The Darkroom: Concert Photography
Hi and welcome our extended series on music digital photography.
These collections of articles will hopefully expand over the years and provide a comprehensive reference for anyone interested in shooting concert photography, general low-light locations, and the odd well-lit studio.
Part 1 – the very beginning
I run a small recording studio as my ‘real’ job, so I’ve always had a high-end DLSR cameras around to shoot clients, album covers, that kind of thing. I was asked to shoot a friends band as they wanted some promo photos to use on their website, I had the time…and they were offering free beer, so why not. The photos actually came out pretty well, and I guess that’s what inspired me to look for more bands to shoot.
I’ve never been a huge fan of going to gigs – they’re damn loud and expensive – but the funny thing is, when you’re holding a camera, you can walk around pretty much anywhere you like for free, and you have a real sense of purpose there – you’re ‘official’. When you’re at big international concerts there’s something empowering about wearing a media pass – it’s almost like you’re about to create a piece of music history, so stand out of my way people! What would a fan give to be in your place, inches away from their idols, taking photos and even getting the odd finger pistol pose directed your way. Admittedly, 90% of the bands I don’t care for too much musically – but I have been lucky enough to shoot my all time favorite band, both in the pit and backstage, actually talking to them and hanging out! It was amazing, it absolutely made it worth while for all the grungy clubs and horrible venues I’ve had to shoot to build my skills up.
So why rock concerts? Is it the ego trip? Nah, not really. There are definitely easier things in life to photograph, but I can’t stand landscapes and baby photos. There’s no decent money to be made in music photography if we’re to be honest, and most of the time you get treated like an asshole.
I think it’s the challenge mainly. One of the biggest benefits to digital photography, and its major problem at the same – anyone can buy an entry level camera and become a concert photographer. I see it all the time – in fact, I’ve seen people in the pit with iPhones shooting bands. The quality is not as important as the content – an awesome iPhone snap will beat 100 mediocre DSLR. So that’s the challenge – in a sea of mediocrity, somehow turn out 5 or 6 unbelievable unique photos. Have I don’t that yet, I think so a few times, but to be honest – the competition is not always that strong. To bring myself back down to earth though all I need to do is look some of the incredible work coming out of the international scene and I know I have a long way to go still.
So that’s the challenge – in a sea of mediocrity, somehow turn out 5 or 6 unbelievable unique photos.
Have I done that yet, I think so a few times, but to be honest – the competition is not always that strong. So to bring myself back down to earth all I need to do is look some of the incredible work coming out of the international scene and I know I still have a long way to go.
One thing you need to get through your head right now is – everyone’s a photographer. Once you’re cool with that, you can get on with the challenge.
I started working on a style fairly early on in my career. I like to call it ‘Lazy Style‘. Basically, I hold the camera to my face in whatever position feels most comfortable to my hand or arm at that moment – this is almost never horizontal. I like this as my photos tend to have an edgy look, but it’s not too forced. I’ve tried to simply crop photos in weird angles in Photoshop, but just feels awkward. Sometimes I find myself trying to over-correct myself and shoot things straighter – I have to then mentally slap my wrist and try to relax, take a breath and continue. For some reason forcing unusual horizons while shooting gives the photos more realism them in post, possibly due to the lens compression, who know.
I shoot everything in manual mode, I don’t understand all the automatic settings, and to be honest, I’m not that interested.
I love manual because for better or worse, all my shots have the same exposure settings. Sure, when I started out most of my photos were either too dark or overexposed, but eventually I learned where my camera worked best – now I can pretty much walk into a room and go ‘yarp…’ fiddle with a few dials and shoot it. I will chimp a couple of shots to make sure they’re about right, then pretty much ignore the camera and get my composition sorted. The only time I take the camera away from my face to scan the stage for opportunities or wipe the sweat out of the viewfinder.
I always have focus locked, ready just in case I see something, quickly I’m up and ready to grab it. When I get home I can pretty much apply my default preset to all the shots in Lightroom, choose the ones I like and upload tothe server – job done, off the bed.
I also tend to undershoot as much as possible too, if I can shoot a band gig using under 100 shots, I’m happy. At a local club I will never shoot more than 30 or 40 frames, tops. I just don’t have time to edit any more. Unless it’s a band I’m really into, the least amount of photos I can get away with the better.
I plan shots in my head all the time – I’ll watch the guitarist, I’ll see him doing a little move and I’ll set up to snag that move next time he does it. I would say without exception, all of the best shots Ive taken have been done like that – I’ve seen what I’ve wanted, and Ive waited for it to happen again. I can often stand there for 4 or 5 minutes holding my camera to my face like a idiot, not taking a single shot, just waiting for the ‘good one’. Sometimes it doesn’t come.
I always try to make myself available to the musician on stage. by this I mean I like to make eye contact while my camera is focus locked and ready to go – can’t tell you the number of times a dude has seen me from stage and just given me a little ‘thing’ – a finger pistol, and wink, a tongue poke…that kinda thing. You’ve got to be 100% dialed in and ready for that moment, and its gold if you nail it. Some muso’s will ignore you, or even avoid you – some love the attention and give you all sorts of cool poses – those are the people you wanna watch out for.
So, thats my primer out of the way. Next issue of The Darkroom we will start talking about hardware – cameras, lenses, flash – all that fun stuff. See ya there.
By Jacko Andrews, Darkroom Photography
Check my photo collection on the Music Nation photo server right here