How to be a Concert Photographer

By Savana Ogburn

Something that I encounter all the time at shows is people telling me that they really want to delve into the world of music photography but just don’t know where to start. Generally, when I’m asked this question in person, all that I can really tell people is “just learn how to use your camera and practice practice practice!”. This obviously isn’t the best or most in-depth advice by any means, but the good news is that here on SB, I can give you a more comprehensive guide to music photography for beginners (*cue fireworks*)! It’s not too difficult to learn the basics, and you should be ready to snap away to your favorite song in no time (actually it will take some time. But it’s not rocket science, ya feel?).

Step 1: Gear!

To be completely honest, gear is probably my least favorite subject to discuss because it’s so easy to become discouraged when you don’t have the same, top-of-the-line gear that so many pro photographers use. That being said, I’m going to let you in on a very important little secret: GEAR DOES NOT MATTER AS MUCH AS YOU THINK! The photographer Tim Walker (my hero? yes.) refers to the camera as a “simply a box put between you and what you want to capture”, which is completely true! In the simplest form, our camera is nothing but a little metal box that records what you see. The best thing you can do as a photographer is pick up whatever camera you can get your hands on and just shoot as much as you can.

However, music photography does require a couple of prerequisites that a point-and-shoot camera, or your phone camera probably won’t be able to meet (boo! I know. Stick with me!). You really need a camera that allows you to shoot in manual mode so that you can tailor your settings to the lighting in a venue, which is dark, shadowy, and ever-changing. My first camera was my mom’s Canon Rebel XSi, which I cannot recommend enough to beginners- it’s a starter-level DSLR, so the features are clear and easy to understand all while giving you creative control over the way the image looks. If you’re not ready to spend money on a camera quite yet, ask around to friends and family members to see if they have a DSLR that you could borrow and play around with.

Step 2: Lighting and the Exposure Triangle!

Learning how to adjust your camera settings for low-light is the absolute most crucial part of live music photography. Like I said in Step 1, the lighting at venues can be mad tricky to work with. In a second, venues can go from completely dark to flashing strobes and technicolor lights illuminating the stage. It’s very important to know how to adjust your exposure (aka, meter [verb]) for the light that you’re working with, especially because flash is not permitted at most shows.

If you’ve never shot in manual mode, or just need a refresher, the Exposure Triangle is a great place to start. The three angles of the triangle represent shutter speed (that fractional number on your camera screen, like 1/200 or 1/25. It controls the amount of time your shutter is left open and light is being let in!), aperture (this is also known as f-stop, and it’s the little number that looks like this: f/1.8, f/16, etc! It controls the depth of field, which is how sharp or blurry the out-of-focus part of your image is. It also affects the amount of light being let into the camera), and ISO (controls the sensitivity of your camera to light. The higher the ISO, the brighter your photo will be, and vice versa.).

exposure tri

This site is a GREAT resource for learning about the exposure triangle. Grab your camera and play around with shutter speed, aperture, and ISO in different lighting situations until you get comfortable adjusting them.

Step 3: Putting Your New Knowledge to Use!

Pt. I- Getting the camera inside

To be completely honest with you, all of my experience shooting concerts pre-working-with-a-publication was from sneaking my camera into venues, arriving SUPER early to get a good spot, and shooting from the crowd. This may not be the best way to get started in music photography, but it definitely helped me build a portfolio that eventually helped me get onboard with several publications (and thus shoot shows with an actual photo pass). If you’re not okay with risking 1. Getting caught with a camera at bag-check (this doesn’t apply to all venues), or 2. Being chastised by security for having a pro camera without a photo pass, then you may not want to do this. Instead, you can ask around about venues that don’t do bag check or have a strict camera policy (note: If you’re looking for this info on the venue website, don’t. Most venues will tell you that they check bags even if they don’t, so for the sake of just getting a camera inside, ask a few friends who frequent concerts in your city. You’ll be able to get a camera into a smaller venue WAY EASIER than into a large venue or arena. Don’t even try, guys, trust me.).

I would NEVER outright tell someone to break the rules like this and would also NEVER tell you that hiding a lens under a pile of maxi pads deters most security guards. Nope. Never.

TIP FOR THE SEASONED SHOW-SHOOTER: If you’re already onboard with a publication, hopefully you already know to get photo passes and how to take your gear inside the venue, but take a couple of minutes (once you’re approved to shoot the show) to ask the publicist for a day-of contact, just in case there are any snafus at the venue. There have been so many incidents where I arrive at a show, hand my ID to the attendant at will call, and am told that I’m not on the list. This is the WORST, but it is totally avoidable if you have someone on-site to call. It takes 2 seconds and will save you a lot of stress, so do it!

Pt. II- Takin’ PICS!

Alrighty. So you’re inside the venue, you’ve got your camera, and you’re ready to rumble. It seems pretty simple, right? Just go to the show, take some pictures, and go home! Well…yes. But it’s super important to note just a few things before you go inside.

  • If you’ve ever been to a show, you know how annoying it is to have someone standing in front of you holding up their camera through THE WHOLE ENTIRE SET. DON’T BE THAT PERSON. Fans did not pay actual, real, money to watch the show through the back of your camera, so don’t assume that they want to! It’s rude! Move around the venue when you’re shooting, that way 1. You get a variety of different shots, and 2. You’re not blocking someone’s view the whole time. It’s a win-win.
  • Be nice to security. They are your friends (most of the time). Bouncers have literally saved me from kicks to the head (and camera), from tripping over cords, and helped me out with set times and other important info. Just be nice to them (and everyone else, obviously), it’s not hard.
  • Talk to fans and other photographers! A couple of years ago I was shooting The 1975, and a girl in the front row started a conversation with me about photography. We exchanged social media accounts, and guess what? It was my pal Kenedee! We’re still buds, and she’s a Sonic Blume contributor now! So basically, hand out business cards to fans, exchange ’em with other photographers, and make new friends.
  • If you’re shooting from the photo pit, for the love of all things holy, DON’T TAKE PICTURES WITH YOUR PHONE. This sounds harsh, but it’s something that (in my opinion) will make you look mad unprofessional, and if you’re shooting for a publication, will make them look bad too. Think about it: Photographers generally only get 3 songs to shoot from the photo pit, this equates to roughly 10 or so minutes to get the shots you (and your publication) need. Don’t waste time snapping photos on your phone- not only could you miss the perfect shot, but you’re also getting in the way of other photographers who are actually doing their jobs. If you really want to take a picture for Instagram, wait until you’re finished in the photo pit, and take it from the back.
  • Have fun! My favorite shows to shoot are the ones where I’m shooting and singing along at the same time, so don’t be afraid to be enthusiastic. My least favorite type of person is the guy who thinks he’s too cool to care, or sing along, or dance, and is miserable the entirety of the show. For your wellbeing, don’t be this guy!

So, using whatever method you’re most comfortable with, go to a few shows, get comfortable with your gear and camera settings, and post post post your work! Let people see the beautiful photos you’ve worked so hard to take, and ask other photographers for critiques! Tag the bands in the photos, and if it’s a local band, email them the photos and offer to shoot a couple more shows for them (But not too many. Don’t let anyone take advantage of your time and talent!).

Step 5: The Photo Pass and Shooting for Publications!

This step is totally optional! You don’t have to shoot for a publication if you don’t want to. SO, if you’re thinking, Savana, why the HECK would I want to get on-board with a publication when I could just take my camera to shows on my own?!, stick with me! This step is mainly for people who are a lil more serious about concert photography, and want to shoot bigger shows and have access to photographer-exclusive areas of the venue.

Shooting for a publication can be lots of fun and help you gain some awesome, hands-on experience, as well as build your portfolio. When you shoot for a publication, you can email a band’s publicist and ask for a photo pass.  These suckers are the best- they grant you permission to enter a venue with a professional camera and possibly to shoot in areas that are not open to concert goers- i.e., the photo pit! It’s important to note that they’re not generally given to photographers who aren’t on-assignment for a credible publication of some sort (but of course, exceptions are always made). A credible publication can be a local magazine, a blog, or a website, just like Sonic Blume (info on contributing to us can be found here– we’d la-la-love to hear from you)! I’m telling you this because generally, publicists are not too keen on hearing from a newbie photographer who wants to “shoot the show for their portfolio”. This sounds harsh, but think about it: if the photos you’re taking aren’t being shown to a large audience, why would a publicist want to give up a photo pass and a guest list spot that could have been given to a photographer who is shooting for a publication and thus whose photos of the band will be seen by lots of people? Make sense? Solid!

BUT LIKE, WHAT THE HECK EVEN IS A PHOTO- PIT?: When you are photographing a show with a photo pass, if the venue has one, you will be able to stand in an area between the stage and the barricade called the photo pit. Not all venues have ’em (especially smaller venues), but it’s something that important to note. You generally get to shoot from the photo pit for the first three songs of the band’s set, with no flash.

Step 6: How to Find a Publication to Contribute To

Look around! There are plenty of music sites out there, and hopefully you’ll find a few that catch your eye. Heck, you’re lookin’ at one right now! If you think your work might fit with Sonic Blume, then please let us know. If we’re not a perfect fit for you, I would recommend that you browse around on Issuu. It’s a super cool website that hosts all kinds of indie magazines. Also be sure to look around on Instagram and talk to other photographers online about who they shoot for. Send out inquiries to a few of ’em, and see who bites!

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I sincerely hope that this info answered any questions you might have had about concert photography, but if it didn’t, feel free to drop us a line and let us know any other questions you’d like answered on SB! Also, it’s important to note this guide was solely based on my own (and some of my photographer friends’) experience, so it is by no means the final word on the subject! There are tons of ways to get out there and shoot shows, but this is my tried and true method. Now, take your camera for a spin, and go get ’em, tiger! ✿

Recommended Reading 

www.ishootshows.com– Todd Owyoung is a music photographer who does KILLER write ups about his job- he’s toured with some huge acts and has so much wisdom to share. Check out his site for a more in-depth look at a full-time concert photographer’s liiiife.

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