Shooting the Show: Music Photography

When I was choosing a career path, I wanted to choose between my two loves: photography and music.

However, I could NEVER play an instrument! I was terrible at it and my fingers couldn’t work fast enough, so I went with photography. However, I was blown away when I learned that people could actually get paid and get exposure while photographing music performers. It sounded easy so I gave it a try, but it’s definitely not. Music photography requires a whole new photographic strategy and lots of connections with venues, PR, and the bands themselves. I’ll be sharing some nuggets of information about photographing concerts and how to get press passes to various types of shows.

PVRIS for 92.9 ALT Boston

PVRIS for 92.9 ALT Boston

Get the Gear

The first thing to get in order is your equipment. You need to travel light and take up as minimal room as possible when you’re photographing a show. Keep in mind: you’re going to be in a sweaty, small space with hundreds of people surrounding you and you’ll have a short time to get your shots. Having the necessities and nothing else is key to getting great pictures. I try to limit myself to one, portable camera bag so I can get in and out of the pit without effort. Nowadays, security at music venues is amping up their restrictions and backpacks are normally not allowed, so I would avoid bringing a backpack camera bag with you. Limit yourself to two interchangeable lenses. I bring my 50mm and a telephoto, one to get wider shots and one to get close-ups. I recommend these two (if you’re a Nikon user like me): Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G and Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8. Make sure to bring an extra battery and memory card, just in case things get a little crazy, which they usually will. Lastly, get a camera strap. There’s nothing worse than free-handing with your camera, a crazed fan bumping into you, and your DSLR flying out of your reach. It’s also great to have a camera with built-in Wi-Fi so you can share your shots while the show is still going. Let people see what they’re missing and get that FOMO!

Getting the Shot

Because you get only a short time to get your shots (in most cases, venues only allow photographers to be in the pit for the first 3-5 songs), you have to make sure you’re getting usable images. Bump up that ISO! In music photography, grain isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes, it can make the photograph look like it was taken on film and that helps with the aesthetic quality. Don’t go over f/5.6 when shooting. It’ll make your photographs darker and it’ll be harder to avoid motion blur. I recommend bringing at 50mm lens that can go up to either f/2.8 to f/1.4. Avoid auto-focus. The camera won’t know what to focus on because everything in moving and if your aperture is wide open, it’s harder to get your focus on point. Try to manually focus or use continuous focus. On that point, if your lens has a stabilizer, use that. Your camera will reduce the amount of shakiness that your hand can make.

B.R. Mackie at the Newport Folk Festival for Converse Rubber Tracks

B.R. Mackie at the Newport Folk Festival for Converse Rubber Tracks

Be Different

A lot of people dabble in music photography, so if you want to stand out, you have to try different techniques. Don't be afraid to overexpose, underexpose, or use Photoshop to make your photos stand out. Like my senior thesis project that you can find here, I use a prism to distort my concert shots and add a little flair. Try to make sure that you keep details in the image, though, so viewers can still distinguish who you are taking pictures of. 

The Dreaded Press Pass

Now that you have an idea on how to take music photos, now comes the tough part: press passes. Basically, when you want to take on photographing a show, you need a press/photo pass in order to bring your camera into the venue. This pass also grants you access to the photo pit, which is usually time-limited as I mentioned before. The best way to get press passes is to shoot shows, which I know sounds a little hypocritical. How do I shoot shows if I haven’t shot any shows? The best way is to shoot local bands at local venues. Smaller venues don’t require a press pass to bring your camera in. It’s a win-win for everyone: venues and bands get shots for their use, you get shots for your portfolio. Make sure to follow up and send off your photographs to anyone would could use them. It can lead to unexpected exposure. Once you have a growing portfolio, try to reach out to brands directly or join a publication. I'm a part of the Allston Pudding, which is a small publication about music in the Boston area. Writers and photographers connect to publish reviews or previews for the website. This is the best way to get a press pass without having a large amount of work in your portfolio. However, bigger venues want bigger publications to showcase their shows, so smaller publications won’t get you there. BUT, don’t give up! Keep shooting and building that portfolio.

Good luck with your musical adventure and show the world what you’ve got!