Focus on Las Migas Quartet: Indoor concerts can be challenging to shoot, but these techniques will help

Last night I had the opportunity to shoot the wonderful and vibrant flamenco quartet, Las Migas, at the venerable Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley.  Las Migas is a Barcelona-based band comprised of four young women from different regions of Spain who came together over their love for traditional and modern flamenco music and dance.  They’re in the middle of their first US tour, and being a lover of flamenco, I made sure to attend their only SF Bay Area concert.

Shooting from the audience in a crowded hall with dim lighting is a challenge.  To make this image of all the members of Las Migas together, I used a fast normal lens nearly wide open with a high ISO setting in order to allow a reasonably fast shutter speed.  Buy this photo

Shooting indoor concerts near home and while traveling is a special joy of mine, but it poses some very real technical challenges.  Today’s post offers a host of tips and tricks to help you get the best images possible under these challenging conditions.

  1. Planning: Before you arrive at the concert venue, learn as much as you can about the performers and the space.  What are the policies of both the performers and the venue regarding photography?  Sometimes one or both of these entities may not allow photography at all, but other times discreet photography is welcome.  Of course, flash photography ordinarily will not be allowed, as it disrupts both performers and audience.  What is the layout of the venue?  How many performers will be on stage and in what configuration?  Can you shoot from your seat, from a special area designated for photography/video, or from some other location (a balcony, for example)?  Where should you sit to get the best images without bothering other patrons or the musicians?  For this particular concert, I knew the venue’s policy was to defer to the wishes of the performers.  Upon arrival (and you should always arrive early), I spoke with the house manager to confirm their policy, and she introduced me to the band.  I learned that Las Migas were eager to have some professional-quality images made at this event.  The next order of business was determining where to shoot from.  Because the hall was fairly crowded, and there was no designated photography area, I chose a seat in the center of the second row, close enough to get some close-up shots of the musicians but without disturbing them or the other audience members.
  2. Gear: A concert is not usually the time to bring a lot of bulky kit.  Think “light and mobile.”  Remember that even after securing permission to shoot the event, you still want to remain inconspicuous.  Tripods and monopods are not suitable for most concerts, and flash is out of the question.  A fast telephoto can be useful if you are far away from the stage, but it’s hard to handhold a long lens in low lighting conditions.  For the Las Migas concert, I brought only the camera body with two small fast prime lenses, a 50mm “normal” lens and an 85mm portrait lens.
  3. Shot List: What shots are on your or your client’s must-capture list?  Do you or they want close-ups of the individual band members, small group shots of two or three musicians interacting, shots of the full band, and/or panoramic views that include the audience?  For this concert, I wanted to capture a mix of close-ups, small group shots, and full band images.
  4. Shooting: The Golden Rule of concert photography is to be courteous and not to disrupt the event.  Since lighting levels are often very dim at concerts, and because the use of flash is out of the question, it is important to have a fast lens or two and to use a high ISO setting on the camera.  Vibration reduction in the lens or camera body can be helpful to avoid camera shake, but because musicians and dancers are usually moving rather quickly, the bigger problem is subject motion blur.  For this reason, I used fast prime lenses (f/1.4 and f/1.8, respectively) and ISO settings ranging from 1200 to 3200.  To avoid disrupting the musicians or other audience members, I used the quiet setting on my camera’s shutter and turned off the LCD display on the back of the camera.  There is always the opportunity to take a quick peek at your images during downtime between songs.  I try to compose and shoot through the gaps between the audience members in front of me, but sometimes the seating configuration will limit the workable shooting options.  There can be times, such as when the audience gets up to dance or during standing ovations at the end of a set, when it’s okay to stand up for a moment to shoot a few quick images, but in general I try not to stand out from any other audience members.
  5. Post-processing: There are three special challenges in concert photography that can be addressed, to a certain degree, during post-processing of your images.  First, there’s color balance.  The lighting in many concert halls imparts a strange color cast on the musicians.  To fix this, I adjust the white balance in Lightroom until the subject appears as natural as possible.  Obviously, it is important to shoot in RAW format so that white balance can be adjusted later.  Even after adjusting during post-processing, there will often be mixed lighting or very strangely colored parts of the image that cannot be made to look fully natural.  Accept this as an occupational hazard.  Second, there’s the issue of noise in the images.  Because high ISO settings are usually required to achieve motion-freezing shutter speeds under dim lighting conditions, noise reduction must be performed in post-processing.  I find that with my camera (a Nikon D810) and with Lightroom’s noise reduction capabilities, I can usually shoot at ISO settings up to 3200 and sometimes even higher before noise because unmanageable.  Your mileage may vary.  And third, there’s often a need to crop the image in order to yield the most powerful composition.  In general I like to compose my images in the camera and leave cropping to a minimum, but at most indoor concerts the restrictions on shooting location and the need for fast prime lenses mean that cropping will often be necessary during post-processing.
  6. Sharing: Always honor the policies and requests of the venue and the band before sharing or selling your images.  While the specifics vary according to the event, in most cases I will offer the band and/or the venue a license to use a few of my images free of charge for their publicity or communications, with the condition that they credit me as the photographer wherever the images appear.  That way, the band is usually happy for the free use of the images, and I get free word-of-mouth and perhaps sell some prints to the band’s fans.  It’s a win-win.

Part of the fun of shooting a concert is capturing the interaction between two or more of the performers.  I used a normal lens shooting slightly upwards from my seat to make this image of violinist and guitarist playing together.  Buy this photo

To make portraits of the individual performers on stage, I like to use a fast prime portrait lens.  Cropping can be performed during post-processing to yield the most effective composition.  Buy this photo

Shooting live music and dance performances is challenging but is also a real treat.  I hope the techniques outlined in this post will help you with your own concert photography.

Have you photographed memorable concerts?  What tips and tricks do you use to get the best images?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box here.

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