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Shooting Tips

Taking Pictures At Concerts Without A Professional Camera

By Matthew Saville on May 11th 2015

Every photography hobbyist who also loves music, theater, or any other type of performing art has, at one point or another, run into this dilemma: you’re not allowed to take “professional looking” cameras into a concert.

The good news is that there are more and more pocket-sized, unassuming cameras out there that produce amazing results. “Point and shoots” and even cell phones can nearly match results that were only possible with heavy, expensive pro cameras just a few years ago.

They always say that the best camera is the one you have in your hand, so let’s talk about how to take good pictures at a concert with whatever camera you have in your hand!

Disclaimer

I am not a professional concert photographer. The photos I’m sharing here aren’t going to win any awards; they’re just good memories of some of my favorite experiences.

The advice I’m giving is based on personal experience as a casual photographer at various concerts and performances around Southern California. I do have professional experience photographing theater, and, of course, my full-time job as a wedding photographer, so this article will cover my basic tips on how to get decent photos in extremely difficult conditions. Enjoy!

Good Compact Cameras For Concerts

I cannot promise whether or not you’ll be allowed into this or that concert, with this or that camera because each venue/performer is different, and I certainly haven’t tried all of these.

Simply put, the smaller, the better. Bonus points if the camera is a color other than black. I’ve borrowed my sister’s purple Nikon point-and-shoot camera once or twice and have never had security guards give it a second glance!

sony rx100iii-2

For example, you might get a Sony RX100 series camera into a concert but I doubt you’d get a full-frame RX-1 in. And although mirrorless folks brag about how small and compact their cameras are, I also highly doubt if you’d get a Fuji X-T1 into any concert. You might not even get in with an X100T! They just look too “professional” in a hipster/80’s sort of way. Try a Fuji XQ2 maybe?

Or if you’d like a more rugged camera, for the mosh pit at a metal (or Ska?) concert, I’m a big fan of the “indestructible” types of cameras, such as the Fuji XP80. And those come in flashy colors!

fuji xp80-2

I think you get the idea. Basically, you want a camera that appears incapable of professional results and fits in your pocket. (Even an Olympus E-M1 still looks like a miniature pro camera.)

When in doubt, the latest cell phones are pretty darn good too.  Maybe even better than most of the compact “point-and-shoot” cameras out there. iPhones have delivered amazing results since the 5, and numerous others are now offering all kinds of things like optical stabilization, or manual control if you download a special app sometimes. Just be sure to charge up, and dim your screen as much as possible.

Four Tips For Better Photos And A Better Experience For Everyone

The following tips are going to help you get better photos while still enjoying the concert and not ruining anyone else’s experience.

no flash photographyPhoto by Marz Waggener

1.) NO FLASH!

Rule #1, never use flash. Your weak little flash won’t be a part of your photos anyway unless you’re right up front. Pretty much all pop-up flashes don’t illuminate more than a few feet away from the camera. Even then, the photos won’t look that good. (So if you ARE in the front row, your flash pictures will probably still stink, AND you’ll be blinding the performers. C’mon!)

The lighting provided by the venue will not be enough some of the time, but there will still be plenty of opportunities when it is bright enough. The roadies know what they’re doing, so just sit back and wait for it to come together.

2.) Embrace Grain, Crank Your ISO Up!

If you’re not the paid professional, and you’re not a money-grubbing paparazzi, you don’t need to worry about whether or not your images can be printed poster-sized. Chances are, they’ll probably only ever be seen on Facebook or in a slideshow on someone’s phone, or maybe, just maybe, if you get that one epic shot, you might make an 8×10 just for fun.

concert-photography-3

Either way, a little bit more grain in your photos is much, much better than having them be horribly blurry or horribly out of focus.

3.) Being Ready And Getting Lucky Is Different Than Shooting 1,000 Photos

Don’t be one of those annoying people who holds up their big, bright camera/phone LCD the entire concert. You’re going to ruin the show for the people behind you, and wind up with 99.99% photos that get thrown away anyways.

Check your camera settings, look around to see what the lighting setup is, and then chill out and enjoy the concert!  You paid good money to hear good music, NOT to spend the whole time obsessing over whether or not your pictures are coming out.

What I do is I snap a few test shots, and then I turn off my camera’s LCD screen and hold the camera down at eye or shoulder level. If you see the lighting and the moment coming together, rattle off a few shots. Chances are, that will be the one photo that is the memory you want.

jack-black-2Jack Black / Tenacious D – Nikon P&S camera

Of course if you’re not at the very front of a concert, and you can’t zoom in much without catastrophic camera shake, then sometimes the best thing to do is to just “call it good” with a couple wide-angle photos that at least use the lighting to give a good sense of the experience.

reel big fish concert 1Reel Big Fish, Samsung Galaxy phone

4.) In Post-Production, Embrace Moody Lighting

Don’t expect your images to be perfectly exposed with great highlight and shadow detail.  A concert isn’t meant to be experienced that way in the first place, why would you think it’s a good idea to go digging into your shadow detail anyways?

Over the years as a theater photographer, I’ve realized that stage performances are an awesome way to practice your skills at low-key and/or negative space imagery.

tenacious-d-concert-1concert-photography-6

6.) No Manual Mode? Look For Exposure Compensation

Another tip about low-key shooting is this: If you’re working with a camera or cell phone that doesn’t have manual exposure, it may still have exposure compensation. Because a stage is often extremely dark while performers are brightly lit, I almost always find that I get the best results by just cranking my camera/phone to -2 EV or so.

Bonus Tip 1:  Don’t bother shooting video; nobody wants to hear the horrible audio or watch the shaky hand-holding.

Plus, (even though you can take all the pictures you want) sometimes security guards will jump all over you if they see you capturing video footage. That’s always a buzz kill. Again, you’re paying good money to experience a concert, not to capture some audio that can’t possibly do the performance justice.

I think that many times in this day and age, we techno-folks become obsessed with documenting everything we see that we go through life not actually taking the time to soak it in and enjoy it. That’s no way to live!

Bonus Tip 2: Festivals and Fairs are sometimes more lenient with big cameras

If you’re actually thinking of getting into concert photography, or if you’d just like to shoot more stage performances of any kind, then festivals and similar events are a great way to get access to these environments, with your big fat 70-200 in tow.

I’m not talking about Coachella, of course, but the smaller fairs and festivals are usually no problem.

Last but not least, again if you’d simply like to practice low-light photography, with whichever camera you can, small local shows are a great way to get comfortable in such environments. Be sure to offer to share a few images with the artists for their own promotion, as long as you don’t expect them to shell out big $$$ to license your images. You’re just practicing, and usually free circulation/exposure are much more beneficial than a couple bucks in your pocket.

gaelic-storm-1 gaelic-storm-4 gaelic-storm-5Gaelic Storm (AKA, the band from the steerage scene in Titanic)

While music festivals happen pretty much everywhere, if you’re lucky enough to live in some places such as Hollywood, you might be able to see other types of celebrities  a red carpet or similar environment.

red carpet spectatorPirates Of The Caribbean World Premiere, Twilight World Premiere.
One I am proud of, the other not so much…

Happy clicking out there! Remember to be smart, don’t make a scene, if you focus on having a good time then a few great photos are sure happen…
=Matt=

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

24 Comments

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  1. Mark Nabors

    I’ve used the Canon G9 for years but the lens isn’t fast enough for dark concerts. I’ve considered the Sony RX100 though it appears that Panasonic is releasing one I’ll finally buy. It has a 1.4-2.8 lens with 3x optical zoom and LEICA lens. http://amzn.to/2cyolbs The Sony RX100 is a 1.8 so that’s a big difference.

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  2. Scott Flatt

    Like my Sony RX-100, I find it small enough people don’t question it. It makes great pictures, fast autofocus. I am still playing with, and learning all the settings.

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  3. Alexandria Becerra

    Hi! I have a Nikon coolpix P610 camera that I really want to take to my concert for that super beautiful picture capture.. Do you think the guards will take a double look?

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    • Joyce Bross

      You should be able to get in with this “bridge” camera. Most venues are only looking for cameras with detachable lenses as they are considered Professional. I have gotten in with my Canon SX50 and it’s pretty much the same size as the Nikon.

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  4. Mary Hurlbut

    FYI- the FUjI XP80 is a GREAT camera for kids…it’s shock proof and water proof, takes good pictures and has a lot of fun features to experiment with. We bought 10 for the classes we teach at the Sawdust Art Festival.

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  5. Dave Haynie

    I have had “concert cameras” ever since my old Pentax Auto 110. My current best option is a Fujifilm X-S1, which gets in the door more often than not despite being a “bridge” camera, as well as a more typical pocket model, the Fujifilm X-F1, which gets in pretty much anywhere.

    One of the main things to know is the exact camera policy of the venue. Some say “no photography”… I don’t even bring the camera, even if it’s not actively enforced. Some venues are getting smart about this, and spelling it out in detail. For example, for the Firefly Festival in Delaware, they permit “non-professional” cameras, which they define as fixed-lens. So no OM-D, but the Fujifilm is not a problem. They also explicitly allow GoPros… but no drones :-) Sadly, they’ve added selfie-sticks to the list of approved items for this year’s show…

    And in fact, I’m not sure I’d want to bring a pro camera along to a large festival unless I was being paid. If you’re shooting from the crowd, a large camera is enough of a problem, much less the typical gear bad to go with. It may not be a problem on Day 1, but by Day 4 there’s way too much dust to consider a lens change in any stage or high traffic area.

    The other great advantage of a camera like the X-S1 is the real OVF. There are way too many people at shows these days holding up smartphones, even the occasional chowderhead with a tablet… not that the usual 5″+ phone these days is that far behind. You won’t be quite as evil with the smaller screen of a P&S, but I still believe in not being part of the problem… if you don’t have the EVF, maybe the screen can be turned down or off.

    And obviously, a larger sensor/lower resolution P&S will do better in the low light of a night-time festival or a club/theater/arena show… the more popular 1/2.3″ sensor “travel cameras” might have a nice long zoom, but it’s a bad idea in low light (most of these are a waste of money anyway… with a 1/2.3″ sensor and an f/3.5 zoom lens, you’re diffraction limited much about 9-12Mpixels). With image stabilization too.

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    • Thomas Horton

      My first SLR was a Pentax Auto 110. It was the only camera that I ever sold and I have regretted it ever since. Of course using 110 film in a darkroom is a separate type of hell. :)

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    • Dave Haynie

      Sold mine, too, and yeah, I’m not sure what I would do with it today, but there was something pretty cool about it. I had the wide and tele lenses, and the teleconverter… I think Soligor made that one. I never tried to process 110 film myself, wasn’t it basically 16mm film with weird perforations (like one per photo on one edge of the film)? That was back when I was basically smuggling the camera into the venue, and concerts were about all I used it for.

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    • Stan Rogers

      No reason we couldn’t have an Auto 110 (or Minolta 110 Zoom SLR) equivalent today – it’s the same size as Four Thirds chip, just a slightly different body form factor. Ditch the LCD for a full-time EVF and you’re there. (I also had one. And a Voigtlander Vitoret. And a Minolta 16. And a Minox. I was into small when I was a kidlet, lo those many decades ago.)

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    • Dave Haynie

      I had both models of the Minolta 110 SLRs as well, but they were noticably larger than the Auto 110.

      The Pentax Q is only a bit larger than the Auto 110, but of course the image sensor area is much smaller. Maybe the big problem for making anything too close to that size: where do you put the battery?

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  6. Lester Terry

    Rx100 Mk III will be my next purchase.

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  7. Paddy McDougall

    Great article, started taking gig shots on a Kodak z612 only 6m pixels. Example here.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/2697245392/in/dateposted-public/
    Pro gear helps enormously but it doesn’t stop you taking a P&S. Photo passes are extremely rare in gigs in Scotland which such a waste when the pit is empty. Totally agree about turning LCD screen off as not to be a pain.

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  8. Ralph Hightower

    I shot a concert with my Canon A-1 and a 80-205 f4.5 zoom. I was using Kodak TMAX 3200 film; once the lights went down for the show, I had to bump my ISO from 3200 to 12800. I hadn’t taken any photos at 3200, so no frames were wasted. With push developing, the grain exploded; but hey, you do what you have to do.
    But there are quite a lot that don’t realize that any flash is going to make a difference at a concert.

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  9. Daniel Thullen

    Matt, I’ve shot a concert on a freelance assignment with my Canon 7D and my 70-200mm f/2.8. As you say they wanted no flash which I wasn’t going to do anyway. The venue was small enough to just pump up the ISO and still get some great pics. Good advice all the way around. Wish I had the funds to get a P&S to shoot an up coming gig.

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  10. Kim Farrelly

    Excellent Matt, I cut my teeth (well most of them) shooting gigs & at times it seamed I was the only one not using flash. Most recent gig I shot I brought out my X-E1(& my 5D3) the little fuji stormed it. When I introduced myself to the manager I was warned; ‘No falsh & no tripods, OK’.
    No tripods! really? Wow. I wonder what experience led him to saying that…

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    • J D

      I’ve seen people put cameras and monopods and hold them up to get the “eye level” shot of the performer from the front row.

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    • Kim Farrelly

      Monopods I get but who sets up a tripod to photograph a gig?

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    • J. Dennis Thomas

      @KIM FARRELLY

      I was shooting a festival this past weekend and the organizers went cheap on the video so they had four companies working on spec with the intent to give the “deal” to the best video. This gave them “staff” access and they had plenty of photographers that were packing tripods to shoot both video and stills. It only took about a day before they realized that the actual professional photographers were not going to be skirting around their tripods all weekend in a packed photo pit. So after some “mishaps” and arguments the tripods went away.

      The main point is that everyone thinks they are professional concert photographers. PR companies aren’t doing the work to investigate who is actually photographing the show so you end up with a bunch of people with kit lenses, tripods, and no idea about the 1st 3 songs and no flash rule.

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  11. Ed Rhodes

    nice shot of jack black

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  12. Thomas Horton

    I think that people holding up their cell phones ruins the concert for a lot of people. I wish they could all be banned. Some people just want to listen to the music and see the band.

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    • Matthew Saville

      I thoroughly agree that holding up your cell phone the whole time ruins the experience, but snapping a photo once in a while is not the end of the world IMO. It’s a concert, people are going to have their hands in the air either way. A smart and respectful photographer knows how to dim their camera / phone screen wayyyy down, too.

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    • J. Dennis Thomas

      Many bands and performers are adopting a no cell phone policy encouraging people to enjoy the moment without an electronic interface. I’m all for it.

      I rarely stick around after the first three songs, but I had to stay to shoot the last song of the Judas Priest show a few weeks ago and in between I was watching from the crowd and I stood behind some knucklehead that shot horrible shaky handheld vertical video the whole time and his wife that kept sticking up her hands and snapping awful blurry blown out photos that to 5 minutes to lock focus.

      It was very annoying to me. I can only imagine that it’s even more annoying if you have to actually pay to see the concert and deal with that.

      In any case, if you’re interested in getting more deep into concert photography check out my book: Concert and Live Music Photography: Pro Tips from the Pit
      http://www.amazon.com/Concert-Live-Music-Photography-Tips/dp/0240820649/ref=as_sl_pc_ss_til?tag=jdenthodigfie-20&linkCode=w01&linkId=NNLWPPIULZSOZKTH&creativeASIN=0240820649

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    • Thomas Horton

      Matthew, I also think that people waving their arms blocking the view of the other people is rude too. :)

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