Shooting live music

October 15, 2012


Around 8 years ago I was presenting for a radio station but my passion for photography wouldn’t keep me behind the microphone for long. As I was always involved with music events it wasn’t long before some of the musicians asked ‘Mel, how much would you charge to shoot one of our shows?’. It was hard to tell since I had never done anything like that before and it would turn out to be quite a challenge.


I used to see those photographers using huge lenses trying to hide themselves in the corners of the stage and wondered how difficult it would be to make good pictures in such dark surroundings. After my first gig I realized that it wouldn’t be easy and I didn’t even charge! (Still using film!) At this point I can’t say it doesn’t depend on your gear because at some point it does, but having creativity is very important as well!

In my opinion a bright lens like the 24-70mm f/2.8 is ideal for big concerts because, besides it’s sharpness, it’s also wide enough and has the right zoom range. But like me not every photographer can afford to buy such an expensive lens, especially at beginning of their career. I used the 50mm f/2.8 a lot which was ideal, but because of its fixed focal length it was not always easy to capture what I wanted, particularly on small stages when the band members jumped around a lot during their performance.

What I realized in the years photographing concerts is that no matter what you have, you need to know your gear very well. Weather you use a Canon with an 18-55mm lens or a Nikon with an 18-105mm don’t panic, you can still take great photos, you just need to know how to use the light from the venue.

I nearly made a mistake using too much light, but fortunately saved a good shot, in a good moment, thanks the models!


Bring me the Horizon Photo taken                                      The flash is also interesting to make a light trail effect. In this

with 24-70mm San Diego, California, USA                          case, you can use the flash directed a little more towards the

musician. I usually leave the exposure at 1/13s f/5 to focus on the subject then rotate the camera whilst releasing the shutter. You must remember to compose the subject correctly so you don’t crop them while you rotate your camera. And be sure you don’t punch anyone around you!


Pop/rock bands always have their own style on the stage so when you are hired to cover an event the first thing you should do is listen to their music and learn a little about the musicians. If you can take time to watch some videos of them before the show, even better. Some larger bands have a very similar set, often making jumps at certain times during the same songs. I’ll never forgive myself for changing lenses in the Story Of The Year’s gig when they jumped together from the top rung of the drums, doing a twirl in the air, and I didn’t have time to capture it… I later found out they always do it at the same point during that tune! Learn from your mistakes, I did!

 Story of the Year in Sao Paulo, Brazil


When you are on tour with a band you get to know the musicians better and understand what they want to show to the public and media. But you also get to know a very important person, the lighting technician. This person is essential to your work. Talk to him and share ideas about what kind of lighting he uses at certain times of the event. This can really help your job. Sometimes the technician didn’t even realize that white light on the public at that moment of a song doesn’t help you make good images, especially when that should be the best part of the show. Or that the stage is too dark for all the hits of the album and you can’t show the best moments to the press. Conversations and exchanging ideas is never a problem and can bring great results.



Don’t forget that you want to show ‘the best moments’ but the gig is not always a great success with a large turnout. Your job is to make it look even better than it was so more people come to the next gigs. Try to frame the ‘crowd’ near the stage and not the empty seats behind them. Pay attention to every detail before you even start the gig. This includes the location, the lighting, the clothes, the musicians, even that banner behind the drums, everything your eye can catch.

Find out about the space you’ll have access too, and for how long. In some big events even the bands photographer is restricted to the front of the stage along with the press.


You’re the one who has access to the set list so check it out, use it to your advantage and do your best.


When I was covering events as press, I used to try and see the set list on the stage or ask acquaintances who were working at the event. But if you don’t know anyone and are time restricted then we return to the first lesson, learn about the rock band and their gigs/set lists. Don’t forget, the internet is also here to give you the tools you need.

When I started photographing bands, photographers were still those who worked backstage as anonymous as the rest of the crew. But now they have become more widely known

Blessed by a Broken Heart in Milan, Italy


so study famous band photographers, practice their techniques but develop your own style. This is a great way to un-condition your eyes and create your own identity. There are many great shooters out there, but if I was to mention some of my favorite music/band photographers they would be Paul Zollo(also a great musician), Bob Gruen, George Dubose, and Jalapeño Spike, who I was really pleased to meet in London and is also a lovely person.


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