5 Tips for Better Concert Photography

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Ben Weinman of The Dillinger Escape Plan, and the making of a jump shot.

The band just cranked it to eleven, the floor is heaving, lighting designer is doing his best to recreate the finale of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Here are five simple tips for better concert photography.

These tips aren't your concert photography 101 tips about ISO, shutter speeds, and lenses, but just a few simple, universal pieces of advice for bringing home more dynamic images, whether you're using a compact P&S or the latest and greatest DSLR.

Underoath

Underoath's Spencer Chamberlain was rocking out and letting it fly (all over my lens) with this hair whip, and a little careful timing brought it home.

1) Watch for Patterns

Just as music uses the structures of choruses, verses, and other repeating elements, the physical performance of a song will feature analogous expressions that can translate into compelling images.

Whether these events take the form of a well-coordinated jump kick, a point to the audience from the singer, or a blast of glorious light from back of the stage, an awareness to the flow of the performance translates into being able to better anticipate the most compelling moments of a concert.
The Dresden Dolls @ the Pageant -- 2008.01.06

What's in your portfolio? Got drummers?

2) Don't forget the Drummer

The first piece of concert photography advice I ever received came from a guitarist in a local band. Before their show he casually suggested, “Don't forget the drummer. Photographer's always forget the drummer.”

Nevermind that drummers are often poorly lit and trashing about behind a cage of obtrusive metal. When one can get over preening singers and over-socialized guitarists, some of the most dynamic rock images to be made are of a drummer in full swing, arms a-go-go.

Of course, this advice isn't truly specific to just drummers, but applies to every band member beyond usual suspects. Deep coverage of the band, whether it's a full-band shot or picking up individual members aside from the obvious targets can result in some of the most rewarding concert images.

The Jonas Brothers

A quick bit of research let me plan which side of the catwalk I would shoot from for the Jonas Brothers, putting me in perfect position to pick up the younger bros.

3) Do your Homework

Before any big show, I always make sure to research the bands I'm photographing. Unless one is shooting the first few dates on a tour, there are many resources to draw from when it comes to planning for the show.

Between Flickr and YoutTube, there are many ways to get an edge in knowing what to expect at a concert. Add in browsing images from wire agencies and live reviews, and the concert photographer has even more choices for insight into what to expect.

Even simply listening to the music of the band beforehand will help you anticipate what may translate into key moments of the performance.

Whether it's a signature move, special lighting effect, the coveted jump shot, or just telling you whether or not the show will have a photo pit, doing your homework will help you come prepared.

The Roots @ the Fox Theatre -- 2008.05.29

?uestlove's kit was relatively close to the front of the stage, and with a lighting rig three meters back, just a little maneuvering helped line up the perfect rimlight for his signature fro.

4) Work the Angles

For me, composition is one of the most fun parts of photography, and one aspect of your shooting that can set your work apart from the competition in the photo pit.

Working to find the best angle for a given subject and then honing in on a frame that expresses the moment can be one of the most thrilling parts of live music photography. At its best, working the angles to find that killer composition can elevate even a middling subject with unremarkable lighting to something worth looking at.

For any given shot, I try to play with the perspective, focus, and the subject's placement in the frame to best communicate the compelling essence of that moment. While unpredictable elements and technical difficulties of concert photography make up the challenge, making a beautiful composition is one of the joys for me.

Knowing what to exclude and include in the frame – whether its speakers wedges, cables, or stage lights – can push an image from rote documentation to considered craft.

Stone Temple Pilots @ the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre -- 2008.06.08

Critiquing the work of others is an excellent way to understand what you want – and don't want – in your own photography.

5) Critique

For photographers of all levels looking to improve – from pros to novices – the best advice I can offer is to critique the work of other photographers.

Understanding the dynamics of an image is one of the most essential elements in improving as a photographer, and evaluating the work of others in an analytical manner is one of the best ways to accomplish this process.

Attention to the composition, technical execution, treatment of the subject, and light in the images of others will make you acutely aware of these aspects in your own work. Just like better photography through editing, you don't even have to pick up your camera to improve in this way.

Recap

  1. Watch for Patterns
  2. Don't forget the Drummer
  3. Research: Do your Homework
  4. Work the Angles
  5. Critique

End Notes:

These are just a few tips for better concert photography that I think are applicable to shooters of every skill level and gear segment.

I'll be working on an expanded set in the future as part of my comprehensive tutorial, from basics and gear to tips on workflow and processing. For everyone wondering about the nitty gritty of technique, we'll be covering that, too.

If you have any of your own tips or suggestions for better concert photography, let 'em rip!

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D750:
I use two Nikon D750 for my live music photography. Amazing high ISO performance in a compact body with tons of pro features.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
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