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How I Became a Professional Photographer and What I Saw Along the Way: First Concert

December 9, 2011

Clay Aiken 2004
Clay Aiken, December 9, 2004. ©Madison Square Garden, L.P.

Seven years ago today I was hired for my first paid concert shoot, Clay Aiken’s 2004 Christmas Tour, in the Theater at Madison Square Garden. It’s hard to believe it’s been only 7 years since Clay Aiken topped the charts, isn’t it? I’ve since gone on to shoot bigger names like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Foo Fighters, Van Halen, Neil Diamond, Elton John, and Paul McCartney, each of which was a bit of a “pinch me” moment.

Here’s a secret: You don’t need access to music’s biggest names to get professional-looking concert photos. Really, you don’t! If you have a local music scene in a bar or club, head on down there with a DSLR and a fast lens and snap away. Most small-time musicians like to be photographed because they want the free publicity, so don’t be shy! As for a fast lens, a 50mm f1.8 is a relatively affordable way to shoot in what will likely be dark performance spaces, so if you’re still only using that zoom lens that came with your camera, think about getting a 50mm f1.8. If you live in a big city and just want to try it out, you can probably rent a fast 50mm lens for a weekend for a nominal fee.

What camera settings should you use? Here’s a list of helpful tips:

  • You must set your camera’s exposure mode to Manual. Your camera may be smart, but it’s not smart enough to automatically compensate for the abyss of darkness behind the performer. If you set your camera to any mode other than manual, the performer’s skin will probably be very bright and washed out, which will make your fancy DSLR photos look like those from a point and shoot.
  • Use the largest aperture (smallest f-number) available on your lens. If the stage is bright enough, you can stop down 1/3 of a stop for a little extra sharpness. For instance, if you’re using a 50mm f1.8 lens, that would be f2.0.
  • Don’t be afraid to use a high ISO. You can very effectively reduce the amount of noise later in Photoshop or other software. But don’t get too friendly with extreme ISOs either. If you use ISO 6400 and for some reason your images are underexposed, the results will be scary. Think of high ISOs like spiders: they’re good to have around and probably won’t hurt you, but you might not want to get too cozy with them.
  • Shutter speed is the big unknown factor here and your choice is going to be limited by the brightness of the stage. You might not even need a short shutter speed if the performer is sitting on a stool singing a soulful melody. If it’s a rock show, you might end up with some motion-blur, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Experiment by adjusting your shutter speeds and ISOs together (slower shutter speeds with lower ISOs and faster shutter speeds with higher ISOs) to get the look you want. Just remember that later on when you’re adjusting your photos on your computer, it’ll be easier to mask unwanted high ISO noise than unwanted motion blur.
  • If you’re comfortable shooting in RAW format and converting to JPEG later, shoot RAW. This is exactly the kind of difficult lighting and white balance situation where having the RAW file available to you could save your favorite image. If you’re unfamiliar with RAW, get familiar with it. I promise you’ll never want to shoot JPEGs again. Search on Amazon.com for “camera raw” to find an up-to-date book that will teach you the ins and outs of the format.

Have any concert shooting tips? Share them in the comments section below!

If you’re feeling adventurous, you should consider a trip to the great city of New Orleans, Louisiana, which is known for its jazz, blues and even rock music in the bars and clubs on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. Here are some of my favorite music photos that I took in New Orleans in August 2004 (all without any special credentials or passes), only a few months before that first paid concert shoot:

New Orleans rock show on Bourbon Street

New Orleans rock show

Music on Bourbon Street

New Orleans singer

Music in New Orleans

Cats Meow, Bourbon Street

Bourbon Street tambourines

New Orleans guitar player

Live Jazz New Orleans

Jazz on Bourbon Street

New Orleans trumpet

Other posts in the series, How I Became a Professional Photographer and What I Saw Along the Way:

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Shira permalink
    December 9, 2011 1:29 pm

    Those New Orleans photos are fantastic! And I love the concert shooting tips. Makes me want to nudge my way into the front row and try them out. Too bad my stint singing backup for big Al was a few years later or maybe it would have made the cut!

    • December 9, 2011 1:32 pm

      Ha, don’t worry, that hilarious photo will surely be posted some day…

  2. December 12, 2011 10:40 am

    Thanks for the tips! I’m just learning to shoot indoor events – I just shot a holiday party for the Chicago Opera Theater last week. Unfortunately the highest ISO I can get on my Nikon D70 was 1600 so a number of the photos came out blurry since the room was all candlelight and they asked me to not use flash. But I really enjoyed the challenge and I think a lot of these pointers will help with a lot of indoor events.

    Thanks again!

    • December 12, 2011 11:15 am

      Wow, shooting a candle-lit event without flash, I’m impressed that you got anything usable! It must have been daaaaaark in there. Why did they not want you to use a flash?

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