I grew up in Canada, so I was raised on Rush. I kid you not… they played at my high school prior to their first self-titled release. For me this was indeed a rush. Some 30 years after they had played my high school, I now had the opportunity to photograph them. Sure, we are all a little (okay, 30 years) older, but still… it‘s Rush.
Verizon Wireless Amphitheater is a tough venue to get into, so the crowd of photographers wasn‘t the usual crowd. These guys were MUCH younger. They weren‘t sure what to make of this older guy who arrived with two identical Nikon bodies (an old habit of mine from the film days). One body had an 80-200 2.8 VR and the other a 35-70 2.8. These guys had one camera and one lens each.
Concert photography is a hurry-up-and-wait event. You get to the venue early and then wait… and wait… It can be a nightmare for a guy like me who has NO patience whatsoever.
Finally, we were given the nod and off we went, looking like a high school camera club as we were escorted to the amphitheater. Our escort dropped us off at the very hot stage and beat a hasty retreat back to the cool air conditioning.
This was when the real work began. We all had a few minutes to assess the stage, the surroundings, check our gear and try to guess on the lighting.
TIP: Look up. I see so few concert photographers look up to the rigging. That‘s where most of the lights are!
Rush had some interesting stuff onstage. Rather than huge amplifiers, Geddy Lee had a chicken rotisserie and Alex Lifeson had scantily clad Barbie dolls scattered around his effects board and his cabinets. I have no idea why.
Some people look at concert images and think “Cool, they had the whole show to get those images.” Unfortunately, this is not the case. A bunch of photographers running around is very distracting to the artist and I‘m sure the people in the front row who paid big bucks to be there don‘t want to look at the back of my head with thinning hair, so it‘s usually just the first three songs. If the artist is professional, they will play to the cameras for those first three songs, then play to the audience for the remainder (Billy Idol is a master at this). Rush somehow managed to do both.
The band came on and the lighting was absolutely perfect. I was able to shoot at a faster shutter speed and a lower ISO than originally anticipated. Rush was in top form and despite the heat and their increasing age, they burst onto the stage with surprising energy.
So now it was time to shoot.
I took a few quick shots to assess both the lighting and my metering options and then set both my cameras to the same settings. The 80-200 was great for filling the frame with Neal Peart‘s face concentrating on his astounding drumming.
During one lead guitar break, Alex Lifeson kept moving forward and to the edge of the stage as I kept backing up and zooming out to maintain the appropriate framing. Like a true professional, he made sure I got the shot. As a thank you, I gave him a quick thumbs-up. A little acknowledgement of the artist‘s efforts in the first song will ensure cooperation throughout the three songs, and thus better images.
The three songs and about 1,500 images flew by in no time. I couldn‘t tell you what they played. I tend hear the music so I can anticipate what to shoot and when, but I am too busy to actually listen to the song.
We were promptly escorted all the way out back to the entrance. I was completely covered in sweat, with my tee shirt drenched. I went back to the car and immediately cranked the AC and headed home to process a few images and get them to Shutterstock quickly. If at all possible, I like to have around 10 images uploaded to Shutterstock before the concert even ends. Putting “Red Carpet event” in the message to the reviewers ensures they are reviewed lickety-split!
Story told, here‘s what I recommend for shooting a live concert.
So how do you shoot a concert?
Quickly! The single most important thing is to know your gear. You should be familiar enough with your equipment to change settings without thinking about it.
You will not have time to play with settings, or try to remember where that menu item was. Your gear needs to almost become an extension of you so you can work it without thinking about it. You will have plenty of other things to think about, such as how to deal with the ever-changing lighting and getting the prefect composition and timing for that image. So again, know your gear.
ISO speed depends on the venue and the lighting. I will set both cameras at 1200 as a baseline. Most times there is an opening act and you can get a rough idea from that lighting, keeping in mind that the headliner may be half to a full stop brighter.
While I rarely use any sort of auto, there is no time to think during three songs, so I set my cameras to shutter priority. This way I can set a comfortable speed for handheld action depending on my glass and the lighting.
Some bands are cake to shoot with tons of light, others like to be dark. Rush was a dream with tons of light. I could set a reasonably fast shutter speed, aperture and slow down on the ISO settings. On the other end of the extreme, I photographed Chevelle last year, and it was the absolute opposite – very dark (which of course was cool for the crowd, but not so much for the photographers.)
How do you figure out all these settings quickly?
Assume that the first few shots are going to be throw-aways. Check your screen or blinkies, whatever you are familiar with, but be familiar and comfortable – now is not the time to experiment. Periodically, take a quick glance at your screen to ensure all is still good.
As both venues and lighting can differ greatly, there is no hard and fast rule on metering. Generally, I will stay away from matrix metering as it can easily be fooled by the spot-lit artist against a dark background.
I use center-weighted metering most of the time (if you can change the size of the metering area – set it fairly small) and will switch to spot if there is really dramatic lighting that could fool center-weighted metering. However, there may be times where the light is relatively even and the matrix can be used.
You need to be flexible at a moment‘s notice, so again, you need to know your gear.
Personally, I hate autofocus. It‘s a pain and never behaves the way you need it to. However, with the 51pt autofocus of the Nikon D300 and up, autofocus is now usable. I will generally set autofocus to continuous, and may use multiple AF options throughout the three songs depending on what the situation calls for. I may even use manual focus if AF is too slow or bothersome. You need to be flexible with your AF settings. In order to accomplish this flexibility and rapid switching of AF options, you absolutely must (ahem) know your gear.
This does not differ in any way from any other photography, other than things can happen fast and you need to be anticipating the action, or things can happen painfully slow -- in which case you need to make it look dynamic.
Don‘t just shoot like a madman, take your time and THINK as this is the difference between a killer shot and just a snapshot.
Do not shoot the entire concert horizontal. People are vertical, so shoot some vertical, shoot some horizontal and if the act calls for it, shoot some diagonal. When shooting diagonal, don‘t just tilt a tiny bit, or the image will look like it was supposed to be horizontal but missed. Shoot at least 20° from horizontal.
Do remember the rule of thirds, and use it. You images will be much more dynamic.
Do try to capture some “safe” images. Make sure the artist is looking into the image instead of out of it (i.e. if the artist is on the left of the image, they should be looking into the image, to the right in this case. This will lead the viewer‘s eye into the image).
Do capture some full horizontal and vertical full-length “safe” images.
Do capture the emotion of the performance. Zoom in tight on faces. If the artist‘s body is tense with emotion, show that. Watch for bandmates interacting.
Do stay alert and try to anticipate the events.
Do look at the entire viewfinder and make sure there are no really distracting elements. A microphone in the middle of an artist‘s head is generally not too flattering.
How do I “anticipate the action”? I‘ve never played an instrument in my life!
Research. Is the artist left-handed or right-handed? Does he or she sing only, or sing and play an instrument? Is this a band or a solo artist? If it‘s a band, study each member of the band. Go to the artist or band‘s official webpage. Read, listen and study previous images for the details (lead guitar photos always appear to lean to the right, lead vocals tend to have a high microphone stand, etc.).
Most artists have a Facebook page, which tends to be a little less formal than the official page. Take a look around there as well, study the images, and listen to the music.
Concert videos are great -- they give you a chance to do multiple dry runs before even touching your camera. Study the movements, emotions, and lighting changes all while getting clues from the music. Watch the videos over and over again. A great source for videos is either Facebook or YouTube.
You must do your homework before shooting a concert of any sort. Who knows, if you weren‘t a fan before all of this research, you might just end up becoming one.
Even if you think you know the artist inside out, study again -- things may have changed from the last tour to this tour.
Great, but where can I practice?
Go to your local bars and clubs. Ask a local band if you can photograph them for practice. Most small, local bands don‘t have two nickels to rub together, so they will jump at the opportunity to get some live photographs. (Even if you are just starting out, your images are going to be better than their buddy‘s!)
Lighting in small venues is generally poor, but do not use flash. You won‘t be able to use flash in the larger venues, so get used to it now. The lighting in small venues is nowhere near as good as the large venues, so you will have to crank up the ISO. Your images will be noisy, but that‘s fine – remember, this is just practice for larger venues.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly: have fun.