Concert Photography Tips

By Dana Nalbandian

I’m going to write this from the perspective of a professional photographer using professional Nikon equipment only. I have no experience shooting a concert with any other equipment so I can’t comment on other cameras. The person has been cleared to shoot the show and is in the pit in front of the sage.

Metallica at Rock Werchter 2009 ♫♪

Camera Settings

You need to be fast in taking those photos. Set your camera on full auto. Including your white balance. The light is changing fast and you won’t be able to reset that white balance in time. Full auto will allow you to just press the shutter release button to focus then shoot. The faster you can be the more likely you’re going to get the needed photos. Don’t be afraid to take that shot. If it didn’t come out the way you wanted you can always delete it.

Set your ISO as low as you possibly can, although you will find that the higher the ISO the more clear you will get the shot in low light and with movement. Don’t pay much attention to the meter reading, listen to the shutter. If the shutter is staying open long then bump up the ISO. Don’t be afraid of high ISO settings.

Never use a flash. If you show up with a flash you won’t be allowed in the pit with it. You don’t need it. You will find that contrary to what you might think, the lights on the stage are more often than not, more light than you need. If you use a flash you’re going to end up with a lot of big white blobs. Or whatever the color of the lights on stage. Plus you’re standing right in front of the performer. Your flash is going to go off directly in their face. It will blind them for a short time. Think about it, being blind on a stage surrounded by very high voltage electrical equipment. That’s not a good thing. The performer will not allow you to take their photo again.

Capturing Emotion

A good concert photo shows a few things, emotion, action, or interaction between the performers on stage.

A lot of musicians write their own music. Most of that music comes from an emotional experience in their lives. When they perform it, that emotion comes out. It comes out in their faces, their hands, and their whole body. How they hold the microphone or instrument they’re playing. Capture that emotion.

There isn’t going to be much action while the signer is singing. They’re mostly going to be standing in front of the microphone singing. When they stop singing they will walk away from that microphone to play a short solo on the instrument they’re playing. When they’re doing that there will be some good action to photograph. Whether it’s just bending down to play the guitar or jumping through the air. Take the shot. If it doesn’t come out you can always delete it. If it does, you’re going to have a good action shot.

When that performer moves from the microphone they will sometimes interact with the other members of the band. Or sometimes they will move to a microphone that another band member is using and sing with that member. I’ve taken shots of one band member fingering the neck of a guitar for the cords while another member of the band is strumming the guitar. It’s a great shot.

The last thing you want to photograph is a performer just standing in front of the microphone singing or playing an instrument. It’s a bad shot for several reasons. First of all, it’s boring. Nothing is happening. Second, that microphone has blocked out most of the performer’s face. If you’re going to take a shot like that don’t stand directly in front of the subject. Stand to one side. That way you get more of their face in the shot. Also try to incorporate the microphone in the shot like it belongs there. Not that it’s detracting from the shot. A shot of a performer showing emotion while they’re singing into that microphone is a good shot.

The Lights

This is a subject many talk about. One of the most frustrating things about concert photography is that the photographer has no control of what’s happening on stage. Nor do they know what is going to happen on stage. The lights can present a problem to some photographers. I like to tell people to make friends with those lights and use them to your advantage. Today’s professional digital SLR cameras are sensitive to light and don’t handle bright harsh lights well. You will end up with washed out spots or hot spots on your subject very easily. I use a polarizer filter on my lenses. It cuts down on those hot spots. You can use a long lens to zoom in a shot and cut out some or most of that light. There’s not much you can do about that harsh red or yellow light. You can use it in the shot but sometimes it’s not going to work. You can use the lights or lack of light to enhance the shot and create some great shadows or silhouettes. If the lights are used to create a background try to incorporate it in the shot. I’ve got some shots of a guitar player with the lights creating star effects behind the performer. They’re great shots.

Band members on stage

The singer is going to be in the middle of the stage singing and playing an instrument. The other members of the band will be on the sides with the drummer in the back. The lights for the members on the sides and the drummer won’t always be as bright as the light on the singer. There will be times when the light is bright but when it’s low is when you’re mostly going to need the higher ISO settings. The shots of the members on the sides won’t be as animated as the singer. Get the shots anyway. Sometimes the other members do give you something to shoot, Get the shot.

The drummer will be the hardest person to photograph. That person will be at the back of the stage with drums all around them. You won’t be able to get a full body shot of them so get a shot of them with as much of the drums framing the shot as possible also getting enough of their face to know who it is. Drummers do get very animated when they play and do give you good shots. Capture them.

Polite pit behavior

This is very important. You’re in that small area with other photographers who are there to get their shots just like you are. You’re going to bump into them from time to time but try not to. When you do apologize. Always be polite to the other photographers. Never start dancing or putting your arms in the air while in that pit. You’re ruining other people’s shots with your arms and hands in the way. If you’re going to stand close to the performer to get a close up, do it fast because you’re in the shot of the other photographers and they can’t get their shots. When the allowed amount of time to shoot is over leave the pit. Don’t try to get more shots. The security there will not be nice to you if you do that. You want the security people to like you. They are the only person protecting you from fans who come flying over the barriers. You don’t want them to land on you. So those security guys in the pit are your friends. Do what they say to do and don’t push the situation. Always use please and thank you. It really does go a long way.


I print out a copy of the confirmation email from the band or publicity person. The reason being that paperwork doesn’t always make it to the will call office where you will get the credentials to shoot the show. Or there will be times when the line to will call is very long and you don’t have time to stand in it. Or a number of other situations that will cause you to be late or not shoot a band. That letter will get you the credentials you need faster. Or will get you to the front of a will call line if you show it to a police. Or will confirm what bands and how many songs you can shoot them to the management of a venue. One time it not only saved me from getting a speeding ticket but the police actually stopped traffic for me so I wouldn’t be late to shoot the show. Don’t rely on an email in your cell phone. You can’t hand your cell phone to someone and they walk away with it like you can a piece of paper.

Bad Shots

Bad shots or shots that don’t come out the way you want. You can delete those shots but my experience is that I learn a lot from those shots. Learn what not to do or what to do. Today’s digital images have the history of the shot, what ISO, lens; white balance etc. is listed in the history of that shot. You can see what you did that created that shot that is bad or didn’t come out the way you want. Never underestimate a shot like that. They have a lot to teach you.

Finally, when publishing shots, never, never publish a bad shot of a performer. The main reason being that the performer won’t let you photograph them again. If they see good shots that flatter them they will happily let you photograph them again.

See also: Photography Tips

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Comment by dot
2011-05-02 21:30:16

Great article Dana.

Comment by adam
2011-07-27 08:13:00

I can’t imagine any professional photographer or amateur for that matter(which I am) not shooting in RAW and shooting in full AUTO… especially in such a tricky lighting situation like a concert…
Shoot in RAW and be free to change to any White Balance post-shooting.. and you will be able to adjust exposure by a few stops post-shooting as well…
I would suggest full MANUAL and take a few test shots to get and understanding for the correct exposure and adjust from there…
I am sorry but you seem to suggest the exact opposite of what to do in such a situation…

Comment by Dana Subscribed to comments via email
2011-10-27 14:50:40


I read your reply and was surprised.

I’ve been photogrpahing concerts since 1979. At a time when there was no such thing as an automatic camera. I started on a Nikon EM. Then went to an FM2 then to an N90s that for the first time I had a fully automatic along with a fully manual camera. I was hesitant to shoot a show in auto. The first show I shot in auto was Robert Plant in 1998. I found I was able to get many more photos than I had when I had been shooting in manual. I didn’t miss the shot because of the change of lights or the performer moved and I had to refocus. I’ve been shooting in auto ever since.

I changed to digital in 2004 with a D2h. I shot totally in RAW at the time because the company I shoot for requirs the photo to be 10 inches on it’s longest side. The D2h made an image that was 8. somthing inches on it’s longest side so I had to make it larger. They only accept JPEGs so I had to change them to JPEGs. When I got my D3 in 2008 I finally had a camera that created an image with it’s longest side being more than 10 inches. I started shooting in both RAW and JPEG then.

When you’re limited to 3 songs and have to get the shots, it’s easier and faster to shoot in auto.

When you have a limit of 24 hours to get your photos submitted to your employer you’re not going to want to spend your time converting files all the time. When your employer expects you to edit, caption and transmit the images within an hour or so from the show, you don’t have time to change file formats or white balance. You’re going to end up working until 4 in the morning.

Which is why I shoot in both RAW and JPEG. I work off the JPEG for my employer and consider my RAW like a negative. In case I need to change the image without compromising the integrity of the shot.

A lot of people who work in concert photography work in the press/media. Our editors expect images instantly. We don’t have the time to take to change files or white balance and all the adjustments that go with it. We crop, change curves and colors. We use other plug ins to photoshop to make our work as quick as possible. It’s required. Those who can get their work transmitted first are those who are going to be published first and are asked to return for more jobs.

Personally I don’t understand why you would want to go through all that work. Why make it so much work when you don’t have to?

Comment by Dana Subscribed to comments via email
2011-10-28 12:19:06

Thank you for reading the article I wrote and replying.

I’ve been photographing concerts since 1979. There was no such thing as a digital camera or an automatic camera at that time. I started with a Nikon EM. Then went to a FM2. Then a N90s. The N90s was the first camera I owned that had auto and manual. I used it in manual at first. The first concert I shot in full auto was Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in 1998. I was surprised with how many more photos I got when shooting in auto. I didn’t miss any shots because I had to refocus or change the apeture.

I’ve been shooting with digial cameras since 2004. I started with a D2h then went to a D3 and have added a D3s this year.

As I said in the article, it’s important to get the shots. When you don’t have to do anything but slightly press the shutter release butten to focus then shoot, you’re going to be able to get more shots.

Most of the people in that pit work for some sort of media/press. Those people have editors who want that shot now. Not hours from now. When you have to spend your time changing from RAW to JPEG and then correcting white balance etc. It’s going to take you much longer to get your photos edited, captioned and transmitted. All media wants those photos in JPEG format. In my case my editor wants my photos transmitted within an hour or two from being shot. If it’s taken me several hours to get those shots to my editor, I’m being asked why it’s taking so long and where are the shots.

I shoot in RAW and JPEG for my personal preference. My employer only wants JPEGS.

I just have to wonder why you would go to all that work in editing the shots when you don’t need to. A person would be up until 4 in the morning working if they did what you’re suggesting.

I believe in what works for a person is what a person should do. If you want do shoot that way and it works for you, that’s great.


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