Concert Photography Tips With Steve Brazill

In Blog, How-To, Photo Taco Podcast by Jeff Harmon3 Comments

Permission to Shoot

Let’s start off with how photographers can get permission to shoot at a concert.  There have been so many stories in the photography world over the last year or two of artists who don’t allow photography in their concerts.  I have never tried to go and shoot a concert but I assume that you can’t just buy a ticket to the event and take your camera with you. Steve, what are your tips for photographers who are interested in doing this getting access?

How Can a Photographer Get Access?

Steve: Photography is such a weird thing.  To me it is so much about the art of compromise. With many things in photography you have to start with just getting permission to do it.  You can’t just walk into a concert and say that you want to shoot so that you can build out your portfolio.  You can’t start off shooting Taylor Swift.

You have to understand that the artist needs publicity.  They need it for media. For most photographers that is not easy to do upfront.  You don’t usually need permission to shoot at small clubs, small bars. Some of the best photos you will ever see come from small venues.  If you love photography and you love music, don’t let the fact that you can’t get into a major venue stop you.

Every town has a local newspaper. If you go to that paper and say that you want to shoot something for them, you may get a yes from them and get you in to shoot the concert.  My angle is actually different than most. I shoot for a radio station. Something most photographers probably don’t think of, so you could give that a try too.

Jeff: Very similar to shooting sports.  It can be tough to get a media pass to shoot sports, even high school basketball. The way I got in was to offer to shoot the women’s high school team.  Nobody was trying to do that and they were happy to have me there.

What About Rights Restricted Contracts?

Question from our Facebook Group: Scott Allen Tice “What is Steve’s opinion about artists increasingly using verbiage that ALL photos taken at an event are property of the artist. With terms like this how does anyone make money unless they are actually working FOR the artist?

Steve: Scott nailed the question.  Matthias Hombauer has a podcast How To Become a Rockstar Photographer and when I was on we talked about the restrictions being placed on photographers like Scott is talking about.  Rights grabbing contracts. Let’s take an example.

Jimmy John is a rock star.  He is famous. Everyone recognizes him when he walks down the street.  He can’t just say that because you take a photo of him that he owns it without you signing a photo release. You have to sign a contract that says you agree that for allowing you to shoot the concert you give the artist full rights, maybe even exclusive rights, all of the photos.

Here is the problem.  They have every legal right to ask you.  To me it is unethical, I mean these same artists get really upset if their music is stolen, but they have every right to say how it is they want to have this dealt with.  It is their concert, they get to set the rules. Here is what you as the photographer have the power to do. Don’t sign the contract and don’t shoot the concert.  It is just that simple.

I won’t sign those rights restricted contracts and then wont’ shoot the concert.  There are other kinds of contracts too.  Some editorial contracts say that the photographer gets to use the photos but you have to have them pre-approved by the artist before they can be used.  I hate those too, but I will sign those. Also some that say you can only use the photo one time. Some say you can’t use them in a portfolio. The contracts that say the artist owns the photos that result, I don’t sign those.

You can make money doing concert photography but you will most certainly need to do something else as well.  David Bergman is the tour photographer for Jon Bon Jovi and he is also a Canon Explorer of Light and shoots sports and more.  There are ways to make money. I was a house photographer for a venue and you will make some money if you can get something like that. There are ways to make money, just probably not enough to be your sole source of income.

Is It Possible to Photograph Major Music Acts?

From Facebook Group Ej Linser asked “Is it dead for major acts? Small bands in local clubs seem to be where the opportunity is.”

Steve: Yes and no.  Insanely large acts are pretty tough, but that is a very small percentage.  There are a lot of well known artists, but very few are
Beyoncé or Ozzie.  Nobody photographs Ozzie, he has his own photographers and media outlets are allowed to download their photos for editorial coverage.  I don’t use that with the radio station, only my photos, but many do. So no, not fully dead for major artists, I shoot major artists all the time.

Standard Concert Rules

Are there any standard rules or restrictions for people shooting live music?  If a photographer wants to get into this and has never shot a concert, what should they be aware of?

Steve: In most cases you are going to shoot from the pit. There are exceptions when you may shoot from a location called front of house. This is where the mixer boards are further back from the stage, but most are shot from something called the pit.  If you look at a stage and then you look at the crowd, there is a small walkway there between the stage and the crowd with security there so that if somebody tries to get to the stage they can stop them.

The “standard” rule is “3 from the pit, no flash”.  This means that you will be shooting from the pit and that you are allowed to shoot the first three songs. That is it.  Some artists will let you shoot only one song. Some two. Some four. Some the entire set. You are almost never allowed to use any flash.  95-99% of the time you get three from the pit and that’s it.

How is “3 From the Pit” Being Enforced?

Steve:  Most concerts you start off meeting up with the promotion rep, most cases for me it is a Live Nation rep, who gathers up all the photographers and manually escort you down into the pit. At the end of the three songs very large security guys bulldoze you out of the pit.  Sometimes they will let you continue to shoot further back in the venue after the three songs, but that is usually it from the pit. Most concerts there is more than one band performing and they actually escort you all the way out to the parking lot between the bands and have you do that same thing over again.

Photography Gear

Let’s move on to the gear that is needed for doing concert photography.  Steve, here on Photo Taco we have a lot of hobbyist and less experienced photographers who are very interested in keeping the cost of gear to an absolute minimum.  Let’s start there.

What is the Least Expensive Gear Setup Will Work For Concert Photography?

The minimum is any camera you have that is an actual camera.  Meaning no smartphones or point and shoot cameras. Most shows have a rule not that there are no smartphones allowed. The pit is a work area.  You have photographers there shooting for high profile publications like Rolling Stones. You can’t be in there with a smartphone.  I know people who use a Canon XTi and a nifty fifty (Canon EF 50mm f/1.8) and you can get great pictures.

The less expensive gear is going to take a little more work. Concert photography is a high ISO world and you will have to do more to get pictures that look like you want them to.  You have to make sure you really nail that exposure because you will have less room to deal with it in post. Really though, you need an interchangeable lens camera, SLR or mirrorless, and a good lens. Good here means one thing and that is fast. A lens with a constant aperture of f/2.8 or wider like f/1.8.

What About Gear For Those With A Larger Budget?

I carry two bodies.  A Canon 5DM3 and a Canon 5DM4.  My 5D3 does not change lenses through the concert and either has a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 or a Sigma 15mm f/2.8 lens on it.  That goes on my left hip. On my right hip is a 5DM4 and that alternates between a 24-70 f/2.8 or a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens depending on how wide or tight I need to get to tell the story of the concert.

You could go with a higher end body like a Canon 1DX , but the standard setup is the holy trinity of lenses.  A 16-35 f/2.8, a 24-70 f/2.8, and a 70-200 f/2.8 so that you are ready to create photos of any part of the story that presents itself.

Now, if you are shooting from the front of house, you need to be shooting a 400m f/2.8 and use it on a monopod. which you may want to only rent when you know you need it.  You can usually tell those shots because of the angles in the photos. Shooting from front of house is more straight on and when you are shooting from the pit

The other thing I use is a ThinkTank belt.  You want as little gear on your body as possible.  I have been in a pit where there are 70 photographers in there and you literally can’t move your elbows.  If you have a backpack on and you turn then you are hurting the work of the other photographers who have just as little time to create the story as you have. The reason I do the belt system and I like it is that I always have an empty sleeve for a lens. I can quickly drop a lens in the empty pouch and put the other on.

You have to know how to switch a lens very quickly.  I know how to change a lens in complete blackness.

Should Photographers Be Worried About Lasers Hurting Their Cameras Doing Concert Photography?

From our Facebook Group Bill Kocken asked “Many shows use lasers for special effects. I’ve heard that this can damage camera sensors. Is this true? Will it damage cell phone cameras, too? What precautions can we take?”

Steve: A good question.  David Bergman had this exact question recently and he said that it can but to be honest, I don’t know how dangerous that is.  This camera is a tool and in concert photography you may have the tool get damaged.

Jeff: I know that some lasers can do damage.  There was a story a bit ago about a photographer shooting a self driving car demo and the lasers associated with that destroyed the camera sensor (check out this story too).  Steve, you have been doing this for a while, have you ever had a camera get damaged from a laser?

Steve: Nope, never have had any problems with this and I have been doing this a long time. Probably not too much to be concerned about with concert photography.

Technique

How about technique?  What can a photographer like me who has never gone to shoot a concert do to practice and get some technique down so that we could have the best chance of coming away from the event with images that we would be excited about?

Know Your Gear!

Steve: This should be some complex, long, in-depth answer.  Really though it isn’t something that complex. Photography is photography and this is low-light action photography.  You MUST know your gear. Light is going to be changing constantly. You have to know how to adjust your exposure to compensate very quickly without looking at your camera.

Then just understand that your are in a very low-light situation and you are going to shoot high ISO and you are going to have noise.  So many pixel peepers get so worried about noise. They zoom in and they get so concerned that there is noise in there and then they noise reduce it to the point where the person looks plastic.  Rick Sammon, or rather his dad I think it was, is famous for saying that if a person looks at your photo and what they notice is the noise then there is more wrong with your photo. Some of the greatest photos of all time are filled with noise.  Muhammed Ali standing over Sonny Liston. The Vietnam war classic black and white photos. These photos are horrible from a noise point of view because the pictures tells such a compelling story.

Know Your Exposure!

Know your exposure.  Know the triangle. I shoot at ISO 3,200.  I shoot at ISO 6,400 all the time. I have shot at much higher ISOs.  A sharp photo with noise is always preferable to a blurry shot that is cleaner.  You need to shoot with a high enough shutter speed. You won’t have to think about your aperture because that is going to be as wide open as you can.  If you are shooting metal and the artist is going to be jumping around on the stage and you want to freeze them then you need a high shutter speed.

You might be able to freeze them at 1/250th of a second.  Safer at 1/600th. Depends on your style. Your ISO needs to be set high enough you can get the shutter speed you need.  The other thing you have to be ready for is sudden changes in lighting. Sometimes you are shooting and outdoor venue and the artist my just learn forward a little and suddenly they are out of the shade and in the sun and you have to compensate for that change in light.  Know your gear, ignore the noise, and just get the shot!

How Should Photographers Handle Small Venues With Poor Lighting?

From the Facebook Group Ann C. Kielbasa asked “Can you touch on how to handle lighting when the venue doesn’t have adequate light? The last event I shot was lit by 4 utility lamp with colored bulbs and one over head ceiling fan with a colored bulb. Challenging for sure, but made for interesting lighting effects.”

Steve: Ann, I feel your pain!  Here is the thing. Basically as live music photographers we are telling a story.  It is photojournalism without all of the rules. You need to tell a story. For me, I will never use a flash even if I can because I have now changed the environment for the audience.  If you have a concert where there is such little light. I have shot a concert where the only lighting was colored lights way up high and behind the band and immediately your only shot is a silhouette.  That is the story. The lighting was this way at the concert and that is part of the story.

Once I shot a very well known band actually performed on a side stage where there wasn’t much of any lighting.  I think the concert organizes thought it still might be light outside. Because it wasn’t daylight this well known band came out in the complete dark.  Somebody went out and got a tiny little light and put it on the main singer. That is the light you have, you shoot it, you tell the story.

Jeff: Is it also a problem that you could throw off the performers if you have the flash going off in their face?  Seems like that may be something they really aren’t used to and it could really throw them off.

Steve: It is a learning curve problem too.  If as you are learning in the clubs where they might let you use flash, what are you going to do when you are shooting a concert where that isn’t allowed.  It is good to learn how to shoot in the very low light situations and know how to use your gear so that you can pull off a shot that tells a story.

Technical Hurdles

What are the technical hurdles that make live music photography so difficult?  We already went through some of the camera settings, what else should photographers know that they need to deal with?

Learn To Shoot Out the Clutter

Steve: After knowing your camera, the next most important thing to learn is how to deal with the clutter on and around the stage.  This is another area where cutting your teeth in smaller clubs will help you as you will get exposed to it and start learning how to deal with it.  Landscape and portrait photographers are taught to watch for intruders so that there isn’t a branch coming out of the head of the model or a coke bottle out in the landscape.  In concert photography you are going to have that. Mic stands are going to be in there or maybe just the head of a bass guitar. There is a lot of clutter on a stage.

You have to learn how to move your zoom and work around that clutter on the stage.  Learn how to work compositions very quickly with very little light and tell the story of the concert in spite of the clutter that is there on the stage.

Learn To Shoot The Flattering Angles

You are also going to be doing up the nose shots if you are in the pit.  It is far better to go to the side and shoot up at the lead singer than it is to be straight on if you can get that position.  You want to respect these people and make them look good. Shooting them with these high resolution cameras right up their nose isn’t good for anybody.

Learn to Leverage Your Cameras Dynamic Range

Then there is dynamic range.  You have a lighting directory that is paid a lot of money to light the concert in a specific way to the liking of the artist.  They are going to push the limits of the human high from a sensory point of view. That is their job. A camera doesn’t have as much dynamic range as our eyes do so before you ever click the shutter button you are already going to be at a disadvantage.  You have to choose. You are going to blow out highlights. You are going to clip blacks. You need to figure out the limits of the gear you have and how it is you can best tell the story and choose an exposure that is going to facilitate that.

How Can Photographers Deal With Constantly Changing Lighting Colors?

From the Facebook Group Benjamin Stuben Farrar asked “How do you adjust white balance for a mix of LED and incandescent light? How do you expose correctly for faces with so much backlight? Do you communicate with the lighting designer beforehand? Do you have a set list that includes light cues? Does theatrical fog and haze (atmospherics) have an adverse effect on camera equipment?

I have difficulty capturing saturated color from LED lighting fixtures (especially greens and purples) – do you have any tips? Are some sensors better than others when it comes to capturing those wavelengths?”

Steve: I shoot auto white balance.  I shoot in raw and I set my balance in post.  But there are going to be mixtures of light and you can only do what you can do with it.  Sometimes you are going to have some strange colors and that is part of the story of the show.  Other times, you may have to go black and white if it isn’t really part of the story and there is just some weird color in there that you just can’t seem to fix.  

Red is a color that clips fastest, and if a red light is on the lead singer your chances of clipping are going up.  But there are still the green and the blue channels that may have some detail and going to black and white may rescue the shot.  Sometimes I will use the gray ring around most microphones to white balance. Sometimes I use the corner of the eye, the one closest to the nose seems to do the best for me.  You do what you can.

I do not talk to a lighting director beforehand.  Sometimes you will be giving lighting cues of the show beforehand.  Their job is to light the show, they aren’t going to be changing it for you.  Lighting follows the music. As long as you can follow the music you should be able to be ready to shoot with the lighting changes.  Fog and haze, they don’t hurt a photo, most of the time they add to the story the photo can tell.

Pit Etiquette

A lot of music photographer talk about Pit Etiquette  What is it and why is it so important?

Steve: This is one of the big topics of conversation in concert photography.  Unlike a wedding photographer who could kind of stop things a little and ask that they be given the chance to get the shot for the couple and then let everyone else have at it, concert photography doesn’t work that way.  All of the other photographers have every right to be there and get the shot as much as you have. Remember that you are going to be working with these people more than the one time if you are going to do this much so making them angry is never a good thing.

Shed The Gear

If you are wearing a backpack with your gear, that is fine, but when you are take it off and put it under the stage while you are shooting.  Otherwise you are bumping people and ruining their shot. Don’t hold your camera up over your head. You will see photographers do this where the singer is right in front of them and in order to get a more straight on photo they hold their camera up as high as they possibly can.  They have their arms fully extended and when they do then you are in the shot for everybody else.

Same problem with flashes that photographers will leave on their cameras.  They are almost never allowed to be powered on in the pit, but they are using them before being in there and maybe after, so they have them in the hotshoe of the camera.  Now their flash is in the shot for everyone else.

The main thing is respect everybody.  I have often looked behind me to find there is a shorter girl trying to shoot behind me and I will have her come and get in front of me because I can shoot over the top of her.  It just makes life a lot easier.

Does a Concert Photography Need to Worry About Blocking the Show?

From the Facebook Group Eddie Lagos asked “Are you concerned about getting in the way of the audience’s view and enjoyment of the show?”

Steve: Yes, always always always worried about being in the way of the audience.  Sometimes a person who has paid and worked really hard to get up near the pit at the concert will yell at you and tell you to get out of the way after a shot or two.  If you can, move. Otherwise, let them know you are only going to be there for three songs and you will be gone, it is a short term thing.

Jeff: Maybe another reason why you are only allowed to be there for three songs then, huh?

Steve:  There is that and you are a big distraction to the artist.  Think about the size of the front element on a our lenses. They are pointed straight up towards the artist and the lights are reflecting off of them back to the artist.  They can see all of that glass. You want to be aware of your surroundings. In a perfect world the photographer is never seen, do everything you can to make it feel that way.

Post Processing

How about post processing?  Is there anything special you do when you post process your photos?  Try your best not to see noise like we talked about, what other tips do you have?  

Find Your Voice

Steve: Find your own voice with processing.  Everybody when they first start has to emulate, that is fine.  Work down that road to find your own voice in processing your photos.  You are going to have clipping going on with the lights or the sky. You may have to blow the sky out to make their face be seen or go the other way and shoot a silhouette.  If you clip (over expose) their face though, you can get it back. You have to think about that while you are shooting and think about what you want to save as you are doing your exposure.

Draw To Your Subject

Think about your subject.  Is it an environmental shot where the stage needs to be visible and play a role or can you use a radial filter and darken down those areas so that you can emphasize the artist.  Back away from the clarity slider. Photographers find that slider pretty quickly in Lightroom and tend to use it far too much when they do. Doing that on peoples faces can have a weird effect.  Vibrance is your friend. If you do want an effect start with an adjustment brush with it rather than doing it globally for the photo. A little bit of clarity in an adjustment brush on a tattoo makes them pop.

Again, I love the radial filter.  If I want to highlight a guitarist I will use the radial filter and do kind of a custom vignette.  I may use a little negative exposure, a little dehaze, dropping the highlights a bit. Having that filter make everything else fade away then it will really bring the artist out and help the rest of the things around them to fade away.

How Can You Deal With High ISO In Post Processing?

From the Facebook Group David Putzier asked “Tips on processing high ISO images to be usable. I shoot local bands with less than spectacular lighting and have to shot at ISO 4000+ sometimes on an 8 yr old Canon 5D Mark III”

Steve: ISO 4,000+ on a 5DM3 is not bad.  Consider this. People are not going to walk up to your photos and see it at 100% which is really what it takes to notice the noise.  Noise reduction is great, selective noise reduction is always better. I don’t care if there is a ton of noise in the background areas, I just don’t want it on their face. I will use an adjustment brush and put a little noise reduction in there.  DON’T OVERDO IT! I would rather see your noise than lose the pores on their face.

Other than that, when you are dealing with any image you have to consider your output.  We always think of what is on our screen, but you have to think about the intended use for your images.  If I have a 5,000 pixel image and I zoom in to 100% I am absolutely going to see the noise. It’s there no matter what. But if I am exporting that image at 1,000 pixles or 2,048 pixels to post on a website or in social media, I am throwing away half of the pixels and thus half of the noise.

That sheer act of compressing it into a JPEG is going to hide a lot of the noise.  If you overdo that noise reduction you are getting an even pronounced effect of that noise reduction and people are going to notice that that.  Lightroom has tremendous noise reduction but use it responsibly.

The other thing you can do is use and adjustment brush and just take it out of the blacks and the dark areas of the stage.  Keep in mind that the whole point of the picture is to tell the story of the concert. Think about your exposure and get the things you care about in the photo properly exposed because if you have to boost it in post you are going to make the noise more noticeable.

Examples

Let’s go through a few of the incredible photos you have created over at your website which is stevebrazill.com.  Can you tell me the setup on a few of these?

Bruce Watson of Foreigner: Show the environment
Canon 5D3 – 1/1000 – f/2.8 – ISO 1600

The most important thing about this shot is the shadow under his foot that help you realize that he is actually off the ground!  Really important. Wanted to get the band name in there, wanted the truss up above the stage and I wanted to get the stage setup in there.  That was my goal here, an environmental portrait like what the audience at the concert saw that night.

Cage the Elephant: The Pit Etiquette Issue but you have to tell the story anyway
Canon 5D4 – 1/400 – f/2.8 – ISO 800

I didn’t care about shooting Cage the Elephant before I did but now I would pay to do it.  They put on an amazing live show. We talked about pit etiquette, which failed here because the lead guitarist jumped off the stage and forced us all into this position.  This tells the story. It tells the story of what it is like in the photo pit. This was an overcast day, an outdoor concert. Did have to adjust the exposure pretty quickly.  It is pretty much automatic for me now because of how much I have shot concerts. Had to be able to switch the exposure

Coldrain: Shooting more closeup detail
Canon 5D3 – 1/640 – f/2.8 – ISO 640

A band I had never heard of or seen.  Huge in Japan and Asia. Phenomenal live set.  Daytime concert. The question of why the ISO so high in the daytime?  They were moving so fast I wanted 1/640 of second shutter to make sure I froze them.  To me this is how you portray energy. Not going to lie, I wish I had the full finger down on the mic.  This is what energy and passion is all about. It bleeds out of the photo here. Sweat dripping from the eyebrow and on his jacket.

Cutting the finger off on the crop here isn’t too bad because it isn’t a cross cut.  So it works. I did it black and white because it really drew more attention to the sweat on his collar.

Reminders and Resources

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Comments

  1. Thank you so much!!
    I am a beginner in the photography field and I was feeling stuck before I even started. Now I can go out and get in touch with my creativity.

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