I’ll never forget my first show with a “professional” camera. It was 2006, and I was 17. I had the Canon Digital Rebel XT with a kit lens at the Graceland and no idea how to use it. The venue was so dark that all of my photos turned out black. Even with frantically MySpace messaging my only photographer friend for tips, not a single image from that show turned out.
Two days later, I convinced my mom to take me to the mall and buy me the 50mm f/1.8–AKA the Nifty Fifty–for $90, and I can only assume it changed my life forever because I’m here now writing this blog about photography.
Before we really jump into this, the most important point through all of these words is this:
Think while you work
Yes I understand that we’re entering “condescending” territory right now, but when the pressure is on, it can be hard to remain conscious of your current situation. Forbes published an article that explains it better than I can, but tl;dr humans evolved with a fight, fright, or freeze instinct “that disables our brain’s ability for detailed thought.” We suddenly see pressure as a threat.
Try not to let the panic of “holy shit I only have 3 songs to create perfection” cloud your thought process so you black out for the 10 minutes you’re in the pit. I used to shoot shows in a daze because I always want to be in 5 places at once, but the most important factor in being an attentive photographer is to use your noodle, live in the moment, remind yourself that it’s just a show, and really think about what you’re looking at.
Where is the light coming from? How is my subject positioned within the light? Where do I need my subject to be to achieve the look I’m going for? Next you’ll ascend to anticipating what’s about to happen onstage. That’s how you know you’ve reached total concert zen.
Assuming 3 minutes per song and 3 songs per set, you have 9 minutes in the photo pit.
At a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second, you have 200 opportunities per second to create a photo.
That’s 108,000 moments in the hypothetical 9 minutes you’re allowed in the photo pit for a final 5-10 images.
This dismisses tons of other factors, but I’m just emphasizing that you have plenty of time to slow down and watch what’s happening in front of you while also constantly thinking about light, composition, and uniqueness. (If there are bodies flying over the barricade, that’s another story.) With enough practice, these thoughts happen more and more naturally and with more detail, and eventually: BOOM. You’re a great photographer.
Anyway, here are some different styles of venue lighting:
Your standard house lights will be stationary and most likely aim at the same spot on stage at all times. Make note of where these spots are, especially if you’re in a tricky lighting situation and having a hard time focusing. El Corazon in Seattle has been historically frustrating; maybe it’s better now, but there have been times when there is only a single spotlight on stage, and it’s pointed at some in-between spot that only looks cool when the artist steps into it.
Usually in doomsday scenarios like this, I just wait for the subject to move into the light spot to focus and shoot.
Many legit bands opt to bring out their own lighting rig, which usually involves lights that move in some way. In many cases with high profile artists, the lighting person is playing a recorded light show and there are a ton of repetitive, and thus predictable, moments. You just have to watch and wait for interesting looks and trust your gut in the moment. I personally use moving lights to frame humans-in-motion all the time.
OR if you’re Dave Summers, the lighting board is your instrument. For these shows I am always thinking on my toes and trying to find the best vantage points so I can post up until I get “the shot,” however it may look that night. I have a tendency to run around trying to get every perspective possible, but at the end of the day I miss so much of the show in my moments of mobility that I try to maximize each sweet spot by spending a song or so in one place before squeezing my way into another.
Strobes, strobes, strobes. Burst mode is your friend for strobes. I usually throw my shutter speed to around 1/500th to start, then adjust depending on the intensity of the light. It’s a crapshoot. (If you have a better tip for this please leave it in the comments!)
Flash is the BYOB of lighting. It’s basically only acceptable at floor and house shows–and when the band says you can. If you’re not sure, just don’t do it.
Consider the Position
Lights behind the stage will provide backlighting, including a cool rim light effect. With no front lights, it turns everyone into a silhouette and can make focusing tricky, so I usually focus on their hair or nose (i.e. the only part of a subject that will have any detail) and hope for the best.
Try positioning your light source entirely behind your subject so you don’t accidentally slice into their head with a bright light from behind–unless that’s what you’re going for, of course.
A few extra credit notes
Use your resources.
YouTube is your friend! If you’re photographing a venue you’ve never shot before, look up a few videos to get a better idea of what you’re working with. Similarly, if you’re photographing a major tour, look up some videos from the days before so you can prepare for special lighting, CO2 cannons, pyro, confetti, and whatever else bands are doing these days.
Don’t follow the crowd.
Is every single photographer in the photo pit clustered around the same spot? If so, GTFO. Move to the outskirts (far left and right) to get a perspective many togs forget about. You can even use a long lens [70-200 or 100mm f/2.8; 85mm f/1.8 or 1.4] to get closer to your subjects from other spots around the venue or even just further away in the photo pit.