Recently, I was asked if I had any tips for new concert photographers to help them get started. Instead of responding in a private message, I decided to make it a blog post in order to help other folks as well. So without further ado...
Seven essential Do’s and Don'ts for aspiring concert photographers
All photos by me for 901 Music
1. DON’T try to shoot concerts as a brand new photographer
This one is first because it’s important. Not to be the party pooper, but if you’re new to the art of photography, you’re setting yourself up for failure trying to shoot shows first. You’ll be dealing with sporadic lighting, and the chaos of the photo pit. I know you’re excited to use that Canon Rebel that you got for Christmas, but get to know the technical side of photography before you throw yourself into these kinds of situations.
2. DO invest in your gear
The VAST majority of the time, I and most other photographers will tell you that gear doesn’t matter. The photographer does. This isn’t one of those times. That Canon Rebel I mentioned earlier? Yeah, that’s not going to cut it at a concert. Even on the best of days at the biggest shows, you’ll need to have your ISO at 1600 minimum. Usually 2500 or higher. Your typical-entry level DSLRs have a usable ISO range that caps out at 800. Even with fast primes, you’re going to have a difficult road. Your skill as a photographer is always the most important part of your success here, but you won’t be able to do it without decent gear.
3. DO use zoom lenses
There is definitely a place for prime lenses. Mostly everything that isn’t concert photography. At shows, you often aren’t able to zoom with your feet because of the size of the pit. Sometimes you get lucky, but that’s just it. You get lucky. Most of the time, you’re limited to either a physical zoom, or cropping in post (try to avoid this). My recommended setup for most concerts is a full frame camera (like the Canon 5D or 6D) with a 24-70mm f/2.8 like this one here. That’s the setup that I use at probably 80% of the shows I cover. For bigger shows, I like to add a 70-200mm f/2.8, and sometimes even a second camera body, but don’t worry about those if you’re just starting out.
As a side note, I don’t use a strap or holster with a single camera, but when I use two cameras, the BlackRapid double strap is my best friend. You can get it from Amazon, or rent it from LensRentals for something like $10 for the weekend. If you’re feeling extra fancy, or if you have some money to blow, check out the Holdfast MoneyMaker. I’ve been drooling over one of those for the better part of six months now. Everyone I know who has one loves it.
4. DON’T skip on the post processing
You probably already have a good idea of why you should be shooting in RAW. If you don’t, read this. All those reasons go double for concert photography. I can’t tell you how many concert photographers I come across whose work SUCKS. Not because they’re a bad photographer, but because they aren’t processing their work properly. Don’t be one of those people. It’s easy to take a good photo. It’s more difficult to produce an excellent final product.
The more you learn about Lightroom, the better. In particular, learn how to use and create your own develop and export presets. I have a full set of presets that I created myself that allow me to batch process a whole show’s worth of photos in under 10 minutes. Don’t rely on presets that you find online. Mastin Labs and Greater than Gatsby do some great work, but they are targeted to portrait photographers, and won't help you with concert shots. Besides, there’s no guarantee that they will work properly with your camera. My stuff is geared towards Canon since that’s what I shoot, but I’ve got a buddy who shoots Nikon, and he had to do some significant tweaking to my presets to adjust for the difference in the RAW files that his camera produces.
5. DO attach yourself to a publication
Two reasons for this. One, publications are the only way you will get access to bigger shows. Two, They are basically the only way you’ll get paid unless you’re shooting for a band.
Depending on your background, you may have an easier time with this. Most photojournalists will have an advantage because they are already familiar with the publication process, and will be able to navigate it more quickly.
I decided to go an alternate route and start my own online publication (901Music) with my good friend Nathan Armstrong. However, we have a large combined skill set beyond just photography, and that’s something that most people aren’t going to be able to pull off by themselves. If you can, more power to you, but most people will have an easier time shooting for an established newspaper or magazine.
Speaking of getting paid...
6. DON'T let artists and other publications rip you off.
When you start shooting bigger artists, everyone and their mother will want to steal your stuff, especially if you’re any good. As I was writing this, I received messages about two different places that 901 Music’s photos had been stolen. Sometimes, people will come up with really sneaky ways to steal your work. Other times, they might blatantly express their intentions by ordering you to sign a contract that gives them the copyrights to all your photos without compensation (This is more of a country artist thing, although bands from other generes have started doing this as well). Familiarize yourself with copyright law and learn what your rights are. If you keep on top of things, you'll be able to collect a good number licensing fees from people who have stolen your work.
7. DO make friends with the security guards and publicists/promoters
Security guards at venues can help you out immensely when you’re shooting, or they can make your life a living hell. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do, but if possible, try to make friends with security, especially at your local clubs and arenas. They know everything about the venue, and can often point you to nooks and crannies where you can store your gear while you’re shooting.
As for the promoters/publicists, sometimes they can get you access to places you otherwise wouldn’t be able to shoot, including backstage, and at times, even on the stage itself (this is much more common at EDM shows).
BONUS: DO have fun
This one should be self-explanatory, but you definitely should have fun when shooting shows. You have the best seat in the house, and when you start shooting bigger acts you’ll be getting photos of people that most folks would kill to see. Enjoy the opportunity!