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A Day in the Life of a Live Music Photographer

A Day in the Life of a Live Music Photographer

Written 6 years ago by Guest Contributor

This is a first person narrative on gig photography. I encourage you to go into reading this as if it were a journey through time, unraveling a story about a young man with a passion.

That being said, I hope to help you better understand and make use of your time going into shooting a show.

I am by no means a professional photographer, however I do have a lot of experience and I believe the quality of my photos allows me to feel confident enough to write this post. I am a 21-year-old college student working as a sound engineer in a small concert venue called the M-Shop in the middle of Iowa.

I have an overactive hobby and a love for wide apertures and high ISO’s. I have shot bands such as O.A.R‚ Cartel‚ Ludo‚ The Morning Light‚ Howie Day and Straylight Run. I am currently lined up to shoot a few other gigs including Cold War Kids‚ Motion City Soundtrack‚ and HelloGoodbye.

This is my life and I love it.

I shoot with a Nikon D90 and a variety of lenses including my favorites – a 50mm f/1.8 a 24mm 2.8 and a 70-200 f/2.8. I have always loved music – especially live music. There is something in the emotion and energy radiating through the room during a concert that I simply cannot shake for days after the show. I live for that feeling. Shooting concerts gives me the ability to capture that emotion and feeling in the venue at the time.

I prefer shooting for bands that I am familiar with, however, this is not always the case. You may find yourself shooting a festival or just a small show at a local joint to get some practice in. Either way, if you have the means, pick up the bands CD if you don’t know the music. Take a listen and plan for the type of shooting you will be doing. Knowing when the emotional outcries and jamming guitar solos are going to pour out can help you capture the perfect moment.

Before any show, there are a few things I always do. I create/confirm a few presets on my camera, black and white, high contrast, and then a specific “Live” setting. The D90 has a great ability to create custom photo scenes. My “Live” scene consists of a sharpening boost, typically a -0.7 EV and very slight decrease in saturation.

I also have quick menus setup so I can make sure my camera settings are all correct. This includes a high ISO 800+ depending on lighting conditions in the venue, Autofocus illumination OFF this is so important if you want to avoid making any band members upset and annoyed. I also turn on AF or continuous/servo autofocus. This allows me to make sure that things stay in focus (when I use autofocus.)

Now that my camera is set, I typically do something that may seem a little silly to most people, but it really helps me stabilize my shooting and get consistently clearer pictures. Before I head out for the show, I take my camera with me into a dark room, typically my bathroom (no windows) and I practice adjusting my ISO, White Balance and EV +/- with the lights off. I’ll then turn on a very small light, flashlight or cell phone backlight and use it to illuminate something in the room. I then take a few pictures, adjusting slightly in-between frames. Just practicing keeping my hands steady and my ability to adjust on the fly. This may seem ridiculous, but basketball players shoot free throws hundreds of times a day, why cant a photographer.

Live Music Photography One

It’s time to head out to the shoot. I have to stress this here – you will not be able to take your professional equipment into a large venue with a bigger act without a photo pass or press pass. This is something you have to acquire on your own terms. I have been presented with them in the past, and I have also had to seek them out. If you are just starting out, I highly suggest hitting your local venues with small local bands first where you most likely wont need a pass to shoot.

If the venue is large, like a music hall or outdoor pavilion/amphitheater, I grab my pass and my gear (if you aren’t sure what gear to take, check out my post that covers how to pack your bag) and I head in. I make my way up to the front where I am greeted by someone typically 3 times my size wanting to know why I am trying to get up there. This is where my charming personality and ability to talk to people comes in. I quickly make friends with the security person and introduce myself and explain what I am doing.

They usually have plenty of experience with photographers, but trust me, these are the last people you want to piss off. I make it a very strong point to be as friendly and nice to these people as possible. Remember, you are going to be in there while they are trying to do their job, as well as you do yours. In the past, I have made such an impression on security at a show, I actually got some more work. The company wanted me to get some shots of their guys in action to use for promotion.

Shooting a larger show typically mandates two minor things. No flash and only shooting during the first 3 songs of the headliner. Thus I follow a few simple rules while shooting. Before the show starts, typically during the opener, I get my settings fine-tuned, making sure that I am consistently grabbing well exposed, good quality shots. This allows me the ability to – as they say in the military, fire and forget.

Outdoor venues pose a little bit more of a challenge. As the show goes on, the sunlight dwindles and you have to be adjusting quickly and know what you are doing. This is where my practice comes in.

Live Music Photography Two

Within the first 30 seconds of the first song, I analyze the stage plot and figure out what will make for good pictures, angles, framing and lighting. One of the other reasons I suggest making friends with the security up front is so that you feel more comfortable running back and forth in the pit. To get from one side of the stage to the other you will have to jog in front or behind them and sometimes zig zag through them while they pull people from the crowd. I have never had a problem with anyone at any of the shows I have shot because I am polite and allow him or her to keep doing their job while I try and do mine.

All my settings are set. I am comfortable with the security got my bag close with my lenses‚ I only take 2 or maybe 3 MAX. Not nearly enough time to switch back and fourth. This is where knowing the music comes in handy. I start firing away on high burst setting. With the fast paced action on stage I usually try and shoot two or 3 shots at a time. This can be the difference between the lead singer screaming into the microphone or looking lackluster and expressionless.

Shooting the concert is just something that you have to go out and do. I don’t have very many tips for getting the good shot or angle. The best I can do is tell you what I have told you and encourage you to seek inspiration. I know there are a lot of people out there that I turn to for inspiration, some I know personally, others I just know their work. But nothing makes me more excited for a shoot then looking at someone else’s work I admire and striving to achieve their level of quality and success.

As I mention over and over again don’t worry about taking too many pictures. Buy a big enough memory stick and be ready to fill it up. Being comfortable with the camera you are using and knowing how to use it will help you. The editing process is almost as fun as the shooting. Time to shoot away.

Live Music Photography Three

Live Music Photography Four

Live Music Photography Five

After the third song I pack up my stuff, thank the security again and give a nice wave to the band thanking them. Occasionally I will take some shots from the back of the crowd or some shots from around the venue. It all depends on what I am going for with the shoot. I then sit back or stand and enjoy the show.

After the show depending on the band and the venue I stick around to personally thank the band and compliment the show. If it’s a local venue, like the M-Shop, the one I work at, then I offer my business card and usually offer them all of the photos for no charge to use for promotion (mainly because I am just in it for practice anyway and very rarely get paid for my work, at this stage in my career anyway).

Everyone edits photos in their own style. I think this along with a few aspects of the raw files gives each photographer his or her own style. I have been told many things about my personal style, but I don’t like to give my opinion on how I shoot. I like it to speak for itself. Editing through hundreds of images can take a lot of time and be very frustrating.

I have used Aperture in the past but am currently making the switch to Lightroom 3 with the Nik Software package. My workflow is quite erratic and never really consistent which is a problem that I have. I typically start eliminating the images that I do not like. This usually drops my total by at least half. Considering most of my shots are doubles or triples taken within fractions of seconds from each other.

I then move to quick editing and batch adjustments, exposures, details, highlight recovery and contrast. I typically like to pull in a lot of dark and shadows to accentuate the highlights and colors. I then make another round of flagging this time. I don’t delete anymore because management often requests the photos you take and I provide them with this list and highlight the ones that I spent more time on.

Once I have flagged all the photos I see potential in, I continue with the editing process usually doing sharpening and noise reduction using Nik Software. This is where I put my spin on all of my photographs and really work hard to make each picture unique.

Live Music Photography Six

Once I am happy with all of my images, I’m done! The whole process takes me between 5 and 10 days. Needless to say, I am happy when I finish but I cannot wait for the next show.

That, my friends, is a very long and hopefully helpful narrative of a day/week, in the shoes of someone who loves photography and live music. I hope you enjoyed it. If you want to see more of my photography and other day-to-day art feel free to drop by my personal site at markzikra.com and drop me a comment or two!

If you have some live photography pictures of your own please leave a comment below with a link to them! I always love to see some of the stuff other people create!

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Comments
Greg Baker  6 years ago

Always interesting to see how other people work! I’m an amateur photographer but am very keen on my live music. I was lucky enough to get a press pass to WOMAD here in Abu Dhabi, here are some of the photos:

http://photos.gregnbaker.com/womad2010ad

I don’t have the latest or greatest kit, but with some practice and judicious editing anyone can get some decent shots! The rest of my portfolio is on Flickr.

Thanks for an interesting read!

Mark Zikra  6 years ago

Greg –

I’m the author of that article, just checked out your photos, Good stuff man! You have a good style. Keep it up.

-Mark

Roberto Carlos  6 years ago

Very interesting artical about your live photography.

I like to shoot live music events, and arts expressions, as an amateur photographer too.

My Flickr Live Photography:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rocasaca/collections/72157622575531015/

Duluk  6 years ago

“Before I head out for the show, I take my camera with me into a dark room, typically my bathroom (no windows) and I practice adjusting my ISO, White Balance and EV +/- with the lights off.”

That’s awesome! Not silly at all.

Nice shots; really enjoyed the article.

BlueRose  6 years ago

Great post, interested to see you got some great low light images, I am still struggling with that (as you can see from several posts on my blog about it)

Will have to test out your settings and see how I get on :)

T.K. Burd  6 years ago

Great tip about adjusting the ISO in a dark room first!

Davao Photos  6 years ago

Thanks for this great tip :) I love watching photos taken live … Also thanks for you guys that shared your live photo. Keep it up.

Stella  5 years ago

Looks like there haven’t been any new posts for about a year now. Have you dropped the whole thing?
Anyway, if you’re still around i was wondering if there any tricks to get rid of noise at high ISO speeds and long exposures apart from automatic noise reduction, tripods, timers, remote shutter release and live view?

Catalina Fragoso  5 years ago

http://www.facebook.com/catalinafragosophotography

I am a young Nikon D90 live music photographer as well !!

Denny Mac  4 years ago

“Occasionally I will take some shots from the back of the crowd or some shots from around the venue”

This will get you kicked out or even banned from most larger venues.

Rebecca Love  4 years ago

Shooting my first live show for an online magazine tomorrow. This was SO helpful! Thank you!

Paul Scott Thomas  4 years ago

Hi all

been getting more and more experience in smaller gigs and currently I’ve worked up to my largest, O2 Bristol a week ago.

Shoot with a d700 but the D90 does so well and I take this out a lot. Love that camera.

Advice to anyone starting. Don’t be afraid to start small. Too many people struggle to get photo passes and give up. I get these by showing my work and it’s building nicely. Money may follow later, or’ not. I don’t think there’s a lot of money in it and I don’t care too much. Making a living out of photography is a dream for every enthusiast.

Some of my best shots are after the first three songs over the crowd from the back of the venue and it’s worth risking a nice overall stage shot in my opinion. It just finishes the shoot so well and amazes the people with blurred point and click pics. The bouncers are generally polite and let you do this for a minute if you show your pass and are to nervous just to do it.

It’s worth noting finally. That the same skills used for a dslr can be used for any camera (with manual controls)
Try manual mode, iso800-1600, shutter speed greater than focal length and f2,f2.8 and see. You’ll have sharper photos than anyone using auto modes for a start.

Even an iphone can espose where you want. click on the guy in the spotlight, it will set exposure for that person, then click the shutter. Guarantee you’ll have better pics than the person next to you, with blurred movement and to me that’s what it’s all about.
Working up to the limitations of what you are using.

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