Ok – so here’s a shot from a Gigspanner gig in 2015. For those not into their folk, Gigspanner is Peter Knight’s group, Peter being the ex (long-standing) fiddler with Steeleye Span.
I have to declare that I’m pretty happy with this shot. It’s one that I enjoy looking at, and that, after all, is what this photography business is mostly about. However, let’s take the bias out of it and try and breakdown what works, and what doesn’t.
Sharpness if key. For this pic that mean’s Peter’s eyes. As he is pretty much face on to the camera that means both eyes should be in focus. Thankfully they are – even blown up 100% from a 5D III TIFF (about three times the length of an average computer monitor).
His band mate, Roger Flack needed to be out of focus so the viewer’s attention is drawn to Peter. Although this would probably be the case anyway as Peter is face on, as humans we would instinctively be drawn to other areas of the photo in focus. Sorry, Roger!
This is an active shot. These are musicians caught in the moment, so whilst we wish to preserve the image as sharply as possible, it’s also nice to see some movement. That is exactly what we find with the percussion sticks as they rebound from the violin strings.
Live music is enjoyable. That’s why musicians play it and we pay to watch it – even if it’s folk music which is 95% about death and dismay. That wry little smile from Peter displays this perfectly and may have been lost if the shutter hadn’t opened for that fleeting moment.
Well, I’ve already said I like this shot, and I’m pretty critical of my own work. So what can I say? Well, white balance levels could benefit from a bit of tweaking. However, more importantly, this shot was luck. Not pure luck in the sense that I hadn’t been waiting for this particular tune (Fiddlesticks), because I had. I had also positioned myself to ensure my overall composition was focused on Peter’s profile and not the back of his head. I had also worked a little with the ISO/shutter speed/aperture triangle to find a best fit. But nothing was guaranteed, and the wry smile could not have been anticipated. So, what am I saying? Well – at the end of the day, you have to prepare as best you can, but shoot loads. Ignore those that claim every shot has to be borne of hours of preparation. Yes, you need to be prepared, yes you need to use your knowledge of your equipment. But beyond that, some things are simply serendipitous, and if you want to maintain that sense of excitement and discovery for what you do, whether it is paid or simply for pleasure, then don’t be afraid to keep pressing that shutter button.
For anyone interested (and I am the type of photographer who always wants to know settings), the camera specs for this shot were as follows:
Canon 5D III
1/100 (would have preferred a little faster, but I may have compromised the motion of the sticks)
So, you have the camera, and hopefully at least one lens. Or maybe you are in the enviable position of having money ready to spend on new gear. So what are you going to need to pack to ensure great shots? Of course the old adage, and to a great extent it’s true, is that it’s not about the camera, it’s all about the photographer. Well… kind of. It’s fair to say that a great photographer is going to secure some memorable shots compared to someone with all the gear and no idea how to use it; but modern camera gear has actually opened up a host of new opportunities for the concert shooter.
Firstly, the biggest problem faced by most concert photographers is the inability to use flash. This is stipulated in almost every venue and is out of respect to the performers and concert goers alike. What’s more, if you are looking for truly great photos the chances are you will get much closer to what you are looking for by using available light. This is where certain cameras have a distinct advantage over others. Ideally you will be using a camera with good low light capabilities. This will mean not simply having a reasonable ISO range (up to 6400 is usually more than ample, although modern cameras will often go well beyond this), but also being capable of shooting cleanly at high ISOs instead of producing a muddy, noisy photo. There is simply not the scope in this blog to discuss individual cameras, other than to say the prime reason I moved from the Canon 40D to the 5D iii was for its legendary status when it comes to low light.
Other than great low light capabilities you will need to aspire towards great lenses. Why spend ridiculous amounts on a few bits of plastic and glass? Quite simply, not only do you improve the chances of a pin sharp shot (something that can be impossible with some cheaper kit lenses), but a professional level lens will usually provide much improved colour, reduced flare and chromatic aberration, a wide aperture down to f2.8 and a whole host of other benefits of which you will constantly remind yourself as you hand over your credit card.
Great camera, great lens… great settings.
So what settings do you need for an average concert shot? Well, if ever there was an average shot, it would be something along the lines of:
Take your camera off the auto picture setting. These are not snapshots you’re taking, they are works of art. You must have total control over the golden triangle of ISO, shutter speed and aperture. If you are not sure about any of these – Google it! You will not be able to understand your SLR (digital or film) without this knowledge, and it’s nowhere near as difficult to understand as some people would try to make out it is.
A fast enough shutter speed to freeze the image (this should usually be at least equivalent to the length of the lens – e.g. 1/200 sec for a 200mm lens, but the faster the better). Obviously if the subject is moving about the stage at pace then you need to up the shutter speed to compensate.
A high enough ISO to get a decent shutter speed, but not so high that you lose image quality due to increased noise. In a dark concert hall using light from the band’s lighting rig you would expect to be somewhere in the region of 800 ISO to 3200(ish) ISO. You will only find the correct ISO once you start shooting in the venue. Again, this is hit and miss. With few shadows a 3200 shot can look quite clean, whereas with shadows around the eyes it can all become rather unsightly.
Manual or autofocus? It’s your choice. Personally I’m happy with autofocus, but with my dodgy eyesight it’s more out of necessity so I don’t have a choice. If you like autofocus but get fed up with objects moving you can use the back button focus technique (not available on all camera bodies) or you can switch to AI Servo mode for constant focusing. (This is called something different by Nikon and other manufacturers).
Set your focus points in advance for horizontal and vertical shots and use a focus point that is nearest the subject’s nearest eye. That’s because as humans we are naturally drawn towards the nearest eye in a photo (test this out on a few magazine shots).
Use a largish aperture, many concert photographers will be forced down to 2.8 (if their lens goes to 2.8) in order to keep noise to a minimum. This will however have the added benefit of making the artist stand out from the messy background of drum kits and roadies. Be aware however that many lenses have a sweet spot (usually around the f5.6 or f8 mark) where the focus is sharpest. Certainly try to avoid the smallest apertures like f16 and f22 or you will see the sharpness drop off quite rapidly.
Focus on the eyes, always on the eyes, not around the eyes. You may have the world’s greatest framed shot of the ultimate superstar, but if it’s out of focus it’s unlikely to grab anyone’s attention, especially the picture editor holding the chequebook. Of course, if you wish to be artistic then you may find a picture works better by picking out a specific part to focus on other than the eye – maybe the headstock of the guitar, leaving the artist as a blurry background, or the plectrum as it resonates a string. Experiment!
And finally, for the moment… give some thought to your light meter setting. Many concert photographers will set their camera to spot focus, ensuring that light readings can be taken from a small section of the veiwfinder. In most cases this should be the performer’s face. It’s not set in stone however and it doesn’t always provide the best results, but as with everything – shoot lots, and practice, practice, practice!
There can be little more exciting in life than sticking bits of yellow foam in your ears, flashing the hallowed press pass and setting up camp in the pit at the very front of the stage in front of your heroes. That said, if you are only allowed to shoot the first three songs (and sometimes less), with no flash, and you are competing with other photographers for that one special shot then there is little room for error and a firm grasp of your camera and what it can do for you is essential.
So – what are the very basics? In no particular order:
Be prepared. Make sure you have the relevant paperwork or pass to get your gear into the building, let alone the photo pit.
Have the initial settings dialed in to your camera before you enter the pit, and if you don’t have a top light on your camera ensure you remember to take a small torch (just don’t shine it towards the performer or other photographers).
Wear earplugs, and take plenty of spares. You will not be allowed in the pit without them and it’s not the job of the venue to provide them. Remember, they are used to save your hearing – they are not there to make you look professional! Basic earplugs can be purchased very cheaply, but some regular pros will invest in much more expensive custom fitted plugs.
If you have the chance, always shoot the support act. This will give you time to make changes to your camera settings to adjust for the lighting in the venue. It will also give you a good idea of where to stand for the best angles and the length of lens required for particular shots.
Be polite to everyone – from the band’s agent and crew to the venue staff and other photographers. And don’t forget the fans – they paid to be at the gig and are hoping to see their heroes close up, not the back of your head!
Take plenty of memory cards and always shoot RAW (more on that in a future post).
These are just a few of the basics that spring to mind. I will post soon on bodies and lenses and settings common to gig photographers. That said, if you find a different way of delivering a mind-blowing portfolio then feel free to stick with what you do. There are no hard and fast rules in art, and those that break the rules are the ones that become the trendsetters. I will also break down my settings for some of the shots in the galleries to give a very clear idea of what I did on the day, issues encountered, and what I could have done better.
Welcome to Festival Pictorial, a small pictorial account of what makes live music and the arts such an important part of our lives. The galleries are a selection of festivals and live gigs and will be updated when time allows. For those interested, the older shots were mostly taken on a Canon 40D, although the oldest were probably on an EOS 1N film body. The more recent shots were taken on a 5Diii with a 70-200 mk ii 2.8 or a 17-40 f4 (soon to be upgraded to a faster 24-70 mk ii 2.8). As the site grows I hope to be able to share a few tips on concert photography – at least enough to get you started.