Tip & Techniques for Capturing Live Music
Live music pro tips. These are just tips that I try to incorporate into my own photography and things that I've found useful in my experience with shooting live music. First tip, don't forget the drummer. Photographers always forget the drummer. And for me, it's something that's stuck with me. It's become almost a mantra because drummers are at the back of the stage. They're dimly lit. They're surrounded by the drum kit. They're in constant motion and all these elements make for hugely challenging photography. They're tough to photograph. There are far easier subjects than drummers and it's natural to maybe focus on the singer, the lead guitarist, the bassist, everyone but the drummer because they're tough, they're hard subjects. They're not compelling if they're so far away. But, you should nail one great photo of every single performer. It's not just about the lead singer. It's about telling the whole story of the show. Every member of the band deserves one great photo, so I kind of ...
take that upon myself as a challenge, to nail one, in your set list, in your shot list, you're gonna nail all these shots, the drummer, the wide angle, the singer, et cetera, but really focusing and making it a priority to get not only a great drummer shot but an amazing photo of every member of the band, and to kind of include everyone. This is my friend Rich Redmond, he's a drummer for Jason Aldean, and he's one of my favorite subjects in the world to photograph, because he's hugely expressive, and he also loves being photographed so I can get in his face with a fisheye lens, or an ultra wide angle, like this. And, aside from being challenging subjects, drummers are some of the most rewarding subjects you'll ever get because of all of those challenges that I just mentioned, because of the lighting, and the motion and the access that's difficult. If you can get a great drummer shot, you're gonna feel amazing as a music photographer. Knowing the music. Knowing the music in music photography is going to be hugely beneficial, even if it's simply paying attention to the structure, because music, live music, it's all tied to the music itself. The production, the lighting, the lighting cues, the band's performance, their stage blocking, it's all connected to the music, because musicians are creatures of habit. They're often going to do the same things during certain parts of the song, where obviously they're playing the music but they're gonna have the same motions. They might go stage right at one point in the song, they're gonna go stage left during another, and they kind of have these patterns often, but in addition, all the production cues are tied to the music. For example, here's a shot of The Weeknd, this is shot in Vegas for iHeartRadio, and I bet I missed the pyro cue the first time it went off, I might have missed it the second time it went off, but the third time, because I was able to pay attention to the beat of like, oh it's gonna drop, it's gonna drop, I'm like, the pyro's cued to parts of the music. Not even knowing The Weeknd's music that closely, but being able to pick up on it in the moment, and in the photo pit, and be like, okay, it's coming, being ready, it's gonna pay off. Absolutely, and knowing the music for your photography. And in addition, this is an element to do research, if you can do research on the band's you're photographing, and know those, say, the first three songs, or whatever the set is going to be that you're photographing, and just knowing the cues, you're gonna make better music photos. Patience. Patience is a huge one here. With live music photography, it's kind of like being a hunter. If you have a shot list, you're kind of trying to tick off these different elements of your shot list. Whether it's the drummer photo, guitarist, lead singer, group shot, et cetera. But in a lot of ways you're also looking for these moments, whether it's the quiet moments, or the rock star, kind of epic moments, and you have to have patience as a photographer, because, again, you don't have any control over what's happening on stage. So if, as a live music photographer, you have to have this reserve of patience, where you can know when to hold out, and kind of stalk your subject, so to speak, to nail those moments when they do come in front of your lens. And here's an instance, this is DJ Tiësto performing at The Pagaent in St. Louis. Obviously DJ's, their hands may be on the decks, obscured, and I was waiting for a shot, this was shot in front of house, where his hands would be up, he's dancing a little bit, that would mirror the fans in the foreground, and kind of have a little connection and synergy between the performer and the crowd, and so just taking a little bit of time to wait until his hands come up was just an act of patience. So, zone defense in a crowded photo pit. This is an element where you're not gonna be able to move around, necessarily, in a crowded pit, or especially if you're shooting from the crowd, you have to kind of take what's in front of you and photograph it as you can. You can't be running around either end of the stage. Even if you want to, something great might be happening on the other side of the stage, but you can't get to it. So you kind of have to have, again, a little bit of patience, but knowing how to play zone defense, and kind of, my moment's going to come to me later, but I get a photograph of what's in front of me and take advantage of that time, because if you're shooting live music as a press photographer, as an editorial photographer, you might only have three songs, in which to make your work, and to produce those 20 to 40 galleries of selects you're going to deliver to the client. You can't always just put your camera down, or run over, because the moment's going to be gone if you run to the side stage. And so you have to kind of make due with the time, and so photograph the subject that's in front of you. And this is an instance, this is All American Rejects, photographed at The Pageant years ago. And the singer is running back and forth across the stage, and I kind of had to pick a spot for this shot, because I knew he was going to be coming back at some point, but chasing him across the photo pit would have been pretty futile. So this is an instance of just kind of picking my spot, playing zone defense, and, okay he's gonna come in front of my lens at some point, gonna nail it, and this was the shot that resulted. Shooting for key moments. You know, there are instances where, in live music, again, because you have limited time where shooting more is going to benefit you rather than shooting less and shooting more conservatively. You know, it's kind of this unspoken secret of photography. You're only as good as the images you show. Hide all the bad images, you don't have to show people the dark frames, the moments you missed. But you'll always regret the photos you don't take. So for me, again, it goes back to shooting continuous, and shoot more than you think you want, because you can't go back for these moments and capture them again because you can't ask the band, "Hey can you do that song over? "I missed the jump shot. I didn't get it." So, shoot a lot for those moments where there's the highest energy, where something impressive is happening in front of your camera. Shoot a lot, shoot continuous. And just nail that one frame, pick it out. You know, this is an instance, this is Stephen Tyler, of Aerosmith, and you know, I'm sure Stephen has a million photos of him screaming to the mic, but he is kind of changing his position, his expression, the lighting is changing, and so for a shot like this which is kind of your quintessential Aerosmith Stephen Tyler wailing shot, I shot a lot for this, and kind of tried to work the moment because it was something where they were only playing a few songs for this performance, and I wanted this shot, and frame-to-frame the lighting is much different, his expression is different, the mouth, the position of the mic, his hair even, and how it's blowing around, and the way the light is interacting with his hair, and the backlighting, it's all a little different. And so, if there's a shot you want, and you know you're kind of hungry for it, shoot around that moment and work the moment, work the angles, the timing, the exposure, whatever it needs to be to kind of execute and get the shot that you want. No guts, no glory. You know, with music photography, you have to take risks, and it might eat up some time, it might result in not having a great photo, but risks will always pay off. Just like in any type of photography, if you take the risk and shoot what people aren't shooting, use a technique or a lens or a different approach that's not being used you're gonna come away with something different or at least you're going to set yourself up to come away with a shot that's different than what other people are getting. This is shot of Girl Talk, and this is a performance where the stage was about four feet tall, and he was using a table that was about another three feet above that, and it was pushed right against the stage so shooting from the photo pit where photographers only had access, there was no shot, you're looking up and there was just nothing, you couldn't even see the performer. But I had tip off from a friend who'd shot this show before, the same tour, and he said bring a monopod. So I had the camera on a monopod, had a remote trigger, and I was shooting blind, this was before cameras had--like DSLRs had tilt screen. So I'm shooting blind, having the camera up in the air. No one else in the pit had this tip off, or kind of took the risk to do this, and it's a risk because I'd have to pop the camera up, shoot a few frames, come back down, adjust exposure, adjust the angle of the camera, all these things, and kind of, you know, shooting entirely without a way to compose, really, at all. And so this is an instance where taking that risk and at the risk of not coming away with anything, coming away with blurry photos, ill composed, poorly timed, you know, just, taking a different approach is something that produced an image that no one else in the photo pit had.