Shooting Live Music

Hi everybody and welcome to this blog post!

Last Saturday was the X-th school festival of the ASS secondary school. At Eaze, a young modern hard-rock band that I met in 2008, hired me to cover their gig.
I shot them the first time in early 2008 at a music contest for the local newspaper. After my photos were published, I received an e-mail of their manager – he told me that the band saw my images in the newspaper and that they would love them. Finally, he asked me if I want to cover the band’s upcoming shows. I accepted. That was the beginning with At Eaze.
I covered many of their shows since 2008. Now, after three and a half years I’m recognizing that these musical kids I shot in 2008 became young adults who are applying for A-level and run a great band that published its first album. To me this is a fascinating process. The whole coverage of their gigs over the years does show an evolution – a change from kids to young adults. Although they had several drummers and members over the years the band never broke up. Its core was always formed by Laura and Kevin (right).

At Eaze 2008

After I shot them the last time in October 2010 they hired me again on Saturday.

Well, back to the topic. Shooting live music is a hard business. You have to fight against very low-light conditions, different light quality, colored light, blinking light, varying lights/light intensity/light colors, fast motion, loud music etc. You also have to cover the best moments during the first three songs (professional bands) or the whole show (amateur bands).
When I started  doing concert photography I thought technical correctness would be the point but it isn’t. It’s just a part of a greater whole. As always: The most important thing is to capture the moment. It doesn’t matter if there’s a bit of motion blur as long as if you have captured the special moment.

There are many types of shooting styles for concert photography and I prefer a clean one. That means that I want a clean image that’s technically perfect in terms of light, noise, motion blur and color. When I’m using effects like motion blur I’m using them purposely. Motion blur only makes sense if you’re using a flash. Because only the flash allows you to stop the action and to create a sharp image followed by motion blur. Without a flash the whole scene is blurred and hard to identify.

But using flash isn’t always allowed. At professional concerts for example flash usually isn’t allowed. There is an advice – or even rule – that every security guard gives you before you enter the photographer’s pit: „Three songs, no flash!“
At an amateur gig you would have to ask the band before you’re going to use flash. The problem is that there are so many photographers who don’t understand the correct use of a flash. They’re disturbing bands by shooting the flash directly at full power and blinding the artists on stage. Therefore it’s intelligible that many bands don’t like flash.

Is there a less noticeable way to use flash at concerts? Yes, I think so.

Step one:
Prepare the camera for available light conditions

In terms of a clean image I need a high ISO that causes an acceptable noise. It depends on the camera you’re using how extreme the noise will be at high ISO. I’m using a Nikon D3 and my limit is ISO 3200. After I set the ISO I proceed with the f-stop and shutter speed settings. The f-stop should always be at its lowest, e. g. f2.8. Finally, I have one variable left that I can change – the shutter speed. Here I’m using the following approximate rule:

Max. shutter speed that doesn’t cause blur = reciprocal of (1/focal length in mm)

That means that if I’m using a 50mm lens, I need a minimum shutter speed of 1/50s (on an FX sensor camera) to prevent blur that’s caused by shaking while holding the camera. If I cannot realize this shutter speed because it’s too dark, I have to use a monopod or a higher ISO. Otherwise I just raise the shutter speed.
For concerts I set the camera always to manual mode and matrix metering. I also make some test shots to find the correct exposure. It’s very easy if there’s just one parameter to adjust especially when the light intensity is varying. Mostly I’m working in a range around 1/60s and 1/250s.

Step two:
Adding flash

The goal is to combine the ambient light and the flash light in a way that finally no one will recognize that you used a flash.
To get started I would recommend to set the flash on the lowest power level available. Use a dome diffuser and let the light bounce off the ceiling (or a similar white surface like a bouncer card – whatever). Use the available light camera setting and make some test shots to adjust the flash.
If the flash power is too low don’t raise it too much! It’s better to blend in more available light than pushing the flash power. Remember: You don’t want to blind or disturb the band. If the flash is too bright, use a higher f-stop.
Always remember:

The shutter speed adjusts the intensity of the available light; the f-stop adjusts the intensity of the flash.

The goal is to find the correct mix of available light and flash light. Finally, no one should recognize that you are using a flash or that you have used a flash.

When you’re using a flash some color shifting may appear. That’s because the flash produces a color temperature of 5000K which is very similar to daylight, but the spotlights maybe produce a warmer light of 5000K plus. The solution for this is a warming gel that warms the flash light so that it will fit more to the color temperature of the spotlights.


#1 Reveal the Drummer
Here is an example where I used a flash to reveal the drummer from darkness. It’s a well known problem that drummers mostly sink in darkness, especially at amateur concerts. That’s also the reason why many photographers don’t shoot the drummer of a band.
In this image I mounted a flash on a mike stand in front of the drummer. It looks like a white spotlight illuminates him but actually it’s a flash that reveals him from darkness.

#2 Reveal the Audience
Another problem is that the audience often sinks in darkness, too. But the audience is an important factor because it shows emotion and gives the viewer a feedback of how good the band played and how it influenced the audience. Finally, a happy audience is a quality indicator for a band. So reveal it from darkness to show how good the band is on stage.

It’s possible to shoot concerts with flash. The advantages are that it can reveal important people from darkness like the drummer and the audience. It also helps to clean the noise of high ISO and to influence the light quality and light color. Disturbing the band with flash is an absolutely no go! Get familiar with the correct use of your flash and your camera. Blend the flash and available light in a way that no one recognizes the flash – neither during the gig nor after the gig when viewing the images.
If a band forbids the use of a flash accept it and draw on your skills and equipment to shoot in available light situations. Good luck!