What I Learned From Photographing Live Music

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Crooked Crow performing live

As many of you may already know, I involved in a fairly well known non-profit organization called LIVESTRONG.  Founded by the family of Lance Armstrong, their mission is to rid the world of cancer through education and preventative medicine.  Now I won’t plug the organization too much, but I wanted to give you a little background as to how and why I came to photographing a live music show.  The thing is that my team held a fund raising event at a local pub.  To help bring some people in, we recruited some bands to play live at the event.  Well, as organizations go, we wanted to get some photos to document the event.  Who better than to do that than the only team member who is also a photographer.  Yes, me.

I have a confession to make:  I was nervous shooting the event.  I am not experienced shooting live events.  I’m not used to having so many people around while I’m shooting.  I am not used to using my strobes where they could be a nuisance to other people.  For that matter – I wasn’t used to shooting with strobes on the fly with moving (playing) subjects.  It was a steep learning curve, but I’m glad I did it.  I’m glad I went outside my comfort zone to capture a few good photos (and a ton of bad ones).  And while I don’t think that any of my photos from that night are necessarily that great, I feel that I learned a lot.  For your benefit, I compiled this short list of things that I learned to maybe convince you to give such photography a chance.

  • No one really knows what you’re doing – As I mentioned, one of my biggest fears was shooting among a large crowd.  I’m don’t like to be the one being watched, and I felt as though I’d be on stage with my camera.  Truth be told, a few people asked a few questions.  But I quickly learned that most people either ignored me or didn’t have a clue what I was doing.  Basically, no one was in the position to criticize.
  • Speak with the performers ahead of time - In speaking with one of the band members, I learned that it is a great idea to speak with the performers before the show.  No one at this event seemed to mind me trolling around with a strobe.  But he alleged that he has met a few people that are greatly displeased by the use of flash.  As is always the case, I don’t like to displease my subject.  So if there are any restrictions the performers might place upon you, you better find out beforehand.
  • Be aware - There’s a lot going on at an event like this.  Everyone’s attention is fixed to the stage, many a drink were passed around, there were people with plates of food and it was generally a dark room.  I quickly learned that I needed to be aware of everything that was going on around me.  Not just so that I didn’t cause problems, but to protect myself and my gear.  Fortunately, I had no mishaps – but I could have easily tripped someone by accident or gotten a beer spilled on my gear.
  • A flash is brightest in a dark room - I’m used to working in controlled environments when working with strobes.  I’m not used to photographing in places where there is a 50-70% difference in the light between the performers and the crowd.  What worked for the performers was far too powerful for shooting subjects off-stage.  I blew out at least a dozen photos until I got into the swing of things. (Note, I am not in the habit of using my flash in TTL mode)
  • Carry business cards – Considering this was a charity event, I was quite surprised to find I gave out nearly 20 business cards that night.  Some to the band members – but a lot of people from the audience were curious about my work.  Some were looking for portrait photographers – but at least one person checked out my portfolio and wrote to me to tell me their thoughts.
  • Be sure to capture everyone - One of the drummers joked that he never ends up in photos because he’s in the back line.  So I made sure to get a couple of shots of him as well.  But the same goes for all the performers.  The lead singer is the face of the band, but it’s still a team effort.  Capture everyone as best as you can.
  • ISO is your friend – Even with a flash, the photos weren’t turning out the way I wanted until I raised the ISO.  By doing so, I was able to cut a lot of my flash and get the fill light that I wanted.  My camera is a little dated at this point, so my higher ISO (anything about 400) gets grainy.  But if I were to continue shooting live performances, I might wish to invest in a camera with better performance at higher ISOs. 
  • Low angles are awesome - Of all the shots I took, the ones from low angles look best in my opinion.  The performers look powerful, and their stage presence is amplified by the way you frame the shot at low angles.  Next time, I’ll spend more time  crouching. 
  • Shoot now, drink later – I made a pretty big mistake by ordering a beer just as the first band was taking stage.  I now had an extra item I had to lug around.  My beer kept me tethered to a place where I could put it down.  I didn’t move nearly as much as I should have.  I also missed a few good shots because of the beer in my hand – no time to put it down at a live event.  So skip the drinks, or at least limit them to when the performers take their break. 
  • Seek help – For several of my shots, I recruited a friend to hold the flash as specific locations.  David Hobby of Strobist refers to this as a “voice activated flash stand”.  Even though my friend didn’t really know what I or he was doing, I simply explained what I wanted him to do and how to hold it.  Things worked out fine.  Some of my best photographs from the event were when I was using my voice activated flash stand. 

Side note:  For all interested parties, the band, Crooked Crow, is out of the Washington DC area, but they play all over.  They’re quite good, and I would highly recommend that you check out their music.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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