The following is a list of concert photography tips and advice intended to help newcomers to the business, address frequently asked questions and keep me honest about the work.
Topics will include: concert photography, general photography advice, best business practices, photo editing techniques, gear and self-promotion.
I will update the list every day via Twitter.
01.24.2009 – Use Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries in your flash. They shorten the time between shots, last 4x longer per charge and are much better for the planet.
01.25.2009 – Always send a link to your press coverage back to the press representative who set up your photo pass. Doing this simple thing gives you a chance to say “thank you” and saves the rep from having to search for your photos later.
01.26.2009 – Shoot more than you need but not more than you can afford. While taking a single frame at the decisive moment is often all you need, you cannot publish, admire or sell a photo you didn’t take.
Making an effort to shoot more gives you greater options when editing and will improve your photography in the long run by forcing your eye to develop new ways of looking at the same subject. After you take the shot that came to you easily, force yourself into different ways of composing the subject. Don’t shoot so much that you run out of space. Always bring 50% more media than you think you’ll need.
01.27.2009 – Don’t rely on cropping after capture to improve you photos. Composing every shot in the viewfinder maximizes the printable resolution of your images, helps develop your eye and saves time in post production. Leave the cropping to production department.
01.28.2009 – Make it easier for your clients to pay you. Always send your invoice with the high resolution files. Immediate invoicing will help you get paid as quickly as possible and with fewer complications. If you know they received the photo, you know they received the invoice.
UNDEREXPOSE ON PURPOSE
01.29.2009 – Hate the typical blown out rock shot? Me too. When the lighting is difficult and the exposure is hard to pin down, I find it helpful to shoot RAW and err on the dark side. (And no, I’m not talking about the Force.)
Don’t worry if you’re photos are slightly underexposed. It’s better to push process a slightly underexposed RAW file than to try and recover blown highlights from an overexposed shot. If your subject has light skin, it’s going to be one of the first areas of the photo to lose detail to blown highlights. Unless you like all your subjects “high key,” check your histogram periodically to make sure you’re preserving the maximum amount of data.
GOOD LIGHT? BAD LIGHT?
01.30.2009 – Knowing the difference between bad light and good light can save you from wasting valuable space on your flash cards and tons of editing time. While the difference is subjective based on intent, good light is generally directional and casts some shadow that give the subject a sense of shape. Bad light either hits the subject flatly, creates unwanted shadows or misses the subject entirely.
The quality of the light is more important than the quantity. Whereas poor quality light will be bad no matter what camera you’re using, most current digital SLRs can take a great photo in low light as long as it’s good quality. Knowing what you’re looking at will tell you when to shoot and when to hold off (when in doubt shoot).
The book Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting is a great reference for photographers of all levels.
1.31.09 – Being comfortable shooting entirely manual is extremely important in all types of photography but particularly concert photography.
Rapid changes in stage lighting can easily fool the camera in any of the automatic shooting modes. The problem is that the cameras light meter will never be as smart as the human eye. I think it’s preferable to manage the exposure manually using the LCD screen and the histogram instead of trying to push and pull one of the cameras automatic modes to match what your eye sees.
Practice shooting manually in zero pressure situations. Photos of babies, cats and dogs are awesome places to start. Uh, yeah.
BACKLIT SUBJECTS & SPOT METERING
2.01.09 – In backlit scenes (background is much brighter), the subject will often turn out too dark because the camera is measuring the brightness of the entire frame. Spot metering is a good solution to this problem.
Without getting into too much techno speak, spot metering measures only the small area in the center of the scene allowing you to measure only the light bouncing off of the subject’s face and expose properly for that. (Spot metering works best on people with light or medium skin tones.)
If you’re shooting an open air festival with the band in front of a bright sky, change the camera’s metering mode to Spot Metering. Put the subject’s skin in the center of the frame and press the Exposure Lock button. Focus, recompose and shoot. Check your LCD to make sure you’ve done this correctly. Lather, rinse, repeat as necessary. If your camera does not have the spot metering option, try using center-weighted metering.
PRIME LENSES LET IN MORE LIGHT
2.02.09 – If you’ve tried every setting but your low light photos are still coming out dark it’s probably because the zoom lens that came with your camera can’t let the light into the camera quickly enough. The smallest, lightest and cheapest solution to the problem is the 50mm f/1.8 prime lens.
For about $100.00 USD, a 50mm f/1.8 lens will let in about two “stops” more light than a consumer zoom lens. Every “stop” doubles the amount of light that enters the lens!
2.03.09 – The old saying about “location. location. location” certainly holds true for concert photography. Once you get the proper credentials for your concert, remember to ask your contact if there are any important shooting restrictions like “soundboard-only.” Don’t get caught without the right lenses for the job!
RENTAL WHAT YOU DON’T OWN
2.04.09 – Don’t have the right lens for the job? Do as the pros do – rent one. From wide angle primes to super zooms, most lenses can be rented for $25 to $50 per day. (Telephoto lenses may run as high as $100 per day).
If your local camera store doesn’t rent equipment there are a number of reputable online options. I personally recommend talking to Paul at www.lensprotogo.com. Their lens selection is better than most stores in NYC and the service is simply second to none. LensProToGo can have an insured lens delivered overnight at a moments notice. Prices are even inclusive of the shipping costs.
2.05.09 – The rear LCD screen of your camera is a lying liar who lies. Though the screens of newer cameras are fairly good, the image they display can be lighter, darker or a different color from your actual photo. Do not use them to accurately judge exposure (until you get to know the bias of your screen).
The best “in the field” indicator of exposure is the RGB Histogram display. It looks something like this and if you learn how to read it, it can quickly tell you if you photo is under exposed, over exposed or just right. Periodically checking your histogram while shooting will help you get the maximum amount of detail out of your photos!
To learn how to read your histogram, click here.
FLASH CARD ERRORS
2.06.09 – Like other types of storage media, the flash cards used in digital cameras can run into problems. If you’re shooting and you encounter an error writing to your flash card, wait a few seconds to see if the problem goes away. If the images finish writing to the card but the problem persists:
1) remove the card and set it aside.
2) turn off the camera and remove and replace the camera battery.
3) restart the camera, insert a new card and format it before continuing to shoot.
If the images do not finish writing to the card, you may have lost whatever images were in the camera buffer when the error occurred. The rest of the images on the bad card are probably still recoverable. Follow the same steps above.
Whatever you do with the original card, do no attempt to reformat it or shoot on it until you can examine it with the proper software later. Both Lexar and Sandisk make very good image recovery software that comes with their cards. The software can recover damanged or even deleted images as long as the card was not formatted and filled again. I personally use Sandisk RescuePro.
BATCH PROCESS EVERYTHING
2.07.09 – Whether you’re editing photos, making invoices, or sending press requests, if you find yourself doing the same thing over and over you should probably have a batch process. In Photoshop batch processes called “actions” can be used to re-size images , sharpen and add watermarks. These actions can be used on single files or an entire folder of 500 photos. Never made an action? Find out how.
Even if you only shoot part time, you should have a professional looking invoice template that only needs a few pieces of information filled in before you send it to your clients. This can be done in word or if you’re really fancy, Adobe InDesign. Make templates for Invoices, Fax Covers and Contracts.
Finally, emails that you send out regularly like press requests and links to coverage should have templates of their own. Life is too short to spend rewriting the same old stuff!
USE THE AF-ON BUTTON
2.08.09 – If you don’t like that your camera re-focuses every time you press the shutter, try moving the autofocus activation from the shutter to the AF-ON button on the back of the camera. It takes some getting used to, but after you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to lock focus and recompose without worrying about whether you accidently tapped the shutter. This function is available on most mid-range or higher SLR cameras.
PROTECT YOUR HEARING
2.09.09 – Earplugs should be worn at all concerts. I personally love the Etymotic Research ER20 High Fidelity Earplugs. They cost about $15 USD delivered and offer a flat 20DB noise reduction across the entire range of frequencies without sounding muffled. The earplugs are specially designed to preserve the sound quality of speech and music.
2.10.09 – Whether you shoot JPEG or RAW, noise is best managed after capture. In-camera noise reduction will turn your sharp (albeit noisy) photos into impressionist paintings that lack fine detail. Turning all in-camera noise reduction off will solve half of the problem. The solution lies in third party software noise reduction like Picture Code’s Noise Ninja. The software is available as a standalone program or as a plugin that can be integrated into your photoshop workflow. Noise Ninja is easy to use, cheap, and most importantly, it preserves fine detail.
2.11.09 – No matter how long you’ve been shooting, there is always more to learn about some aspect of the craft. Find a mentor, read a book, or check out really awesome online tutorials from Todd Owyoung and Zack Arias.
KEEP EVERYTHING CLEAN
2.12.09 – A friend just sent a couple hundred wedding photos back to her photographer because there was a spot or smudge in every photo. The poor guy is going to spend hours cloning out that piece of dirt on his lens/sensor when a two minute cleaning before the event might have been enough.
2.13.09 – Be polite. Be professional. This may come as a surprise, but the photography business is not a talent show. No matter how good you are, if you’re unreliable, difficult to work with and a jerk, the fans will hate you, other photographers will shun you and no one will hire you.
Be polite to fans – Even though you’ve got a job to do, you must respect that people paid to see the show. How would you feel if you’d spent $50 and 4 hours in line to get to the front only to have some douchebag with huge camera force you out of the way because “he’s got a job to do.”
Be polite to other photographers – Although you’re competing for the same shots, it doesn’t mean you can’t all get along. Keep your gear under control and the hail mary’s to a minimum (holding the camera above your head and flashing the bejesus out of the people on stage doesn’t take talent and only pisses everyone off).
Keep in mind that the people sharing the pit with you could be in a position to hire you or refer you to future assignments – you could be sharing the pit with a photo editor or a photographer who will give you your next big gig.
I recently gave a major assignment to another photographer becuase I was already booked. Why did I choose her out of all the people I know? Because she is polite and professional in addition to having the talent to deliver.
2.14.09 – Following up on the previous tip. Given that concert photography isn’t a talent show, important jobs often fall to the photographer who is easiest to work with, predictable, and most reliable. Think of it this way – every time an editor sends you out on an assignment, they are sending you to represent their publication. Whether you’re shooting for a local website or a national mag if you screw up and piss people off, it reflects poorly on your publication. Music photography is a very small world. It only takes a few bad experiences with the right people to tarnish your reputation.
CYA AT ALL TIMES
2.15.09 – If and when a job does go poorly, your editor should be the first to know when the poop starts flying. Don’t call your boyfriend, don’t call your mom. Call your editor first and tell her exactly what’s going down. It’s all about covering your ass and letting your editor cover hers. If something prevented you from completing your assignment you should give your editor as much time as possible to fix the situation or find replacement content. Your editor will appreciate it!
RULES OF THE PIT
2.16.09 – Here are some of the general guidelines I follow when shooting in the pit:
1) Take up as little space as possible. This means traveling light and being conscious of your equipment. The less space I take up the more space is available for me to move and other photographers to move around me. It’s not another photographer’s fault for bumping me if my bag and jacket are taking up too much space for them to get by.
2) Use the courtesy tap. If you need to get by a member of security or another photographer, simply tap them on the shoulder to let them know you’re coming by instead of barreling through them.
3) Don’t leave your gear unattended. Security is not there to watch your stuff, don’t assume that they will babsit your $1500 lens. If you have to leave your bag somewhere, make sure there is no easy access. I’ve seen photogaphers lose lenses and laptops containing thousands of shots.
4) Be nice to fans. They paid to get in. They waited in line for hours. They will be your best friends or worst enemies all depending on your behavior.
5) Listen to security.
BUY GOOD GLASS
2.17.09 – It should be a goal of every serious photographer to invest in good lenses before selling the farm for latest and greatest camera body. Good lenses hold their value extremely well and their ergonomic and optical performance is usually well above cheaper models. With precious few exceptions, I recommend buying lenses of the same brand as your camera body. The optical quality of your photos is only as good as the glass you use. What’s the point of buying a $3,000 camera if you put an $350 zoom lens on the front? I could go on and on.
If anything else, it’s nice to know that you can send your entire system in for testing and cleaning in case something goes wrong. If you have problems with third party lenses, the camera manufacturer and lens manufacturer may blame each other for the problems you’re having.
2.18.09 – It literally pays to know what you’re getting into on any kind of photographic shoot. Whether you’ve got a noon wedding or a midnight concert, it helps to know as much as you can about the situation on the ground. Call the venue, ask the publicist, look at old photos, video – anything that will put you in the know. In the immortal words of G.I Joe, “And knowing is half the battle!”
FORMAT YOUR CARDS
2.19.09 – It’s important to format your cards two different ways at two different times. #1) I generally format my cards before leaving my apartment for a gig. This gives me the opportunity to make sure I’ve downloaded all of the shots on the card before deleting them and makes sure I don’t run out of space while shooting. #2) I periodically do a low-level format of all of my cards on my desktop computer immediately followed by formatting the card in my camera. This wards off write errors on the card by making sure the memory is completely clean.
2.20.09 – Being a person of small stature, I’ve found it useful to carry a small folding stool with me any time a little extra height might come in handy. There are many options out there but I’ve found the “turtle” folding step-stool to be the best of the bunch. Turtles come in a variety of sizes for roughly $20. Check your local hardware store or click here.
USING P&S CAMERAS IN LOW LIGHT
2.23.09 – Point & Shoot cameras usually struggle in low light because the camera cannot let enough light in to properly expose the image without a long shutter speed. The result is usually a blurry mess. Even though your P&S camera won’t ever be as good as an SRL, the following points will generally help your low light shooting.
1) Don’t zoom in. Take all of your photos at the widest angle possible. If you want your subject to take up more of the frame, move closer instead. P&S cameras are usually best at the widest perspective the lens is capable of.
2) Tell the camera what you’re trying to do. If “night mode” is available, use it.
3) Increase the ISO or “sensitivity” of the cameras sensor. Try using ISO 400 to start.
FINDING PRESS CONTACTS
2.24.09 – If you’ve done an exhaustive google search and still can’t find the proper contact, pick up the phone! Call the artist’s management or record label and ask them for direction.
TAKE GREAT PHOTOS
2.27.09 – Images can be good because they are technically well executed. They can also be good because they tell a story. Great photos often do both. For concert photography, this means that you need to think about capturing your subject in the most compelling composition and the most compelling moment in addition to worrying about exposure. I’ve found it useful to practice timing, exposure, subject matter, and composition separately before putting them all together.
THE REAL VALUE OF FEATURES
3.2.09 – When considering upgrading your dSLR beware the marketing hype. Sure, big jumps in megapixels and long lists of new features may sound nice, but might be accompanied by lower image quality and a lack of features that matter specifically to you. Examine your photographic style and pick the camera that will compliment it best. It might not be the newest one or the most expensive.
3.9.09 – Looking over images of a recent event I shot, I noticed that the second or third image I took of a group of people was often the best. I was shooting with flash in a dimly lit event space and it seems that by the second or third consecutive photo, people’s eyes are open and their expressions are more natural.
If you’re going to try this technique set your camera’s frame rate to 5 FPS or lower and be sure to have good batteries in your flash!
My friend and top music photographer Ryan Muir also mentioned that “another good reason for using burst mode when shooting (in low light without flash) is that in a series of 3 or 4 shots, the later exposures will have less evidence of camera shake as your grip stabilizes after depressing the shutter button. This is also true when taking long hand-held night exposures.”
ISOLATE YOUR SUBJECTS
3.15.09 – When shooting crowded events or tightly packed performers, it’s all the more important to isolate your subjects by throwing the background out of focus.
When shooting with primes, remember to use wide apertures. Wide apertures = shallow depth of field = more background blur.
When shooting with zooms use wide apertures and remember to zoom in as far as you can without excluding the important elements. Shooting at longer focal lengths = shallow depth of field = more background blur.
If more depth of field is needed shoot at wide angles with smaller apertures.