My love for concert photography started back in the early 1980s, when my brother surprised me with tickets to see Van Halen at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. It was my first live show and I was determined to sneak past the security guards with my dad’s Minolta SLR, which had a telephoto lens as long as my forearm.
Given my lack of photo knowledge (and the limited number of frames in a roll of film), it's amazing I have anything to show for that effort, but I did manage to capture the image below of David Lee Roth decked out in a gaudy orange-and-white outfit. The photo is grainy, but it does convey some of the frenetic energy I remember from that night.
It also reminds me of how "blind" we were back in the days of film. Until your photos came back from the developer, you had no way of knowing if you actually got the shot you wanted.
In the 1990s, digital photography changed all that, giving you the ability to instantly review your work. If you didn't get the shot, you tweaked the settings until you snapped a photo more to your liking. But shooting rock concerts has always been a challenge. For starters, you have to contend with dramatic shifts in lighting. And then, of course, there's the performers who refuse to stand still while you're laboring to bring them into focus.
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But don't let that scare you off. With these simple tips, you, too, (not U2) can be a master in the art of concert photography. Just remember that knowledge is power. Instead of letting the camera do all the work, learn how to use the exposure settings. As you'll soon see, that produces far better results than relying on auto mode.
And, yes, in this arena, an advanced digital camera will serve you far better than a smartphone—precisely because it lets you take charge when you need to.
Get up close and personal: It may sound obvious, but the closer you get to the stage, the better your shots will be. "One of the biggest mistakes people make when shooting photos," says portrait photographer Andrew H. Walker, whose famous subjects have included Owen Wilson, Lily Tomlin, and Pee Wee Herman, "is they don't fill the entire frame with action." And that's hard to do when you're stuck in the nose-bleed section. So try to find a good seat at a fair price. Or better yet, buy tickets to a performance at a small venue (far easier to do when you follow up-and-coming artists).
A few years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a photo event featuring the singer Brandi Carlile. Because it was held in an intimate space, I could belly up to the stage and capture the wonderful expressions on her face as she sang. That's what makes for a great picture.
If you must use a smartphone instead of a digital camera, keep in mind that mobile devices rarely come with zoom lenses. Instead, they offer a digital zoom feature, which tends to produce grainy shots. To get a close-up of the action, you're better off buying a mini smartphone lens from a company like Olloclip.
You may also want to consult this list of the best smartphone cameras in our ratings.
Freeze the action. To pluck a sharp image from the high-octane motion on stage, you'll want to select a fast shutter speed—1/250 of a second or higher. If the lighting is dim, you might also need to raise the ISO setting to increase the sensitivity of the camera's image sensor. Don't be afraid to shoot some photos at slower shutter speeds—1/60 of a second or less. The blurred arm of a guitarist or a drummer can dramatically convey the intensity of a performance.
Beware of the dark. Poor lighting is one of the biggest challenges of concert photography—especially for the smartphone crowd. "Smartphones always expose for the entire photo," says Walker. "Because most of the stage is in darkness and only the band members are in spotlights, the smartphone will try to make an exposure that will brighten all of that darkness, leaving the band completely overexposed."
That's why you're better off using a camera that gives you full control of the f-stop and ISO. Some lenses, generally the pricey ones, also allow for very wide apertures (f/2 or f/1.4) to capture more light. And that lets you produce professional-looking images using a shallow depth-of-field. Look, for example, at the face of the female lead singer below. Her peace sign is slightly out of focus, but the features on her face are crystal clear.
Look for dramatic moments: As a longtime fan of 1980s rock, I gravitate towards the histrionics of hair bands and the snarling expressions of punk performers. But all artists reveal their personalities on stage. It's up to you to recognize the moments when they do that and somehow capture them.
I like to do some research on bands before I go to the concert. By watching videos on YouTube or Google, for example, I get a sense of how each member moves on stage, and which movements might make for an interesting shot. Online reviews of a show can also help prepare you for the evening's fireworks.
Know the rules: It’s important to learn before you leave home what sort of restrictions you'll face once you reach the venue. It’s almost a given, for example, that you won't be able to bring a selfie stick, monopod, or tripod into an arena or club. Most won’t let you use a flash either, because it's distracting for the band and the crowd.
To avoid trouble, consult the FAQ on the venue's website. For instance, I was surprised to see how many stadiums won’t allow you to enter with an SLR outfitted with a zoom lens. (So much for my dad's Minolta.) My guess is that this has less to do with the camera's design than with its size. So you may want to leave that big advanced point-and-shoot at home in favor of a more compact and versatile model such as the Sony Cyber-shot DSC RX-100 IV. It has an excellent image stabilizer and a relatively long battery life and it takes very good photos.
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