Here is an article I wrote about 10 years ago about my approach to photographing gigs and concerts. It has been updated a little in terms of equipment, lighting and exposure as the recent, almost universal, conversion to LED lighting in venues has introduced more challenges for film users. I find the subject brightness significantly reduced under LED lights compared to the old “hot” stage lights. I am increasingly shooting with a digital SLR in favour of film for this reason, especially in smaller venues.
So you want to take a great gig shot? I think its something everyone who enjoys musical performances wants to do or has tried once or twice, often to be a bit disappointed with the results. Gig or concert photography is a favourite subject matter so I thought I would share my thoughts and practice.
Where to Start?
I started with a love for blues and jazz music and musicians and the photography came second. My first attempts to capture the feeling were tentative and self-conscious. This is not unexpected but it would be nice to think you had some idea of what you want to achieve before rushing headlong into mortgaging the house and buying that 400mm f1.4 lens! When I started to get serious about this 8 or 9 years ago I migrated towards what might be labeled performance portraits. That is, I usually isolated a single performer and filled the frame with a dynamic moment which attempted to encapsulate the spirit of the artist and the sense of occasion.
In retrospect, I think this was probably driven by aesthetic considerations and my preference for clean and elegant composition. An alternative approach might have been to emphasize the untidiness and disorder involved in performance; interactions with the audience, wide angle lens shots while lying on the stage looking out, lots of flare and microphones and other messy things getting in the way so to speak. Another approach might have been to get in close with a long lens and isolate the face or eyes or the hands on the instrument only. I can appreciate different approaches and interpretations, but a more formal, ordered style was where I kept leaning. Reviewers have called it too precise – maybe a bit too clinical, but its what I like. Do what you want to do and do it as well as possible! Copy others and steal ideas, but you will probably find the images you like and the prints you make gravitate towards a dominant style. Your preferred style and approach will then dictate what gear you need and where you want to be at a show.
Getting Access, Getting Serious
I am not a professional photographer, have never had a press pass and never tried to get one. I dont think one is necessary to take great gig photos. I prefer to be a regular punter and take my chances. Of course, this has serious drawbacks in a highly regulated venue with numbered seats and restricted movement; not to mention prohibition of cameras. So I can’t take photos at these gigs. I am unlikely to be granted a pass ahead of established media professionals so I don’t stress too much about it. (I always have a small digital camera with me and take a few potshots at 10x zoom, f4.5 and see what happens!) Invariably the press these days only get three songs in the pit and they are all shunted out and replaced by bouncers. I have seen a few performers at the bigger festivals visibly relax once the press have left.
My favourite venues are all day or multi-day festivals with a rich variety of performers. Second favourite is the local jazz, blues/roots music pub where it is possible to talk to the performers and convince the sound desk/stage manager dude to turn up the lights a bit. At festivals I approach the photographic mission quite seriously:
- Know where I want to be by when and get to the front of the stage.
- Try to catch the sound check so I know where performers will be sitting/standing.
- Is the guitarist left or right handed?
- Can I see the hands of the pianist from that position?
- Which angle will give a clean backdrop to the main performer?
- Be quite firm in staking my spot early and not yielding.
If the performance is likely to be so crowded that once stationed movement is inadvisable, I prefer to be about 45 degrees to the main performer. I like separation between microphone and face and the opportunity for a clean, clear profile. Less crowded performances mean smaller stars but more freedom to move around at will and try many different vantage points. There is even greater freedom at the smaller venues particularly if you return frequently. Most performers will be very accommodating and will let you do almost anything if you are gracious and give the impression you know what you are doing.
Getting hassled and abused
It hasn’t happened too much to me but it is an occupational hazard when practising this kind of photography. I have many stories about over-zealous bag inspectors, bar managers, bouncers etc., but no experience has ever been that unpleasant to stop me coming back again. My advice is remain calm and dignified, put your case forward politely and, if necessary, tell a little white lie. My favourites are my brother/cousin/uncle is in the band, I’m with the band or I’m doing some press stuff for the band. In small venues I always approach the performer/s first thing and ask them if its ok to shoot – no flash! I can’t recall ever being knocked back and if I am challenged later by some officious busybody I can then truthfully say I have approval from the artist.
Watching the performance and taking a little piece
In thinking about what kind of picture or record I want to make of the performance I consider how I might describe what the show is all about in one shot? What is the predominant mood? Is it all colour, movement and theatre, is it masculine physicality, soulful, religious and/or preachy, politically hard-edged, highly interactive with the audience etc. These elements drive the lighting, facial expressions and body movements of the performers and will often dictate how to frame and capture that feeling.
A few things I keep in mind:
- Performers get nervous too.
As performers approach the end of a piece they will start to relax a little. Eyes will open more and body movements become freer. They start to look around to give the wrap up signal to other band members and smile as if to say we nailed that one guys and so on. Sometimes I will be staring through the viewfinder thinking this is really boring but for five or tens seconds towards the end of a song there will be some variety of movement and a certain looseness which can be worth waiting for and anticipating. Related to this, the encore will often be a signature piece and there can be a very different vibe. They’ve played it so many times and the audience knows it anyway so they can fool around a bit more and have some fun and interact with the audience more intensely.
- Theres always the second (or third) chorus.
Sometimes you will see a head movement or mouth position which is really attractive but you miss it first time. All is not lost; maybe he/she will do the same thing on the next chorus especially if its an emphasis on a certain word or phrase which is repeated. Hooray for a second chance.
Players who also sing move away from the microphone giving you a different composition; guitar players give you the classical face of agony as they bend the strings on the money note ( I have hundreds of versions of these!) Generally they are trying to impress and giving it all in the solo break.
Although I tend to focus on individual portraits, it is also worth looking out for intimate interactions between two or more performers. In most cases musicians are concentrating on their individual roles so the moments of engagement can be brief but rewarding if you stay tuned to the dynamics of the show.
Exposure, aperture and shutter speed: aka its really dark in here!
A few observations about lighting and exposure, assuming an inside venue under artificial light.
Never use flash! Well, never say never, but I avoid it at all costs. I use it very reluctantly and if I have to, will take far fewer shots than under available light. I think its rude to the performers, annoys others in the audience and more importantly often makes for dull and unrealistic photos.
I am sometimes asked which 3200 ISO film I have to use to get a proper exposure. I almost exclusively shoot 400 ISO film. My approach is if I think I can get enough useful light onto the film I will shoot. After many years of practice I can usually judge as soon as I enter a room whether I can get away with it. This may mean exposure which is one or two stops under-exposed but the question is, underexposed in relation to what? Average overall scene or the important bits likes face and hands? In a small venue, consider a six foot tall performer standing under a spot, say 10-12 feet away, aimed straight at the head. The subject brightness range between the head and the feet will vary considerably due to light intensity and direction. Do I need or want good exposure on the black boots – is it relevant to what I want to capture? Getting some reasonable facial and upper body exposure might be the best I can do. Most of my difficult negatives are those with overexposure on the face rather than underexposure in the shadows. After all, venues are dark and viewers expect the pictures to have a lot of black in them. Go with it and compensate with some good printing skills later. In larger venues/festivals with high quality and more uniform lighting, 400 ISO film is all I need with a good lens. I can usually get away with f2 to f4 at 1/60th at the bigger shows.
Oh, and I hate black. Why do so many performers wear black!? Its so much more polite to the photographer to wear something a shade or two lighter just to separate the body from the black curtain and avoid that disembodied face and hands look.
Update: when shooting with a digital camera a good rule of thumb is to underexpose by at least 1 stop(often 2) if using the camera’s matrix metering system. If the performer’s face is well lit but the background is black or very dark, the camera will overexpose and there will be no detail in the highlights. A completely blown out white face is very unattractive. If you understand your camera metering well, spot metering or narrowing the metering frame may be a better choice. The beauty of digital cameras is you can see your failures immediately and adjust accordingly. It’s always easier to bring out a bit more detail in shadows later than have to compensate for too bright highlights.
Choose a speed and shoot manual.
Its a given that I will be shooting at maximum aperture or close to it. My approach is always to shoot manual and pick the shutter speed first. More often than not I shoot at 1/60th and adjust aperture if allowed. I think 1/60th is a nice balance between enough exposure and sharpness while allowing for the magic of some movements in body parts. Hand holding a 35mm camera at a 1/60th is not foolproof but selectivity about when to press the shutter also comes into play to either enhance motion or keep some body parts still in relation to others. If the light is really at the low end of getting away with it I will shoot at 1/30th but not usually any slower. I think a slight sense of movement can enhance the feeling of witnessing an active, vibrant event. I have tried a monopod but find them a bit restrictive especially in crowded venues and any benefits in sharpness were marginal.
I can’t recall ever using continuous shooting mode. I prefer making my own decisions about when to trip the shutter. I dont really have an objection to an approach that anticipates that one of the 6fps shots taken is the one you really intended to capture. I suppose I enjoy the challenge of relying only on my physical ability and instincts rather than the mechanics of the camera. Having said this, of course luck (good and bad), will always play some part in this kind of photography.
Even in large venues, subject brightness range can vary by two or more stops depending on the number, direction and intensity of spotlights within songs, between songs and between different performers. Again, I dont fret too much about achieving perfect exposure. I will use the spot meter in my camera to make a few quick assessments from time to time and then just use my eyes and the aperture ring to make the decision, leaving the shutter speed fixed. I tend to go straight to the face and figure if its around zone 5 it’s workable and if there are bigger apertures still available on the lens, go from there in terms of skin placement After a while, with practice, it becomes fast and instinctive. Its also fun to play the let’s guess the exposure game to test the accuracy of eye and brain before looking at any meters.
How many shots?
The standard answer is film is cheap so shoot a lot, but there are some things to consider. At crowded, large venues with a high stage you are unlikely to distract anyone by shooting a lot. In smaller clubs and pubs I am a little more conscious of being a nuisance and a distraction to the audience. I will generally hug the sides of the stage a little more in the smaller venues and venture out to the centre two or three times for a different viewpoint. It also helps to have a passable dance style. Once a few dancers get up I am more relaxed about joining them up front and then dodging them to take as many shots as possible in between shaking some booty.
How many shots depends on the number of performers on stage, the dynamics of the show and the simple photogeneity of the faces, bodies, costumes and overall stage presentation. A seated, solo singer-songwriter with one guitar and microphone will obviously be different to a 10-piece band full of colour and movement. That doesn’t necessarily mean the solo artist attracts fewer shots. Some have been fascinating subjects who chewed up rolls of film and some large bands have been more challenging to wrestle with photographically.
At festivals, where performers are on stage for around an hour, I would probably average between 1 and 2 rolls of 35mm film – say around 50 to 70 shots per performance. I expect (or hope) for 3-5 very strong images from this many shots and say another 8-10 very sound representative images of the gig but lacking that special spark. I sometimes catch myself repeating shots within the same performance but I try not to censor myself by saying you have already taken that shot!. Subtle variations in focus, lighting and body position can provide that spark which pushes one shot to the top of the pile over the others.
Film, Development and Printing
After trying quite a few combinations the one I keep returning to for film and development is Kodak TX400 (Tri-X) and Kodak XTol diluted 1+1. The technical boffins and curve junkies out there can do a better job than me of explaining why this might be a good combination. In simple practical terms I find the highlights dont get blocked up too much and I can get slightly better shadow detail compared to other combinations. XTol is often referred to as a film speed-enhancing developer. This means it can draw the most out of lightly exposed silver halides. Tri-X is described as having a shoulder in its characteristic curve meaning the risk of blowing out highlights is reduced.
Ilford HP5 is a pretty good back up. I find Neopan 400 too contrasty for an already contrasty subject and weak in the shadows, but Neopan 1600 rated at around 800 can also produce some good results in lower light situations. I have only used colour film on one or two occasions so I cant give any advice in that regard. Update: Sadly, Neopan film has been discontinued but the others remain available.
I am not a big fan of ”pushing” film too far. This subject is usually contrasty enough without pushing the highlights further through over-development. The standard development time for TX400 at 20/68 in Xtol 1+1 is about 9 minutes. I will usually develop for 10 minutes and very occasionally up to 11 minutes if the workable light was on the borderline. After that, its off to the enlarger!
Most of the time I use some form of split-grade printing technique on multigrade paper which is very effective with a high contrast subject which calls for expansion of the highlights and shadows at the expense of squeezing the midtones a little. I start with a low grade filter (0 to 1) to work on the highlights and establish a suitable time for the whites, extracting as much gradation as possible around the face and other bright areas. These interim prints will invariably have muddy and unattractive shadows with no strong blacks or blacks where you expect to see black. I follow this with a Grade 5 overall exposure and selective Grade 5 burns on background areas to produce a pleasing overall tonality in the final print. I do have a few favourite lucky negatives which will print beautifully straight through on Grade 2. With this subject matter, however, I think a very good printing technique is necessary along with the patience to try all the options to bring out the best in the negative. Murphys law also dictates that some of the prints people like and want the most are from the worst negatives requiring extensive work and multiple steps under the enlarger.
My favourite paper is the now discontinued Agfa MCC (fibre-base). I still have about 10 boxes of 11×14 left in my fridge. I am hoping a suitable and reliable alternative will surface by the time I have finished my stockpile. I rarely print my 35mm negatives any larger than 11×14 inches. Allowing for a generous border the maximum image area would be around 9×12 inches. I dont mind grain or softness in larger prints but I find the tonality becomes less attractive with bigger prints and I think thats the main game in a fine print. Preferred paper developers are Agfa Neutol + or Dektol.
OK, can we talk about gear now?
Alright then. My kit is:
Nikon 50mm f1.4
Nikon 85mm f1.8
Nikon 80-200mm f2.8
Update: for reasons noted above I am often now using a digital Nikon D750 with the same lens
A few comments about why this gear suits me. I take better photos with an auto-focus camera for this subject matter. (I expect the Leica loonies will choke on their cornflakes and say they can do it better and faster, but this is my experience). I initially went to autofocus due to failing eyesight but I had a higher success rate after doing so compared to when I used a manual focus camera. Lets face it, performers move a lot, the ‘decisive moment’ is fleeting and depth of field is limited. Getting focus where I want it as quickly as I can is important. Automatic film advance is also a benefit in this environment. The Nikon F4 is not the fastest autofocus body in the world, but I also like its heavy weight and the simple analog controls compared to the later F models. It has buttons and dials which I can change quickly and a weight which feels still in my hands and helps with camera shake at low shutter speeds. As mentioned above, I also rely on the spot meter from time to time to do exposure evaluation.
I find the 85mm focal length very suitable for my portrait style. It is the lens I use for most photos. Long enough to fill the frame if you get close enough but versatile enough to capture multiple performers if you pull back a little or they are further back on the stage. The 80-200mm f2.8 is a lovely lens and is suited to larger venues where the lighting is stronger and the performers further away. I dont use the 50mm that much but it can be useful if I want to get everyone on stage in the frame.
A few final thoughts. Its a good practice to take a pen and paper to gigs and make a note of band and performers names, take down email addresses, phone numbers etc. Not necessary for headline acts, but important for smaller gigs and festivals. I usually send digital images to performers email contact addresses or take prints back to the venues I frequent. This creates a lot of goodwill and can lead to some interesting interactions and even friendships. Also, send images to event organisers and music publications. This can grease the wheels for greater access at future events.
Get out there and give it a go and good luck with your gig photography!