Tips for Mastering Concert Photography

Everyone’s been there – front and center, in a dark, sweaty club crammed between hundreds of rabid fans listening to your favorite band.

So, you pull out your iPhone because this is a moment you totally need to remember forever.

But let’s be honest – what kind of memory is a blurry guitar player or the back of another concert goer’s head? Not a very good one (and we all know it).

So we chatted with Madison-based concert photographer Justin Kibbel to learn his simple tips for capturing that dynamic rock-n-roll moment with your DSLR with a few tips for phoneographers too.

From gear to ninja stealth, he’s got a LOT of great advice.

1. How do you prepare for photographing a show?

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To take the best possible photos of your most beloved bands, you’ll want to make sure you’re bringing the right gear with you when you shoot.

Most of the concerts I photograph take place in a dim club setting with limited light, so I tend to pay a lot of attention to the lenses I’m bringing with me. For this low-light setting, I use a lens with a low f-stop to let the most light in.

My two go-to’s are the “nifty fifty” Canon 50mm f/1.8 pancake lens, as well as a wide-angle Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens. The 50mm takes a crisper photo because it’s a prime lens and has less moving parts. It also provides a better bokeh, which allows me to take advantage of those incredible stage lights. If I’m shooting a little further away, the zoom lens lets me get up close and personal with that amazing guitar solo that deserves it’s own shot.

Both f-numbers on these lenses are low, which equates to more light being let into your camera. This gives you the freedom to turn up your shutter speed a bit and capture all of the action happening on stage, without coming home with a memory card full of blurry photos.

2. It’s showtime! Now what?

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Get there early! Arriving early gives me a chance to scope out the club and locate some of the best spots to for taking photos throughout the night.

Being early also allows me to grab a spot at the front of the stage before the crowd fills in (when I’m not afforded the luxury of shooting in front of a barricade).

One key to concert photography is nabbing a wide variety of interesting shots. To do this, you must move around. Start at the front of the stage to get any close-ups, then drop back into the crowd. Believe me, it’s easier to move out of the crowd then it is the other way around.
If the venue has a balcony, head on up and see what photos you can grab from that perspective.

Another big thing to keep in mind – be a ninja. As a courtesy to other fans, never get in the way of someone enjoying the show just to get your shot. Be respectful of the fans around you when moving around and be aware of your shutter noise during quiet songs.

And even though you’re there to shoot the bands, don’t forget about shooting the crowd enjoying the music. Fans often love having a photo memory with their friends, and will be the first to comment or share your photos on social media.

3. How does a photographer get to shoot in front of a barricade?

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Depending on the venue and band you’re shooting, it’s often best to request a photo pass beforehand so you don’t get turned away at the door with your DSLR.

Many venues are happy to allow you to shoot a show as long as you send them the photos so they can share on their social media (and gladly give your credit).

Look for a contact on the venue’s website and send a kind email telling them what you plan to use the photos for and asking for permission. It’s also helpful to give them an example of a couple of your best photos or a link to your website.

Another tip is to find out who the concert promoters are in your town and connect with them. They likely promote concerts at a variety of venues in the area which can help build your portfolio and connections.

4. How do you pick the very best photos to share on your feed?

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I start by editing on the fly – during the show!

As you begin shooting concerts, you’re going to want to take as many photos as you can (possibly even using burst mode) to get a feel for the camera and what settings to use in various situations. However, tediously sifting through thousands of pictures on a memory card isn’t the most fun job in the world.

After you get your eye trained and start to master your camera, you’ll get to the point where you don’t even have to look at what buttons you’re pressing or wheels you’re spinning. You’ll no longer need to take as many photos to get that perfect shot, and editing will come much easier.

I also use my down time between songs to go through my photos in playback mode. I favorite the best ones and delete any that didn’t turn out. You’ll thank yourself later when you transfer your photos to your computer for post editing.

5. Do you have any tips for editing?

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When editing, I first go through my photos again and pick the very best-of-the-best (which is a much faster process after editing on-the-fly).

If I’m not 100% happy with how a shot turned out or if it’s out of focus, I get rid of it. Sometimes less is more, and having twenty stunning photos is often better than fifty just so-so photos.

I also try to avoid overusing the same shot more than once. If you have five great shots of that epic drum solo, pick your favorite of the set. Again, less is more.

Once I’ve selected my favorites, they’ll often need a bit of tweaking. I use Photoshop and/or Lightroom to adjust color balance or add contrast to make my photos pop. You can use really any editing software your feel comfortable with. This is the fun part – get creative!

6. What if someone only has an iPhone to shoot with?

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Cameras on iPhones have progressed to the point where it’s often hard to tell the difference between a photo shot on a phone and one shot on a professional camera. New models of iPhone even have a portrait mode which can give you a great depth of field.

Use the tools built into the iPhone camera such as the exposure to brighten your image or burst mode to capture a bunch of quick shots at once. You can easily edit your photos in apps such as Instagram or Photoshop Express without ever opening a computer.

You can also try experimenting with different lenses on your iPhone, to create unique angles and shots before you edit.

Taking It Further

  • Use the double exposure setting if it’s available on your camera to create some interesting effects and add interest to your photo.
  • Don’t have quite enough light? Use “exposure compensation” to over-expose your image and make your photos brighter.

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Justin Kibbel is a photographer based in Madison, WI. He takes photos under the title of This Means War! Follow him on Instagram and Facebook to view more of his work.