[dropcap]C[/dropcap]oncert photography is certainly among the more demanding domains for photographers and their equipment. Over the past few years, I had the chance to cover quite a few concerts. Learning the basics of concert photography at the free OFF concerts at the Montreux Jazz Festival and various other free concerts in public places, I am now able to receive accreditation at paying concerts such as the Zermatt Unplugged Festival in Switzerland. Much of this can be attributed to honing my skills in photographing concerts.
Now I am oftentimes being asked about my shooting techniques for concerts, therefore, I am sharing here my personal approach to this challenging activity. This is by no means to be understood as the one and only way to cover the subject.
Almost all cameras on the market today are excellent performers when shooting under normal conditions such as landscapes or portraits in fairly good light. Concerts are seldom given under a bright sunny day and oftentimes bring push the equipment to its limits.
The level of requirements depends on the final usage of the photos. Photos taken for the press or for the musicians’ CD booklets require another quality level than photos taken for the web. The requirements also depend on the type of music. A pop/rock concert differs from a classical concert in terms of the type of equipment used.
Whatever kind of music, concerts are in general given in very low light and flash is always forbidden. Some photographers cannot refrain from using it anyway; this is a reason for the organizer to shorten the already narrow time frame allowed to the accredited photographers to take photos at paying concerts. A camera with good high ISO performance is required for serious concert photography. I recommend going out with the camera on an evening to find out the limits for acceptable noise level using exposure settings typical to concert photography, correctly exposed night photos taken with shutter speeds around 1/200th second between 1600 and 12800iso.
Pop/rock concerts ask for a fast and precise autofocus that will allow you to follow the musicians on stage and capture the right moment. Personally, I am now using a Nikon D4 for this kind of music concert. The most sophisticated autofocus (AF) modes like the 51 points 3D-tracking certainly come handy in order to follow the action on stage. However, you lose precious processing time that could be better used on fewer AF points in order to keep pace. I achieve the best results when using the 9 points AF mode making the continuous AF extremely reactive. This is especially effective when coupled with one of the fastest focusing lens, the Nikon AFS 70-200/2.8 VR2.
A classical music concert does not demand special requirement towards autofocus. However, neither the public nor the musicians will be pleased to hear the loud shutter of professional sport cameras like the Nikon D4. The requirement here is to use a camera with a shutter as quiet as possible. Ideally, this would be a mirrorless camera, but I have yet to find a good performing camera for shooting in low light which would allow manual exposure and RAW format. The key here is not to shoot too close to the public or to the musicians. Depending on the shutter noise, press the shutter only when the music is loud enough to cover the sound of the shutter. For this kind of music, I prefer using a Pentax K-5 with a much quieter shutter noise than the Nikon D4.
As for the lenses, a fast f/2.8 allows not only better isolation of the musician from the background; it also allows keeping the ISO sensitivity one or two full stops lower than with consumer f/4-f/5.6 lenses. The lenses I use the most when shooting concerts are the Nikon AFS 70-200/2.8 VR2 on the Nikon D4 as well as the Pentax DA*50-135/2.8 on the Pentax K5. A standard zoom in the 24-70 area allows a few shots of the entire group of performers on stage.
[box_light]Train the skills[/box_light]
As official or accredited photographer at a paying concert, shooting time is in general limited to three songs at the beginning. It is difficult and stressful. One is supposed to demonstrate being up to the task and delivering the best possible photos, all while not hindering the other press photographers. The time is too short to experiment and it is definitely not the right playground to start building up your skills in this domain.
In addition to the paying concerts, lots of music festivals offer a wide range of free concerts given in public parks and indoor venues. Usually, there are no restrictions regarding shooting as long as the flash is not used. The musicians are lesser known and happy when photographers cover their performance. Furthermore, the festival organizer, in general, welcomes the additional publicity the photographers might bring. In addition, one is free to take photos during the entire concert if one likes.
These free concerts are the ideal playground to train your skills. Check the photos in the press or on various websites; the photos you would have liked to have taken yourself. Which are the ones you would have taken differently? A full concert offers enough time to experiment with composing images and creating one’s own style.
I definitely recommend using the time at the bottom of a free concert’s stage to learn how the equipment reacts in these demanding conditions. The area reserved for the press photographers at paying concerts are in general in almost complete darkness. One has to get confident enough to handle the equipment without being able to read what’s written on the buttons.
[box_light]Getting yourself known by the musicians[/box_light]
This part only applies to the free concerts as there is very little chance to be able to talk with the stars of the paying concerts neither before nor after the performance.
Whenever I cover a free concert, I try to talk with the musicians before the concert, asking permission to take and publish photos. No one ever refused as most are more than happy when getting some wider attention and it gives them the opportunity to get special shots that they may want. This is also a good moment to hand out your business cards in order to discuss the photos at another less busy time.
Some performers ask about the conditions for using the photos on their own website. Some mention they would need an excellent photo for the cover of their next CD. Others may express limitations such as not wanting the photographer coming too close to the stage. Oftentimes, when the group members know you and once they are confident enough with the public during the concert, they will start to play with your camera offering you the chance of very expressive shots.
The most important thing to remember when shooting concerts in low and artificial light is to set the camera to RAW. Processing RAW files does not take much longer than processing a JPG, but it offers a last chance to rescue a missed photo because of a wrong white balance or slightly off exposure.
Extremely bright faces because of strong spotlights surrounded by a dark background, smoke and all kinds of artificial lights bring even the most sophisticated exposure metering to the limits. Be it a Pentax K-7 or K-5, a Nikon D700, D3s or even D4, all come to a point in concert photography where the metering simply does not work reliably enough. I finally ended up switching the camera to full manual exposure. I set the shutter time between 1/100th – 1/200th second depending on the kind of music. I set the aperture to get the depth of field I want, usually around f/3.2 to isolate the musician, and adjust the ISO sensitivity to get a correctly exposed photo. Whenever the light condition changes, it takes me about 2-3 frames to have it correctly exposed again.
In concert photography, since one cannot capture the music, the photographer needs to capture the emotions. Concert photography is somehow similar to portraits photography except that you are unable to direct your subject and have to wait to capture the right moment. This means the camera needs to be ready. A smile on a face or a particular expression in the eyes is not going to last. I set the AF to continuous mode and select the fewest AF points that the camera offers as this brings the most reactive AF.
Modern cameras feature impressive shooting rates of more than 8 frames per second. I always want to use it when covering fast paced sporting events, but with concert photography, I try to refrain from using it. I prefer to take a single frame at the right moment. Not only does it make the sorting process much faster after a concert, but you also keep the annoyance for the public limited when positioned in front of them.
Given the light conditions at concerts, the camera will easily be at 1600iso or even much more. Depending on the high ISO sensitivity of the camera, the resulting photos will be more or less noisy, but noise will definitely be present. To keep the noise as low as possible on the final result, I try to fill the frame as much as possible with the main subject to keep the cropping limited. I also try to get the exposure as good as possible in order to avoid having to brighten it up in post processing.
If the manual exposure was done correctly and the main subject fills the frame, post processing should be limited to adjusting the white balance. Depending on the camera’s high ISO sensitivity performance, one might want to apply some noise reduction as well.
Concert photography is certainly demanding, some kind of portraits photography where one controls neither subject, light nor background. Getting to know the equipment good enough to know how it reacts, finding the performance limits regarding the high sensitivity and not being afraid of leaving the full automatic exposure modes to go to manual exposure are certainly important points in this domain of photography.
But there are a lot of free concerts in public places offering plenty of opportunities to learn the subject and improve. Performers and organizers enjoy great photos and both might invite you to other events.