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How to Photograph a Concert – Part 1

December 19, 2014 11:53 am

In a studio, manipulating light, shadow, composition, and subject matter is easier than in less controlled situations such as landscape and wildlife photography. There’s an even more unique type of “wildlife” photography expertise required for shooting at a rock concert. When done right, concert photography can produce some unparalleled shots in the world of pictures.

Plan ahead

Having the desire to shoot a concert isn’t enough to make it happen. An informed photographer has to plan ahead and prepare for eventualities before and during the event.

Permission – The most important step in any concert photography plan is to gain permission to shoot during the event. A photographer needs to do some research to discover whom they need permission from because it’s often more than just the band. Getting in touch with the venue and show promoter are essential to insure that a photographer won’t be turned away at the door. Smaller shows for local bands don’t usually require as much pre-approval.

Cooperation – The photographer should become acquainted with the sound and lighting crew at the event so they can work together to avoid any equipment conflicts.

Arrival – To insure enough time for proper setup, the photographer needs to show up to the venue early and before the doors open to the public. Setting up equipment such as lights before sound check gives the photographer time to adjust angles and address any malfunctions.

Light challenges

Unless the rock concert is happening at an outdoor venue in the daytime, there won’t be any natural light to work with so it’s up to the photographer to utilize what’s there and create his or her own sources of illumination. Stage lights with gelled colors and tungsten bulbs wreak havoc with white balance and shutter speeds.

Setup suggestions

Viewing things from a different angle is essential when shooting concert photography. The usual on-camera flash mix is insufficient for the “harsh” lighting at rock concerts, but adding in elements such as studio strobes makes a positive difference. Jason Nakleh (nakleh.com) states on PopPhoto.com that he likes “to shoot with two studio strobes placed on the stage, mixed with two speedlights—one on the stage and one on the camera. This lighting setup creates three dimensional lighting from multiple angles, using lights as accents and focal points within the photographs.”

Equipment and details

Every photographer has their own favorite brand of camera, lenses, flashes, and accessories they use and it’s taken years of trial and error to find the right fit. However, it never hurts to have some additional expert insight.

Lenses – For his concert shoots, Jason Nakleh says he prefers “a Canon 5D Mark II, and use three lenses: Canon 17-40 f/4 L, Canon 24-105 f/4 L IS, and Canon 70-200 f/4 L IS. Between these three lenses, I’m covered from super-wide to moderate super-tele.” He explains further that the lenses he uses are determined by the size of the stage and the venue and that he’ll switch between lenses when the need arises. Jason says that he’s “not concerned with limiting my apertures to f/4, as I’ll be using strobes and my apertures will usually between f/8 and f/11 anyway.”

Lighting – The size of the stage and venue also determine the size, style, and location of the lighting a photographer can use. The best choice for lights are those that are durable, lightweight, create ample light, and aren’t so expensive the photographer is stressed about damage. During his concert shoots, Jason Nakleh uses studio strobes mounted on seven-foot stands that “are small enough to not be too much in the way, but tall enough to get the lights into the right position.” He also says he uses “two Canon 580EX II speedlites. One on the stage, and one on my camera. They’re small, so I can stick the one on the stage anywhere I want, with nothing more than gaffer tape. Usually I like to put it right next to the kick drum, or even *inside* the kick drum if the drummer will let me, to blast some light from the kit.”

Remote operation – Handheld remote controls, or triggers, are ideal for concert photographer as they allow the photographer to operate their flash units easily from anywhere. When using more than one type of flash unit such as Speedlites and the self-contained studio flash units called AlienBees, the photographer needs to use two sets of triggers to achieve the different effects they’re after.

Interference issues – If the photographer plans to use radio triggers, they need to make sure their equipment doesn’t interfere with the band’s wireless gear. When using triggers, if there’s another photographer at the event, there’s a chance that they’ll be using triggers too and that can create interference. Once the photographers have their triggers set up on different channels, any issues are quickly resolved.

Read part 2, here.