Lean Into Challenging Light

Concert photography can vary so wildly, largely because concerts themselves are so varied. Every venue is different, every band is different, and every tour is different—all of those variables come into play even before you add in the factor of each photographer, their gear, their style, etc. I think that a frequent challenge of photographing a show is being able to adjust to what is happening around you, especially when it doesn’t align with your expectations. Not every show will be brightly lit, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the best of it and create great images.

Death Grips, August 2023. 1/125 sec, f/2.8, ISO 10000

There are things you can do to set your lighting expectations before a gig, but these are not foolproof. You can check the artist’s social media for examples of what the light will look like, you can look for recent photos and videos of their performances, and you can look for publication coverage if it’s available. These are good starting points, but even then, you might be in a scenario where this won’t help. What if the tour date you’re photographing is the first date of the tour? What if media coverage has been scarce? What if the artist doesn’t allow themselves to be tagged online? What if you just forgot to check? 

For the Death Grips photo above, I knew it was going to be incredibly dark, with little to no front lighting. Fan photos were all red, silhouetted, and blurry. What was I going to do? Well, the first bit of prep work that I did was mental. I reminded myself that, as much as I’d like for the band to be more visible, dark and red is what they wanted. It suits their sound and it contributes to the kind of experience they want to create for their fans, and their fans are the target audience, not me and my camera gear. It’s definitely easy to get frustrated as a first reaction, and it’s understandable. Just try to move past that, make the photos that you can, and realize that it may not align exactly with what you were expecting.

At the same show, the lighting over the crowd was practically nonexistent, but there was constant movement and I wanted to be sure to represent that in my photos. I decided to experiment with longer exposure times, and got some images I really liked when the occasional strobes kicked in. Being able to readjust my expectations allowed me to be more flexible with the settings I used. 

Crowd at the Death Grips concert. 1/6 sec, f/2.8, ISO 10000

So much of what happens at a concert is out of your control. Try not to place additional limitations on yourself if you can help it, and understand that you may have to sacrifice certain things to get the shot as the conditions become more difficult. Instead of thinking of the light as strictly good or bad, think of it as the light you’re given, and tackle it as a problem you have to solve. Ask yourself, “how can I best represent what’s happening with the resources available to me?”

Surf Gang performing in Brooklyn, July 2021. 1/30 sec, f/5.6, ISO 10000

The Surf Gang photo above was incredibly challenging. It was a nighttime performance in a location that had no external lighting. All I had was my camera and a flash, so I put my usual preference for clean photos aside and made a photo that I feel represents the energy of the show. When I submitted my photos for the assignment, no one complained about noise in the photos, softness, or blur. What mattered is that I had photos that told a story of what was happening that night. 

You may not always be able to take a tack sharp, bright, low-noise photo, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a photo available for you to take. 

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