Hot on the heels of shooting the SXSW music festival here in Austin TX I'm going to give a few quick pointers on how to get the best live music photos.
1. Composition. In my opinion this is one of the most important aspects of concert photography and usually where I see beginners making the most mistakes. Often people get so caught up in the immediacy of the event that they forget to look at the small details of the composition.
The most common thing I see is people cutting off hands and arms of performers. Just as with portraiture you don't want to sever limbs. Another very common mistake I see is cutting off the guitar headstock. Think of the guitar as an appendage of the performer and try to include the whole instrument.
Another very common mistake has to do with microphones. The singer is often photographed with the microphone obscuring the face. Again, think of it in terms of a portrait. The face is a very important part of the image. I wait for the singer to back away from the microphone a bit before snapping the shot.
Here are a couple of different images that demonstrate the previous tips:
Don't: block the face with the mic
Do: wait for the singer to pull the mic away from the face.
Don't: cut off the guitar headstock or other appendages.
Do: try to include the whole guitar in the composition.
2. Exposure and Metering. Every photographer likes to set the exposure in their own way. A lot of photographers prefer to set the exposure manually because flashing lights tend to confuse the camera's metering system which can cause wild fluctuations in the auto-exposure. There are no typical exposure settings for concert photography because each venue is different and the lighting changes from moment to moment.
If you prefer to use auto-exposure the best setting to use is spot metering. This is actually the method I prefer. The spot meter is linked to the active focus point so you can choose the focus point and shoot. For the most part I tend to focus on the performers face (again, think portraiture). Once again, the lighting can change very fast so sometimes you will get over or under-exposures. This is just one of the pitfalls of using auto-exposure.
When shooting using the spot metering for auto-exposure I generally set my camera to Programmed mode. While some may say this is just letting the camera do all the thinking for you that's not necessarily the case. I also use the Auto-ISO function which allows me to set limits on what exposure settings the camera chooses. In the Shooting Menu under ISO Sensitivity Settings, you can choose the settings. For the D700 I set the Max. ISO setting to 3200 and the minimum shutter speed to 1/125. This tells the camera to try to hold a shutter speed of at least 1/125 which allows me to freeze most action, but if the light is low the shutter speed can fall below that, still allowing me to get a good exposure. The aperture will generally fluctuate between ƒ/2.8 - 4 which is usually about the norm for this type of photography.
Knowing your camera and how each mode performs allows you to predict how your camera will react even when using Programmed Auto mode.
These two shots taken a fraction of a second from each other show you how your exposure can change very quickly.
The one time you don't want to use spot metering is when the event is outdoors in the daytime. In this situation you can use Matrix metering with great results. You can see some examples of daytime shots below.
In conclusion, concert photography isn't super hard to do, but it takes some practice to get really comfortable with it. Every concert will have different challenges. Each venue, each lighting setup, each performer will be completely different, so be ready for a challenge. Of course the challenge of getting a great shot in the face of adversity is part of the fun of live music photography.
Here are a few of my favorite shots from recent shows.
Smokey Robinson @ Austin Music Hall
Courtney Love @ Stubb's BBQ
Zooey Deschanel / She & Him @ Stubb's BBQ
Megadeth @ Stubb's BBQ