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How To Guide: Shooting Band Photos by Mike Margol (Part 1)

June 29, 2009

How To Guide: Shooting Band Photos by Mike Margol (Part 1)

Hello out there, PhotoEdit blog readers. For today’s entry, we are going to try something a bit different. As we are in the process of creating quite a diverse blog collection in terms of subject matter, we believe there are ample opportunities for all kinds of posts related to varying aspects of photography. We have already begun to delve into applicable tax laws for stock photographers, we’ve been treated to book excerpts from famous stock shooters, and we’ve taken a look at the never-heard stories behind some truly captivating imagery. Today marks the launch of another new category: How To Guides. The PhotoEdit photography team consists of dozens of talented individuals, all with their own particular brands of knowledge when it comes to their favorite subjects and styles. Some enjoy travel photography, some focus their skills on classroom photos, and still others are incredibly proficient at things like macro photography of electronic circuits. We hope, in time, to build an intriguing collection of articles from our pros and some guest authors about how they achieve their results in their areas of expertise, and I am kicking things off today with one of my own specialties: live band photography.

Anyone who knows even a bit about photography recognizes that shooting action in dim lighting is usually a terrible experience: extreme noise due to excessive ISO settings, blurred subject matter, and so forth. However, with the increasing prevalence of digital cameras in basically every facet of life, amateur and professional band photography continues to become more popular as the amount of music (both recorded and live) available to the masses diversifies and expands. There was a time when one could attend a smaller show and not see fifty cameras in the crowd, but those days have long passed. Since music and photography are hobbies for many people, having a little guide on band photography seemed a logical choice in terms of opening the How To category.

A bit of background: I started doing band photography around 2004 or so. At that point, I was horrible at it and did not have any equipment or real knowledge that could level the playing field (more on the equipment issue in a bit), so most of the shots from that period will never see the light of day because they might actually blind someone. However, like most things in life, practice makes perfect, so in 2009 I consider myself a pro in live band photography. I’ve shot for bands like Strung Out, No Use For A Name, A Kiss Could Be Deadly, The Lawrence Arms, The Phenomenauts, Flee the Seen, H.I.M., Every Time I Die, Bleeding Through, Death By Stereo, Authority Zero, Pour Habit, Dead to Me, and many others. I had a photo featured in Alternative Press magazine, some of my shots are featured on the Jackson Guitars official website, and I’ve seen my shots utilized on tour posters as far away as Europe. But of course, we all start out as beginners, so today what I want to talk about is how budding photographers with non-pro-level equipment can achieve their goals of getting good band photos.

Take a look at the photo above (shutter 1/20s, f/2.8, ISO 200). It was taken with what is commonly referred to as a “prosumer” level digital camera, and a non-SLR at that: the Fuji S7000. There is some belief in the photography world that one absolutely requires a DSLR to take decent photos, which is simply not true. Yes, the DSLRs offer much greater power, more options, and higher quality—I shoot with a Nikon D300 these days and love it both for work and personal shooting—but for many people, the monetary burden makes owning a pro-level camera impossible. To be honest, I am glad I didn’t start out with a DSLR, because I was forced to work within the restraints of a prosumer model, which helped me learn how to tweak the settings and get the very most out of my equipment. And yes, you can sometimes get away with an ISO as low as 200 without flash in certain situations, so for anyone using a camera that can’t hit ISO 6400, don’t lose hope!

Learning to control your aperture is massively important if using an under-powered camera. An f-stop of 2.8 isn’t mind-blowing and what you really would like is something down around 1.8 or even 1.4, but if you can work with 2.8, you will bring a lot of knowledge to the table when you eventually upgrade your camera or lens. You’ll know how to squeeze every last drop of performance from your rig, which comes in handy when you find yourself in a venue with lighting so poor that vampires would be happy to play as the opening band.

Additionally, if your camera can’t hit high ISO levels, you can work around that, too. You may not be able to get clear shots of really fast action, but with a steady hand you can definitely achieve some great results. Try to get as close as possible to the band, and hang out near the railing or barricade if possible. This will give you something to lean on, sort of a makeshit tripod if you will. With a low ISO and average aperture, it is important to be as still as possible during your exposures. For example, with the red shot of H.I.M. at the beginning of this post, I was inside the barricade and actually sat down on the inner step and used my knee to balance the camera. Such lengths are necessary if you’re shooting with a prosumer model or even something less powerful than that, and never be afraid about looking ridiculous doing something like that; the photos you take might be portfolio-worthy, and you should never pass up a chance for good photos, as we all know!

Here is another good example. This photo was also taken with a non-SLR at the House of Blues some years back. It is f/2.8 at 1/30s shutter and ISO 400. 1/30s is a ridiculously slow shutter for a moving subject in a dark environment, but the shot still works. If using an underpowered camera, try to capture your subject when he or she is not running around, jumping, or otherwise moving erratically. You may want to get these moments on film (so to speak), but the success rate is not going to be high. Instead, be patient and wait for moments like the one above when the subject is concentrating on a hard instrumental section or singing an extended note (see below). If you can press the shutter release when your subject is only moving slightly, you will have a much better chance of succeeding, and these types of shots still look cool. Here is another example of this technique:

There is flash in this shot, but the underlying technique is still the same. Notice that the guitarist is mostly motionless even though his guitar is swinging back and forth. The exposure is only 1/3s, which is why the guitar seems to glow, but with light coming directly into the lens and the subject singing a sustained note, the photo works. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different flash settings if the band doesn’t mind; experimentation can be rewarded with cool shots. Many people do not like flash photography, but if you are willing to play around with it, you may find that you like the results. I used to use flash a lot back in the day and I still like the look and feel of flash photos. They offer something different from shots taken without flash, especially if you can get interesting effects instead of a flat-looking image.

As I said, all of the photos featured here were not taken with a DSLR, so I consider them more my early work than anything else. In the next installment of this How To guide for band photography, I’ll talk more about techniques with DSLRs, focus issues, and so forth. I hope this has been a decent introduction into the world of band photography. If you have a question or anything else you’d like to know or read about in future How To guides (related to band photos or not), you can contact me directly via email or simply leave a comment after this post and I’ll get back to you. Thanks for reading!


In the coming weeks, PhotoEdit hopes to expand further upon new blog ideas. Have an idea for an article you might like to write as a guest blogger? Some piece of knowledge you might like to know regarding photography in general? Get in touch with Mike!

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