5 Tips for Taking Photos at a Rock Show
Concerts are a blast but getting out with decent photos can be difficult. I prefer festivals because they give us the opportunity to get up close to the stage and use our own eyes to watch the performer. I'm more of an enthusiest than an expert but I do have a few tips for improving your photography at music festivals.
1. Be Intentional About Camera Settings
I recommend Spot Metering. All the smoke and lights will fool any other type of metering. What's worse, these extreme conditions rapidly and continually change. It is common for me to combine manual mode with auto ISO. At night, I'll open my lens aperture as wide as it will go but I will set it more narrow to f5.6 or f8 if there is enough available light. Likewise, I'll set my shutter speed fast enough to capture the moving subject which is often around 1/80th or 1/90th of a second. Depending on the performer that could be too slow. Another consideration is the steadiness of your camera while holding it in hand. If you are using a longer lens, you may need to shoot faster (One divided by the focal length of your lens in seconds is a good rule of thumb).
2. Use the Equipment that Is Available to You
Don't get me wrong; I'm not above trying to sneak my camera past security. I tend to take my backup camera (Sony a6000) and a very compact 50mm lens. The combination is inconspicuous enough that security believes them to be a sanctioned point-and-shoot camera. In-truth there are point-and-shoot cameras on the market that are more capable than what I use. At the 2015 Bush concert in OKC, I opted to just shoot with my iPhone. With the iPhone, the metering and the zooming are as simple as touching the screen. Regardless of the tool, concerts are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a great photo. I went to see Tom Petty in OKC about a month before he died. I sat way up in the stands and didn't so much as take a selfie at the show.
3. Images of the Crowd Can Be More Compelling than Images of the Musicians
I don't usually enjoy doing portraiture of anyone but my own family and I don't entertain street photography unless I'm bored and stranded or stalled. But people at concerts are energized, outgoing, and interesting. They're there to be wild and they are perfectly comfortable being recorded. Some of my favorite crowd surfing images are from Edgefest 2015.
4. Embrace the Stage Effects
I believe it was in a David duChemin book that I was first introduced to the idea that detail and drama are often juxtaposed. Detail is for documentation but shapes and light can be dramatic with very little detail. At a rock show, you should decide if you're going to expose to the shadows and let your highlights blow out or if you're going to expose to the lights and let your shadows go black. Fans going wild are one source of energy. I still firmly believe that messing up any photography is part of why they go crazy with the lights, smoke, and lasers but these elements can also be another source of excitement.
5. Get Close When Possible
The best part of being at a festival is the ability to push your way into the crowd. It can be physically demanding but the experience is worth the price. An example of this is at the 2014 Free Press Festival where Matt Shultz, the front man of Cage the Elephant crowd surfed and ended up singing directly over me. If you don't have a telephoto lens, this is the most important piece of advice that I have to offer.
Rock shows are about as far as you can safely get from the controlled environment of a photography studio. There are undeniable risks. I am the photographer that will take that gamble for a photo.