Beginner tips for shooting concerts

Here is a list that I run through my head when the viewfinder is at my eye to ensure more keepers. I’m rushing to put this up but I intend for it to be a living breathing thing that I’ll update occasionally as I make new observations or continue to make the same mistakes.  If you think you’ve learned it all, you’ve got a lot to learn.

My first concert photography experience was an immediate rush. Having performed on stage before, for me, shooting a concert is the closest I’ve felt to playing in concert. I finished the night both full of adrenaline and exhaustion. And I was left looking for the next opportunity. I made a lot of mistakes that night and being honest, I still make some of them. 

Shooting a great concert photo can sometimes feel like trying to shoot a bullseye on a moving target while riding a unicycle. It’s not easy. But it sure is fun. If you’re interested in concert photography, start small. Look for a local music venue or a local band that’ll allow you to practice. More than anything, shoot a TON of photos. Try everything, try different things. Examine your work with a critical eye. Being obvious, keep doing the things that worked and try to stop doing what didn’t. Or try to refine what didn’t quite work. Maybe with MORE work, it’ll work. Enough of that word.

This should go without saying. You love concert photography because you love music, right? Well, music will get a whole lot less enjoyable if high concert volumes ruin your hearing. Wear earplugs. Without fail. You don’t need to invest hundreds of dollars in custom-fitted ones. You only need a handful of cheap foam ones in your camera bag. I use Ear Peace and have a pair in every camera bag. I also have a pair of -30 dB shooting plugs for arena pits where it can be much louder than club shows. Before you buy your next lens or even lens cap, invest in your ear health.

Know your basic shots. 

I have a list in mind of what to photograph. It includes ensuring to get a full body and closeup headshot of each member (including the drummer) individually, a wide shot of the entire stage. 

Always shoot RAW. 

Concert photography is almost always low light photography, so being able to get the most flexibility and options can be the key to making a good shot great. Shooting RAW allows you to make advanced edits to light and colour. Shoot for the best in-camera, but shooting RAW gives you the opportunity to adjust when necessary. And in my experience, that’s pretty often. 

Avoid photos with the mic (or anything else) obscuring the face
I only keep such a photo if another aspect validates it – if the lighting, expression or composition rises its quality above an average ‘mic in the mouth’ shot. I always wait until the singer steps back for a breath. The same applies for ‘Pinocchio’ photos. And yes, for artistic reasons, maybe you want to keep them anyway. My bare minimum is that I need to see at least one eye to make it a keeper. I also try to not cut off headstocks of guitars (or human body parts)

Fill the frame
I make sure to not leave a lot of empty space above or below your subject, except for artistic reasons. Often, stage monitors (speakers that allow performers to hear their own or other band members’ vocals or instrumentation) will get in the way of everything below the knees. I generally will crop the bottom of a photo like this that’s otherwise worth it.

Capture motion, expressions, action or shared moments and exchanges of the artist

I’m always looking for something to elevate my photos above one with someone performing on stage with lights behind and on them. The photos I’ve taken that I love most always include one of these extras

Get the shot, but experiment too

After you’ve captured your basic shots, feel free to experiment with composition and cropping. I have a style that I’ve been developing that I spoil myself with after I get the shots I need

The rule is respect. Respect the rules. 

Not just the rules of the specific shoot, but also the rules of respect for everyone else at the show. First, respect the rules of the shoot. if it’s three songs or half a song, don’t fire off another shot after the allotted duration. Just leave the pit and thank the security staff on the way out. Yes, the lighting may have been suboptimal to your artistic desires, but that’s how it goes. You’re not just representing yourself (and the publication you’re shooting for), you’re representing all concert photographers. Don’t get pissed off at audience members and don’t stand right in front of them for longer than it takes to shoot a photo. They paid. You didn’t. Get your shot. Get out of the way. If there’s no pit, ask a rail rider if you can stand in front of them for a song or two. I’ve asked people at the front if I can switch spots with them and offered them a print in return. It’s a pretty good $7 investment to get better shots. Respect security. They’re not just there to protect the artist. They’re there for the photographers too. I’ve seen security catch crowd surfers before dropping the boots on photographers in the pit. They light our ways in the dark. They watch our bags while we’re shooting. They deserve tons of respect. They have a job to do, just like you. Always thank them on the way out. Respect other photographers. Photography isn’t a competition. You found that amazing vantage point where the singer is perfectly framed with a fine brush of rim lighting. Don’t own it. Get your shots, move to another spot. Let someone else take a turn. I know, it’s tough to give up a prime camping spot, but it’s the right thing to do. Plus, you don’t want 93 versions on an almost identical photo. You want lots of different angles and heights. Don’t wear a backpack in the pit. I’ve only been in one pit that was deeper than three feet. I still put my bag side stage. Tap a shoulder before passing behind a photographer as a courtesy. 

And finally, be a nice member of the photography community. Chat up your fellow shooter before the lights go down. At least offer a smile and a nod. Afterwards, introduce yourself to other photographers. If you intend to shoot more than one show, it’s nice to know who you’ll be seeing at future shows. We have a great community of music photographers here in Toronto who regularly meet up via a Facebook group. As they say, find your tribe, love them hard…

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