Taking Good Concert Photos

Recently, one of my favorite musicians of all time--Paul Hiraga, the driving force behind the Seattle-based alternative rock band Downpilot, performed in my living room for an intimate crowd of 30 friends. I mention this because I'm still a bit ecstatic, but also because it reminded me just how difficult it can be to get good photos of a musician on stage--whether that stage is in a dark club, at a school auditorium, or even your own home. In the past, I've described how to make the best of difficult lighting, and those techniques are helpful in a situation like this. This week, though, let's focus directly on what we can do to capture musicians and other public performers in the act, so to speak.

Know the Rules

Before we get into the mechanics of taking concert photos, don't forget that most venues have rules about photography. Sometimes those rules are fairly draconian: "No photography allowed." Other establishments specify no flash photography, which, as we'll see later, isn't much of an issue because a camera flash will rarely have any effect on your photos in a concert situation.

These days, though, with the rise of camera phones, I'm increasingly seeing vague rules like "no professional cameras permitted." What the heck does that mean? Ask the management or a security guard, and you're unlikely to get much clarification. And for good reason--this gives management the flexibility to allow casual photographers to take snapshots with camera phones and small point-and-shoot cameras, but if they see something they don't like--like a guy with a 500mm lens--they can halt action without being pinned down to enforcing specific rules.

You can find out the venue's photography rules by checking the fine print on the ticket or searching the Web site. For smaller clubs, you might even give the management a call, since the photography policy might be driven by the artist who is performing, and so the rules can change from show to show.

It's all About Light

The hardest thing about concert photography is that it's usually pretty dark. Correction: It's usually really dark. That means you'll probably get lousy results with a camera set to automatic or program mode.

The first thing you should do is increase the ISO. How high should you go? As high as your camera will allow. If you have a setting for ISO 1600 or 3200, dial it in. You'll need every bit of sensitivity you can get, since the light on stage is a tiny, tiny fraction of the light typically available indoors with standard house lights. Yes, using a very high ISO will result in photos pocked with digital noise, but that's a necessary tradeoff when shooting in very low light conditions. And digital noise is similar to the "grain" that you used to get in high-speed film, so it can actually lend a certain ambiance to your photos. Here is a shot of my son in a school concert, taken at 3200 ISO.

If you prefer, you can reduce the noise afterwards using a noise reduction filter in your photo editing program. Check out "Reduce Digital Noise in your Photos" for details.

Setting the Exposure

Most musicians probably don't move around the stage all that quickly (exceptions, of course, include David Lee Roth and Mick Jagger), but a fast shutter speed is important nonetheless. In fact, that's why we set the ISO to the highest possible value--by making the sensor more sensitive to light, we are able to get a faster shutter speed in the dark.

The easiest way to get a fast shutter speed is by using your camera's Shutter Priority or Program mode. In Program mode, most cameras will default to the fastest shutter speed possible when in a low light situation. If you choose the Shutter Priority mode, though, you should then spin the control dial until you get the best shutter speed available--which, in a dark club, might realistically be only 1/15 or 1/30 second. Those are not lightning-fast exposures, but might be the best you can hope for.

Even in my own home, which was lit pretty well, you can see that I was unable to prevent motion blur on Paul Hiraga's strumming hand--but that's okay, since it shows there's some action taking place.

Steady as She Goes

Once you've got your exposure locked in, it's time to freeze the action. Be extra careful to support the camera securely and gently press the shutter release to minimize camera shake. Hold the camera as steady as possible through the exposure--if you have the jitters, it'll show in the photo. And take a lot of pictures, trying to time your shots for times when the subject is as still as possible. Don't even try to capture the action as the guitarist struts across stage--it'll probably be a blur. I've had the best results during solos when the guitarist is really concentrating on the instrument, and not moving around as much, or during interludes between songs, when the musician is bantering with the audience or checking the instrument's tuning.

In the Light

Finally, don't forget that there are great opportunities to shoot musicians in good light as well. Daylight, outdoor music festivals are a chance to take pictures without worrying about cranking the ISO or shooting in a dark room. Here, I've got a shot of 50 Foot Wave's Bernard Georges performing in the late afternoon.

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Hot Pic of the Week

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David says he captured this in Portugal with a Benq DC C1060 to record his granddaughter's first time on the beach.

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Timothy writes: "I took this photo of my daughter, Kathie, walking down the steps of Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey. I used my Nikon D80."

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This story, "Taking Good Concert Photos" was originally published by PCWorld.

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