out shooting live music, the essential step to becoming skilled and getting published is to shoot A LOT of shows. Shoot everything! Shoot hip-hop, rock, folk, punk, death metal, and mariachi. There are so many venues, clubs, and stages that do not require a photo pass, so if you don’t have one, don’t let this discourage you from shooting music. Shoot in as many different venues as you can, making all your mistakes on smaller bands, then once you do get a pass, you won’t be fumbling.

I’ve been photographing live music since 2006, and over the years I’ve been smashed against monitors, kicked in the head by crowd surfers, beer thrown on my camera, a couple black eyes, several broken lenses, and a lot of good times. Below are some tips for shooting concerts that I’ve picked up along the way.

Photo Pit Etiquette

concertphotos-11photo: Gretchen Robinette

Many smaller venues do not have a designated photo pit, so you will be standing with other music fans. If this is the case, don’t be a jerk and shove your way in front of everyone just because you have a big camera; the crowd will throw you bad vibes and attempt to make your job harder. You arrive at the venue early, stand in line like everyone else, then post up at the front of the stage and get ready to wait for a long time. While you wait, it is best to make friends with the music fans near you, as then they will help you out in getting your shots by moving aside, or holding your spot when you need to hit the restroom.

When a venue has an actual photo pit, you will only be allowed inside the barrier if you have arranged a photo pass through a publication or band PR. Find out what the restrictions are, such as no flash, first three songs only or entire set, because this must be followed. It’s also helpful to go to YouTube and watch the band’s live videos, to see how they move around on stage. Most musicians have certain movements they will repeat as the tempo changes or jump into the crowd during a particular song, so if you have already seen this, you will know exactly where to stand or point your camera to capture the best moments.

If you do get in the photo pit, it is key to be courteous to the security guards who let you in, as they can also kick you out. It is better to make friends with your fellow photographers as well, share the space, and not worry about competing. Kindness always wins, and great photographers will stand out in the end. When all the photographers are pointing their lens’ at the same spot, pick a different one; find your own way.

Stage Lights

Concert venue lighting can vary tremendously, based on the size of the venue, the type of music, and what the headlining band requests for the stage. You have no say in this, so rather than moaning about it, get good shooting in all types of lighting. My most dreaded stage scenario is the all over red lights – it might look cool to the crowd, but does terrible things to a camera. In this case, always shoot RAW and plan to do some adjustments in post to correct the color. Often times the only way to salvage an all over red image is converting it to black & white, but a few tweaks can be made to the color channels to keep a decent color version. Creating adjustment preset in Lightroom specific to certain venues you shoot at often, is helpful to cut down on editing time.

When the stage is very dimly lit, you will have to bump up the ISO and get good at holding a camera steady using slow shutter speeds. If you have the option to use flash, this can make a very dull, dark scene look way more exciting and offers a lot as far as creativity. But keep in mind that a flash popping nonstop during a show is annoying to almost everyone, especially people who paid for a ticket, so choose your shots carefully.

If you see a guy attempting to bounce his on-camera flash off a 17ft high black venue ceiling, this just means he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so don’t be like that guy and learn how to use flash correctly. This is when it starts getting really fun.

concertphotos-2photo: Gretchen Robinette

iPhone Concert Photos

Nowadays, publications often ask photographers to also take a shot from the photo pit using their smartphone, to post immediately to Instagram during the show. If you are limited to the first three songs, you must work very quickly to get a decent phone pic, then switch back to your real camera. Don’t attempt to use the phone’s camera flash, as this will be absolute garbage. If the musicians are moving around, the best method is to shoot a burst of images by holding the camera button down for a couple seconds, then edit them down to the decent ones. An iPhone cannot handle very low light and fast moving subjects like a DSLR can, so unless the stage is very well lit and the band is stationary, plan to shoot a few bursts. With that said, if you are at a music festival without a photo pass, you can get some really amazing images in day light using an iPhone, and can continue to shoot after the photographers in the photo pit are cleared out. Generally, using flash or zooming in on a phone camera results in pretty pathetic photos, so avoid that. Don’t zoom in, move closer.

concertphotos-5photo: Gretchen Robinette

Lenses

The faster the lens, the better. Even an f/4 lens is just too slow for most venues, since the light tends to be extremely dim. If this is all you have, you can increase the ISO, but save up for at least a f/2.8 lens and your photos will be infinitely better when shooting in low light.

My favorite lenses are my 24-70mm and 16-35mm. These two lenses are all I really need for shooting almost any show, and I can shoot wide enough or close enough to anywhere on the stage. Yet one of my favorites parts to shoot at concerts is turning away from the band entirely and shooting the crowd, which is when I prefer 16mm to allow wide captures.

Some venues that cut you off at the three song limit, will allow you to shoot the rest of the show from a top balcony, which is when having a 70-200mm lens can really save you. However, if you are shooting a large venue such as Madison Square Garden, a photo pass will allow you to be escorted to the shooting area, which is not a photo pit at stage front, but all the way in back by the sound board. As far as lenses go, you are utterly screwed without at least a 300mm lens, or a 200mm with a converter. These are pricey lenses, so renting one is best unless you plan to shoot these types of shows often enough to justify the expense.

concertphotos-10photo: Gretchen Robinette

Most Important Gear

Ear plugs. Standing next to a stage, with monitors blasting at your head night after night without ear plugs, is just utter stupidity. If you forget them, tear up a bar napkin and shove them in your ears.

Persistence. Go to shows constantly, like several a week, shooting with whatever camera you have. Look at your images and see how you can do better, then go out to the next show and shoot again. Experiment. Repeat.