How to capture great photos at concerts

When the spotlights turn on, the iPhones come out. Follow these basic tips to make your photos take main stage in your News Feed.

Are you ready to rock!?!?

When the spotlights turn on, the iPhones come out. Digital photography has taken great strides in recent years—especially on mobile phones. Concert photography, on the other hand, seems to have gotten much worse. Everyone and their sister posts photos of their most recent concert experiences on Facebook, but few truly stand out. Follow these basic tips to make your photos take main stage in your News Feed.

Photo: This photo was taken with direct flash at an impromptu dance party in San Francisco. Taken by Lauren Crabbe.

[Lauren Crabbe is a San Francisco-based photojournalist.]

Get close

If you are in a small club setting, ask the band and venue staff permission for access to the front of the crowd. Though some venues require press passes, my experience is that if you ask nicely and in advance, you might be allowed in the front for a little while (especially if you promise copies of the photos to the venue and band). If the show is general admission, most fellow concertgoers are respectful of a camera-wielding fan (though my equipment has been the victim of punk show mobs during past shows).

Understand your venue, the band, and its fans, and work your way to the front for a nice, tight shot of the lead singer (if you can). If you aren’t comfortable with the dense crowds up front, long lenses will get you a nice, clean shot from the back of the venue.

Photo: Close-up shots of the performer allow the photographer to capture the emotion that most concert attendees can’t see from their seats. Taken by Lauren Crabbe.

Work the lights: Light it yourself

Stage lights can be a concert photographer’s best friend or worst enemy. There are two approaches to handling concert lighting: light the stage yourself, or work with what you’re given.

If you’d like to light your photos yourself, first take the performers into account. Flash photography can be extremely distracting, especially in an otherwise low-light environment. Some venues won’t allow flash photography or professional camera equipment without permission, so check with the venue beforehand to see what you can bring with you. If possible, speak with the performer and compromise with them so you can use your strobes for a few minutes of the set. (The flash built in to most cameras can only reach around 18 meters and is not powerful to light a stage from the crowd.)

If you have an SLR, you can purchase high-powered strobes that attach to your camera’s hot shoe above the viewfinder. Strobes can light people from over 70 meters away and are useful for concert photography. If you have the cash (and if the venue/performers will allow it), a remote flash is another option. By using an attachment to your camera and strobe’s hot shoe attachments, you can remotely control your flash from within the room. With remote-controlled strobes, you can create more dynamic light than the straight-ahead flat lighting that can be the byproduct of powerful strobes.

Photo: This photo was taken with a remote-controlled flash located to the right of the performers. It creates a more dynamic shadow on the singer’s face instead of the flat, straight-on flash. Taken by Lauren Crabbe.

Work the lights: Use available light

If you are going to work with the available light in the venue (like if the venue won’t permit high-end lighting tools or flash), shoot in RAW if you can. This way, you can figure out the color temperature of the light at home in a photo editor instead of in the moment. If the show you are seeing relies heavily on colored lighting, don’t try to fix that color in Photoshop. Instead, work with what the lighting designers have given you and let your photos be a rainbow of musical expression.

Photo: Sometimes, stage lighting is best. This photo was taken only using the venue’s dramatic and simple stage lighting. The colored lighting gives the photos a specific ambiance. Taken by Lauren Crabbe.

Try the "Hail Mary"

When you are trapped in a crowd, it can be nearly impossible to get a good shot without capturing the back of people’s heads. For those on-stage moments that must be captured, you have to go high and hope that your shot comes out. To take some of the guesswork out of the blind shot, you can buy a camera with an adjustable live-view screen. These live-view screens turn your camera into a photo-capturing periscope for crowded concert situations.

Photo: This photo was taken from the middle of a large crowd. Of the dozens that I took, this one turned out the best. Taken by Lauren Crabbe.

Get creative

If you don’t have a telephoto lens, remote-controlled strobe, or a particularly amazing seat, you can always make due with what you have by taking a creative approach. iPhone apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic can apply filters to make your photo look more retro or artistic. If you have a tripod, you can capture a slow-exposure of the crowd swaying and band playing.

Photo: If you have access within the venue, you can take some extremely unique photographs during concerts. In this case, I got backstage access and placed the camera on a speaker and left the shutter open for one-sixth of a second. The subject is in focus, but the shaking of the speaker and the movement of the crowd created a moving composition. Taken by Lauren Crabbe.

Take in the whole event

Sometimes, the most exciting part of a concert is the fans. Some of the most iconic concert photographs throughout history are of the soaking wet attendees of Woodstock, or the screaming legions of pre-teen girls reaching out for their icons. After you’ve taken your photo of Justin Bieber, turn around and capture the look on your daughter and her friend’s faces as they scream in excitement (and be sure to keep it as blackmail for later). The energy of a concert goes beyond the stage and it is important to capture the full spectrum of the event.

Photo: Concerts are not all about the band. Sometimes the most beautiful photo is right behind you. Taken by Lauren Crabbe.

After you've got your shot, enjoy the show

Professional concert photographers are usually stuck with the first three songs of an artist’s set—a precedence set by dancing pop stars who did not want the press to see them sweat. Attendees can usually take photos throughout the entire show: The modern scene from the back of any concert venue is just a sea of digital displays from phones and cameras. Today, with endless memory cards and battery life, the only limit that concertgoers have with their photography is arm strain.

Photo: This photo, taken by Cassandra Panayiotopoulos, shows the iPhoneographers in the audience.

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