Concert photography is probably one of the most challenging fields in photography, but also one of the most rewarding. I can clearly remember the first time I stood in the photo pit, getting ready to shoot the alternative band, Tv On The Radio. I was still trying to figure out the right settings on my camera when suddenly the lights in the venue went off. The band got on the stage, hundreds of people started screaming behind me and I thought, “Am I dreaming or is this real?” Then it hit me – damn, it’s real and I’d better get back to reality quickly and take some great photos! That was how concert photography felt for me the first time I did it. 7 years later, every concert I shoot still gives me an adrenaline kick and there´s always a new challenge to deal with.
Concert Photography is the dream of many passionate music and photography lovers out there. However, there isn’t much information around detailing how to succeed at concert photography. You won´t be able to find many books about concert photography. Something else that holds people back from starting to live their dream is thinking that they need the expensive gear that pro photographers use. In this article, I’m going to show you 7 tools that will help you to get started and bring your concert photography career to the next level.
Your 7 must-have tools in concert photography:
Tool 1: Camera
If you want to get into concert photography as soon as possible, get yourself a good DSLR and don’t think about it anymore. It doesn’t matter which brand you choose. I use Nikon, others use Canon and there are others who use Sony or Fuji. Nikon and Canon are (still) the biggest players in the market and offer a wide variety of lenses, so you might want to consider one of these brands. Just go to your local photography store, hold some and decide which camera body best fits in your hands.
The ISO capability of your camera is key in concert photography. Depending on your budget, try to buy a crop sensor (entry level) DSLR camera with a maximum ISO setting of at least ISO 3200. You will be faced with low lighting conditions on stage and therefore need the option to set high ISO values. Remember, the higher the ISO setting on your camera, the warmer the camera sensor will become, which will lead to higher noise levels in your photos. Therefore, it´s important your camera has the ability to deal with high ISO settings to get the best quality photos. For concert photography, I would suggest starting with either the Nikon D3100, D3300, D7200 or the Canon EOS Rebel T5, T3i or T5i.
Crop sensor DSLRs are mostly available as a kit package together with a lens. You can get a decent camera body with a lens such as an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6. This kind of lens is good for “everyday” photography purposes, like travel and birthday parties outside, but they are absolutely useless for concert photography. So, as well as your kit lens, you will need to get another lens, or save some money and opt for a “body only” purchase.
Tool 2: Lens
When starting out in concert photography on a budget, I would recommend the cheap 50mm f1.8 prime lens (it’s available for all brands and is a no-brainer!), because of its ability to shoot in low-light at its highest aperture setting. This lens is made of plastic, is small, lightweight and unobtrusive. The “Nifty Fifty” – also called the “plastic fantastic” – has saved me more than a few times when the lighting technician seemed to be asleep and the stage was almost pitch black. This lens is a prime lens, which means it has a fixed focal length of 50mm. So, if you want to get closer, you have to use your feet.
What´s the problem with your kit zoom lens? As you might have realized already, the 18-55mm zoom lens has aperture numbers of f3.5-5.6, whereas the 50mm has an f-number of 1.8. The smaller the f-number, the more light can hit the camera’s sensor. This means that small f-numbers are perfect for concert photography. From my experience, an f-number of f2.8 and smaller is a must for low-light, gig photography.
Tool 3: Memory Cards
The decision which memory card to get should be based on the format, the storage capacity and the read/write speed. There are two main formats: SD (Secure Digital) and CF (Compact Flash). SD cards are becoming more popular in consumer cameras and are cheaper than CF cards. CF cards are still used in high-end, full format cameras such as the Nikon D800 and upwards. A good storage capacity is 8, 16 or 32 GB. Instead of getting one 64GB card, get two 32GB cards in case one of them dies during a concert. A word about speed: like most things in this industry, the faster the better. The different manufacturers offer a variety of write speeds. The faster the write speed of your memory card, the faster you can take a succession of images without having to wait for the camera to catch up. One of the main players in the field I trust is SanDisk.
Tool 4: Camera Strap
Don´t you hate the classic camera strap that you get with your camera? If you are constantly moving the camera swings in front of your chest all the time, your neck hurts if you use heavier lenses and you always have the feeling you have to protect it by holding and stabilizing it with one hand. To avoid these issues, I use a special camera strap for two reasons. Firstly, the camera hangs upside down, over your butt. This allows you to keep both hands free. Secondly, the weight is distributed diagonally so this strap is great for carrying heavier lenses. There are two different camera straps on the market that use the same principle: California Sun Sniper and Black Rapid strap. Get one of these and you´ll enjoy shooting with your camera even more.
Tool 5: Camera Bag
As you have to carry all your equipment to the front of the stage, you really need to have a great camera bag which protects your gear well. There are a lot of different options such as backpacks, shoulder bags, trolleys or pelicases. I personally prefer the comfort of a backpack and I use a Manfrotto Advanced Gear backpack L to carry all my equipment. Imagine arriving at the concert late with your camera trolley and having to fight your way through the crowd with it! At some shows, you wouldn’t even make it to the photopit! Make sure you get a bag that carries all the gear you need when shooting bands on stage. Mine has enough space for 1 camera body and 3 lenses.
Tool 6: Ear protection
Ear protection is a must in concert photography. Your working environment has a sound level similar to sitting on a bulldozer and if you plan to do this job for many years, you’d better start off taking the right precautions. The simplest solution would be to buy some normal earplugs from the supermarket. The bad thing about them is that you can’t even hear your friends anymore. These types of earplugs just mean you can’t hear anything and are definitely not the solution you’re looking for right now. So, the go-to option is to get the same professional ear protection musicians use. I got the Alpine MusicSafe Pro professional ear protection. They contain different sets of music filters and are comfortable to wear. And most importantly, they protect your ears to avoid long-term hearing problems. And they’re cheap :)
Tool 7: Adobe Lightroom
If you want to stand out from the average snapshot photographers, you have to post-process your photos. Being a photographer is not only about taking photos, but also knowing how to handle special software to get the best out of them. There are many applications available, but the ease-of-use of Adobe Lightroom nailed it for me.
Speaking for myself, the post-production process should be as painless as possible, because I don’t want to spend hours in front of my computer. I’d rather go out and shoot concerts instead!
What Lightroom handles very well is the fact that you can manage your files (you can rank them with stars, flags or different colors) and process them in one application. Lightroom is intuitive, fast, and you can even set your personal preferences as “presets”. So, next time you can make your photos look awesome with only one click. Recently, Adobe released Lightroom 6 as part of the creative cloud and also as a stand-alone package.
Using these 7 tools, you’ll be ready to kickstart your career in concert photography right now. Keep in mind that this article is aimed at beginners on a budget. I agree that full-frame cameras make tons of sense for a concert photographer, but it’s absolutely not a must-have item when starting out. It ´s more important to first find out if concert photography really is your passion.
Tell me what tools you like using for shooting concerts in the comments section below.
About The Author
Matthias Hombauer is a self-taught music photographer and the founder of How to Become a Rockstar Photographer where he teaches people how to start out as a concert photographer. He has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, but soon realized he wanted to combine his two passions – music and photography – instead. Currently, Matthias is based in Vienna/Austria and works for international artists such as Iggy Pop, The Prodigy, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello and Fink capturing amazing moments during their on-stage performances.