Step aside northern lights, shooting stars, and erupting volcanoes! Live music shows are one of the hardest things to photograph. It’s not just the technical aspect that makes concert photography challenging. Before you even get the chance to capture a mega-star in a once-in-a-lifetime pose, you need to find your way inside the venue. It’s not the golden hour, but the golden ring that counts. Got inside? You’ll need to contain your excitement, because it’s time to face your second biggest challenge - making your way through an ecstatic crowd to capture a perfect shot of a constantly moving figure. In the dark.
So how can you overcome these barriers on the stairway to concert photography heaven? We spoke to Guy Prives, an acclaimed photographer in the field. On his Wix photography website, you’ll discover some of the amazing shots he took of little-known celebrities like the Rolling Stones, Robbie Williams or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. He shared with us the lessons he learned on the way to becoming a successful concert photographer. The mic’ is yours, Guy:
Here are the steps you need to become a successful concert photographer.
01. Put your work in the spotlight
Like every field within photography, positioning yourself as a professional starts with creating an impressive online portfolio. But how do you populate it with amazing concert shots? Start by finding a small local venue in your vicinity that will allow you to sneak in a camera and snap a few shots. Working for yourself rather than for a client will let you practice in a pressure-free environment. This is the time to learn from your best teachers: bad photographs and beginner mistakes. If you’re looking for ideas on composition, angles and lighting, those concert photography books on your shelf will finally come in handy.
Once you take a few decent shots you’re content with, you can start showing them to the World Wide Web. A good portfolio should include photos from several concerts and demonstrate both your technical and artistic abilities. Go for quality over quantity: choose only a few images that are exceptionally good in your opinion. Website visitors nowadays simply can’t afford to scroll through tons of photographs in search of your best shot. How will you recognize that best snap? It’s the one that would make your beloved artist’s manager give you a call to hire you. By the way, inspiration is not a bonus, but a must: make sure to check what photographers who shoot similar types of bands are up to in their online portfolios.
02. Spread the word to the world
Hitting the ‘Publish’ button on a portfolio you’re proud of is only the first step. You need to make sure that there are other outlets through which people can be exposed to your work. How? By connecting your website to every relevant social network. Facebook and Instagram will most probably be the first place where your work will get noticed by others, be it by a friend of a friend who liked your post, or by a band member you tagged. You can find the right crowd by sharing photos with the band's fans; this is bound to bring you some digital love.
Once you catch the right person’s attention, your portfolio steps in. The band manager or promoter can follow the link you provided on your ‘About’ section, or Google you to get the full scope of your work (better keep up with those SEO recommendations!). Double-check that your contact details are visible and updated - it’s the second most important thing on your website after your photos.
03. Get hold of a photo pass
There’s no need to wait for one magical call in order to get a photo pass. The best way to obtain one is to contact a publication (magazine, newspaper, website) that might be interested in publishing photos from the event. As a side note - when I just started, I was sending emails to all the biggest publications, until I managed to secure a photo pass for a huge concert by, believe it or not, Madonna herself!
Obtaining a photo pass without a publication is harder, but still possible. You can try contacting the band’s management or the concert promoters. If they happen to have a spot in the photo pit, they’re likely to give access to a photographer with an impressive photography portfolio. Politeness and patience are key. As long as you keep asking nicely, there’s always a chance for a positive answer. Basically, there are three options of who to contact when in search of a photo pass:
The band: each band can issue a photo pass and usually they’re the best option, as you won’t be limited to shoot just from a specific area.
The promoter: in large concerts, there’s normally a PR agency that is responsible for giving photo passes. Try to find out in advance which PR company is promoting the concert, and contact them directly.
The venue: the venue and the producer can also get you a photo pass.
04. Ready, set camera, go!
Now that you’re inside, it’s time to get the insider tips on how to capture that perfect moment on stage. The first challenge you’ll be dealing with is lack of light, and flash is usually not used because it can harm the lighting of the composition. Here are the recommended camera settings that will help you make up for it:
Use a slower shutter speed (but make sure that it’s high enough not to blur your subject). As a rule of thumb, I wouldn’t recommend shooting in less than 1/250 when the artist is moving.
Use a wide aperture (with the smaller f-stop) to get more light in. Note that this will also lead to a shallower depth of field, meaning you probably won’t be able to keep both the singer and the drummer in focus.
Increase your ISO. Even though higher ISO will produce grainier images with some digital noise, it’s better than later discovering that all your photos came out blurry.
I’ve quickly come to realize that even though it’s a challenge, shooting in low light conditions is also a great opportunity: it adds drama and helps create interesting compositions and silhouettes.
05. You are the composer
The music on stage is not the only composition you’ll encounter in a concert venue. Along with the trial and error search for the right camera settings, you’ll need to practice your composition skills. I like to think of the story I want my photos to tell. What would be the best way to portray it? Try looking for an original interaction between band members, spot an interesting facial expression or a moment full of emotion.
Don’t be afraid to wait for that perfect moment, when the entire band is caught in great lighting. With time you will learn to spot these opportunities right before they pop up - for example, between songs or during the last song of a show. Many performers have unique moves, like the way they jump or hold a guitar. It would definitely be a good idea to conduct a small research before the concert, going through editorial photos from previous concerts, for example, so that you can plan your composition around these moves. Will it look better in a horizontal or a vertical image? What would be the best way to crop it? The more answers you have before clicking the shutter, the better.
06. Getting the full experience
Needless to say, like with any type of photography (or art in general), practice makes perfect. There is no magic word that can save you from networking with bands and venues, experimenting with camera settings, and learning the ins and outs of concert photography on your own. Even though it seems like hard work at times, it’s also a lot of fun. The more photos you take, the sooner you’ll witness an improvement. And what’s more fun than listening to your favorite music playing live while working? I’m sure that you can do it!
Guy Prives is one of the most renowned concert photographers in Israel. His work has been featured in the biggest newspapers & websites around the world.