When I first started with a DSLR, one of the first things I noticed was that it was possible to get much better live music shots. Up to that point, I remember seeing shows in small clubs, trying to capture the feel of the show with my little point-and-shoot, and coming away very disappointed with the results. Then I acquired a Nikon D70s, my entry into DSLRs and the Nikon family.
Don't get me wrong. Those D70s shots are nothing to be proud of. I look back now in horror at how bad they are - and very little of that is due to the camera! That being said, fast forward to 2012, and I've learned a fair amount more about some of things you can do to get better live music shots. Oh, and in case you weren't aware, Nikon's more recent DSLR offerings make getting the shot much easier, but you still need to know some of the basics.
Going to the show
I want to focus more on techniques and some gear-related items in this post, but before we go down that road, there are a few considerations that I want to mention.
First off, if you haven't shot much live music before and don't have a portfolio, or you aren't shooting for a publication that can get you a pass, you're not going to be shooting Katy Perry too soon. Sorry to rain on your parade, but it's unlikely that the artist's publicist, the venue, or a newspaper or magazine is going to give you access to high-end talent until you're high-end talent. No biggie, though, because no matter where you live, there are small clubs with shows happening, and that's a great place to learn this aspect of the craft.
Secondly, there are a couple of standard rules of engagement that you should follow when shooting musicians. In general, most bands follow a first three songs policy, meaning, you can shoot through those three, then knock it off. Seems fair, since having a photographer snapping away through an entire performance can get a little distracting I imagine. So, even if you're not in the pit in an official capacity, you should generally respect that rule, as well as the no flash rule. Yep, you read that correctly. No flash. Flash is really distracting to performers, so generally it's banned.
And finally, let someone know you're shooting, and for what, even it's just for practice. At smaller venues with local bands, I'll try and locate a manager, or a band member, and let them know I'm shooting. Often times, the band will be happy that someone's there shooting, and if you offer them digital copies, they'll often tell you to shoot as much as you want.
So, those are the ground rules. And here's the sum of it: you're going to be shooting in the dark, you can't use flash, and you might not have very much time to nail your shots. Best to be prepared with the right gear and no how to dial in your settings so things go smoothly.
As I said earlier, Nikon's latest crop of DSLRs produce results in this type of environment that even the company's flagship pro models from the early 2000's can't compete with. Nearly all of the models from 2008 forward will get you good images, because it's around that time that Nikon made real strides in low noise performance at high ISO. For me, that meant I got some great shots with a D90, a vastly superior camera for this type of work than the D70s. So if you're shooting with a D3100, D5100, or like me, a D7000, you'll be able to get fantastic shots, even without your flash.
As for lens choice, you're going to struggle if you're working with a kit lens with 3.5 as its lowest f-stop, and more so since that aperture will close down as you zoom in. The truth is, you're going to need some fast lenses. I have two that I regularly shoot with, a Nikkor 50mm 1.8 prime lens, and a Tamron 70-200mm 2.8. More often than not I shoot with the Nikkor, particularly in smaller clubs. It's small and light, and very fast. It also stays sharp when opened up to 1.8. The Tamron I'll use in bigger venues, or if I want to get right in tight on a performer. However, this lens really shines when stopped down a bit -- at 2.8 it can produce slightly softer images than I like.
Aside from a newer camera body and a fast lens, the only other gear recommendations are the same that I'd offer for any shoot - make sure your batteries are charged, you have an extra one on hand, clear out your memory cards, and carry extra cards as well.
Ready, set, go...
So you have your gear, you're standing in line waiting to get in, now's your chance to start dialing things in so you're not fiddling around with your camera while the band launches into their first song. I start straight away by pushing my ISO up to 1250, opening my lens up as wide as it will go, and then hoping that 160th will give me a good exposure when I get inside. I'm set to shoot in RAW, because that will give me plenty of flexibility later on for processing, and I set White Balance to auto, because 99 percent of the time, there's not going to be one standard light source, and you're going to have to handle this in post anyway. Anything else? Absolutely, and this one is critical -- change your metering mode to spot.
Now, in actuality, I don't change my metering mode to spot, it's set to matrix metering. However, I do have my function button on the front of the camera set to change metering to spot when depressed, so I spot meter on the fly. Here's why. No matter what type of venue you're shooting in -- small club, outdoors under a tent, large theater -- there are going to be all sorts of lights flying around. Colored light on the background, spots on the performers, room lights and everything else you can think of. If you use matrix metering, your camera is going to take in all of that info, including the super-bright areas of the frame, and direct you to expose appropriately. You'll get home and that would-be-amazing shot of your favorite singer is going to have a great looking background, and a horrifically under-exposed subject. Damn. But, if you spot meter off of your subject's face, or a light piece of clothing, you're going to go home, fire up you computer and knock your own socks off with the results. Sure, those spotlight heads will be blown out, but exposure on the singer will be, well, spot on.
Stopping action is another question. In general, you're probably not going to want the head-banging guitarist to be a massive blur of hair, so you'll need to stop the action. A few paragraphs back I said that I usually start out right around 160th of a second, and often times that works out pretty well. The thing to remember is, if you need more exposure, try to get it with ISO rather than dropping your shutter speed too much. This of course is subjective -- if you're taking photographs of a single, singer song writer sitting on a stool, by all means, slow down the shutter to get the exposure you need.
Technically, with these tips you should be able to pull off some solid shots in most live performance situations. Keep in mind while you're figuring out the technical side of how to get the shot, composition and subject matter are still important. I tend to keep a few things in mind when I'm shooting a show. First, I try to pay attention to the shadows being cast from microphone cords and such. I've had many shots I thought were fantastic go south when in review I realized there was a hard shadow running right across the singer's face. Also, I'm there trying to capture the whole scene, not just shots of the musicians, so I'll try to get some fan shots and anything else that catches my eye.
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