So You Want To Photograph Concerts, Do You?


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Ed Pranskus on the skins

Step into my darkroom said the spider to the fly.

Is there anything in this life quite as satisfying as being able to photograph your favourite act live in concert? Well, I suppose there is sex… so, is there anything in this life quite as satisfying as sex and being able to photograph your favourite act live in concert? True, I imagine being rich could be pretty satisfying.

So, is there anything in this life quite as satisfying as sex, being rich and photographing your favourite act live in concert? Fine, being rich and having sex while photographing your favourite act live in concert then.

 This isn’t going quite the way I imagined it would.

Let’s just say, for sake of argument, that there is nothing more satisfying in this life as photographing your favourite act live in concert.

The Cameras the Thing

Back in the day it was easy to photograph your favourite act. Just pack up your handy dandy gadget bag, procure a ticket to the show, stock up on film and get yourself to the gig. Intoxicants optional. So long as you weren’t trying to smuggle anything into the concert in your gadget bag you were good to go.

These days it has become more difficult, but not impossible to bring a camera to a show. If you try to waltz in with a professional looking camera (read SLR either 35mm or digital) then you had best have a photo pass. But with the proliferation of cell phone cameras the rules have become a little more lax. While disposable cameras and point and shoot digital cameras are technically still not allowed, security at most venues will turn a blind eye if you try to bring one in. Their only other option is to confiscate a shit load of digital camera equipped cell phones.
So now you have managed to get your camera into the concert. What now. Several things come into the equation. Some of these are under your control, some of them not so much so.

ISO That A Tripod In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

I’m not going to get into the details of ISO other than to say it is a universal designation for a film’s sensitivity to light. If you are real old school then you may remember it as ASA. While the designation originally applied to film there is an ISO setting on most digital cameras, approximating in the digital domain the camera’s sensitivity to light.

The higher the ISO the less light you require to capture an image. But there’s a trade off, both in the film and digital realm. The higher the ISO the grainier the image will be. Degrees of detail is sacrificed in exchange for capturing the image.

I suggest a minimum of 400 ISO, shot with the lens wide open (using the smallest f-stop you can). Unless you have a spot metre I don’t suggest, under any circumstances  that you attempt to use your light metre. That way disaster lays. The very first concert which I shot with a 35mm SLR was the Tubes at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1978. I didn’t know any better so I let my light metre dictate shutter speed and aperture.

Some of the shots turned out all right. Some of them actually took on slightly surreal blurring flourishes which I could not have planned for. But if the light was in the slightest bit dodgy at all on stage then the pictures just plain didn’t come out. The problem is that while the person you are shooting maybe sufficiently lit there may be a whole whack of black in the image which throws any light metre worth its salt to hell and gone. In this picture, if I had let the old light metre walk this way then Joe Perry’s jacket would have been a white lit pale pink instead of the yellow lit red that wound up in the picture. The background would have been grey and any details in the fans would have been washed out.

Google 18% grey to read a little more about what it is that your light metre would have you do with every single photograph that you take.

So, you give the light metre a pass for concert photography.

What about your flash you ask? Blasphemer; Get thee behind me Satan!

All right, let me be a little bit more objective. If you are close enough to the stage to take a great photograph and you use your flash what you will wind up with is a stark, contrasty image of your guitar hero, with none of the spectacular lighting effects which many bands spend scads of your hard earned money on. Flash photography is generally frowned upon and if you persist in taking a lot of flash photographs you will draw security to you like you had walked into a dog kennel wearing Milk Bone underwear.

If you are no where near the stage then you will get an over exposed view of the first few rows directly in front of you and, if you are lucky, a well lit distant view of the stage.

So ditch the flash, you’ll thank me in the morning.

That Dot Is Mick Jagger And That Dot Is Keef

While proximity to the stage is a real big plus it should in no way stop you from bringing your camera along if you are sat further back. .With the lighting and rear projection screens that so many acts use in their show these days, there is opportunity a plenty to grab some very cool shots from a distance. There is a definite trade off; there are pictures taken close to the stage that you just can’t capture from the back of the stadium. So to are there images you can get from the back of the stadium that you just can’t hope to get close up.

One is not necessarily better than the other. Just different.

Let’s Not Forget Why We’re All Here In The First Place

The music, right. Let the music act as a guide to your pictures. Most bands are there to put on some kind of show as well as play you their music. Theatrical bands like Alice Cooper and The Tubes on one end of the spectrum with comparatively static bands like Pink Floyd and Genesis on the other. I’d rather shoot Cooper and The Tubes up close since both of these bands have a very active and theatrical front man. I’d be just as happy to shoot The Floyd and Genesis from a bit further back, due in no small fact that their theatricality comes more from the lights and rear projection screens.

Then there is everything act in between. The Rolling Stones who combined spectacular lighting with a lively cast of characters and one of rocks pre-eminent front men. Aerosmith with the dynamic duo of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry providing the visual flash amidst the blazing lights.

Each and every act has it’s strengths and weaknesses. Each and every act has it’s merits as a photographic subject.

Dramatic musical passages will usually come with dramatic lighting, effects or on-stage tableau’s. Wait for it and be ready to click the shutter; you may wind up with nothing or you may catch Gowan mid leap from his keyboard, or a string of flash pods going off across the stage. These moments are over and done before you know it, so if you aren’t anticipating them and ready, you will miss them.

While you can spend a good amount of your time watching a concert through your view finder the images you can capture with the right set up and a little patience will satisfy you over and over again.

Above all, have fun; enjoy yourself. This is a live concert after all.

By the way, the photograph of the drummer at the top of this piece… as best as I can tell this is THE first concert photo that I ever took. It’s of Ed Pranskus, the original drummer for a highly underrated Canadian band called Thundermug. I recently caught up with Ed on Facebook and shared this blast from his past with him. Just another thing that I love about photography in general; connecting to complete and utter strangers if only for a few brief moments.

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