Research & Preparation
Let's jump into the logistical elements of live music photography. First, research and preparation. Now, one thing you always advise new music photographers to do is to research your subjects. Knowing the music is going to prepare you. But also just knowing how the band moves on stage. So it's knowing the music but also- Look up YouTube clips of a live performance of the first three songs of the tour, for example, if you're shooting as an editorial photographer. That's going to give you insight into the production, the stage movements of the band, the general lighting and what you can expect. And it may be even how you can position yourself to get that opening shot or something that's going to happen on stage in the first couple of seconds or minutes, or those first three songs. And because, as a music photographer, you might not have amazing access at first, if you can do the research and preparation up front, you're going to set yourself up for success in having the best opportunity ...
to capture great moments on stage. Also, having a shotlist is going to be instrumental in allowing you to prioritize your time and maximize it. So it could be in having, one, drummer shot. Tight shot of the leader singer. Loose shot of the leader singer. The guitarist. Bass player. Group shot. Front of house shot. Crowd shot. Venue shot. Marquee. All of those kinds of little details, and just have that as a mental checklist so you can run through while you're shooting the show. And that's going to allow you to work more efficiently. And on that, once you have that shotlist, you can execute with purpose and know that you once you check one of these elements off your list, you can move on and not repeat shots. Moving on. Maximizing your best opportunities. Not every single second of a song or performance is going to have the same energy or kind of value photographically. There are slower songs. If you're photographing a ballad, for example, maybe that song is when you go up to the balcony or do that kind of establishing wide shot when action isn't happening on stage. Or it could just mean taking time to move from one side of the pit to the other side. Or change lenses even. But when a high energy moment does come up, shoot a lot. Work the moment. Work the frame. Explore your options both with lenses, composition, angles, all those things. Take advantage of those opportunities when they come up. Also, knowing when to move on is kind of the opposite of that. Sometimes you might be working a subject, and once you've feel you've nailed that one moment or the image you think you want, move on because, again, you have limited time as a live music photographer. So if you're in the pit, or even if you're shooting as a tour photographer, you only have those 70, 80, 90 minutes of the performance in which to photograph and capture what you want. And maybe you have multiple days, but again, every show is going to be different, so knowing when to move on, cut your losses if that's the case, or simply, "Okay, I got the shot. I don't need to continue working the subject. I've got everything on my checklist. I can something weird. I can get the thing I didn't plan for. I can make the one shot I didn't think I'd have time for." So simply knowing when to move is a huge part of maximizing your time. Now we're moving on to something I consider essential as a music photographer and that is hearing protection. Wearing earplugs. Now, a lot of new music photographers might consider this something they take for granted or think, "Oh, the music doesn't sound as good. I don't need it. I'm only photographing a few shows." But the reality is that your hearing is critically important, and once it's gone, once you have hearing loss, it's not coming back. The average noise level at a concert, the exposure time for safe hearing is measured in minutes, not even hours. It's so critical to just wear earplugs and protect yourself. Now in this graph, you can see the average rock concert is anywhere from between about 110 to about 120 decibels in volume. And it's a little bit in between a chainsaw and a jet plane taking off. And here you can see, at, let's say 115, the average safe exposure time for a concert is going to be two minutes. So you can take this and extrapolate. If you're in the pit for three songs, let's say that's eight to 15 minutes, you've already got hearing loss. Damage, I should say. And so, that makes it even more critical, if you're staying for the concert, to just protect your ears. When it comes to earplugs, there are a couple of different options. When I started the first photographing concerts, I'd use the cheap foam earplugs. You can get these at any pharmacy. They're a couple of bucks for a ten-pack. So extremely economical. The pros of those, they're going to be cheap, They block a lot of sound. You can get up to 33 decibel-reducing earplugs in that style. They're disposable. Cons are that the sound's going to- it's not going to be great sound quality. It's going to be a little muffled. And you have to buy more eventually. They are what's call Hi-Fidelity earplugs. And these are earplugs that are developed for musicians and stage performers. When they have an acoustic filter that basically attenuates a sound evenly as opposed to unevenly so that the sound levels are simply lowered and the music still sounds pleasing. It still sounds like music instead of just muffled. And... So these cost a little bit more. They might be $15-30. You have naturally sound is a pro. They're reusable. The con is that they're more expensive and they may not be as comfortable as the most comfortable foam earplugs. Then there's custom earplugs, and these are what I personally use. They're going to be much more comfortable. You go to an audiologist and they basically stick a cotton ball in your ear, shove it way down. Doesn't feel awesome. They inject expanding, hardening foam into your ear canal and it basically makes an impression of your ear. And they send these off. Have silicon molds made out of them. And then there's an acoustic filter, just like the hi-fidelity earplugs, that are put into them. And, it's more expensive. Mine cost about $120 including the doctor exam. But they're reusable. Super comfortable. Unlike foam earplugs, you can just put them in. You don't have to wait for the foam to expand. And if you're serious about music photography, even at a 120 bucks, 150 dollars, for custom earplugs, it's going to be one of the cheaper accessories you have as a photographer.