Technology Tuesday: Take Better Concert Photographs

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‘Tis the summer festival and concert season. There’s tons of ways to help remember those precious memories: Lot shirts, official merchandise, commemorative posters, trinkets, pins, badges, YouTube videos, audience recordings from eTree, official releases from the soundboard and many more. However, there’s nothing like taking some of your own photos to have an exact snapshot, from your angle, from your perspective, through what your own eyes saw at a particular point in time.

In this week’s Technology Tuesday we are going to review a handful of pointers to help you take better concert photos regardless of what type of camera you have. A few easy steps and a couple of settings, can change mediocre pictures into stunning images. While I am no photography expert, I have learned a bit through trial and error. Save yourself the heartache of missing the priceless shot and keep these pointers in mind next time you whip out your camera to get shots of the stage.

Concert photos can become treasured memories and a journal of your experiences.

Flash Turn it off! Don’t know how with your camera settings? Google it. Never, ever use the flash. First, you will incessantly annoy the people around you. Second, it will make your picture worse, not better. Your camera may detect people in front of you and think you are trying to light them. You’ll get a nice shot of the people in front of you, but a dark stage. Your dinky ass flash isn’t going to light the stage a few hundred feet away. If you are in a small club setting and can get close, again, your flash will be a nuisance to both the band and others. Similarly, it will ruin the shot: harshly lighting the subject and leaving the background black.

ISO Setting Your camera most likely has a way to set the ISO. Figure out how to do that and jack it all the way that it can to the very highest number for night time shows with light shows or dimly lit club shows. For daytime festival sets, feel free to use the automatic setting or 200.

The range of your point and shoot might be up to about 800 and your DSLR might be 1600 or even 3200. ISO is the setting for how much light can get to the sensor (or film if you are still using that) allowing for quicker shutter speeds in the lower light situations you are going to typically encounter at concerts. Bear in mind, if you leave your camera in AUTO mode in dark situations, you’ll probably lose the ability to set the ISO, and as a result, get poor results.

Focus You may have to go manual. Sometimes with the foreground clutter, darkness and distance, it may be tough to get your subject matter in focus. Particularly difficult might be framing the drummer, for example, behind a big kit. Your camera might be picking things to focus on that you don’t intend it to. This can, periodically yield unexpected and pleasing results, with a microphone perfectly focused with your intended subject softly blurred. However, it is best to learn how to focus exactly what you do want. If your camera doesn’t give you the ability to manually focus, you can always try to “focus and recompose”. Many cameras let you hold down the shutter button half way to focus the camera. Do this and keep moving the camera until your subject is focused as intended without worrying too much about composition. Then, when you have the correct focus, move the camera and create the shot that you want and fully depress the shutter button. Your previously focused subject should still be nicely focused.

Aperture If your camera allows you to set to aperture priority, you will want to do this. This is often indicated by an “Av” or “A” on your settings dial. In this setting, you are telling the camera which aperture setting (how big the hole that lets the light in) to use and the camera will figure out the shutter speed. Paradoxically, the smaller the aperture number, the wider the aperture. Here, you will want to use the smallest number your camera has to allow for the biggest aperture to let in the most amount of light to keep your shutter speed as quick as it can. In other words, in full auto mode, your camera will figure out both shutter speed and aperture for you. In aperture priority mode, you are dictating aperture. Why is this important? Your camera will balance the two and you may end up with a slower shutter speed and smaller aperture which will give you blurred images with anything but the most stationary subjects. Drummer hitting cymbals? Guitarist windmilling his axe? Keyboardist wailing on his keys? All will be blurry unless your settings are correct.

Shutter Speed Again, if you are using the highest ISO that your camera can, opening your aperture as wide as it can (smallest number), your shutter speed will be set to the quickest it can to get acceptable light to take your picture. If your images are still blurry, you can also try setting this manually if your camera allows it. Complete opposite of Full Auto here: you are selecting both aperture and shutter speed. Keep ramping up the speed until the blurriness goes away. If your pictures are still too dark because of the shutter speed: you can always use editing software to add some exposure. It is easy to add a little exposure later but impossible to recover from blurry pictures.

Digital Zoom Don’t use it, or use it sparingly. There’s a major difference between an optical zoom lens (found in DSLR cameras and some point-and-shoots) and a digital zoom. With digital zooming, all you are really doing is cropping your picture in advance. In other words, there’s nothing going on in your lens. Your camera is taking the image from the sensor, cropping it, and in order to fill the entire image space, simply adds new pixels in to fill the image out. This causes pixelazation, grainy images, jagged edges and loss of detail. So zoom as much as your optics can and take your picture. You can then crop to your desired selection with software for a much more satisfactory result.

Memory, memory, memory & pictures, pictures, pictures! Memory is practically free now. I remember when a 2GB card would really set you back a bunch of money making decision making on memory similar to what it used to be when buying and paying for film developing. But now that you can get a 16GB SD card for $5, why in the world would you ever venture out with a measly 512Mb card in you camera? Then, you start worrying that you are running out of space and are more careful with taking pictures. Or, the dreaded situation could present itself where you have to delete one-to-take-one. Don’t do this to yourself. You want to take MANY, MANY pictures and you can’t without the memory.

Mind you, this doesn’t need to take much time at all or take away from your enjoyment of the show. When the situation presents itself, fire off 20-30 photos in relatively rapid succession. Do this a handful of times and you’ve got a slew of pictures without taking much time at all. And if you can weed through those and find a few gems? Mission accomplished. You never know which picture is going to be “the shot.” Don’t expect all of them to come out well: the more you take, the better chance for success.

Also, as far as memory is concerned, use the largest file size that your camera supports. There’s no need to use a smaller image if you have plenty of memory. This limits how much you can zoom and crop your final product without poor results and how big you can make your prints. If you are concerned about file size so that you can easily send to friends and upload online, you can always resize them later.

Don’t Delete at the show! Shoot your pictures and leave them on your memory card. Like Kenny Rogers’ Gambler famously told us, “You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done” . Your pictures are your winnings and you’ll have plenty of time to review and delete when you are home. Here’s the problem when you start deleting “at the table”: You start taking your concentration away from the action and you may be missing the perfect shot when you are deleting a picture. Similarly, you can accidentally delete an image that you didn’t mean to, rendering it unrecoverable if you continue shooting. Finally, there’s pictures that may look terrible on your LCD viewer but may be the ONE shot you were hoping to get with a little tweaking at home.

Post Processing I can guarantee you that most, if not all,  concert pictures that you see in magazines or professional online sites have had some post processing work. And you know what? It is easy, takes less than a minute and you don’t need a fancy, expensive program like Photoshop. Find an online program you like or download one. When I don’t have access to Photoshop, I used to use Google’s great Picnik editor which is now incorporated into Google+ photo editing. A terrific alternative is now PicMonkey.

Even though you composed your picture well and set all your settings as best you could, you can likely improve your picture. Perhaps crop out the dude’s head in front of you and some stage clutter to one side. In addition to cropping, which I almost always do, I often play with exposure and colors. As they are simple sliders, play around until you get deep, dark blacks instead of grays and more natural looking colors. Spending a little bit of time can yield massive dividends!

This is especially true of pictures that were a little underexposed. Remember when we were discussing shutter speed and blurriness? This is where you fix those pictures. If you overexpose an image: there’s nothing you can do! White, washed out faces? Your picture is toast forever. Dimly lit and underexposed? Simply move the exposure slider and all your detail is there and your image is saved!

End Result

Enjoy your efforts! I followed all my pointers with the above image. I had my ISO set as high as my camera could go (1600), set the aperture as wide open as it could be, didn’t use flash, focused on Trey’s guitar, took about fifteen rapid fire pictures (this was the only good one) and did about one minute of editing. The original image was in landscape, but since I used the largest size my camera allows, I was able to crop and rotate. I also adjusted the colors just a bit to make the background appear more black rather than gray.

Good Luck! Enjoy your shows most of all, but hopefully you can get a couple good pictures. Have one from this summer that you are particularly proud of? Feel free to shoot me an email or drop a link in the comments below. Who knows? We might just run your picture here on Hidden Track! Happy shooting!


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4 thoughts on “Technology Tuesday: Take Better Concert Photographs

  1. Matt Punzo Reply

    Thanks for the excellent tips. I will most certainly be utilizing each and every one this summer and look forward to beautiful pics.

    One thing that I think is worth mentioning (particularly b/c I’ve had my own personal issues with this in crucial times in the past) is packing extra batteries. For example, I sat in the blazing sun for hours before the afternoon SuperBall set only to have my digital camera run out of batteries before the set started. I was within 20 feet from the stage, Tube started, beach balls went flying, and I was camera-less. It still pains me to this day.

    Double-check your camera life before you get to the show. Better to have and not need, than need and not have.

  2. Joe Reply

    All great tips, but I have a better one:

    Stop taking pictures at shows all together. It ruins the moment for yourself and everyone around. Just be, and enjoy the music.

  3. Parker Harrington Reply

    Thanks for you comment Joe.

    While the gist of the article was on photography and not concert etiquette, perhaps I should have added a quick point about being respectful and non-intrusive in addition to the points about not using the flash and annoying others around you.

    I can guarantee you that taking a few pictures doesn’t encumber by concert experience one bit. I’ve seen well over 700 concerts and absolutely love the thrill of live music. I made it a point actually to say that taking some photos doesn’t need to ruin your time. Make it quick! Skip the beer lines and other distractions. I’m listening intently when snapping a few pictures and when I catch a good one, during a song I love, it’s like an instant high for me.

    Likewise, I’m very careful not to disturb anyone around me either.

    Heck, one of the things I love about HiddenTrack and other music blogs is the pictures from the shows! Who do you think would take those if everyone “stopped taking pictures at shows all together”.

    How about the tapers? Should they stop as well?

    I see your point, and again appreciate it, but make no mistake that photography and enjoying the music don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

  4. Mike Wren Reply

    Hey Joe – I know what you’re saying, and maybe you’re referring to folks with cellphone cameras hoisting the screen as high in the air as they can reach. I don’t think this article is aimed at them. Yeah, they’re a minor nuisance. The real jerks are The Talkers. Shut yer yaps and listen to the music.

    Personally, some of the musical moments I appreciate most are when I’m shooting live music. Sure, it helps that I’m feet or inches away from the band. But, even when I’m not, even if I’m in the last row balcony, it helps me focus on the music, and more important to the live improv that we all love, the interaction and interplay between musicians.

    When I’m not working a show, I get lazy ears and don’t focus anywhere near as much. Don’t presume that everyone shooting is totally preoccupied in his or her camera while capturing the moment; that’s the farthest thing from the truth, at least for me and the other live music shooters I’m fortunate enough to know.

    And when done right, photogs can be ninjas. You aren’t annoyed by the photogs shooting live music that you don’t see.

    Hate the talkers, even hate on the cellphone high-holders, but don’t hate on the guy off to the side, on the rail, or in the first row balcony doing his or her own thing with a camera.

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