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The Story Behind That Picture:
"How to shoot rock concerts and other stage performances"

By: Thorsten Overgaard

I got an e-mail asking for advice on shooting rock concerts and other stage performances, so I thought I might as well make it into an article. And here it is.

How to get there (accreditation)
Usually to shoot concerts, you need an accreditation. Often it is the venue that gives accreditation, but sometimes it requires permission directly from the artist, mostly represented by the record label or the tour manager (a the artist's manager who travels with the band). Apart from the needed communication line (the right phone number or the right e-mail), it's usually easy. One problem can be that there is too many photographers already, another that the artist allow only "local media" (and not potentially international media or distribution), a third that the artist simply don't like being photographed [for that job or in that period, or just generally. Abdullah Ibrahahim is said to be one who doesn't like it though I was allowed to photograph him once, Prince is one known for not allowing it, Muse are known for not allowing it as they have their own photographer, and so on].

Ibrahim Abdullah performing at the Aarhus Jazz Festival.
Ibrahim Abdullah performing at the Aarhus Jazz Festival.

The worst scenario is stadium concerts where it's often the local organizer who gives accreditations. As it is usually an organizer who has only commercial interest in that one or few concerts he is organizing, they have no real interest in promotion after the ticket sale has closed (and your photos would be of interest for future organizers who need a photo to promote their concert). But try in any case; often it's the tour manager or artist who decide as they have an interest in creating PR for future concerts.

The lights on stages are mostly tungsten, no matter what color filter is being used. Some times you are lucky and there is a pretty stable "white" tungsten light pointing down at the artists most of the time so you can get realistic colors as a base. Some times the light is ever changing in colors why the skin colors and all will change dramatically. But the light you set for i still 3200 Kelvin, Tungsten light. Because that is the closest you get.
You might find out afterwards that it's older theater lights they use why they are a bit warmer than tungsten. And on more and more stages you will notice the tungsten lamps in the ceiling, but realize when back home editing that it was in fact LED lights in disguise as tungsten lamps. It happens more and more as the LED lights are smaller and more economical to run and give less heat. However, LED light vary a lot in Kelvin temperature and will have a weird way of changing when you adjust the color temperature in Ligthroom or Aperature. It's simply not light, as we know it.

Mike Sheridan and Mads Langer giving concert in LED light in The Royal Theater in Copenhagen, Denmark. If you turn the dials a bit in Lightroom, the colors and all changes completely. A good idea is to get the exposure correct in such cases so yiu don't have to adjust anything.

My handling is always to run 3200 Kelvin, unless there are special lamps involved such as 12,000-Kelvin spots or real special equipment.
For fashion shows I try to get a reading on a grey card before the show starts so as to have a very precise reading (as the clothing is the most important, why the colors are essential). But 90% of fashion shows are in the area of 3200 Kelvin, so if I can't get a reading, 3200 Kelvin is the setting (unless it's daylight lamps which are very expensive to use but gives the absolutely best light for photo and audience).

C. V Jørgensen
C. V. Jørgensen, photographed with Leica R9/DMR and 35-70mm Vario-Elmarit-R ASPH f/2.8 at 400 ISO.

Exposure control
The way to shoot stage is manual. You shoot a few in the beginning, eventually on some sort of auto or semi-auto, then you look at the results and adjust it to a manual position where it looks right. Pay attention to how the light changes on the subject - usually there is one setting 90% of the times, or three types of light on that person, or the light changes from tune to tune. But any change that happens, you adjust manually for, and then remember what you have to change back to when the light that was before, reappears. Some times it's changing fast, and then you have to guess in a hurry.
Shooting auto will most likely ruin your shots. There is too much contrast on stage for auto to figure out the correct exposure on the artist, and too many bright lights in the back that goes on and off. So rely on your vision and instinct, and don't panic. You will get perhaps 70% shots that are not usable because of exposure, out of focus, the artist disappeared from your frame the instant you pressed the shutter release. And so on. But as long as uou get the shots you need, don't worry about all the ones that didn't work. Concert photos are the type of files where you will have the largest percentage of shots that does not work - because you can't control the everchanging light and movement on stage.

The lens and camera
For most stages you can use everything from 28 to 90mm, for larger stages you may want something larger. It also depends on the amount of light. A sharp lightstrong lens is of more value than a tele that requires a lot of light; because you can crop the lightstrong sharp lens, you can't hold the big tele lens steady.
The usual location for concert photos is just in front of the stage, so you're pretty close. So if you want an overview photo or the artist(s) in full figure, you often need to go 28mm or 35mm.
Flash is not allowed for stage photo, nor for fashion shows. Though you will se someone use flash from time to time, either because they don't know how to turn it off, or because they simply don't know.
A silent camera is perfect for any stage work, especially jazz and classical and electronica and other types of concerts where a slapping mirror is heard easily.

Manual focus is what I mostly use but I have also used autofocus with Leica Digilux 2 cameras for stage work. Smoke on stages will always confuse autofocus cameras and is in general bad news for any type of visual recording. Though you can preset and lock autofocus on a given spot and wait for the artist to hit that spot, and then it will work out all right.

Tim Christensen of Dizzy Mizz Lizzy
Tim Christensen of Dizzy Mizz Lizzy

Timing is of essence for stage photo. Some shoot like machineguns and never really hit anything of interest anyways. You got to get into the rhythm of the show, foresee when an outburst or some expression will happen or re-appear and prepare for that. If something of interest happens, you may want to shoot a long series to make sure you got it. But else, look and listen and have an idea of what you want to get.
Look for particular interesting compositions of people, reappearing light settings that look dramatic or other, and of course the money shot: Straight eye contact between the artist and you.
If it is theater photography, one or a small series of images must tell the story (and create interest amongst others to go see that theater play based on the images). It requires timing! If it is rocn'n'roll, the images must sing and have rock'n'roll blood, sweat and tears about them. That is why it is you and not just anybody who's standing there. This is entirely your contribution. It doesn't happen by it self. I've seen even the most lively concerts made into still life by machinegun photographers who thought the camera made the photos.

Manners in front of stage
Photographers are usually allowed to photograph during the first three acts. Some times it's limited to two or some other type of limitation (like only blue M&M backstage along with two Russian cigars, etc). If you are with the artist and get an AAA (All Area Access) you can stay during all concert - and all security people will know what an AAA means.
Mostly the artist won't notice who's amongst the photographers, so hand signaling, yelling and such is absolutely not the way to go. Stay in the spot in front of stage and behave with respect to the artist who has the most important job. You can move around, put a camera on the edge of stage and all as long as it doesn't disturb the artist or the paying audience behind you.

Some times it would have been a good idea to bring a ladder or something, but mostly you don't see it. And somehow it works out anyways. Before the concert photographers line up, and even when there is no cue, everybody know their place in the virtual cue, and the first ones choose their spot first. And usually you stay pretty frozen at your spot till it begins. Even when you are worried you won't be able to see through the others to the stage, it will work out. It's is incredible how little space is required for a lens to see through and how close photographers can work side by side. And you may also be able to move around during the three acts. Just make sure you don't go in front of other cameras, don't hold up a camera so it shadows for the others view, keep your elbows along the side and all. All in all, don't do to others what you wouldn't want them to do to you. Being in front of somebody else means you take up as little space as possible so they have a chance to get a view as well.

Dave Growl
Dave Growl. Leica M9 with 90mm Summarit-M f/2.5

Remote controlled cameras put onto the stage for example in front is seen more and more if you want to move around with a tele but also want that center front-row look from a position where your body can't sit.
A thing to remember is that the best photos are not necessarily to be gotten from the spot where all the other photographers are (which is usually as close to the artist as possible), and some times you don't need 15 or 20 minutes to get your shots. So just because everybody else seems to shoot like machine-guns for 20 minutes, it doesn't mean it's the right strategy. Get an idea what you want of "critical close up" photos of the artist(s) and secure that space in front of stage for that, then start thinking in other interesting images and move around. Then you will get something different that no one else has.

Some times, if I have special interest in an artist, I will ask for one-on-one time. It's not that often it can fit into a schedule, and if I don't have a great idea and/or a specific use, I won't bother the artist to do it. After all, most artists travel, do rehearsals, perform and travel. And if they have energy left, they will have personal friends, colleagues and family in the towns they visit, whom they will spend a little time with.
But it is perfectly ok to ask for time to do a portrait if you have a mission and a good idea with it. If you can do a grat portrait, go for it. If you just want to use the camera as an excuse to get closer, don't do it.

Percussionist Hossam Ramzy of Led Zeppelin
Percussionist Hossam Ramzy of Led Zeppelin photographed with Leica M9 and Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 at 400 ISO, manual white balance. Lit by two ARRI lights and one silver reflector.

Artists should be allowed to use the images
Usually when I shoot artists, I allow them to "use the images for own prints and websites but not third party usage such as PR photos." It's fair to exchange for their time, and especially if it is an upcoming artist, I like to support his or her efforts by providing some great photos for his or her own website, Facebook, Myspace, etc.
When it becomes commercial, which is when a record label wants to use my image for a cover, a band wants to make money on selling a picture book at the venues, a publisher wants to publish and sell a book with my image in it, or a magazine or newspaper wants to print the image in the publication they sell - then it cost money.
Beware that any artist business such as the record industry, magazine and publishing industry, fashion industry and traditional art as the type displayed in museums are filled with people who will suggest providers of content to those CD publications, museum exhibitions, newspapers, etc to "be happy that we like your work" or "we'll credit you but we don't have any budget," etc. Whenever you meet such a person, be aware that this is a person who can't make music, images, paint a painting or do fashion design himself, but he loves to invalidate your ability to do so, to a point where you will succumb and give away your work. Because then he can make a living. The answer to those people is simply:

Fuck you!

The reason record labels exist, art museums exist, newspapers exist, fancy magazines exist, concert halls exist, is because there is talent who can fill content into it. It's not the organizer who fills the stadium where George Michael performs; it's George Michael's talent.  Speaking of which, he has had his fight with record labels. And so had Prince, who, for a long period couldn't use his own name Prince, but instead had to make up a symbol till he got back his right to use his own name. Rolling Stones had to go through similar cases back in the 60ies where someone claimed to own everything they ever had made, and everything they would ever make!

Prince performing at the Roskilde Festival 2010 in front of an udience of 74,000 people. He got paid in the range of 4,500,000$ for performing - and that is how much a talented artist is worth for 135 minutes of performance.

Sorry to bring this up, but if you want to work as an artist, with artists, amongst media and record labels, you have to know who you are and what you stand for. Without artist there is no music, no concerts, no joy of creation. And without great imagery there won't be any fancy magazines or nice looking reviews on websites. So do great imagery, but be aware that it is actually yours, and that it is worth money and goodwill. So don't succumb when someone say otherwise.

And whenever someone use your images without permission, bill them twice the usual amount. The law will back you up. And blog about them, like I have done , and like Steve McCurry has done.

Thorsten Overgaard, August 10, 2010


You can see the slideshow from Roskilde Festival 2010 right here

Ole Boskov
International singer-songwriter Ole Boskov at Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen.

    The Thorsten Overgaard Photography Extension Course 2010

Kashmir performing on Orange Stage at Roskilde Festival 2010 for 30,000 people. Leica R9/DMR with 35-70mm Vario-Elmarit-R ASPH f/2.8.


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Thorsten Overgaard
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish writer and photographer, specializing in portrait photography and documentary photography, known for writings about photography and as an educator. Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.

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