I shoot a lot of gigs. Over the past five years or so, I’ve shot hundreds and hundreds of them, if not more. In fact, in the past ten weeks alone, since launching my Front Row Focus publication, I’ve photographed three festivals, and about a dozen local concerts, totaling countless artists (okay, I could count them but it’s not really necessary). And, I don’t even cover music full time like some of my colleagues!
In that same period, I was also notified that one of my concert photos took top judges’ honors in this year’s Independent Music Awards in the “Concert Photography” category. This is the second year in a row that I collected an IMA (actually, last year I received two accolades, and may get yet another this year). So, I must be doing something right and, of equal importance, I’m limiting what I am doing wrong.
Here’s what I believe separates “great” live music photos from “good” ones, or from bad ones, aka “deletions”:
- The image is sharp. If it suffers from motion blur, or from camera shake, it probably doesn’t deserve space on your hard drive. I like to have a minimum shutter speed of 1/200 sec when I shoot gigs (with my aperture wide open at f/2.8 and my ISO somewhere around 2500, depending on the venue lighting). If I must, I shoot a full f-stop or so under-exposed in order to keep my shutter speed up. I then correct the exposure in Lightroom. I also use Lightroom’s awesome noise reduction to clean things up a bit, but don’t use too much NR as it can soften the image. Please note that hand blur on a guitarist, or other types of action blur, may look “cool” every now and then, but if it occurs on every shot that you take, it gets old very quickly.
- The image captures excitement and emotion. What makes the moment special? If the answer is “nothing”, and it is just a bog-standard capture, albeit properly exposed and sharp, then you’ve fallen short of greatness. It must be compelling to the viewer. It must be unique. Examples of this are “jump shots” that are extremely tough to time, “scream shots” by a singer, or “I see you shots” where the performer is looking directly at you, and strikes a pose while doing it.
- The image must be composed well, and must have good “balance”. Be aware of how you crop the subject, including the artist(s) and their instruments. Are you cropping someone’s body parts at joints (e.g., at the ankle or wrist — cropping off an artist’s feet at the ankles can kill a composition!)? Is the guitar head-stock cut off? Does the line of the neck then lead the viewer’s eyes off of the page? Is the guitar body slightly clipped, where it could have been completely included in the frame? Are you making good use of negative space? NOTE: I use only three aspect ratios when cropping my work, all of which are “recognized” proportions in the photography world: 1) 2:3, which is what comes out of my Nikon; 2) 4:5, which works very well for horizontal shots of guitarists (and some vertical ones as well); and, 3) 1:1, which I don’t use often, but it can work. All of these ratios come standard in Lightroom’s cropping tool. Naturally, if you stick with 2:3 ratios, try to get it right “in camera” in order to save pixels, but as any seasoned pit pro will tell you, that is not always possible given photo pit space restrictions, so a tweak is sometimes needed in post-processing.
- More specifically when it comes to “composition”, don’t employ the annoying “tilt” shot, where you dramatically angle your camera in such a way with the sole purpose to include the entire guitar, disregarding all other compositional factors. Okay, maybe this technique works once out of a gazillion times, but most the time, it sucks. It’s annoying. It’s not as cool as your girlfriend says it is. If I have to turn my head on an steep angle to make sense of a shot, then it ain’t working. Again, every now and then, this tilted compo can work, but it is very, very rare. Best bet is that if you’re going to do it, also take a “normal” format at the same time. Chances are pretty good that the “normal” orientation will be more effective, and more pleasing to the eye, and I won’t need to see a chiropractor after I look at it.
- Avoid “mic mouth” like the plague. It never works. As in, NEVER. If there is a mic growing of an artist’s mouth, nose or forehead, delete the photo. Please. Send it to pixel hell, never to see the light of day again. Sometimes, I cannot believe how many artists are using mic-mouth shots in their publicity efforts or, worse, on CD art. What are they thinking??? To avoid the mic-mouth problem, set your camera’s drive/release mode on “burst”. Be aware of when a singer is practically eating the mic, and don’t shoot that moment. Instead, wait for them to start fading away from the mic after a lyric and fire off a burst or, if you know the song well, time your burst as the singer approaches the mic for the next line of a song. What you really want to achieve is a gap between the mic itself, and the singer’s face. If you are going to overlap the mic on the face (which is quite common, and perfectly acceptable if done correctly), be sure that you can see the person’s mouth to some degree (usually, the more mouth you can see, the better).
- Avoid mic stands crossing over a guitarist’s hands, whether that be the pick hand, or the fret hand. Once you allow a mic stand to obstruct a clear view of a musicians hands, it takes away from the image. I know. I know. This is easier said than done. But, this blog piece is about what makes a shot “great”. And, this “mic stand” thing can be what separates a great shot from a good shot. What’s the best way to avoid this? Two things: 1) See if your position in the pit can be improved to get a clearer shot at the artist; and, 2) When framing up a shot, pay attention to what the hands are doing, and wait for the moment when their position is such that they are not being blocked by the mic stand.
- Include dramatic back-lighting in your frame. Of course, this can be totally dependent on the venue. Many small venues and clubs lack decent lighting systems, which makes it nearly impossible to pull off that award-winning shot. Day-time shows, e.g., at festivals, also suffer from the lack of stage lighting (both front and back light).
- Avoid the silhouette. True, sometimes this can be a fantastic effect, and it can even achieve greatness. But… Most of the time when I see silhouette shots, it’s because the shooter is not using manual exposure, and is likely on either Aperture Priority or, worse, program automatic, and they have little control over their exposure, especially in rapidly-changing back-light situations. Best bet is to aim for a correct exposure of the subject (front light), and let the back light do what it wants. This is much easier to achieve in manual exposure mode, as you can lock in your exposure settings for the front light without worry about your meter reacting to the back light. Be very careful with “spot” metering, as the quality / effectiveness of the metering is only as good as the “spot” that you choose. If that spot does not mimmic your meter’s calibration point (e.g., 18% gray), then you can end up with widely varying exposures from the same lighting conditions. Oh, and don’t be afraid to “chimp” your shots to get the correct exposure. If you’re not using your camera’s LCD play-back (aka “chimping”) to help with your exposure, then you’re doing yourself a great disservice. Even the best light meters in the highest-end cameras cannot handle the metering requirements of the challenging lighting conditions that you’ll find at many concert halls. To be honest, I have no idea how concert photographers in the film days did their thing. Maybe the lighting wasn’t do dynamic and changeable, and they were able to get a decent spot reading. In any event, my hat goes off to the “old school” concert photographers who didn’t have the luxury of chimping their exposures.
- Be careful with your focal point when using a depth-of-field that is very shallow. As noted above, I am always using the widest capability of my lens’s apertures (e.g., f/2.8). In most indoor venues, this is more by necessity than by choice, as I need to get as much light into the camera as possible. This wide aperture can present a problem when it comes to DoF, and the precise selection of your focal point. For example, if you’re shooting a guitarist from an angle, and your focal point is on the end of the head-stock of the guitar, the guitar will be in focus, but the musicians face will not be (sometimes, this can result in an worthy result, but rarely). A more subtle DoF issue comes into play with singers. If you follow Point No. 5 above, and wait for a singer to be slightly away from the mic, but your focus is on the mic, you may end up with a sharp mic, but a very slightly blurred face (and, you won’t see this blur on your LCD without zooming in, but you’ll certainly see it once you zoom in, either on your monitor, or in-situ with your LCD’s zoom capability). The closer you are to the musician, and the greater your focal length, the more you have to be concerned with this focus issue. If you are using prime lenses that open wider than f/2.8, then that can make the problem even worse. Yes, the f/1.4 or f/1.8 50mm lens is great for gathering more light, but there is a trade-off. Not only may it lead to too shallow of a depth-of-field, but composition becomes very difficult with a prime lens.
- Beware of water bottles, monitors, mic stands, etc. This may sound picky, but when you include distracting elements such as these in the frame, it can greatly detract from the power of the image. Even if you pull off a superb moment, but there is a water bottle at the bottom of the frame, guess where the viewer’s eyes will go when they look at it? Yep, to the water bottle, which is not what you want!
- Carry a wide angle lens (or super-wide lens), and use it. The wider you shoot, the more likely you are to pull off a very unique shot. Why? Because most concert photogs either concentrate on filling the frame with their telephoto lens, or they don’t even carry a lens that goes wider than 24mm (full frame sensor; say, 36mm or more with a crop sensor). I love my Tokina 16-28 f/2.8 lens, and it comes in handy at gigs (yes, I’d prefer the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8, but I don’t need another mortgage!). I call it my “differentiator”, as it goes wider than what most others in the pit are using, enabling me to produce something that nobody else can due to gear limitations (i.e., focal length). Sure, for most of a gig I’ll be using my 24-70 f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8 glass (each on its own Nikon D700, by the way), but I often like to swap out one of the lenses for my super-wide Tokina, and see what I can do with it. I must say that shooting really wide is not easy. In fact, it’s bloody difficult! The wider you go, the more crap you put into your frame (e.g., stage clutter), and the more distortion you’ll get. It’s a challenge. But, the reward for hammering a shot with such a challenge can be huge. Note that when I say “super wide”, I am not referring to a fish-eye lens. That would be super-duper wide! Having said that, I do carry a 10.5mm f/2.8 fish-eye lens in my bag, but I use it sparingly, as I believe most people should (with any type of photography!).
- Include the crowd in the shot. Of course, this is not always possible, and it isn’t essential to create a “great” shot. But, if you can do it, while employing many of the things noted above, then it can help to elevate the notoriety of the image. Not only that, but if you post crowd shots on social media, you’re bound to get a ton of hits as the folks in the front of the pack would much rather see photos that include their own mug, than shots that include only the performers!
- Easy on the Photoshop filters in post-processing. No matter what type of photography I look at, I find over-processed images to look very amateurish (especially over-done and over-saturated HDR stuff). If you have to compensate for a bad or average composition by applying a gazillion filters in Photoshop or with Nik or Photomatix software (or whatever), then it probably wasn’t a very good image to being with. I’m not suggesting that an image should come out of the camera “perfecto”. In fact, if you’re shooting RAW files, you better be processing your images to bring out the best in them! What I am suggesting is that if you apply gimmicky digital filters to your stuff, to the point where it looks like a cartoon on acid, is not quite as “cool” as your Facebook friends tell you it is. If the lighting at a show totally sucked (e.g., it was all red “wash” the entire gig), then do what most of us do in that situation: Convert them to black and white!
- Finally, a great shot is never an “almost” shot. In other words, if you have to make excuses to others as to why you didn’t quite nail the shot completely (i.e., “This was almost a great shot, but…”), then it’s not a great shot. It’s probably not even a “good” shot. It may even be a deletion in my book. A great image should stand on its own. No excuses. Period.
DISCLAIMER: For those who feel a need to now analyze with a fine-toothed comb every concert photo that I have ever taken, I am not claiming that every shot that I take is a “great” one. However, I do strive for greatness — every time I shoot a gig. Truth be told, I’m probably my toughest critic, as I can look at just about any image that I’ve ever created — at a concert or otherwise — and find something wrong with it. Having said that, when it comes to music photography, I’m fairly confident in what I do (though I’m always striving to improve). If you are interested in viewing my work, feel free to check out the following three links:
David Simchock Photography Music Portfolio (my “shooting” website)
Front Row Focus (my new on-line music magazine)