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5 Essential Music Photography Tips

Photos of Bassnectar performing at the Pageant in St. Louis on April 9, 2011. (Todd Owyoung)

New to the world of live music photography? Here’s five basic and essential concert photography tips that every new live music shooter should know, whether you’re just shooting from the crowd or have just scored your first photo pass.

Think of this as a follow-up to the completely non-technical post, “6 Tips Every New Music Photographer Should Know” – but if you are new to music photography, be sure to check out that post as well.

What follows are 5 technical tips, but don’t worry – they’re all simple and things that just about anyone can incorporate into their shooting, even without a fancy camera.

Live Music Photography Quick Tips

1) Shoot in RAW

Shooting in RAW will give you the most flexibility and the best image quality. With flash memory and harddrive space as inexpensive as it is, there’s no reason not to shoot RAW. If you must shoot JPG because you’re more comfortable with that format, at least shoot RAW + JPG so you’re covered on all fronts, now and in the future, for maximum quality.

2) Crank the ISO

Don’t be afraid to crank the ISO on your camera. Yes, it will produce more noise, but frankly if noisy or grainy images are the worst parta of your issues, then consider that you’ve done everything else right. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a sharp, grainy image over a blurry, noiseless image any day.

3) Shoot in Manual Mode

Short of strobes and other very short duration lighting effects, most concert lighting doesn’t actually change that much in terms normal levels. Shooting in manual mode is the easiest way to control your exposure and create consistent, repeatable results. Read my tutorials on exposure and metering and practice before using manual mode at a show. You’ll love it.

4) Auto White Balance

People are always asking me what white balance setting I use for my work, but it’s no secret kelvin temperature. I use auto WB almost 100% of the time. For most indoor shows, auto WB will get you ballpark most of the time, with the rare exception being mono-color LED lighting or mixed-source lighting. If you’re shooting RAW, you can always adjust color temperature later without a huge hit to image quality.

5) Wear Earplugs

This is the one gear recommendation I’m going to make. Don’t worry about a better low light lens unless your ears are filled with something besides eardrum-crushing decibels. I recommend Hearos Extreme Protection earplugs for new shooters – they’re cheap, comfortable and reduce a nice -33dB of noise. Read my review of these extremely effective plugs.

 (Todd Owyoung)

Conclusion

So there you have it. 5 essential tips that I guarantee you most pros are practicing every single time they’re in the pit, but which might not be obvious to new music photographers. Better yet, these are tips that don’t have anything to do with camera gear (unless your camera doesn’t support RAW), so you can implement these even if you’re using a point ‘n shoot camera.

Looking for more technical tips? Don’t worry, I’ve got those for you as well:

Music Photography Technique

Happy shooting, guys.

-Todd

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There are 31 comments

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  1. Holly

    “If you’re shooting RAW, you can always adjust color temperature later with a huge hit to image quality.”

    Did you really mean “with” a huge hit to image quality or “without”?

  2. NSOphoto

    Hello Todd..

    What you explain on rule n°3: “most concert lighting doesn’t actually change that much in terms normal level” is true for big (big) shows that you often shoot (huge concert, festivals, etc..). In small theaters, Lights are often changing and honestly (at my non professional small level) i feel more confortable in Aperture Priority Mode..

  3. Ian Mylam

    Todd, thanks for these tips. Regarding the WB setting and the statement: “without a huge hit to image quality”… My understanding is that your WB setting while shooting RAW simply tags the RAW file, so that changing it later in p-p will have absolutely no effect on image quality. Do you agree?

    Best wishes,

    Ian

    • Todd

      Hey Ian,

      I know in theory WB should be entirely mutable, but in practice I believe it’s not quite so. Small changes don’t make a difference, but extreme WB shifts will show more noise.

      Thanks for the comment, sorry for the late reply. Always nice to hear from you.

  4. Lana

    Hi Todd,
    Thank you again for your very useful tips and amazing photos. I learn something new every day from you and, as a result, I feel like my techniques are definitely improving; however, I can’t get myself to shoot with flash yet. I love natural lighting and understand that flash is necessary, but how often do you shoot with flash for your indoor gigs?

    Looking forward to your input,
    ~Lana.

    • Todd

      Hi Lana,

      Thanks for the comment, glad to hear this site has been helpful to you.

      I very rarely shoot with flash at shows, but it’s most often when I know the band and have additional access. For most gigs, it’s technically not allowed. I wouldn’t consider flash for shows something that’s necessary to force yourself to do, really.

  5. Alan

    Hey Todd, I’m currently getting started as a photographer and have a D5000 and a 50mm 1.8

    I really want to take things serious & later (when I feel ready) shoot bigger shows. No stadiums, just larger stages like 1 meter high or so. What lens is good for such stages? I feel like the 50mm is almost too close for the small venues I’m currently shooting. How would I counter that, like move left and right in the trench in front of the stage (is that even possible?). Any tipps? :)

    PS: great fan, love your work & website & style!

    • Todd

      Hi Alan,

      I think a lens like the Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 or the Tamron or Sigma equivalents would be a good match for you.

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. jelmer

    realy nice shots you have
    (came here by good test of 24-120 vr nikon)

    I have an question about step 4, [use WB auto]
    but thats only in JPG I think, in raw (step 1),
    it does not matter….
    or does it?

    thx and go on with your site!

  7. Sam

    Hi

    I’m shooting a smallish club gig next weekend. Will my 50mm 1.8 be fine, I have a 24-105 f4, the reach would be nice…but would f4 be fast enough?

  8. Sam

    Hi

    I’m shooting a smallish club gig next weekend. Will my 50mm 1.8 be fine, I have a 24-105 f4, the reach would be nice…but would f4 be fast enough?

    Thanks!

  9. Jason

    Hey Todd,

    I followed you awhile back but thought about you this weekend as I was shooting a small venue in Dallas, TX rather spontaneously. Three artists/bands performed with the last one being the band Loftland.

    My only other music photography experience was a country artist last year. Shooting a young band of rockers is completely different! Lots of lighting and everyone was all over the place.

    So I now have a new respect for you, the challenges of shooting a live rock show and your amazing results.

    I have some great images that I am sending to the bands. Now I have the bug and I gotta shoot more like that. By the way…love that Paul Stanley image-

  10. Rachel

    Hi,
    I am not much of a photographer but I love taking pictures. My husband is a drummer and his band mates recently asked me to take some pictures of them playing. They are a top 40 band and have a bunch of their own lighting. Not being totally sure what I truly need I have a few questions. I have a standard kit lens, a 55mm, and a 35mm. I have a fisheye as well. But haven’t invested in a flash. I have been looking at the speed lights. I have seen flashes at shows with what looks like filters on them. Any ideas on how to capture all the color?

    • Todd

      Hey Rachel,

      Shooting with the lighting for the tour (rather than flash) is probably the best way to capture the color and vibe of your husband’s band’s live show.

      In terms of lenses, I generally recommend f/2.8 zooms. Anything slower is definitely workable, but it makes shooting much more difficult.

  11. Angel M. Hernandez

    I’m always worried about not cranking up the ISO, but it’s almost impossible to take pictures with such dark environment (not to mention entry-level pro cam). I’ve read elsewhere that you should try to keep it down, but I’ll take your advice instead, will definitely improve the quality of my pics.

    I tend to assist to concerts I actually enjoy, so earplugs are def not necessary for me ^-^

  12. Alexander Oramas

    Hey Todd, I’ve been a big fan of your photos and website for a very long time; I recently upgraded from a Nikon D70s to a Nikon D7000 and currently only own a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens, I usually shoot at small venues and was wondering which lenses you would recommend for such situations (and by small venues I mean some which at time may not even have a raised stage or even a ‘cage’ between the audience and performer) I’m trying to not spend too much (probably a max of say 6-800 USD) I’d also consider third-party lenses which you recommend. Thanks~

    • Todd

      Hey Alexander,

      Thanks for the comment, and thanks very much for reading! If I were shooting small venues with dimmer lighting, I think a wider prime might fit your kit well. Check out the Nikon 28mm f/1.8G and the Nikon 35mmm f/1.8G. The 28mm might be more useful depending on the stage height, but it really depends.

      Hope this helps!

  13. Tim Chuma

    Good tips for people starting out.

    Can’t really shoot in RAW with the camera I have, is in an irritating proprietary format that needs conversion. Who ever came up with NEF as a file format?

    Also I shoot too many photos to be converting, often it is better to do the first run through by clicking “preview” and writing down numbers of the best 10%.

    I have a preset white balance that I use at the main venue I shoot at. I know the lighting there and it really does come out better.

    Nothing about the relationship you have with the artists? I started taking photos so I would have a reason to talk to the bands afterwards and could make more friends.

  14. Kevin Huckle

    I know this is not a recent posting, but wondered if you can help with some advice on handling LED lighting. There us a new venue near me with a new lighting rig, that is totally LED and I am struggling to get away with some acceptable shots. I have not been able for find any really good advice on this situation. Thank you.


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