A long time ago in a land almost before the Coronavirus, I wrote a couple of articles about music photography; specifically, Why I Became A Music Photographer and How I Became A Music Photographer. I promised a final tome: how to actually do the music photography. Then a home-built patio and a load of photography that wasn’t music photography intervened. Who’d have thought that being forced to stay at home, seemingly with nothing to do could be so time consuming? For the moment though, I’ve run out of paving slabs and ideas for photography that isn’t music photography. Finally then, here is the third instalment.
The first and slightly depressing realisation for the aspiring music photographer is that the adage beloved of camera clubs around the globe: ‘it isn’t the camera, it’s the photographer’ doesn’t really stack up in this genre of photography. Ansel Adams might have dazzled the world with breath taking images of the American West with not much more than a pinhole camera, but I’d defy him to pull off shooting an alt-punk band at The Underworld on a Monday night with one. It’s quite hard to take photos in an enclosed space with a notable absence of electric light bulbs without a camera that is very light sensitive and a fast lens or two. This means if you want to shoot live music, the kit lens that came with your DSLR is more likely to become acquainted with eBay than the inside of a music venue. It’s a perverse irony that to build a good portfolio in tiny venues, you really require the kind of camera body you no longer need by the time you’re shooting megastars playing under thousands of watts of light in the O2.
But it’s not all bad news. Technology has moved on in such leaps and bounds in recent years that even modestly priced cameras can shoot at previously unthought of ISOs without unacceptable levels of digital noise and software technology is such that if you do end up with unacceptable levels of digital noise in your images, you can probably get rid of most of it anyway. In addition, whilst you might need a massive telephoto lens to get an acceptable image from the back of the O2, a 50mm f1.8 prime lens can be yours for fifty quid on eBay and will serve you well for that Monday night appointment with the alt-punk band.
The next thing to get your head around is that for any shoot from a photo pit, you’re likely to only get three songs in which to obtain your images. These three songs are nearly always the first three songs of a given set – often before your subject or their lighting has really got into their stride. So, it’s important to maximise your opportunity – and that requires a little homework before you head to the venue.
The first thing I do is check the website setlist.fm. Hopefully what I find when I get there is a consistent setlist for the artist and tour I’m about to shoot. This means I can be pretty confident about which songs I’m going to get for my first three. Next job is to search YouTube for the three songs in question and check videos for these songs, ensuring what I’m searching is from the current tour. Whilst I absolutely loathe it when I’m at a gig as a punter and have to look around people in front of me enjoying the live spectacle through the back of a mobile phone screen, I cannot deny the people who insist on filming gigs on their phones are quite handy for music photographers undertaking due diligence. Once I’ve watched a few times what I’m likely to see from the pit, I’m in a far better place to anticipate specific events or lighting cues.
So that’s how I would prepare for a gig, but what about shooting the actual pictures? There are a few rules I set myself, principally derived through trial and a fair amount of error when I was starting out. My technique isn’t necessarily ‘right’, it’s just ‘mine’, but it is as follows. Firstly, I always shoot in RAW. File sizes might be bigger, ingest and subsequent upload to a server might take longer, but these disadvantages are more than compensated for by the incredible flexibility that shooting RAW images offers in post. Concert lighting can generate some peculiar colour tones and these can be tamed when necessary in RAW image files. Whilst obviously you always aim to nail exposure, in RAW several stops of light can be gained or lost provided you are shooting at a sensible ISO (when increasing exposure) or highlights are not already blown (when decreasing exposure). For this reason, when metering exposure, I tend to exercise caution and if necessary, under-expose images a little bit. Shadow detail can be boosted. Blown highlights (sweat on skin being a prime example) cannot be recovered.
If I am determining the exposure, you’d assume that I do not use any kind of automated exposure mode on the camera, and you’d be right to do so. With extreme variations in light (often between consecutive frames), it’s pretty much essential to have full manual control over both shutter speed and aperture when shooting live music events. Images intended for editorial use must reflect the reality of what the audience saw and what the artist and their creative lighting team envisaged. If a performer is intended to be in silhouette with no determinable features, or at the other extreme bathed in very bright white lights, this is what your images should show. It’s difficult to achieve that if your camera is returning exposures based on how it ‘thinks’ the scene should look.
So how do you determine the shutter speeds and apertures to use for a specific photograph? The answer to this is actually easier than you might think. Other than in very exceptional circumstances, for editorial images you need your subject to be sharp in the frame. This means in low light you cannot use the option of reducing your shutter speed below that which would be required in order to freeze the action. What that speed needs to be will vary according to the performance and is something you determine through experience. An acoustic performance with a single singer/guitarist is likely to be lower in energy and a shutter speed of 1/125 or lower could deliver a sharp image. A high energy rock performance on the other hand might require upwards of 1/500. I find a good compromise to be around 1/250 or 1/320 so tend to set this in the absence of a positive reason not to.
Determining the correct aperture is often a decision that doesn’t need to be made at all. Outside of the largest venues, a lack of available light means the aperture simply has to be as wide as you can get it. If I could put a pair of mole grips on my 24-70mm zoom lens and get it to open up beyond its widest aperture of f2.8, I’d have done it multiple times by now.
Whilst the setting of shutter speed and aperture is very important, the exposure of an image is not determined solely by these two elements alone. The third element in the ‘exposure triangle’ is ISO. In digital photography, the ISO value relates to the amount of digital amplification given to the signal when it leaves the camera sensor. The greater the ISO value, the more amplification and the brighter the frame. The trade-off is that the more the signal is amplified, the more digital noise accompanies the image. Whilst you always want to keep the ISO as low as possible, an image compromised by the increased noise of high ISO is preferable to an image compromised through the lack of sharpness associated with a slow shutter speed. The former can be drastically improved in post; the latter, not really.
Allowing the camera to automatically set an ISO value whilst also setting a maximum ISO figure the camera cannot exceed is a common and very valid practice, but I have always just set a fixed ISO at the outset. After a while, you get a sixth sense for appropriate ISO values in a given amount of light and whilst ‘chimping’ (routinely checking images on your camera’s LCD screen between shots) is a seriously bad idea when you’ve only a limited amount of time to get as many good shots as possible, you do have time to quickly check a histogram to ensure you’re in the right exposure ball park. Typical ISO settings for concert photography would be circa ISO400-800 for well-lit shows, ISO1600-3200 for dark to intermediate shows and ISO6400 and up for Monday night at The Underworld.
Before leaving how the camera is set up, there are four more factors to consider: 1) what metering mode the camera uses to determine the brightness of an image, 2) what focussing mode the camera and lens uses to ensure images remain in focus, 3) what white balance setup the camera has to resolve accurate colours, and 4) how many frames are shot when you press the shutter release.
It’s important to ensure that your subject performer is both in focus and correctly exposed for the scene they are in – as per the previous example, if your subject is in jet-back silhouette, your photograph should reflect this. For this reason, I meter and focus on a single point in the frame – usually the face of the subject. The single-point autofocus and spot metering point is selected by me using a joystick on the back of the camera. I don’t use any kind of 3d focus tracking because whilst the camera might technically be able to do it, I don’t want to take the risk in a dark and/or low contrast environment that it might not accurately track the subject. I use a continuous servo focusing mode so the camera continues to adjust focus should the subject move closer or further away from the camera whilst within the single-point autofocus area. In extreme circumstances of very limited light or low contrast (when the smoke machine guy is on piece rate) I might have to resort to manual focus because the camera simply cannot acquire focus in those conditions. Fortunately, these times are rare because in a frenetic photo pit I’d much rather trust the camera than my own eyes to nail focus.
One other area where I let the camera do the thinking is white balance and accordingly, I leave the camera to auto white balance. It usually gets it right and on the rare occasions when it doesn’t, I remind myself in post how glad I am that my images were shot in RAW. My camera is designed for events/sports and as a result it has the capability to fire off frames at a rate that would embarrass Al Capone. I reserve the burst mode however for high energy performances or dynamic lighting setups, where consecutive frames can look very different. Wading through hundreds of identical looking frames in post isn’t a barrel of laughs and you’d look/sound a bit of a Charlie rattling off 12 frames a second photographing an artist such as Newton Faulkner or Tom Misch when they are stood comparatively still at a microphone with a guitar around their neck.
It would be great to think that this article and the two which preceded it might have encouraged at least one person to pick up a camera and try their hand at gig photography. I can honestly say that there are precious few things I’ve done that are as rewarding as standing between a musical artist and a few thousand of their fans with an incredibly privileged view and three songs in which to nail your photos. The feeling of pressing the shutter with a great looking image in the viewfinder and (even better) finding it’s as good as you remembered it when you see it again is really hard to beat. It came to me late as something of a midlife crisis, but in six years I’ve gone from the smallest of venues to shooting U2 at the O2 and it’s a journey that has exceeded my wildest expectations. All we have to hope now is that when the horrors of Covid-19 are finally behind us, there are enough grass roots music venues still around to support the music and the photographers of the music into the future.
Feature on Just How Do You Do Music Photography by Simon Reed May 2020