"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Technology
June 6, 2011

Live Concert Photography – Lessons Learnt

The recent MusicMatters Live showcase, part of the MusicMatters conference, was my first attempt at “proper” live music photography. Sure, I’ve tried to sneak the odd iPhone photo from my seat at some concerts. But, I’ve never taken a dSLR to a gig or, for that matter, taken photos of musicians during rehearsals (crazy, I […]

Goober Gun

The recent MusicMatters Live showcase, part of the MusicMatters conference, was my first attempt at “proper” live music photography. Sure, I’ve tried to sneak the odd iPhone photo from my seat at some concerts. But, I’ve never taken a dSLR to a gig or, for that matter, taken photos of musicians during rehearsals (crazy, I know).

So, I decided to get out of my comfort zone and go to the showcases with a lightweight photo rig – Nikon D90, 50mm 1.4f lens and a BlackRapid strap. I did read a few articles before heading down to Singapore – and looked back at my notes from William Ellis’ 2009 talk at the Hong Kong Jazz Festival. But, I’m not going to sugarcoat it – this kind of photography proved to be hard work.


Manual Focus

The first thing I did was switch over to manual focus (I always shot in manual mode anyway). In the venues there was either very low light, or rapidly changing stage lights. Both of which play havoc with autofocus. Moreover, the autofocus light is very distracting and not performer-friendly. This meant I had a lot of “nearly in focus” images to sort through, but by the second night I was starting to feel comfortable enough with manual focusing. In fact, I’m shooting more manual focus images now in normal situations!

Shoot Wide Open With High ISO

To overcome the low light I set the camera up with a fairly high ISO (1250 for starters) and the aperture wide open (around f3.5). The challenge is to get enough light into the images without going to slow on the shutter speed. Shooting with a 50mm lens I wanted to stay above 1/50th of a second to avoid motion blur. With no tripod or monopod and eager music fans around, stability is a challenge. And, besides, real concert photographers don’t have the luxury of shooting with flash most of the time.

The Fairchilds

For the more technically inclined I was using “spot metering.” Concert photos are often not all that balanced, there are dramatic differences in light levels across an image, especially when you have performers in the spotlight. Going with that adds drama, like you can hopefully see in the image above, of Cyril Niccolai from the French band, The Fairchilds.


With lights flashing and performers moving around the stage it can be hard to compose an image. I found myself having to slow down and look at the action on stage through the lens to get a feel for how to compose the shot.

These Kids Wear Crowns

These Kids Wear Crowns are an energetic Canadian band. I tried photographing them from the other side of the stage without much luck. Shifting position, then watching the way the band came into and away from their mikes during the chorus sections gave me the chance to get compose the photo you see above.

Donna Grantis from Saidah Baba Talibah

One of the challenges I had in trying to photograph Donna Grantis, from Saidah Baba Talibah was capturing the raw energy of her stage performance with my 50mm lens (I really wanted something wider for this). The right image needed a good moment and the whole of the guitar in the frame. This was taken on the second night of the showcase and I had a bit of a feel for the way Donna moved on stage, which helped a lot.

Saidah Baba Talibah with Donna Grantis

In fact, watching the way Saidah Baba Talibah interacted with her band created a number of opportunities for good shots. The image above shows the interplay between Saidah and Donna. For this shot I was actually shifting position quite a bit, trying to get the elements balanced (and mostly in the frame).

Saidah Baba Talibah

And, this is a moment I thought I’d missed – keyboardist Hill looking over at Saidah. I was looking through the lens waiting for a moment, a facial expression, something and I caught this. Some concert photographers seem to snap thousands of shots hoping to catch something. But I found that, just as with other kinds of photography, slowing down and taking more deliberate photos seemed to work better.

Joshua "Gypsy" McDaniel from These Kids Wear Crowns

The Meaning And The Moment

The obvious challenge with concert photography is trying to convey a sense of what the band or musician is all about without, of course, being able to capture their music. The really amazing thing about great live music photography (I mean the really good stuff, not my beginner attempts), is that you get sense, through the image alone, or what the artist is all about.

Richard Jonathan Perry from Evaline

Evaline had a lot of energy and passion onstage – so much so that I would have liked another chance to photograph them. My manual focus skills were not yet there when I saw them play on the first night of the showcase. Lead singer Richard Jonathan Perry is seen here in a pose that hopefully conveys some sense of the explosive tension the band had onstage.

Car Sick Cars

By contrast, Car Sick Cars had a kind of insouciance about them, despite the dramatic onstage lighting for their China showcase. In fact, the whole scene was a bit Blade Runner-ish, which is why I tried to bring as much background into the shot as possible.

Saidah Baba Talibah with Sousaphone

This is another image that saw me wishing for a slightly wider lens. Then again, maybe trying to make this work with the lens I had created something that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone for. Saidah Baba Talibah had great songs and this moment captures a nice moment with choreographed handclaps – and that distinctive Sousaphone (Tuba)!

Toni 13 years ago

You’ve captured a lot of feelings with your pictures, Fern, and that’s something many fail to do – good work!

I’ve nothing to add, except that you’re absolutely right to push the film speed quite high for this find of work, and use spot metering. I shot a band back in the 80s with a Bronica and Agfa 1600ASA roll film (plus a roll of TMax 3200 pushed to 50000ASA!) and compensated for exposure variations in the darkroom.

It’s good fun, and well worth the effort.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Thank you Toni – coming from you that means a lot!

The digital darkroom work on these is pretty obvious – certainly a little dodging & burning here and there.

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