Photography Tips for Live Music

Duncan Walker Photography - Music Event Photography

It’s often seen as a bit of a ‘dark art’ when it comes to live music photography, those amazing shots you see of your favourite artist, with dazzling lighting, perfectly timed mid-air leaps and all-round stunning action captured in a timeless photo. Is it just luck, or just a supreme understanding of gear and the environment? I think most photographers would agree that it’s probably 80% understanding and 20% luck. Anyone can use the now infamous, spray an prey technique, and will eventually come out with a handful of photos that are decent captures of the subject at hand; but putting your camera on auto, pointing it in the general direction of something and pressing the shutter button isn’t where you really want to be. Not only will you do yourself a disservice by learning very little, but you then have the unenviable task of sifting through hundreds, if not thousands, of photos to find that one good one. Trust me, you don’t want to go there.

Although I may not be one of the world class gig photographers, I thought I’d share my experiences of live music photography so far. Here are a few tips to hopefully help someone just starting out.

Know your gear
This may seem like an obvious tip, but there is nothing worse than being there in the moment and missing a shot because you’re busy trying to figure out how to change a setting. You don’t want to be looking down at your camera screen thinking, ‘where was that menu setting again?’, when the artist on stage has just struck and amazing power stance during the chorus, or a spotlight has picked them out with a beam of light creating a wonderful moody shot. The moment has passed and you may never get the chance for that shot again. I’m not saying you have to be an absolute expert on every setting your camera has, but at least know the basics so that changing them becomes second nature and you don’t even have to look at the back of your camera.

Trust your settings
A live music environment can be very dynamic, giving great scope for a variety shots; however this also means that you can’t always leave your camera set on one setting all the way through. Indoors or outdoors, the lighting may change so dramatically that you really need to assess your shutter speed, aperture or ISO; hopefully you will only need to change one of the forementioned for that period of time. But the worst pitfall of this is falling in to that zone of doubt, you’ll find yourself constantly changing settings and missing shots, when really if you trusted your settings you would have been fine. In low light scenarios you sometimes have to sacrifice that perfect setting to get a better chance of a well composed shot; with the dynamic range of most modern cameras you can always pull back details in post. Try and find a happy medium and stick with it for a while, if you feel you’re getting well composed shots, that are sharp, have captured the action well but are a little underexposed then you can easily fix that in software and still have that great shot you wanted. It’s a lot harder to fix blurry, out of focus shots, than it is to fix differences in exposure or a bit of digital noise.

Invest in a good quality lens
I hear you, ‘I can’t afford that’, and I totally understand where you’re coming from as I’ve been there too. That said though, you don’t have to buy a lens that costs the price of small car to get the photos you want. When I say quality, I’m not just talking about build quality, I’m talking about the attributes of the lens. For example, a simple prime lens like a 50mm, f1.8, is probably one of the cheapest lenses you can buy, but it’s the f1.8 that you’re really gaining the advantage with; especially in low light situations like indoor gigs. Granted an f1.8 prime comes with its disadvantages, you have a fixed focal length, and a very shallow depth of field which means those compositional skills are a lot more important. However, you can now up your shutter speed which gives you a better chance of freezing the action with a less blur and a faster response to environment.

It can be a fine balance of artistic preference and cost when it comes to what lens to use or buy, but keep it simple at first. If you’re a casual gig photographer like me, then don’t go blowing your budget on an amazing lens unless it’s something you can use in many other scenarios. Many gig photographers will go with a 24 – 70mm, f2.8, with this you get a good focal range to work with, especially if you’re lucky to get a front of the stage vantage point. The f2.8 is handy for low light and also that arty shallow depth of field look, but it tends to come at a price. Try the f4 version which tends to be considerably cheaper; you won’t get the same shallow depth of field as an f2.8, but you’ll still get a good separation of subject and background if there’s enough distance between the two and you retain the flexibility in focal range.

If you’re doing outdoor gigs, try knocking things down one stop, I have a f2.8 and I often put it to f3.5 for outdoors. yes you lose a bit of that shallow depth of field, but your in focus shots rate goes up. You have less slightly out of focus photos, unless you’re lucky to have a top end Sony with eye auto focus, which is handy if it’s fast paced action. I use to be f2.8 all the way, but found it frustrating when quite a few shots that looked spot on in camera were actually slightly out on a big screen at home. You leave it up to luck a lot more if you push your gear to its limit, shouldn’t be the case, but that’s just life.

Composition and interest
You may be a technically talented person, know your camera inside-out, but without insight of what makes an interesting image, you may find yourself lost in the wilderness and probably frustrated that your photos are not getting the recognition that you’d hoped for. A simple rule of thumb for me is, if your gut tells you that there’s something not quite right with an image, then there’s a great chance many others will feel the same way. I’d say that the best photographers are really quality artists and a camera is just a way for them to create their art, instead of them using a paint brush for example. Although I’ve talked about camera gear, it all boils down to how you use it, be it timing, the angle you take the shot at and so on.

Composition has its rules, but it’s often said that they’re there to be broken, I’d like to go down the route of, they’re there as guidelines rather than rules, something to help you rather than restrict you. Sometimes during live gigs you can’t get the angle you’d really like, but you can get close, or push it a bit to get a slightly different angle, which may turn out to be that one amazing photo you never thought you’d get. I won’t go in to composition as a general subject because I’d end up writing a book, rather than just a post, but these are the things I look for when taking live music shots.

  • When to fill the frame? If you’re at a small gig for example, you’re probably not going to get a ground breaking lighting rig, huge expensive staging etc … So your main subject matter is the artist themselves, head shots and cropped body shots, be careful where you crop. Context can help, as in where they are, so maybe an instrument or amp in there as a small part of the surroundings, but your main subject is the person. Having a shot of an uninteresting stage, with an artist stuck off in a corner somewhere doesn’t really portray much, there is no focal point to the photo and all it will say is, here’s the artist on a simple stage. The one time this may work is if you’re documenting the rise of a new band from their early days, using it as a comparison for later.
  • When not to fill the frame? If you’re lucky to photograph a more prestigious gig, chances are they’ll have a top end lighting rig and possibly a stage set. Remember, they didn’t spend thousands on that for nothing, it’s the cherry on top of the cake, it’s there as part of the show, so don’t forget to use it. Allowing more of the stage set to fill the frame gives a greater emphasis on context, but can be visually interesting because you see the artist in their world, you see the story behind them as they perform and it can add a positive support to the visual impact.
  • Wait for the emotion. It’s great getting that shot of a famous band member, but if you end up with twenty shots of them just stood there, the fame becomes less interesting. Emotion tells a story, you feel the atmosphere that was there, you feel the energy that you felt at the gig, even though it’s a still image. When does the emotion come though? Think of the past shows you’ve seen, often the intro to a song will be built up to get the audience going, at the end you get a grand finish, including added lighting in some cases. Those are two points where you can pretty much guarantee that an artist / artists will display some sort of emotion or action. The other point I look for is a chorus, usually because of how songs are written, this is a key point to really draw you in as a listener, it’s the catchy part of a song; so you have your third chance at emotion and dynamics and as a bonus it’s repeated, so if you missed it first time, you know what’s coming the second or third time around.
  • Severed limbs? You just took that amazing shot as the lead singer throws his / her arms in the air and knocks out that sustained note, you’ve got the raw emotion, the dynamics, the whole bag, right? Or have you? You would have, but maybe you zoomed in a little too much or leaned to one side a bit too far and now you have half a perfect shot, as you cut off their hands or one arm. Delete! If I could have a pound for every shot I took like that in the past, I’d be fairly well off by now. Try to predict the action and give yourself a little breathing space around the subject, just enough to capture all their bodily parts, you can always make a small crop in post if you have too much background. Levitating artists can also be a problem; cutting them off at the ankle when you could have seen them firmly planted on the stage is a bit of an artistic call, but it can help ground them in an image if you can see their feet. One additional extra to this, I like my rock music, so if I’m taking a shot of a guitarist shredding through a solo, I try my best to get the whole of the guitar in. It can be so easy to cut the head off the neck of a guitar because you’re trying to frame the person, that little bit can make a big difference to the shot. If you’re looking at them straight on and you want to narrow the frame but not lose the guitar, try moving off to the side where the head of the guitar is; this creates a foreshortening affect on the guitar, but allows you to fit it all in. Guitarists will often rotate the neck of their guitar in to the centre of their body in a solo or lift the neck up, so you may be lucky to get that foreshortening while facing them straight on.
  • Do your homework. Depending on who you go to see, there may be limited footage of them out there for the moment, however,  it’s rare these days that you can’t find something on YouTube and many other social media outlets, where artists have made their own videos. Take a few minutes to check out how they perform in front of camera, do they have certain mannerisms, a way they play an instrument, react to parts of a song, like the chorus. This will hopefully give you a good idea of how they’ll perform on stage, and in turn give you a better chance of capturing that special moment.

Be prepared
I recently photographed a local music festival; with the time between each act, it turned out to be a long day, but I was happy to wait. One thing you should genuinely think about when doing outdoor festivals is the weather. Seems like an obvious comment to make, but your mind can play tricks on you and tell you that standing outside on slightly cloudy day is just fine, until you become aware your neck feels a little sore, and that one hour when the clouds cleared and the sun came out has left you with a mild case of sun burn. Check the forecast and if there is any hint of sun, and you know you’ll be out in it all day, take sun screen protection. Same goes for rain, a bit of drizzle hurt no one right? The cheap camera bag, that you decided to take however, is not as water resistant as you’d like it to be, and now you find your expensive equipment is getting wet. If you want to take a cheaper bag because of weight or so you’re less of a target, take a large bin bag with you, then you can just throw your bag in to that and wait with confidence for the rain to stop; this also comes in handy for sitting down no wet grass and is very easy to pack.

You should always think of your own personal health as well, I’ve already mentioned the sun, but make sure you keep hydrated, it’s so easy to forget that you’ve not drunk water for a few hours when you’re in the zone. One final thing, that I wish I’d had on the day, was a set of ear plugs; don’t get me wrong, I wanted to hear the music, but if you’re photographing at the front of the stage it’s pretty much a given that the speaker system will be there too, unless you’re at a large open air festival. So I found myself stood with speakers blasting right in to my ears, which for long periods of time is not a good thing for your hearing. You can buy cheap throw away ear plugs, or invest in higher quality ones, that you can keep, if you’re doing this on a regular basis.

Be brave, be honest
So you get your photos loaded up into your favourite processing software, you’re eager to see the shots, you’re confident you pretty much nailed your settings and you have at least three hundred photos on the card. As you start looking through the shots, you slowly come to a realisation, you have twenty shots of the same photo, thirty shots with legs, arms or heads out of frame etc … Something I still fight with is the doubt that you have the one shot which will standout, so you overcompensate and take twenty with a slight variation. Maybe two or three is a happy middle ground, and if you’re supremely confident, just the one. You have to ask yourself, ‘do I want to spend time editing twenty images that look the same and then try to decide which one is best?’, my answer would be, ‘no’. It is so much easier to pick the best from a selection of three shots than it is from say, twenty. Be a bit ruthless, I found this out the hard way when I kept running out of storage space. If you have twenty shots and all are technically good, then go with your gut, pick maybe two and delete the others, or else you’ll have huge catalogues of photos that you will never use, taking up space, clogging up your software and your own head. If you come across shots that are a little bit blurry, not focused on the right point, don’t keep them and think, ‘they could come in handy later, maybe I can fix them’, you will never fix them, they will just sit there collecting digital dust, because you know deep down they’re not a great shot.

Be honest with yourself and make your maintenance and backing-up a lot easier, with less photos to index and work on, you’ll not feel as overwhelmed. These days when I’m loading up my photos I often take a quick scan first and delete images straight away so I’m not tempted to work on them. A word of warning though, DON’T delete the images off your memory card until you’re happy with what you have on the device you’ve transferred them to, just in case you realise one shot was the only one you had and you just may have to try and work with a bad image; plus you have a temporary backup on your card.

I hope this helped with a few ideas, feel free to add any extra advise, what’s your routine for live gig work, what one top tip would you pass on to someone just starting out?

3 Comments on “Photography Tips for Live Music

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