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Music Photography

Over the past 7 years I have developed a passion for music photography.  Enjoyed building an extensive portfolio, gained a huge amount of experience and importantly made a number of new friends.  With a camera in hand listening to live music, the creativity, energy and emotion of the moment is consuming, and evening will disappear in what feels like minutes.

There are plenty of books, blogs and probably courses available.  In short, a lot of information that could potentially lead you to over think the whole concept and make it feel stressful, which it is not. 

To help a little I have distilled my experience into six tips.

1) Where to start

My first opportunity came about by chance.  I was taking some photographs at a business event and was asked if I could stay on and capture some images of the evening live music entertainment.  A really good band, great music performed by a group of seasoned blues and rock performers.  Being my first time, I took plenty of shots and the results were not particularly exciting.  However, during post editing I realised that I had captured passion and emotion in the faces of the band members, this triggered my curiously and desire to explore the genre more.  So, I started to research local venues, starting with pubs and jam sessions.  

Be prepared to feel a little conspicuous at first, it can be difficult to blend into a music crowd with a camera.  The best approach is to take a little time to absorb the atmosphere, enjoy the music and then limit your shots, take a few and put your camera away.  Keep going, become a familiar and friendly face, share some of your images if asked and use social media.  Talk to the band beforehand, let them know you would like to take pictures, they will be amongst the first to be interested in the results. As your reputation grows so will the opportunities and access to other venues.  

The most important tip: Enjoy the atmosphere, immerse yourself into the event, listen to the music, watch the reaction of the crowd and visually get to know the characters of the band members.  Think about composition, alternative angles and don’t be afraid to get down to floor level. Then you will start to know what you want to capture and hopefully relax and take some awesome shots.  

Be prepared that shots from the first few concerts maybe disappointing, blurred, out of focus, under/over exposed or simply a poor composition.  You will find some gems in that first ‘reel’ to edit but more than anything, it is a learning exercise for the next gig.

Music photography does not need to be an expensive activity, you don’t need a high-end full frame DSLR camera worth thousands, but you will need a camera with the following technical abilities.  

Sorry, this is the techie bit…

  • A decent sensor with the ability to set the ISO to at least 1600 that will take pictures in low light without a flash.  The venue will likely be dark but hopefully stage lighting will illuminate the band allowing for a high shutter speed to avoid shake and blurring.
  • A camera with full manual settings – use the ‘M’ on the dial.  So be brave, switch off all the automatic settings other than auto focus. You need to have full control of the camera and set it up with a wide aperture (f2.8 to f4.0) and a shutter speed of 1/125 second or higher.  You will be surprised at the results; the performer is after all being studio lit.
  • A zoom lens 28mm to 200mm or on a bridge camera a x8 zoom or upwards.
  • You do not need a flash, nor should you use one.  Firstly, it won’t achieve the results you want and secondly, no one, the audience and especially the band will appreciate having a flash firing all evening.
  • If you can and the camera has the facility, shoot in RAW not JPEG.  This I will explain later on.

Now, I am a big fan of taking pictures with my phone and yes you can at a music event, especially those atmospheric back of the audience shot.  You know the ones, stage lights illuminating the head, dry ice hanging like mist and lighters in the air.  But for the close stage shots, not so great to be honest. 

Find a second-hand DSLR with a zoom lens or a bridge camera capable of manual exposure.

I have been to more intimate music events; the audience has been small but there are a number of photographers near the stage taking pictures.  It is important to remember that the audience are there to watch band and enjoy, not treated to the silhouette of a person with a camera. 

My ‘rule of thumb’ is simple

  • Wear dark clothes, blend in.
  • Be aware of the audience, find places that are out of the way and that may mean using the dull stretch of your zoom lens.
  • Short burst photography shoot for perhaps just one or two songs, a mix of energetic and slow to capture alternative emotions.  At festivals or specific band shoots, a concert photographer will only be present for at the most 3 songs then gone.
  • As above, don’t use a flash.
Music photographers at work

Capture the energy and atmosphere of the event in the crowd

Unless you have been specifically engaged by the venue and have had the opportunity to talk to the lighting engineer, you will need to adapt to the environment.  A lot of engineers and bands like red light, but this will play havoc with your shots, be prepared to get home and see a lot of red burn out.  My advice is to avoid shooting when red lighting is being used, undoubtedly other colours (white, blue, yellow, etc.) will be used as well, often more than one colour giving some contrast.  Red, however, does give you the opportunity to de-saturate converting to high contrast black and white images, which can be very powerful.  Oh, and I would strongly recommend underexposing a little.

How to manage red light

So, you have had a great night out and have a memory card bursting with images.  As said above, prepared to be disappointed as you flick through the images but also be prepared to find the gems, because they will be there.

Create a photographic style

You now have a gallery of images, some ideas on what to do with them.

  • Share them with the bands/venues on social media, use tags and reference the event.  Watermark the images and ask that people credit you for your work.
  • Use them on your own social media streams.  Instagram is an excellent forum to share images and also research other photographers.  
  • Setup a website, maybe start to advertise your services.  
  • Publish low resolution files (72dpi).

Your images are now out there in ‘The Ether’.  Be prepared to find them copied, re-posted and shared – it comes with the territory.  It is worth remembering, as the person who composed and took the photograph you own the copyright.

Oh, and a ‘free’ piece of advice.  Use ear plugs…!  Especially at loud venues where a few pence could protect your ear drums.

Now, go out and enjoy.  Go to a new venue with someone, a person that you enjoy spending time with, who like you appreciates varied and quality music and also appreciates your photographic style (may even suggest ideas or have a camera as well).  Make it an evening out.