By Nicholas Stalford
Being a concert photographer is not easy. With a combination of low lighting, multiple moving figures, and a rowdy crowd in front of you, getting the perfect shot is often nearly impossible. Professional concert photographers can reduce these troubles to a degree by using better gear, but for most people, owning multiple cameras and thousand-dollar lenses is out of the question. But fortunately, this does not mean that you need to invest heavily to become a concert photographer, you just need the right combination of affordable gear and experience. Here are some tips on how to break into concert photography, and to improve your shots without spending a lot of money.
Buying a Camera and Lenses
First of all, you need a camera. Nikon and Cannon are the two most popular, but there are many other great brands including Sony, Sigma, and Olympus. When purchasing, make sure to consider the choice between a crop sensor and a full frame camera body. A crop sensor is considerably less expensive, but a full frame allows more light into the camera, making it easier to shoot dark and poorly lit concert venues. Although the more expensive full frame camera body is better for concert photography, the crop sensor does offer one advantage: When paired with a full frame lens, the crop sensor amplifies the focal length of the lens by 1.5mm. The benefit in this is that a less expensive, shorter-reaching lens gains the reach of a more expensive lens. For example, the 50mm full frame lens on a crop sensor camera increases to 75mm.
The 50mm 1.8 aperture lens is often referred to as the “nifty fifty” because it is the least expensive wide aperture lens you can purchase with a set focal length, also known as a “prime” lens. What this means is that the wide aperture of f/1.8 provides the camera with much needed light when shooting dark stages. Some similar but more expensive prime lens alternatives are the 50mm f/1.4, which is even better in low light, and the 85mm f/1.8, which provides a closer shot.
Additional lenses that are commonly used by concert photographers are wide-angle and zoom lenses. A wide-angle lens allows the photographer to get a full shot of the band, the crowd, or a combination of the two. Popular wide-angle lenses for concert photographers include the 35mm, and the more novelty ultra wide fisheye. A zoom lens allows the photographer to frame a subject at various distances, which is often an important capability when so much is happening at once during shows. Popular zoom lenses include the 23-72mm and the 18-200mm.
Of course, which gear you use depends on the venue, and more importantly the lighting, so the more you own and bring to a show the better. For beginners, a crop sensor camera with a 50mm lens and a zoom lens is a solid foundation. More advanced photographers should add another prime lens, such as the 85mm, to their collection, as well as a wide-angle lens. And for those truly passionate about pursuing a career in concert photography, a full frame camera body is a must have.
When shooting a concert, the most difficult aspect is often the lighting. Different camera bodies and lenses can make a drastic change, but it is often the more expensive gear that provides the best setup. With this said, it is important to work with what gear you have by adjusting your settings.
The three most important settings when shooting a concert are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The aperture is the hole in the lens that opens and closes to allow different levels of light to enter the camera. It is measured in a term called f-stops, with f/1.4 being a wide aperture, and f/16 being a narrow aperture. The shutter speed is the amount of time for which the aperture is left open to absorb light. For example, a fast shutter speed would be 1/1000 of a second, and a slow shutter speed would be two seconds. ISO deals with the degree to which the camera is sensitive to the amount of light available. This means that a low ISO such as 100 is less sensitive to light, where as a high ISO such as 3200 is more sensitive to light.
For concert photography, it is usually best to have a combination of a wide aperture and the fastest shutter because this allows you to avoid dark and blurry pictures. As for ISO, a higher setting such as 3200 helps the camera to find lighting, but there is a drawback to increasing your ISO. As the ISO increases, there is a distortion of the image referred to as “noise.” Overall, there is no ideal setting to use for concert photography, as it varies between different venues, so shoot in manual mode to quickly adjust your settings, and always shoot in RAW format for the best results when editing pictures after the show.
Photo Passes and the Photo Pit
With your gear chosen, you are ready to begin taking photographs. For most music venues, you are required to obtain a photo pass to use a camera with a detachable lens. In order to obtain a press pass, you should contact the performing band a few weeks before the show that you wish to cover in a polite and professional manner. Once you obtain a press pass, you can enter the venue with your camera and access the photo pit if there is one.
Unfortunately, most small and medium sized venues do not have a photo pit, making it very difficult to move around during the show to get different angles. Often, the place that you begin standing in is the place that you end up staying for the duration of the show, so make sure to get to the venue early and secure a good spot. The front is always a good place to stand because it brings you the closest to the band, but it usually ends up being where the rowdiest fans are located. If you’re standing by the stage, make sure to watch out for crowd-surfers and stay clear of the mosh pit. Another popular concert photography location is the side of the stage, as it offers space for movement, as well as a good position from which to photograph the drummer. A third hot spot for photographers is the mezzanine, especially if it wraps around close to the stage. This provides a high vantage point that allows you to photograph the band, as well as the crowd. The mezzanine is also often the safest place to change lenses. The only drawback is that it often requires a zoom lens, or an expensive prime or telephoto lens with a high focal length.
Bands, Artists, and Venues
Learning about the band and the venue is just as important as your camera gear. By studying past performances of the band, you can know what to expect, such as where various members stand, what they are like on stage, and whether or not the band comes back for an encore. For example, it would help to know that the lead singer stands on the left side of the stage, and often goes into the crowd during the band’s encore. There are many different variables to consider, and while watching videos of previous shows may not prepare you for them all, it will help.
Learning about the venue is equally if not more important. Some venues have a built in photo pit, which is an area that provides photographers with a better vantage point of the stage, but others do not. Photo pits have both advantages and disadvantages, as they often provide a close proximity and a safe environment in which to take pictures, but they also curb creativity by keeping photographers within the same space. Another disadvantage of photo pits is that most venues only allow photographers to take pictures for the first three songs. Because of these limitations, it is often worth the time and effort to arrive at a venue early and get a good spot at the front of the stage inside the crowd and outside of the photo pit.
For the most part, every venue is vastly different. Aside from whether or not there is a press pit, each venue has its own set of rules, house lighting, speaker placement, stage height, visual obstacles, and more. These differences provide a unique atmosphere and experience for listeners, but for photographers, they represent different needs and challenges.
Boston Concert Venues
The Sinclair in Cambridge is a well-lit venue without a photo pit (although it occasionally has a temporary photo pit), with a neck high stage, and multiple levels of seating. It contains both standing room and seated areas that wrap around on both the ground and mezzanine of the venue. These characteristics make it a relatively easy venue to photograph, as they provide ample space, lighting, and vantage points for concert photographers. Arriving early or on time to the show will ensure a spot either at the front or side of the stage, or above on the mezzanine.
In contrast, Paradise Rock Club in Allston is a poorly lit and difficult venue to shoot. It does not have a press pit, yet the venue employees sometimes enforce the first three songs rule. The waist high stage makes it easy for the band to get lost behind the crowd. There is both a floor room and a mezzanine, but both are standing-room only, meaning that the crowd is more likely to block any viewpoints. Two large columns are placed directly in front of the left and right side of the stage, making it even more difficult to see. For this venue, it is important to arrive early and secure a good spot at the front of the stage.
Brighton Music Hall is another Allston music venue, with slightly better characteristics for concert photography. The house lighting is sufficient, and the stage is somewhere between waist and neck high, making it visible under most circumstances. There is a long rectangular space in front of the stage that is standing room only, with seating both along the right side of the stage, behind the stage, and at the front of the venue by the doors. This provides multiple vantage points and distances to shoot. Arriving early and securing a spot at the front or to the right side of the stage will offer the best position.
Great Scott is a great small dive venue in Allston. Its small size and laid-back employees create a great combination for concert photography, and it is one of the few venues in Boston that usually allows flash. The stage is accessible from three sides making it easy to obtain different angled shots and create variation between different photographers. Because it is so small, it is possible to shoot from virtually anywhere in the venue, whether at the front of the stage or at the back by the doors.
House of Blues Boston is a slightly larger venue, and one of the few venues with a photo pit. The photo pit ranges across the whole front of the stage, which is raised to nearly head level. Directly behind the photo pit is a large standing room floor, and above that are two mezzanine levels that wrap around to the ends of the stage. These mezzanine levels have standing room, seating, and VIP seating.
Boston is home to many other music venues, each with their own pros and cons. Some other venues include the Royale, Lansdowne Pub, the TD Garden, and even Fenway Park.
Being a concert photographer is not easy, but it is these challenges that make it fun and exciting. With so many variables among camera gear, settings, bands, venues, and other aspects of the filed, there is always room for improvement. And while more expensive camera gear will improve your work, experience, knowledge, and passion are the most important skills and attributes for concert photographers. With so many different venues that attract a wide variety of bands and artists, Boston is an ideal location for concert photographers, both new and old.