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Quick Guide : Concert Photography

Quick Guide : Concert Photography

In this very special guest post freelance music photographer Ramsey Cardy of Shoot to Thrill guides us through the art of shooting at a live concert.

I get quite a lot of emails from people wanting to get into music photography, so i’ve decided to create a guide. There are many ways to set up your camera to get results at a concert, these are the ones that work for me. Hopefully this will help everyone and let me know if there are any other topics you would like covered.



This one really depends on your budget, but the best thing that I would recommend is to go to your local camera store and see what feels best in your hands, it’s the next section that really matters. If you’re planning on using your camera for mainly concerts, I would advise buying the body on its own and investing in your own lens as the kit lens is useless in most venues.

So, now you have your camera you’ll want to invest in some glass! For concerts, you generally need to shoot as wide open as your lens goes so getting a lens that shoots at a minimum of 2.8 is almost essential.

Check out the Tamron/Sigma range, both manufactures offer midrange lenses (17/18-50mm) so again, check out your camera store for which you prefer. For slightly extra reach, there is also the 24-70 lens. This is generally for full frame users, but I preferred it to the 17-50mm on a cropped camera as it meant you could really get in close to the performer at the 70mm end of the lens. If you’re looking to spend more money, both Canon and Nikon have incredible midrange lenses that really are worth the extra money.

At this point, you probably won’t need a 70-200mm too often, but you’ll need it if you’re ever shooting in an arena/festival.
Here’s the lens that will get you out of sticky situations pretty regularly, the nifty fifty! It’s cheap and cheerful, I think it retails at around ?80 at the moment. The 50mm 1.8 shoots at a pretty wide aperture so it picks up plenty of light. (If you’re looking to spend more money, the 1.4 is amazing)

Whilst flash is generally not allowed at gigs, when you’re starting out I would recommend having it as an option, you can decide once you’re at the venue if you’re going to need it or not. Most small venues don’t really mind if you shoot with flash, so clear it with the band first and it will generally be ok. Try and avoid shooting the full performance using flash though, it’s fine for a few songs, but you have to remember that the audience has paid to see the band and it distracts them.

When and where to use flash? If flash is allowed at the venue, it’s up to you when you decide to use it. After a while, you’ll learn which venues you have to use flash and which you won’t. The best idea is to take a few test shots with as high a iso as your camera can handle without becoming a noisy mess and then make your decision.

Note: I nearly always keep my speed light on the camera (turned off), if the artist comes into the crowd or runs along the barrier, you’re going to need it and security generally won’t mind. (If the photo pit is really packed though, put it into your pocket or something, it might hit off other cameras if things get tight in there.

Does flash annoy the artist? To some extent, yes it does, but I’ve spoken with artists, the lights that are in front of them are much brighter than a flash and are constantly on, so most don’t even notice the occasional flash.

How to use flash without killing the ambient light? This one is something that only experience will help you with, but my general rule is to set your camera to expose for the lights and get enough light in (so probably something like a shutter of 1/80) and set your flash at quite a low power so that it will expose for the performer correctly.

Note: I would also recommend investing in re-usable batteries. They may cost more than standard batteries but it’ll easily work out less in the long term.


So, now you have your equipment, what to do with it? About 85% of concerts are pretty dark, so you need to set up your equipment at quite a high iso. This depends on your equipment but I would generally start at iso 800 and then work my way from there. As previously mentioned, you need to shoot at a wide aperture, so set your lens to shoot as wide as it can go (usually 2.8) and you need to freeze your performer, so I wouldn’t start any lower than 1/125.

If you’re shooting a performer that is going to be jumping around a lot, you’ll need a much faster shutter to freeze them, generally 1/250 and above, to achieve this you may need to up your iso to get enough light in.

Where to start shooting?
So now you have your equipment and know how to set it up, you need somewhere to take photos. At the beginning, unfortunately, you can’t just walk into an arena and demand to take photos of Metallica! The best place to find out about local gigs is get yourself onto local forums and MySpace and message local bands playing in your area and ask them if they could set you up with a photo pass in return for a few web size photos for their MySpace account. Most won’t have a problem with that and will be fine. Go to the door of the venue and you’ll be on the guestlist.

Red lights
Most jobs have their bad points, this is mine. I get asked all the time how to deal with red lights, unfortunately there is very little that you can do about it sometimes. The easy way out is to switch the image to black and white, red lighting usually comes out quite nice in b/w.

The hard way? I generally deal with them by upping my iso further than I really need to expose for the lights correctly, obtaining a faster shutter and this will usually minimize the burning effect that can often occur under harsh red lighting. Then in post, turn down the saturation on the image and then adjust the white balance accordingly so it still looks natural.

Before and After

Before and After

This is another question that im asked quite often, personally I use one shot as servo simply doesn’t work a lot of the time at gigs. One shot will grab the focus of the artist, and then lock it until you press the shutter. Why not to use servo? Servo will be continually looking for any adjustments in your focus, so if an artist does something like point at your lens, the camera will skip to focus for the hand generally and you’ll miss your shot. Also, if a performer is standing still and then jumps, it will re-adjust the focus and you’ll miss the jump where as it would have been better to keep the same focus point.

When to use servo?
If you’re shooting a metal gig where the performer is headbanging it will be a total nightmare to keep focus.
The exception to this rule is The Prodigy, always servo for them!

How to focus in dives? Focusing in really dark venues is always tough, sometimes you just have to look for a little bit of contrast
on the singers face and then grab focus. If the artist is standing at the mic though, a trick to use sometimes is to focus on the mic, and then manually focus from there to nail the focus.

How to consistently nail exposure?
Another one that will only come with experience, but the key is to watch the lights. Just as music has key changes, choruses etc, so do the lights so make sure you watch out for them, every song has a light pattern.

For starting out at a gig though, make a rough estimation of what your settings will be (probably around iso 800 – 2.8 – 1/125) and then when the band is on stage take a few shots and see how they look and adjust accordingly. Don’t worry about missing the first few frames when they come on stage, nothing ever happens, it’s much better to have good shots from the rest of the songs. (You’ll have to adjust at the start of every song, as I said, each song has its own lighting pattern.)
Dealing with strobe lighting

You’ll come across these at some point, another thing to make it tough for you! There’s a few ways of killing the strobe, some like to use flash (in this instance it’s not even noticeable to the crowd or the band) but I personally don’t like the results it gives. I like to shoot a burst of three frames. One of the frames will come out hugely under-exposed, one hugely over-exposed and one will be perfectly exposed with the performer at the front with loads of back lighting. (This is how the image of Maxim of The Prodigy in my portfolio was created.)

Building up a portfolio

So, if you’ve read this far you’re either very bored or pretty interested in how to make some money out of this! The key to that is to have a kick ass portfolio. When I look at other peoples portfolio’s, I always look out for a variety between wide shots, close ups, portrait, landscape, black and white, loads of colour to show your not a one trick ….photographer?

Submitting to publications

I always advise people not to submit to publications too early, once you’ve submitted your portfolio to a picture editor, they’ll take a look and if it isn’t up to standard you probably won’t get a second chance with that editor, they simply don’t have the time. (An example is Rolling Stone Deputy Picture Editor, Deborah Dragon was interviewed and said she received 150 emails a day from photographers.)
If you’re happy with your portfolio though, if you look inside the magazine your hoping to shoot for (usually inside the front/back cover), you’ll see a list of the staff, pick out the picture editor (or deputy) and email them with your portfolio and a little bit about yourself, if you’re lucky you’ll get a reply.


When I know im going to be shooting a band, I always do research on them before I leave for the venue. YouTube and Wikipedia are my two main resources. Look up band members so you know who you should be focusing your attention on (for instance, you wouldn’t take photos of Beyonce and concentrate on the backing dancers or the band.) and also try and find a setlist of the first three songs that you’ll most likely be shooting and then search for it on youtube.

How to behave in the pit

There’s nothing worse than lining up a shot and another photographer who isn’t paying attention bumps into you and you miss your shot. Always look out for other photographers when you’re in the pit, chances are you’ll be shooting alongside the same people nearly every gig. There are times when it’s tight in there and you’ll bump into people, a simple apology will go a long way.

Be nice to the security! At some point you’ll get kicked over the head/a beer bottle to the head/a crowdsurfer to the head (Yes, all of these have happened me before!) so you might need their help so be on the right side of them!

How to obtain a photo pass?

(This one only really applies to large touring acts rather than local gigs)
You’ll need to contact the bands pr/record label/management and request a photo pass for x gig and that you’ll be shooting for x publication.

How to find them?

Some bands are really helpful and have a contact page on their website/myspace and you can get the contact there. Most don’t though, you can try and Google things like ‘*name of band* contact/press’ and hope you get a result. Otherwise, find what label their on and phone them.

What is a photo pass?
When your name is at the door of the venue, you’ll be given a sticker with the band name on it that will get you access to the photo pit.

(Top Row (L to R): U2 – Simply Red – Chris Cornell – The Eagles. Bottom Row: Metallica – Jeff Beck – Bruce Springsteen)

(Top Row (L to R): U2 – Simply Red – Chris Cornell – The Eagles. Bottom Row: Metallica – Jeff Beck – Bruce Springsteen)

What to do when I get to the venue?
Assuming your name is at the door, tell them you’re a photographer and you should be on guestlist, tell them your name and they’ll give you a photo pass.


Once you’re shooting larger acts, they’ll ask you to sign a contract stating where the images are going to be used and they won’t be used anywhere else (These are fine, it’s just protecting their artist). Unfortunately some bands are too cheap to pay for their own photography and want photographers to sign over copyright of their own images so they can use them for whatever they want, for the sake of every photographer trying to make a living from this, DON’T SIGN THESE! Below is an example of a rights grab (I’ve only pasted the important bits)..

“..that following our request you shall provide us with 1 (one) copy of each of the Photographs in such format as we shall request.”
“You grant to us and/or the Artist the exclusive right to exploit the Photographs throughout the world in perpetuity in any manner without any further payment to you.”
“ You hereby transfer and assign to us with full title guarantee the entire copyright and all extensions and renewals throughout the world (including by way of present assignment of future rights) and all rights of a similar nature in the Photographs.”
“4. I hereby waive all rights of droit moral or “moral right of authors” or any similar rights or principles of law which I may now have or later have in the Photos. I warrant and represent that I have the right to execute this Certificate and that the Photos are and shall be new and original with me and shall be capable of copyright protection throughout the universe, that they do not and shall not violate or infringe upon any common law or statutory right of any party, or constitute unfair competition and are not now and shall not be the subject of any litigation. I shall indemnify and hold you, and your employees, officers, agents, assignees and licensees, harmless from and against any losses, costs, liabilities, claims, damages or expenses arising out of any claim by a third party which is inconsistent with any warranty or representation made by me in this Certificate.”

Promoting your work
Without a doubt the best way is to have your own website, this way you can control how the images are displayed and who can access them. Other ways are to get onto Flickr, MySpace or even create a Facebook group. The one that is probably going to work best though (alongside your own website) is to get onto local forums and after a gig post one photo (don’t post them all or they won’t bother to go
to your website) and a link to the rest of your shots. This will get your name around and hopefully the right people will look at it.

About the Author:

Ramsey Cardy is a professional music photographer based in Northern Ireland In his time as a music photographer, he has photographed world touring artists such as The Police, Celine Dion, Metallica, Bruce Springsteen and many more. He has been published in many publications including The Sun, The Mirror, The Times, Irish News, Daily Mail, The Guardian and many more. Check out Ramsey’s website at You can also follow Shoot to Thrill on Twitter Here.

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