So you want to shoot shows? Tips for Live Music Photography

Peggy Farren 2014-01-31

by Nicole C. Kibert *

1. Gear.

What’s the best camera to use for taking photos of live music performances? The one you have with you! That being said, it really depends on what type of show or concert you are shooting and where it is.

If you are shooting a stadium or large venue show (my LEAST favorite type of show to shoot), you are often required to shoot far away from the stage, often way in the back at the soundboard, and in that situation having a fast zoom lens is a necessity.

If you are shooting a house show or small diy venue (by far my MOST favorite type of show to shoot), you probably have to be able to effectively use ambient lighting or create your own lighting in a non-obnoxious way so you may want to have a wide angle lens and some type of auxiliary lighting.

If you are shooting an intermediate venue where most likely the standard shooting rules apply, really any SLR/lens combination will work - you just need to know how to configure your gear properly.

I shoot Nikons and usually have two main bodies with me a show (I like the D600/D300s for solid performance/resolution, the D4 is too heavy for me to drag around in the pit) - one with an ultrawide lens (my favorite is my nikkor 10.5mm) and one that has either a fixed focal length like a 50mm or a zoom lens depending on what will work best in a particular venue. I don’t like changing lenses in clubs because there are usually particulates in the air from smoke, dust or fog machines, or all three if you are really lucky. I don’t want all that gunk on my sensors. I always carry back up memory cards, batteries, and another camera body just in case something terrible happens. Remember the pit can be a dangerous place for a camera not to mention the photographer. I’ve also been shooting with my fixed focal length Fuji x100 and it’s quite the performer in low light settings.

Most importantly, you must have good earplugs (I like Etymotic ear plugs - they cut the volume only and a good bag that hopefully doesn’t look like a camera bag (I like Vaya bags

Lucero @ FEST 12 11.3.13

2. Configuration.

The most common comment I get about my photos is, “wow you must have a really nice camera.” And, it’s true, I do have nice cameras. But the dirty secret is the nicer your camera, the more you REALLY have to know how to use it. It’s a big shock when you go from using a camera with lots of pre-programmed settings to one that has no automatic settings at all. Whatever gear you have, it is critical to be able to configure your camera to deal with ever changing conditions quickly. So, yes, you really do need to read the manual and understand how to set presets, etc. Figure out what presets work best for you in your shooting environment and practice (see #8).

Deep Sleep @ FEST 12 11.3.13

3. Purpose.

Why do you want to shoot shows? Why do you want to take pictures of a particular musician? In other, words why should you get a photo pass? What are you going to do with the pictures? In order to get a photo pass, you likely have to have some type of press relationship so you will need to deliver those photos to your editor in a timely manner. Make sure you meet any deadlines. Also, share links to the write-up with the band, venue, and on the event page for the show, etc. In smaller venues, you probably don’t need a photo pass, you still need to know why you are there shooting. It’s to promote the bands and the venue. Hopefully you are shooting bands you like and will be selling or giving the photos to a reputable publication whether online or print (if you can find one of those) that will effectively use your photos to promote the band.

DADS @ Epic Problem 6.21.13

I’ve heard a lot of whining over the years about photographers feeling entitled to get into shows for free with unrestricted access because they are going to take photos of the band but they don’t have any intended press or promo use. Some photographers use this as a business model and try to sell photos to the bands after a show. The reality is that a local or punk band that is making $150/night can’t afford to pay you $200 for your photos so they can post it on a facebook. If a band has a specific use in mind, i.e. promo photos, they should absolutely hire you for a fair price and you can negotiate the license etc. Often promoters or venues will hire house photographers so they can have an archive for future use and sometimes to sell photos to fans. In any case, you need to think about your motivation and how that aligns with other people’s motivations and figure out a win-win solution. Your reputation is key in all of this so be courteous and professional.

Tim Barry @ preFEST 10.30.13

4. Rules.

Even in punk rock there are rules. The standard rule for concert photography is first 3 songs, no flash. Sometimes management is concerned that their artist will not look live enough in the first song and will allow only songs 2 & 3. Always ask the house manager what the photo rules are for their venue. If you want to shoot something specific that doesn’t fit within the rules, discuss with the house manager or the tour manager. In order to do that when these people have time to talk, you need to get to the venue early before everyone is running around. Be respectful. Remember that you are there to capture a moment, not to create the moment.

You Blew It! @ FEST 12 11.2.13

5. Flash.

Generally flashes are prohibited in music photography and for good reason. It can be extremely distracting and even dangerous for performers or audience members. However, my favorite photos are those that capture the momentary magic of bands and fans merging into one awesome unit. Since lights are usually on the band, not the fans, if you want to really capture that interaction flash is needed. My personal rule is (A) follow the rules and don’t use flash where prohibited and (B) if flash is not prohibited, use flash in a discerning and purposeful way and as discreetly as possible. Remember - you and your photos are to capture an event, not be the event.

Frank Turner @ The Beacham 11.9.13

6. Curate.

One of the toughest things to do well is to edit your own photos and decide what you are going to share. It’s not something I’m very good at doing. For press pieces, I usually deliver 10 images and feature 3 - 5. However, if I shoot a full set, I’m probably going to have 50 - 70 images that I like for one reason or another. People don’t have the patience to wade through 50 - 70 images. My compromise is that I curate my press photos and then post the photos I like to my flickr for people to wade through if they want to do so. I find that if I have a little extra time, I do a better job of curating. This isn’t usually possible when you have a 12 hour press deadline but for less time sensitive uses, it’s worth coming back to the photos for a second look.

Fake Problems - Set II @ Artis Naples 10.24.13

7. Licensing.

I choose to license my music photos through Creative Commons. Creative Commons has several levels of licensing. The license I use is Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported which means that someone can repost my photo with attribution as long as their use is noncommercial and they don’t alter the photo. I license my photos this way because the reality is that if you post your photos online and they are any good (and even if they are only sort of good), people will repost them. I don’t mind people sharing my photos as long as they aren’t getting a commercial benefit from it. You can learn more about Creative Commons here: Red City Radio @ FEST 12 10.31.13

One quick word about rights grabs - this is when you go to a show and in order to get your photo pass, you have to give some level of rights to the band or venue. You need to read those VERY carefully and understand what these legally enforceable documents mean. Some of them are egregious including reciting that your photos are a work for hire (meaning the band or venue owns all rights to your photos). I generally won’t sign these and have walked away from shooting more than one show if I can’t negotiate a less egregious form. It isn’t an issue for me very often because I don’t shoot many very famous artists but I’ve started to see this issue pop up in smaller venues. If a release issue arises, ask to speak with the tour manager if the release comes from the band and calmly discuss any issues. This is another reason why you need to arrive at shows early so you can deal with any issues without time pressure which tends to escalate emotions.

Lemuria @ FEST 12 10.31.13

8. Practice.

The key to music photography is to be able to anticipate what is going to happen before it happens so you are ready to catch that awesome jump or that precise moment when everyone is singing their hearts out in unison. The only way to develop that sense of anticipation is practice. I shoot a lot - around 250 - 300 sets/year in addition to portraits and whatever random projects I’m working on. When you are starting out, shoot as much as you can. Look at photos from other photographers. Figure out what about your photos you like and what you don’t and make adjustments and do it all over again. If you are shooting a show for one specific band, shoot the other bands too. It’s good practice. If you want to develop your reputation, you need to develop a robust portfolio. It may sound trite but everyone needs to work their way up while establishing credibility. Shoot bands you don’t like and bands you’ve never heard of… some of my favorite bands were found randomly. Volunteer to shoot shows for publications or a venue that you wouldn’t normally go to. That way when there is a show that you really want to go to, the editor will already know your work and know that you are reliable to meet their press deadlines.

Have Gun, Will Travel @ Independent 7.11.13

9. Photographers.

There’s usually going to be more than one photographer at a show. If you don’t already know them, introduce yourself before the show starts. When shooting, make sure you are sharing prime shooting areas - especially when the three song rule is in effect. Don’t give unsolicited advice - it’s hard for it not to come off condescending. But if someone asks, definitely give them a few shooting tips. The one exception to this is when you see another photographer doing something that might harm the band or the audience - i.e. shooting a flash repeatedly and directly into someone’s eyes whether it is the performer or the audience.

Pentimento @ FEST 12 11.1.13

10. Kindness.

Being a music photographer with unparalleled access to your favorite musicians is an honor and a privilege. Make friends with everyone - the venue staff, the kids up front, the band crew - and be kind. You are all there to hang out and listen to some amazing music so you might as well get along and be nice. No matter how good you are as a photographer, if you act like an entitled jerk, you will get passed over for work.

Nigel Powell of The Sleeping Souls @ The Beacham 11.9.13


* Todd Owyoung - excellent music photographer who provides tons of practical information and tutorials

* Photo Attorney - excellent information about copyright, licensing and why watermarks are important.

Nicole Kibert is a freelance photographer based in Atlanta (formerly of Tampa) working under the moniker of elawgrrl. Nicole specializes in live music photography and is a regular contributor to publications such as Suburban Apologist and Creative Loafing as well as special contributions to a variety of magazines, websites, and zines. Her images have also appeared in art galleries and album artwork. You can view her work at

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