Concert Photography 101 - Debashis Talukdar

What music fan hasn’t wanted to take a picture of their favourite artist performing live? Sure enough, when they’re in town, you miss a meal to buy that ticket that will get you into the venue at which they’re performing at. You miss a few more meals to save up for the right equipment that you plan on using. You hope and pray that you can get that one split second to capture that perfect image. You show up at the venue and queue up for an hour and a half to get in, and then pay a ridiculous amount of money for a cheap warm beverage. You wait for the intros to finish up before the main act starts. You’re all charged up as the audience gets into the mood. The lights turn on, the fireworks go off, and you capture that one stunning image that you’ve been dreaming of!

Sigh! I wish it were that simple. Truth be told, capturing an image of your favourite rock star at a concert can be a little more complicated than you might first think.

This tutorial is for those brave souls who would like to capture a moment to cherish at their favourite concert. It is assumed that you will be shooting as a spectator and will not have any preferred angles that professional photographers may be fortunate to get.

Of all the different forms of popular photography around, live concert photography is among the most difficult. You have a horde of charged up fans behind around you (very often between you and the band). The band in front of you never stands still. Event staff can’t stand you because they think you are up to no good. The rest of the crowd is either intoxicated or high or both. Crowdsurfers getting high will repeatedly kick you in the head and bump your arms and shoulders as you attempt to take a shot. The lighting is never quite right and changes too frequently in the few moments that it is, and invariably, there is a bunch of smoke in the air that messes with your camera’s focus.

In spite of all this, pulling off the ultimate concert shot is a deeply gratifying personal achievement. The perfect shot conveys more than just an image – it conveys the energy, the atmosphere, and almost all the elements that made the experience so memorable.

I’ve found that (especially in America) there are few venues which are photography friendly (unless, ofcourse, you are a professional photographer who is covering the event for a magazine or the production company). A lot of this has to do with copyright issues. The tour producers do not want you taking that stunning image and selling it for tons and tons of money. No siree! They want a piece of that action! However, most venues are not that concerned about copyright and licensing issues. They are more concerned about individuals who are likely to be obnoxious, in the way of everyone else, or fire a flash and ruin the experience for everyone else present.

With that said, there are a few things that one should keep in mind while going in to a concert with the intention of getting that perfect shot of that artist that you so admire.

Do some checking and make sure that the venue permits patrons to carry cameras in to the event. Many venues explicitly prohibit all recording devices. Others are still camera friendly, but frown on anything that offers the capability of video recording (i.e., possible bootlegging of the concert). Others will permit you to carry in a point-and-shoot camera, but will not allow in anything with a detachable lens.

Leave your SLR back at home. Chances are that its going to be too bulky to even carry it into the venue.

Get yourself a nice little compact camera. I personally recommend the Canon SD700 with image stabiliser, or the Canon SD1000. Also, learn how to use the camera’s manual functions well.

Plan ahead – you want to get as close to the stage as possible. Being up in the nosebleed section will not help you get a decent image of your favourite guitarist or vocalist.

Some people like the mosh pit… I personally don’t. However, if you do end up in the mosh pit, consider protecting your camera from any fluids (sweat, beverages, and any other liquids that might be flying around there), bumps, scratches, drops, and would be camera lifters.

Turn off your camera’s flash and sound effects. You do not want to draw the wrong kind of attention to yourself while ruining everyone else’s experience.

Consider using the camera in manual mode, where you can set the camera settings to control the shutter speed and the aperture. Under no circumstances should you consider using your camera in automatic mode, unless you are shooting in daylight.

Grain is typically bad, so you want to have your ISO/ASA settings set to something optimal to minimise noise. I recommend using nothing over 200. You will have to be short and sharp for a good quality image. I recommend a shutter speed ranging from 1/160 to 1/80s.

You’ll also need lots of light to get a good image with a small shutter speed in a typically dark environment. I recommend limiting the aperture to an f-stop ranging between 2.2 to 4.

Wait for the right moment… you want to get the shot when there is enough light for your camera to capture the image with a fairly low exposure time and no external flash, with as little movement as possible. In other words, wait for when the stage lighting turns to its brightest.

Take plenty of memory. 90% of all your photos will probably be blurry, overexposed, underexposed or grainy. Be prepared to take plenty of photos. Do not expect to take a single shot that is perfect.

At the critical moment of taking the shot, try to keep the camera as still as possible.

Try to stay away from fans who might be intoxicated or high. The invariably want you to take their picture.

Do not argue with the event staff. Its a battle that you cannot win.

At the end of the day, do not go into the concert with the intention of capturing every single moment. Try to enjoy the performance as much as possible, and if an opportunity to capture that stunning image does come up, then by all means, go forth and click… and try to make it worthwhile.

On a closing note, there is one thing above all else that I will recommend taking to any concert – whether you are taking photographs or not. Consider investing in a pack of ear plugs. Invariably, the acoustics of a venue are offset by overzealous sound engineers who tend to crank up the amps to levels way beyond a comfortable ambient level. This is fine when you are in the cheap seats all the way back or in the nosebleed section… but not so when you are up close, and especially so when you are trying to get close to the performers. About $3.50 will buy you a pack of foam ear plugs, a pair of which will dampen the sheer amplitude of the amplified music to a comfortable level that will allow you to enjoy the performance without coming out of the venue with ringing ears. At the end of the performance, you will find that you won’t be as tired as some of the other concert goers who brave the decibels!

The image at the top of this article was taken at the Palais Theater in St. Kilda, Melbourne VIC Australia on April 1st 2012 using a Canon S1000 compact point-and-shoot 7.0 megapixel digital camera. It was taken from the bottom of the stage, about 10 metres away from Joe and his band.

Camera used: Canon SD1000 (IXUS 70).
Flash used: No.
ISO: 250.
Shutter speed: 1/160s.
Aperture: f/2.8.
Focal length: 6mm.
Metering mode: Pattern.
Exposure bias: 0 step.
Post processing: Noise removed using Noiseware.

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