Concert Photography: The Next Stage

May 01, 2017

Welcome to Part 2 of our series on concert photography. I hope you have had a chance to read Showtime: A Beginner’s Guide to Concert Photography. Whether or not you are a beginner, it is a good set-up for step 2 in becoming a concert photographer.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve likely gone through a few things that the majority of concert photographers have gone through. If you’ve been using an entry-level DSLR, you may have begun to feel some limits in what it allows you to do.  You have come past the point of being that fan-tographer at shows, smiling and cheering for artists you love, and have learned to focus on the job at hand. When people ask you what you are doing at a show, you don’t think twice about saying you are a concert photographer. You likely have a base of settings you know to start with at every show. And you probably have some images you used to love and now look back at and wonder why you liked them in the first place.

If most of this is true for you, welcome to Phase 2 of your growth in becoming a concert photographer. We will spend some time today talking about what to focus on in order to advance your journey to the next step. From more advanced camera settings, tricks to getting even better photos, approach and strategy in the photo pit, and what I consider equipment standards.

John Legend at the McKittrick Hotel, New York City

Cameras and Lenses for Concert Photography

Equipment is the starting point of concert photography. It doesn’t make the photographer. Practice and skill make the photographer. A good concert photographer can shoot a show with almost any equipment and come away with usable photos. An inexperienced photographer can shoot a show with the best equipment and come away with nothing. But the reality is, to make a living doing this, or at least make some income doing this, there’s a realistic minimum level of equipment you’ll need to get the job done on every single assignment.

If you are on any paid assignment, having two camera bodies is required. If you take an assignment and do not have two camera bodies, you are risking being in a situation where your body fails and you have no photos to deliver your client. Not only will you not get paid for that assignment, but you likely will not get jobs from that client ever again. Modern digital cameras have over 1,000 parts. Photo pits are crowded and equipment gets knocked around. Technology is brilliant, but it will fail, no matter how good the product is. I have had equipment break mid-shoot.  I’ve even had over-zealous photographers competing for shooting space, forcing equipment to fall off of my shoulder.  Things happen. Be prepared. Do not take paid gigs without backup equipment. Rent proper equipment if you cannot afford to buy it just yet.

I don’t like to even call it backup equipment. To me it is really set-up 1 and set-up 2 because I use them simultaneously. And if one fails I always have the other one, but neither is technically a backup. Shooting with two camera bodies, each with their own lens, allows me to cover a wider range of focal length without ever having to change lenses mid-shoot.

I have four SLR bodies in total. Two of which are standard in my bag:  one is a true backup, and the other I still have mostly for nostalgia. My typical kit starts with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon EOS 6D — two full-frame bodies which will give me the same effective focal length no matter what lens I put on them. Some people will use a body with a full frame sensor and another body, like a Canon EOS 7D Mark II, with a crop sensor. But 24mm (for example) will give you a different effective focal length on each body and I do not have time to do the math when I am in the middle of a shoot.

Depending on the venue, I start with a combination of the two Canon L-series lenses on two bodies. For smaller venues, I may have a fast, wide zoom like a 16-35mm f/2.8 on one body, and an f/2.8 standard zoom, like a 24-70mm on the other. For larger venues, like Madison Square Garden or a similar arena, I take off the ultra-wide lens and swap it with my 70-200mm f/2.8 tele zoom. Part of these choices will be venue size and the other will be shooting style. Not everyone shoots ultra-wide and not everyone shoots tight.

Leon Bridges at the Beacon Theatre, New York City

To sound like a parent, do as I say and not as I do. Even though I shoot with an EOS 5D Mark III and an EOS 6D, I would much rather have two of the exact same bodies with me in the photo pit. Changing settings on the fly becomes second nature but when you have two different bodies, you have two different layouts and menu systems you need to remember. While you may get excited to pick up an EOS 5D Mark IV, you may be better off with two Canon 6D bodies for now.

Beyond what I think is required for concert photography, there is equipment that I consider nice-to-have in your arsenal. While I would not shoot with a crop-sensor body and a full frame body as my standard for shows, a crop body, like a Canon EOS 7D Mark II, is a great addition to your gear list. There are times where you will be shooting from the sound board, and the crop factor of 1.6x will increase your effective focal length to give you more reach when you are shooting at an arena 100 feet (30m) or more from the stage. Your 200mm will give you visual coverage more like a 320mm lens. But I understand that not everyone can have a third camera body in their gear bag.

Another nice-to-have is a teleconverter, like the Canon Extender EF 1.4x III or the EF 2.0x III. The number in the name will act as a multiplier for your lenses. On the 1.4x, 200mm becomes effectively 280mm, and with the 2.0x converter a 200mm effectively changes to 400mm. Just be aware that with the 1.4x you will lose one stop of light and with the 2.0x you lose two stops. So your maximum aperture when shooting with an f/2.8 lens will be f/4 with the former and f/5.6 with the latter. This is an important thing to remember when shooting in dark conditions like concert photographers do. But knowing the limits of your gear will allow you to make proper decisions when putting together your bag for a shoot.

Don’t Waste Time — Use Good Photographic Technique

Concert photography is one of the hardest types of photography to shoot. We do not have the advantage of posing our subjects or controlling our lighting and we have a fixed time to get our shots. There are various tricks I use to maximize the number of keeper photos I have from an assignment. Some of what I do is based on the theory to get the shot and fix it later, the biggest advantage to doing this in the digital age vs. film.

Autofocus

Most photographers, myself included, use Autofocus to get consistently sharp pictures.  Today’s digital SLRs usually have an array of focusing points, and any number of ways they can be used.  My personal preference is to use center point focusing and then I recompose. For me, moving focus points as I am shooting slows me down, and I have been shooting this way for so long that I have gotten good at it. Some photographers are very quick at moving their focus points on camera, but for me it’s faster to use a single point and recompose after the focus is locked in. And if I need to press the shutter and get the shot, I can always fix the crop when doing post-production. You just need to always shoot a little wider than normal in order to have the room in the photo to do it. Using center point and refocus is my choice in the pit, and it won’t be for everyone. Test this method vs. changing focus points on the fly and see which one works for you. While I use the center focus point in the photo pit, I do move my focus point when in almost every other photo situation, like shooting portraits for promos. What works for me, may not be the best for you. Understand your options and what your camera can do and work those options as effectively as you can.

Green Day at Starland Ballroom, New Jersey

Another way to keep your workflow as fast as possible in the photo pit is using the back-button focusing feature in your camera. The standard way a camera is set-up to focus is via the shutter button. You half-press the shutter, lock in focus, and finish pressing the shutter button to take the photo. If you have a lead singer who is stationary, every time you want to take his photo you need to half-press, lock in focus, and then finish pressing to take the shot. Back-button focusing moves the focus activation to a separate button so you have one button, near your thumb, that tells the camera to focus, and then you fully press the shutter button to take the photo. Your camera will not refocus until you press the rear button again. Even though I have been making recommendations to streamline your process as much as possible, this actually adds one extra step to the process, but it will ultimately make your process faster. If the singer doesn’t move and you use the traditional way of focusing, the camera has to focus every single time you press that shutter button. By using back button focusing, you can just press your shutter and shoot a fairly stationary subject until they move and you need to refocus your camera. This will greatly speed up your process. It takes a little getting used to, but once you get the hang of it you will be glad you learned the technique.

Exposure Control

Have you taken a look at the Mode Dial on your camera and seen C1, C2 and sometimes C3? Canon calls these Custom settings. You can set up your camera a certain way, and then memorize these settings with a menu command, assigning them to one of the C-settings on the Mode Dial.  They’re another way to keep your process moving in the photo pit.

My normal setting on my cameras is ISO 3200, f/2.8 and 1/250 sec in Manual exposure mode to start. Most venues I shoot in are clubs and this is usually a starting point that is pretty close to what I end up shooting at. My C1 (Custom 1) setting I will lock in for the crowd. The crowd is usually darker than the stage so instead of adjusting my manual settings every time I look at the crowd, I have a custom setting locked in so in one turn of a dial I can shoot the crowd, and then a moment later switch it back to Manual and continue shooting the stage.

Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull at Prudential Center, New Jersey

There are times I am shooting a concert for a TV production. For those projects I am shooting the stage, the crowd and even using flash before or after the show. For assignments like this I have three totally different settings I need and the custom feature allows me to set them once and go back and forth to them with the turn of a dial. A big time saver. Or what about shooting a festival? One stage may be in direct sunlight while another stage is in the shade. Your settings will be totally different. If you shoot 20 bands in a single day, locking in one or more Custom settings once will make your day much easier.

Figuring out your perfect exposure is nearly impossible at concerts. Lights change not only from song-to-song but from second-to-second. There is no way to nail the exposure every single time. Modern cameras have a much underused feature on them called Auto Exposure Bracketing. In your menu, set your camera to a three shot exposure bracket. With your camera in burst mode, this will allow you to shoot three consecutive photos; one in the initial exposure you set, one at a darker exposure and one at a brighter exposure. And you can even tell the camera how much of a difference in exposure you want on those shots. My normal setting is 2/3 of a stop brighter and 2/3 darker. You can adjust this as needed. By bracketing your exposure, you minimize the effect of changing light and you also have two extra shots to avoid blinking or a mic in the face. You effectively triple your chances of nailing the shot.

Help From the Histogram

Can you read a histogram? During image playback, if you have pressed the “info” button on the back of your camera you will see what looks like a scientific graph. It looks like one because it is one. That graph is called a histogram and the purpose of it is to allow you to see how shadows and highlights are affecting your photo. It is important to be able to read and interpret a histogram, otherwise you can end up with shadows and highlights that cannot be recovered.

You probably have heard that the histogram information runs side-to-side, to display different brightness levels in a picture or scene.  The information at the far LEFT is darkest shadow information, and the graph info at the far RIGHT represents the brightest highlights recorded.  If any of the information is “chopped” off at the far left or right, it means there are tones in the image which are too dark or too light to reproduce properly.

Understanding this histogram will allow you to incorporate a technique some photographers use called ETTR — Exposing To The Right. The right of the histogram, again, is the brighter section of the photo. When we say expose to the right, the goal is to expose your photo on the brighter side, but to use the histogram to verify that important light-colored and bright tones do not become blown-out highlights, which are unrecoverable.  In effect, you take a few initial test shots, and insure that your histogram’s right-side information is not being clipped off by the vertical edge of the graph.

Phillip Phillips at the Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, New York

Once blown — important highlight areas over-exposed and washed-out — the photo can go in the trash. The reason we use ETTR is that it easier to recover highlights than it is to recover shadows, as long as those highlights are not too far over-exposed. Photographers from the days of film will remember that film recovers shadows better than highlights. Digital is the opposite. Bringing up shadows in post creates a lot of noise. By exposing a little brighter — but not so bright that we wash-out important highlights —you will have more information left in the photo and especially in shadow areas for you to work with when editing.  The histogram can be a big help in determining the difference between a little bit of deliberate lightening of exposure, and too much lightening.

As you have read here, we have reached further into the technical end of concert photography than we did in our first article. By now you should have been comfortable in a photo pit using the most basic of camera settings. I hope this article has taught you how to use the technology in your camera to maximize keeper rates of your photo sets and add to the creative expression of your photos.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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