Let's talk about concert photography!
This blog post covers how I started concert photography and tips I learned along the way. Disclaimer: Some of these pointers may not work for every setting you’re in, or you might prefer doing things a different way.
How did I get started with concert photography? How do you build your portfolio?
It’s fairly difficult to get a media pass if you don’t have a portfolio — but how do you build a portfolio if you can’t get into shows?
Personally, I was very lucky with the first two events I photographed: Gryffin and H1ghr Music. But chance was only part of it. Roman philosopher Seneca once said, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." If I hadn’t taken photos of smaller events beforehand, those opportunities would not likely have presented themselves to me.
To build your portfolio, photograph similar events on a smaller scale! Reach out to local DJ’s or bands and see if you can photograph a show they’re having. Check if your school has cool events you can cover, whether it’s for a college newspaper or just for fun. These are some shots I got from events at my university:
There are also concerts and events that allow cameras for regular attendees, so check venue rules beforehand. With your camera or even just your phone, you can get some cool shots.
How do you get into shows? How do you get a media pass?
Reaching out is crucial, whether it’s to artists, promoters, or the venue itself. When I worked for my school newspaper, I would find the email of someone handling media for an event or ask to be directed to the right person, and ask about media passes. I would say that the paper would love to write a concert review since we have students going to the event. Then I link my portfolio. It’s a lot like job applications where you won’t hear back, so it’s a good idea to follow up. You still won’t hear back from everyone, but it’s a good experience, and eventually you’ll find something. There are also some events (like Second Sky) where you can apply as media through their website.
The other part is knowing people — networking. If you know a musician, reach out and see if they need a photographer at an upcoming show. Get permission and you’ll be able to photograph the other artists that are performing too.
You will need to work in low light conditions for most events, so bring a camera that captures well in low light. I use a Sony A7iii but many other cameras do well. For lenses, I’ve used a 24-240mm for most of my concert photos, and an 85mm for the rest. A zoom lens is definitely versatile in these conditions, but primes are also great — especially if they have a wider aperture.
When photographing concerts, you typically want to shoot at a smaller f-stop (wider aperture) to maximize the amount of light that goes into your camera during these dark conditions. My shutter speed is typically at least 1/200 but I often push it higher/faster. ISO will depend on your camera but mine is typically set to an auto ISO range that adjusts between 1600 and 12800. Test it out on site if you’re not sure.
I leave my white balance on auto. To focus, I play with a combination of manual and auto focus continuous. The Sony allows me to track the eyes in a photo (SUPER helpful) when on auto focus continuous, but it is less functional in dark settings. In these cases, I shift to manual focus or a combination of the two. I also like using the continuous shutter at times. Since the musician will probably be moving around a lot, a continuous shutter will help capture good expressions and movements that you might have missed otherwise.
Things to bring aside from your camera and lenses: an extra battery, SD card(s) , and whatever you think could be helpful (lens cleaning materials, etc). I haven’t brought a prism to an event before but I’ve been meaning to for the cool effects.
Try not to bring anything that could distract the artist or audience. Speaking of not distracting the crowd, I tend to wear black or at least darker colors so I’m less noticeable. It would be annoying for an audience member if they’re trying to see the artist and instead see reflective or bright clothes move back and forth.
What are the rules when taking photos?
Every event and venue will have different rules, so you should check first by asking your media contact and/or the security there. For some events, you may only take photos for an artist during the first three songs from within the photo pit. That may seem unfair at first, but it’s designed to help the audience have a better experience. Plus, the time limitation will push you to take better shots and work both quickly and efficiently.
If you don't know the rules, ask the artist or their affiliates for them. Sometimes a DJ might not want you to go onstage or get in their face. If you have permission to shoot from the front and behind them, don’t linger too long to avoid distracting the artist and hogging up good areas. Be aware of the other photographers/videographers shooting the event as well, since you’ll all be trying to cover all the angles. It’s impossible to avoid being in their shots in entirely, but do your best.
Again, about talking to security or your media contact — sometimes their help can prepare you for special moments during the show, or just ensure your safety. During an 88rising show I shot, a security guard told me that Higher Brothers would come through the crowd by moving in a Chinese dragon. At the same show, another guard advised me to keep my distance from the confetti cannon (which I hadn’t seen in the dark).
Be really careful about stepping on wires! This may or may not be from personal experience. Anyways. Be careful of wires!!
What moments do you look for when taking photos at events? Where do you stand?
I love concert photography because there are many different things to see for every event. The artist’s passion, the excited faces of the audience, crazy stage gimmicks -- there’s just so much to capture.
There are many places to take photos from — don’t be afraid to walk around until you find what you like. Some spots, you definitely shouldn’t miss. If you’re allowed into the photo pit, use the opportunity! If you can go onstage and behind the artist (so you can also capture the audience looking up at them), do it. A lot of shows have quality visuals so it’s good to be far away and take wide shots from the audience too. Sometimes the audience will also frame the artist with their waving hands, or make cool motions like peace signs or hearts. At Second Sky, someone even raised up a pizza box, which made for an amusing photo.
Before a show, I try to listen to the artists’ music if I don’t know it already. Sometimes I don't get the opportunity, but I still enjoy the show and am often pleasantly surprised with the music. But trust me, listening beforehand will help you shoot better. It can help you vibe better in the moment, and even look out for certain moments in songs where you know the artist could do something special.
As for knowing what moments to capture, you’ll want to go for a lot of action shots. It wouldn’t be great to only see shots of the artist standing around, or the audience looking uninterested. When the beat is about to drop, both the artist and audience may make hand motions, jump, etc. There might be an epic guitar solo where the artist loses themselves to the music, or a singer might hold up a microphone and belt their heart out. Take home message: capture what you feel are the right moments that will make the viewer feel like they were there!
For some instances, you can predict the future. On the beat drops, you can predict what the audience/artist will do. But you may also notice certain patterns in lighting, or you just know a specific part is coming up in a song where things will happen. Maybe the visuals or lights are moving a certain way so you just need to wait a few seconds for everything to line up.
How do you edit and deliver the photos?
I edit my photos in Adobe Lightroom, and occasionally in Photoshop to remove anything that’s too distracting. My workflow is import overnight, rate which ones to edit in the morning, and then edit. I typically deliver photos within 24-48 hours unless I have prior commitments. The artist may be excited to post the photos and the audience wants to see them. Especially if you’re doing photos on an assignment, don’t slack on editing.
I deliver images through Google Drive. In the folder, I include a word document thanking them for the opportunity to take photos and add my Instagram handle so they can credit. The number of photos you'll want to include depends on the event. For a festival like Second Sky, I delivered over 180, which is usually considered a lot. For smaller events, I’ll deliver over 50. The number will really depend on your style, what the artist is looking for and/or what your assignment expects.
Usually I send a message to the musicians I photographed and share the link to the folder with them. Other times, if I’m photographing for a company that put on the event, they might share the link directly with the artists as well.
Other good tips to know?
1) Bring earplugs! Even if they’re just cheap ones, they’ll help when you’re crouched near the speakers trying to get a good shot.
2) Eat well beforehand. This might seem obvious but whether it’s because I’m in a rush beforehand or the timing of the event is awkward, I don’t always get a chance to eat well. You don’t want to get distracted by your hunger when taking photos.
3) Stretch beforehand, even if it’s just for a bit. Aside from it being healthy, it’ll help when you’re standing for such a long period of time.
4) When posting, don’t forget to tag/credit the musician! It’s a good idea to tag the venue too. Sometimes fans will be looking through the hashtags/locations to see if there are any shots of them or just the artists they love.
5) You might not always be credited for your photos, but you should be. Usually you can courteously ask the artist to credit and they will.
Lastly…payment. How does that work?
This is the hardest question to answer because I’m new to it too. Payment can be complicated. It wouldn’t make sense for me to receive payment from an artist or promoter if I was sent by my newspaper, since the newspaper paid me. Totally fair.
When you’re photographing a show, you typically get in for free so that’s a small form of payment. Other shows will let you bring in 1-2 guests. When it feels right to ask for additional payment, factor in not only the hours of shooting and editing time, but also transportation, experience, cost of gear, and anything else you think is relevant!
Thanks for checking out this little guide! If you have further questions or want clarification on anything in here, feel free to comment or leave a message. ^_^ Till next time!