A complete guide to live photography

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I love music, I’m always listening to it, going to gigs or playing the guitar, drums or piano, which I normally fail at, but one thing I don’t fail at is taking pictures of other people playing instruments. Thank you for reading this post, please check out my website and if you have any questions or comments.

In this post I am going to be writing some basic tips into how to shoot what I think is a good live performance photograph. Just like any form of photography everyone has different views on how the pictures should be shot and look, so don’t take these tips as a must do, but more of a general guide.
Getting In

I originally wasn’t going to touch on how to get into the pit or into the ‘industry’ but then I remembered about an old email from the Vice Chairmen of the BPPA, which I thought would help me cut down on some writing time if I paraphrased some of it for your reading pleasure.

The problem with music photography at the moment is that bands, venues and promoters are putting tighter and tighter restrictions on the photographers who attend and on who they can supply the images to afterwards. Some bands even try to claim ownership of all images and a right to vet them before they can be published. Some bands will refuse access to some people that are doing the photography for a hobby, as they don’t know where the pictures might be end up.

As with all photography it pays to build a reputation and a career from the ground up, you might be thinking that you want to go straight ahead and start shooting bands like Radiohead but that just isn’t a good strategy. Start small with unsigned bands, get your technique right and portfolio together and move up the scale little by little. This is a case of going to small venues to take pictures of bands, but remember it always polite to ask the venue first especially if you’re using professional gear or want to get into the pit.
The other advantage of starting small is that you grow with the bands. If you are there on the bottom rung with bands and establish a relationship with them you are far more likely to be on their media list when (and if) they make the big time.

The other problem here is that there are so many young photographers and enthusiastic amateurs virtually giving their images from music events away for free that the market for properly paid photography is small and shrinking fast. The only way to make a living from music photography is to get the exclusive shots of the bands backstage, off stage and as group portraits.

image Fig. 1

The Pit
If you do get a Press Pass for a venue there is normally a couple of rules that you need to keep to the first is that you’re not allowed to use any flash if the security see any flash come from your camera they may be nice and just tell you to turn it off or kick you out of the pit. The second is that you’re only allowed in the pit for the first three songs.

In the pit I’ve seen all different types of cameras from a Nikon D3x to a small Fuji FinePix camera, even though I haven’t seen the results from a FinePix camera it shows me that it doesn’t really matter what type of camera you use. People would argue that a newer camera with better ISO sensitivity is better for Live Music Photography due to its smaller grain on the higher ISO settings, but the grain is only going to be noticeable if your shooting for a big poster type print which won’t really happen, as most of the time your be shooting for an editorial and most of the pictures won’t be large enough for the grain to be distracting or even visible.

The most prized thing in your camera bag should be your lens, a good lens can really make the most of your camera. When shooting performances I would recommend a fast lens so you can use a large aperture for more light to be let through to the sensor quicker, this will also help your give your pictures a shallow depth of field and blurring out any distracting mess that could be in the background.

I tend to use the lowest f-stop I can get out of my lens, which is normally f2.8 and sometimes f1.4. The lenses I use the most in my live photography is a 70-200mm f2.8 and 24-70mm f2.8 this is so I can get both close up pictures of band members (See Fig. 2) and wider shots if I want more than one band member in the shot or some of the stage (See Fig. 3). I would generally only get my 50mm f1.4 out in poorer lit venues, which are normally the pubs or small venues.

image Fig. 2

imageFig. 3

Shutter speed

When I’m shooting I try not to shoot any slower than 125th of a second and if you’re using a lens longer than 200mm or shooting a band that like jump around a lot you might want to go a even faster.

The reason for this is, if you use a slower shutter you will get some motion blur which if used well can sometimes look ok (See Fig. 4) however if you’re like me and prefer a sharp image then you will want to shot fast. You may get some underexposed pictures shooting this way, however you can get away with bumping up the exposure of your image in your editing program of choice (See Fig.5). If you do get a blurry well exposed image it will take vast amount of editing and is almost impossible to get it as sharp as you could with the right settings (See Fig. 6). Yes there is probably a few of you saying “well I could” but remember you’ll be most likely shooting for a publication that may need the picture within hours or not pay you for your editing time.

The ISO settings are mainly what you are going to be using to sort out your exposure. I normally start between 400 and 1000 and change accordingly most venues will be different but it’s worth taking note what ISO you normally use.


Fig. 4 


Fig. 5


Fig. 6

Checking Exposure

The screen on the back of your camera isn’t the easiest way to check you exposure settings, you won’t be able to see it properly with all the lights flashing around you so tell your camera to bring up your histogram along with your image and use that to work out if you have a good exposure.
(If you don’t know much or anything about histograms read Histogram 101 as it is something worth knowing)

There isn’t really much I can tell you about focusing your image expect to use continuous focus to track a band member if they like to move around a lot.

Make sure you don’t point your lens into the lights otherwise you’re just going to get flare (See Fig. 7), try and put yourself in a point where the subject is in the way of the light, this flags the light away from your lens and can give them a nice rim of light around them.

As I said earlier your can’t use flash in the pit but in some small venues and bars that have bands play they won’t have a pit so you can, however if you do decide to use flash you don’t want to overdo it as you will take away from the atmosphere given by the lights (See Fig. 8). So if you do use flash you’ll want to turn your flash down to pretty much its lowest setting and defuse it just to give the subject a bit of fill light and not take away from anything else (See Fig 9 and 10).

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

image Fig. 10

Post Production

You normally won’t have much time to edit so you need to get the picture spot on when you take it, however you might have enough time to do some slight changes to your final images such as your exposure and you colour balance as you will find a lot of venues will use red and blue lights so you may need to change your white balance until the subjects skin tones look right.


Like I said at the beginning of this post what I have written are only basic tips to get pictures close to what mine look like and what I think looks good but the best thing you can do while you’re shooting is to experiment, get the pictures you need for editorial first but then play with your settings get your own style that is what is going to make you stand out from the rest of the crowd.

Thank you for reading this post please check out my website and let me know what you think. If you have any questions please leave them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them.

Fig. 11

To see other useful tips related to live photography you can check out this post by Koury Angelo.

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