By Iain Compton
I love live music. I’ll go and see pretty much anything live, even artists I don’t particularly care for. I’ve seen a lot of great shows by bands I wouldn’t choose to listen to normally. I’ve also seen a lot of terrible gigs, where the band was clearly phoning it in or where the atmosphere just wasn’t happening for one reason or another. It’s hard to beat the euphoria of a really good concert though; surrounded by pulsing masses of humanity, lights, music and soundscapes.
Being of a photographic bent, I particularly love the bit where I can shoot the artists making all that happen. And, of course, I like to make my life difficult by shooting it on film. Shooting concerts is uniquely challenging. You have to contend with rapid and dramatic shifts in lighting. You typically can’t move around very much so you’re usually locked to a single angle of the stage. If you don’t have a photo pass, you might be shooting from the middle of the crowd. And a lot of times, the venue might not let you bring in a camera at all. Shooting on film has you dealing with all of those problems plus the problem of reloading the camera in the middle of a mosh pit, and trying to manually focus while the light is changing all over the place.
So, let’s start with some basics.
If you want to shoot concerts, you need to understand who controls access to the good photo spots. If it’s the pub or a small club, that person might be you. You just need to turn up early enough to camp on a good spot with a nice view of the stage. I’ve shot a lot of concerts while braced against a soundstack on the edge of the stage.
If it’s a bigger venue, then they will likely have strict rules about photography. Typically they’ll not allow it unless you’re on an approved photographer list. You get to be on that list by talking to the tour management, not the venue. If you don’t know who that is, Google the band and the tour, and find out who their management is. Generally it’ll be listed on the playbill as ‘Management Company Name Presents Band Name’. Buy a ticket, then send them an email asking to be put on the list.
It helps if you have even a basic portfolio of previous event photography to show in your email. It doesn’t have to be too fancy, just a gallery on some free hosting is fine, even an Instagram account if it’s reasonably well curated. Tell them you already have a ticket to the show and you want to shoot it. Don’t expect free entry, they probably have their own photography team there and they don’t really need your help in capturing the gig.
The management company will tell you what their rules are for photography – a common set of rules is “no flash, warm-up act and first three songs of the headliners only”. The good news is that you can generally be on the stage side of the crush barriers while you are shooting, the bad news is that they will want you to get out of there once you’re done and you’re probably going to watch the rest of the gig from the worst spot possible.
You’re going to be shooting rapid and unpredictable movement in massively changeable light. Cool things will be happening on stage and you’ll only get one chance to capture them. You will not have time to nail focus or make a lot of adjustments on each shot, and you want to maximise your opportunities to get something good. Press photographers had a saying: “f8 and be there” by which they meant, “don’t sweat the settings, just be ready to shoot”.
For concert photography we can modify that slightly to: ”f/2.8 and be there”. You cannot adjust the exposure settings to react to changes in light, you are just going to have to shoot as wide open as you can manage, as slow as you dare and trust that the light falls right for you when you press the shutter.
I’m usually using Ilford Delta 3200 when I shoot black and white and Kodak Portra 800 when I’m shooting colour. Both of these, but especially the Portra will produce fairly thin negatives. You’re going to need to do a fair bit of coaxing to get a usable image. I’ll shoot at 1/60s and at whatever the widest aperture of my lens is. Any slower and I’ll get unacceptable amounts of motion blur, any faster and the negatives will be too thin.
I prefer to shoot medium format with a waist-level finder for concerts because the nice big ground glass is a lot easier to focus with in lowlight than a 35mm viewfinder. I like to use my Arax 88 because the removable film magazines make it easy to reload quickly. I can swap the old one for a new one and then reload the old one during a lull in the performance.
For focusing I’ll try and get some high contrast thing that’s easy to focus on like a microphone stand or drum hardware, then wait for a performer to be next to that. It’s a lot easier than trying to track someone moving rapidly about the stage.
Concerts are cool: dudes with a guitar aren’t
The best concert photography is a portrait of artists at work. Getting shots of the band interacting with each other, with the music, or with the crowd is great. Random shots of a guy stood holding a guitar aren’t really very exciting and they don’t get more exciting if the person happens to be famous. Good concert photography captures the emotion of the event and the atmosphere of the evening. Bad concert photography is just a documentary image of some people on a stage.
Because I shoot film and because I shoot with prime lenses, I have to work within additional limitations. My framing only changes if I point the camera at a different part of the stage, if I’m lucky I might be able to zoom with my feet. Otherwise, all of my shots are going to be framed by the same collection of stage hardware with the same field of view. I’ll look for ways to bring lines and movement into that frame – letting the neck of a guitar form a leading line to the drummer between a subframe of cymbals, waiting for the singer to use the microphone stand as a support to lean into the crowd, moments like that.
Standing in the photo pit with a camera that’s older than the combined ages of every other camera in there is fun. Coming away with photos that you know no-one else at the show could have taken is amazing. Plus, sometimes there’s a good tune while you’re working too.