A Crash Course in Concert Photography

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khoa-photosIntroduction

With personal, "nonprofessional" cameras generally permitted into concerts for the past few tours, we've seen an explosion of concert photos taken and shared by fans everywhere. There's very little that's more satisfying than looking back at a particularly memorable shot of your favourite band and be able to say, "I was there, and I took that."

However, on the flip-side, there are also fewer more disappointing things than framing what you think is the perfect shot and having it come out too blurry and blown-out, where the colour balance is wrong, or where you have a perfectly exposed shot of the upraised hands in front of you, but the stage that you really meant to shoot comes out far too dark.

I can't promise to turn you into an Expert Concert Photographer (I'll let you know if I ever get there myself), but here are a few simple tips that I hope will help you take better concert photos.

Etiquette

Digital cameras and cell phones were virtually nonexistent as recently as the Elevation tour (which, frighteningly enough, wasn't really all that recently). Since then, Zippos have been replaced by cell phones, and just about everyone's bringing a digital camera of some sort to a concert. What this means, of course, is a heck of a lot of glowing LCD screens everywhere, held up at or above head-level. So, take whatever shots you want to take, but also be mindful that not everyone has the same "head-level," and take a break every now and then. You might even enjoy the show a bit more that way! Oh, and you know those people who are right up against the railing in the general admission area? Yeah, they stood in line all day to get their spots. Please refrain from elbowing your way past them to get a shot.

First things first

Please turn off your flash. Almost without exception, concerts and flash photography do not mix. Most consumer camera flashbulbs have a maximum effective range of about 12 to 15 feet (approximately 3 to 4 metres). Even with the very best GA standing position, the stage will be too far away for the flash to be of any use. In basically every audience concert photo taken with flash, you'll notice that the stage and band members are underexposed and dark, while the upraised hands of the audience in front of the photographer are brightly highlighted by the flashbulb. In early 21st century Internet parlance, this is referred to as an Epic Fail. Fortunately, U2's lighting rig is As Powerful As The Sun Itself (on a heavily overcast day). This means that if you keep a couple of rules in mind (I‘ll get to those in a minute), available light should be more than sufficient.

Flash also has the tendency to affect colour balance and photographic ambience in a decidedly not-so-good way. For instance, it does a great job of reflecting off of smoke and pyrotechnics and ruining your photo. And supposing that Bono is actually close enough for your flash to have any effect at all, your blueish-white, daylight-balanced, straight-on flash is going to make him look like something out of a George A. Romero zombie film if coloured stage lights also happen to be shining on him.

Finally, as far as I've heard, Bono hates flashbulbs blinding him in concert. Would you want to be yelled at by him in front of 20,000 people? No, I didn't think so.

Theory: aperture, shutter speed, sensitivity and exposure

A camera works by focusing an image through a lens and onto a light-sensitive film, or in the case of a digital camera, a CCD or CMOS imaging sensor. Three major factors are generally involved in exposing an image: film/sensor sensitivity (self-evident), aperture (how big of an opening is behind the lens), and shutter speed (how long the film or sensor will be exposed to light). The idea is to find the correct balance between these three elements to allow enough light through to get a good image exposed, but not so much that the image is overexposed (underexposed images are too dark, while overexposed images are too bright).

A lens aperture is measured in what's called an f-ratio, as in f/n, where f is the lens focal length and n is the aperture ratio. Because of this inverse relationship, the smaller n is, the larger the aperture, and the more light it lets through the lens. So, for example, an f/2 is brighter than an f/4, which is in turn brighter than an f/8. Aperture also affects something called depth-of-field, but it's rather beyond the scope of this article to discuss here.

Sensitivity is measured in ISO or ASA (the standards are equivalent). The higher the number, the larger the grain and the more sensitive the film. In the case of a digital camera, the higher the ISO, the more sensitive to low light the camera becomes, but at the expense of quality: Images will become noisier (grainier) as the ISO increases, and dynamic range and colour accuracy will suffer. ISO 100 and 200 are generally suitable for outdoor, daylight photography, while indoors, at a U2 concert, for instance, you will need to use a minimum of ISO 400, or even 800 or 1600, as the lighting conditions dictate.

Slower shutter speeds allow for more light to find its way onto the film or sensor, but also increase the risk of blurring from camera shake and from a moving subject. Just think how far an airborne Bono can move in the blink of an eye, or how far Larry's arms move in that time; the time it takes to blink an eye is 1/30th of a second. It can be tough to avoid blurry photos with anything slower than 1/60s (1/60 is faster than 1/30, and 1/125 is faster than 1/60).

Superzoom camera users will have to keep in mind that zoom lenses will generally have a smaller maximum aperture as you go farther in through the zoom range. Also, as you zoom in farther, the effects of subject motion and camera shake will be magnified, forcing you to use a faster shutter speed, and possibly increase the ISO sensitivity to compensate.

General Guidelines

There are no real hard and fast rules, unfortunately. Concert photography is a difficult business, and professional concert photographers invest a lot of time and money into developing and perfecting their craft and generally push their equipment to the limits. The good news, however, is that, as I mentioned before, the lighting at U2 concerts tends to be very good: I still have shots from the Vertigo tour that I consider to be pretty good, taken with a compact digital camera that's technologically knives-and-bearskins compared to some of the stuff that's out today. The really good news is that with a digital camera, you can try and try again until you get your best and most satisfying results, and unlike the pros, who have to leave after three songs, you get to stay out and shoot all night.

Exposure compensation in automatic mode

One very, very important thing to keep in mind when shooting at night or, in this case, a concert setting, is that your camera's automatic metering mode will generally try to take into consideration the whole frame when calculating a shutter speed, aperture and ISO combination to get a good, bright image. If large areas of darkness are in the frame, as you'd expect to find at a concert with the house lights off, the camera will be fooled into making everything else brighter to compensate, resulting in blown-out (overexposed) subjects and quite possibly motion blur from the camera choosing a shutter speed that's too slow. If you find this happening, set your exposure compensation to -1EV and adjust it up or down until you get a good exposure. You can also set your camera's metering to centre-weighted or spot modes (which will make the metering calculations based on smaller portions of the frame), but these will also likely require fine-tuning the exposure compensation. Of course, turn off your exposure compensation (set it back to zero) if you find yourself shooting and there aren't big areas of darkness in the frame.

Shooting manual mode

If you're brave enough (and it really isn't that hard), you can try shooting in manual exposure mode. Start by choosing an ISO sensitivity (a good place to start is anywhere from 400-1600 for a U2 concert), keep your aperture as close to wide open as you possibly can, and adjust your shutter speed so that you get both a good exposure and avoid camera shake and subject motion blur. Depending on your lens and how energetic the band is feeling that night, you might need a shutter speed upwards of 1/125s. Keep playing with the settings until you get a good combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed, and keep in mind that concert lighting is incredibly variable from one second to the next!

Practice, practice, practice

As with most things, there is no substitute for practice. Shoot the opening band to get a handle on changing settings and finding out what works for you before U2 even takes the stage. Better yet, take your camera to local/smaller concerts and practice at those (not to mention that supporting local music brings great karma). Just remember that there's probably no way the lighting will match that of a U2 show.

For composition, photos with the subject dead-centre tend to be less exciting. Play around with composition; if Bono is running, leave space ahead of him to "run into." If the Edge is looking back at Adam (and Adam is off the frame), then leave some space behind. Try to put your subject's head or eyes at about a third of the frame's height.

Concert photography is about taking an instantaneous moment out of a much larger performance. Frame the band members interacting with one another, and learn to anticipate what each band member might do at a given moment. (It's not that hard if you're a die-hard fan.) And don't forget the audience; some of the most moving concert photos have involved fan reactions to what's going on stage.

There is a lot more I can write about the subject that would probably be way beyond the scope of this article, but I encourage you to experiment and have fun, and I hope you'll find some of these tips useful.

(Khoa Tran is a former @U2 staffer who can be found -- with his photography -- on Flickr.)

(c) @U2/Tran, 2011.

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