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How To Guide: Shooting Band Photos by Mike Margol (Part 2)

July 24, 2009

How To Guide: Shooting Band Photos by Mike Margol (Part 2)

Greetings and happy Friday to all of you out there in the photography world! Before I head over to Huntington Beach tomorrow morning to shoot photos at the US Surf Open, I thought I would type out the second installment of my how to guide regarding band photography since the first one seemed popular with the readers. In the future, PhotoEdit wants to add blogs of all kinds deadling with photography tips and tricks, as well as more travelogues and book excerpts, so if you are a photographer and you have good writing skills and an idea or two for a blog, please get in touch with me via email (the link is on every single page here, so it shouldn’t be hard to locate). We hope to hear from you soon!

In the last installment of this guide, I discussed how amateur photographers with non-DSLR cameras could achieve positive results in their endeavors, so I didn’t really get into a discussion about how people working with pro-level equipment could improve their photos. However, that is what I am going to be talking about today, so if that’s what you came here for, today is your lucky day (hooray!). I’ll start out with a bit of information about what equipment I personally use and show you some examples of photos I’ve done with said equipment, and then I’ll talk for a while about issues you may run into while attempting band photography inside (I’ll cover outdoor band photos next time in the final installment) and how you can overcome them.

When I shoot band photos inside, I use a Nikon D300 with a Nikkor f/1.8 50mm prime lens, and I recommend that anyone with serious aspirations in band photography invest in a similar lens (or if you’re feeling expensive, you can upgrade to the f/1.4 models, which do provide some improvements in their speed). However, the bottom line is that you want a fast lens because the lighting is miserable. If you’re going to be shooting full flash and bouncing it off ceilings and all that, obviously your lens doesn’t need to be quite as fast, and you can probably get away with a lens that has variable aperture, like the Nikkor f/3.5-5.6 18-200mm or its equivalent in the Canon range or whatever lens manufacturer you favor. While it is possible to get good shots in a dark setting with a variable aperture lens (see the shot directly below, which was taken with the aforementioned f/3.5-5.6 lens), to get the best results you will definitely want to invest in a prime with blazing fast speed. Think Lamborghini instead of Scion.

All the other photos in this post save for the one above were taken with the 50mm prime lens, so you can compare and contrast the results and see the difference. I could talk about flash setups, but I am going to stay away from that here just because it’s not my current style and there are many excellent photographers out there who could provide a much better explanation of DSLR flash techniques than I will be able to give (so look them up! Most photographers will gladly share tips if you ask).

Let’s talk about one of the biggest obstacles in band photography: focus. Personally, I never use manual focus for anything. Today’s DSLRs are smarter and faster at calculating angles and depth than a human trying to do similar calculations, so unless you’re trying to purposely skew the focus mechanism for artistic purposes, you should probably stick with your autofocus. Most cameras have very sophisticated autofocus sensors across a wide plane of mapping points. The D300 has 51 points it can map using autofocus, but even something like 13 points will no doubt get the job done for you since usually the subject of your photo (the guitarist, the singer, whomever) will most likely be taking up most of the frame.

Getting your camera to focus on a moving subject in the dark can be tricky, I know. Sometimes it may not work at all. Be sure you have your AF assist light on in these situations if the band doesn’t mind; generally the AF assist light is not eye-blindingly bright, and I’ve yet to meet a band that objected to having that light on them during a show, so go for it. It can definitely help your camera work out the details it needs to focus on. Additionally, READ YOUR MANUAL (I can’t emphasize this enough; the manuals look like Moby Dick these days for a reason) and figure out where your focus tracking is. Some cameras are able to track subjects and adjust focus accordingly while you have the shutter release held halfway, so give that a try.

Don’t be discouraged if you take 300 photos and you only end up putting 10-20 of them in your portfolio. That’s the nature of band photography, and I don’t know anyone who takes 300 shots at a show and ends up with 300 portfolio-worthy images. The success rate can be low for band photos and action shots, and any other situation where you do not control the lighting or the subject. That’s the name of the game, so don’t be too disappointed if you have to edit through a vast sea of failures before you come to a few gems. It happens to everyone! Keeping your aperture as fast as possible–feel free to use the aperture priority setting instead of manual, since you’ll have to change the manual settings constantly to accomodate the shifting lights–will ensure that your photos are bright enough, so just worry about the focus and the framing of your shots and you’ll end up with something cool if you practice enough.

Let’s talk about framing shots for just a moment, though I’ll save more of this stylistic discussion for the last installment. Everyone is going to have a different taste when it comes to framing, so it’s hard to say “Well, this is obviously the right way to do things,” or “That sucks and the band is laughing at you.” I favor both long shots and tight shots, vertical and horizontal; I think all have their particular uses and appeal. Figure out what you like and go from there, don’t be afraid to experiment, and eventually you will find a method of shooting–both in terms of mechanics and style–that works well for you, which is what really counts.

As always, questions and comments are welcomed in any capacity. Next time I’ll discuss some more stylistic issues and maybe how to start networking with bands. For now I’ll leave you with one last photo that appears on the Jackson Guitars website. Have a great weekend and keep shooting!


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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