Concert and Live Music Photography: Clubs, Bars, and Small Venues

Clubs, bars, and small venues are the places where most concert and live music photographers get their start, the reason being that there are fewer restrictions since the performers are less likely to be famous. These are often the best places to catch bands on their way up and sometimes on their way down. Unfortunately, these venues are typically the ones with the worst shooting conditions. The good news is that when you start out shooting in the worst conditions it only gets easier as you work your way up.

One of the biggest problems you are going to have when shooting in bars and small clubs is dealing with the crowd. About 99% of the time there isn’t going to be a place for photographers to set up. The key is to get there early and stake out a spot at the front of the stage. The best spot isn’t dead center but usually just to the left or right of center. Standing off to the left side a bit allows you to get a better angle, especially when the lead vocalist uses a mic stand. This way the mic isn’t blocking the singer’s face, and you can get a nice three-quarter side shot instead of straight ahead. Singers who don’t use a stand are more apt to move around, so in this case placement isn’t quite as important. Even if you showed up early and staked out your spot, be courteous to the people behind you. If you’re constantly blocking someone’s vision with your camera, things can get out of hand quickly, especially in a bar scene where you’re mixing alcohol with a situation that could be potentially volatile.

I showed up early to get a front-and-center spot to see actress Juliette Lewis and her band the New Romantiques. This enabled me to get this in-your-face shot. Taken with a Nikon D700 with a Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8D at 40mm; ISO 2500 for 1/320 at ƒ /2.8, spot metering.

If you don’t show up early enough to get a spot you may have to ease your way up to the front. In these types of situations being extremely friendly is the only way to go. When you get up to the front make it very clear that you will only be there for a few songs. Offering to share some pictures with them is the best way I’ve found to smooth out this type of situation. After two or three songs move. My rule of thumb is that I’ll shoot two songs and move to another angle to shoot a third if I can.

Sometimes you will encounter a venue that has no stage or lighting; in a situation like this you will have to jump directly into the fray. This isn’t for the photographer who’s faint of heart or afraid of damaging his or her gear. This is what I call “Gonzo Photography,” so named after Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism in which the writer puts himself right in the middle of the story.

In these types of venues you usually find punk rockers slam dancing, beer will be flying around, and you, the photographer, must get in there and get the images for better or worse. In these types of situations I find it’s handy to have an ultrawide angle lens and a flash. This is about the only time that I advise using the “Hail Mary” technique of lifting the camera and shooting down on the band. Set the aperture relatively small, f/8-11, to ensure a deep depth of field (focusing is nearly impossible in this type of situation). Set the shutter speed slow for a shutter drag to capture some ambient light, and set the flash to TTL.

L I G H T I N G

Most clubs, if they have lighting, use PAR lights. PAR stands for Parabolic Aluminized Reflector. Although these are the same types of lights that are used in the huge lighting arrays for major concerts, in bars they are usually fixed in a certain position and are a constant light source, meaning the brightness doesn’t change.

Most often the lamps used in the PAR cans are standard tungsten spotlights, usually with colored gel filters to add ambience. Gel filters are most often primary colors: red, blue, and green. A lot of newer venues or venues that have recently upgraded their lights are going with LED lights, which are lower in energy consumption, run cooler, and have more highly saturated colors than gelled tungsten lights. I’ll get into the specifics of LED lighting later in the chapter.

This floor-level punk show featuring the Lower Class Brats was taken in a 600-square-foot club with no lighting at all. The place was packed from end to end; there were bottles, beer, elbows, and fists flying all around. Putting yourself in the danger zone is the only way to get these kinds of shots. I used the built-in flash to light the scene, which was too dark for an ambient exposure. Taken with a Nikon D700 using a Zenitar 16mm f/2.8 fisheye lens; ISO 450 for 1 sec. at f/11.

The main problem that photographers run into when shooting at the club level is clipping in the separate RGB channels, or in simpler terms, single channels being overexposed due to the high saturation. While this can also be a problem when shooting concerts on the big stage, since the lighting isn’t constant in larger venues it’s less of an issue.

To understand why primary colored lights are such a problem we need to look into the camera itself, or more specifically the sensor. Inherently, digital camera sensors are only capable of producing a monochrome image. To produce a color image the sensor is overlaid with a filter possessing the three primary colors: red, green, and blue. These filters are laid out in what is known as a Bayer array , named after Eastman Kodak scientist Bryce E. Bayer, who invented it. The Bayer array is laid out in a specific pattern of red, green, and blue lenses. To more accurately represent human vision, which is more sensitive to green light, the filter patterns are made up of 25% red, 50% green, and 25% blue filters. Light falling on the sensor passes through the filter to the pixels on the sensor, and the color data from each pixel is then interpreted using some complex algorithms, which determine the colors and brightness of the scene giving you a color image.

Bayer Filter array of a typical DSLR sensor.

Why this is relevant in regards to concert lighting with single primary colors is because when you have one solid, highly saturated color, you are losing as much as 75% of the image data; 75% for reds, 50% for greens, and 75% for blues. This results in the channel being overwhelmed with data, resulting in overexposure and loss of detail in the highlight areas. This is exactly the same as overexposing an image in a normal lighting scenario, and it’s dealt with in much the same way—by applying exposure compensation to the camera’s normal exposure meter reading. How much exposure compensation to apply is highly dependent on the lights themselves, so a little experimentation is usually necessary. Generally, underexposing by one to two stops is advisable to retain some highlight detail.

Underexposing two stops from my meter reading helped to keep detail in this shot of Rontrose Heathman of the Supersuckers. Taken with a Nikon D700 with a Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8D at 70mm; ISO 3200 for 1/250 at f/2.8.

LED lights, unlike Tungsten lights, do not need gel filters to change the color of the lighting. An LED light is made up of smaller individual red, green, and blue lights. LED lights are more highly saturated than standard gelled tungsten lights. The LED can not only produce strong primary washes, but two of its colors can also be mixed to create other colors, such as red and blue for an intense purple, or green and red to create an orange wash.

Even with underexposing to reign in the highlights, the images may still be overly saturated. There are a couple of ways to deal with this. You can present the images as they are, or you can go for a black-and-white conversion. While I don’t recommend using black-and-white conversion as a crutch, it can give you a little more diversity in the shoot, which is why I usually do a mix of color and black and white when faced with this type of shooting situation.

This image of Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction was taken at a small nightclub during a solo performance. The highly saturated LED lights give this overly purple tone. Taken with a Nikon D700 with a Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8D at 65mm; ISO 3200 for 1/320 at f/2.8.

I converted this image to black and white using Channel Mixer in Adobe Photoshop. Although the original image with the purple tone looked good, converting to black and white enhanced the image and added to the overall effect. Taken with a Nikon D700 with a Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8D at 65mm; ISO 3200 for 1/320 at f/2.8.

LED lights can be programmed to change colors with minimal technical knowledge and don’t require anybody to operate the lights, so oftentimes in clubs with LED lights you will have a constantly shifting color spectrum. On the bright side, no pun intended, the luminosity of the lights is fairly equal so you can have a relatively consistent exposure.

This series of images of Dick Dale, the “King of the Surf Guitar,” were taken seconds apart. The LED lights constantly cycle between red, green, and blue. All images were taken with a Nikon D700 with a Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8D at 28mm; ISO 3200 for 1/125 at f/2.8, spot metering.

Recommended Settings

The good news about shooting in small clubs and bars is that the lighting, although it may be less than ideal, is at least consistent. This means you can set your exposure and leave it alone for the most part. One caveat is that you may need to change the exposure for individual members of the band, because they will likely have different amounts of light falling on them. You also want to pay close attention to performers if they move in and out of the light.

Shooting Manual exposure yields the most consistent results. Keep your shutter speed fast enough to freeze any motion of the performers—1/125 is generally a good place to start. If the performers are staying fairly still, you can try using a slower shutter speed. If they are a frenetic group, you may have to go faster than 1/125. Giving your images a quick review should tell you whether you need to speed up the shutter speed or not.

For this shot of local Austin rockers the Flesh Lights I used center-weighted metering as opposed to spot metering to get a more accurate reading of the light in the scene. Taken with a Nikon D700 with a Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8D at 28mm; ISO 3200 for 1/100 at f/2.8.

As mentioned earlier, most often the lighting in small clubs or bars is relatively dim, so most likely you will need to shoot your lens wide open. I usually do not recommend using fast prime lenses because of the limitations they impose on composing, especially in small clubs or bars where you’re likely to be packed in with the rest of the crowd without a lot of room for movement. However, if you have enough room and good access to the band, you may want to consider using fast primes such as a 35mm f/1.8 if the light is especially low.

ISO setting is highly dependent on the shutter speed you need to use. Since you will likely be shooting wide, set the ISO high enough to get the shutter speed you’re after. In these types of situations the best course of action is to set your camera to Manual exposure, set your exposure values (1/125 at f/2.8 is a good place to start), and then adjust the ISO sensitivity according to your light meter readings. Remember that if the lighting is overly saturated you may need to underexpose by a stop or two.

Using Off-Camera Flash

When shooting at venues that have single color primary lights, or at venues that don’t have any lighting at all save for the house lights, sometimes it’s necessary to bring your own light source, that is, a flash. This is something I usually only resort to when I’m hired to shoot a band’s live performance and I have no alternative. First and foremost speak to the band and whoever is in charge of the venue before setting up and explain what you are trying to do. I’ve never come across anyone who has refused to let me set up my flashes, but it’s always best to get clearance ahead of time.

Setup

To clarify, this isn’t the straight ahead flash-on-the camera approach; using off-camera flash requires some planning. In essence you are using your flash to simulate stage lighting. The best placement for your off-camera flashes is up high, with the light aimed down at the performers. Not only does this provide the best direction for the light, but it also gets the flash out of the performer’s line of sight. As a gigging guitar player I can tell you that having a flash repeatedly fired directly in your face is a very frustrating experience, to say the least.

My first approach to this is to attach the remote flashes directly to the light bar ; this is where the PAR lights are attached. If there is no light bar, or for some reason I can’t reach the light bar (no ladder), I use a light stand. Setting up one light stand at the far end of each side of the stage is the best placement, and the taller the stands the better. An 8-foot stand is nice, but a 10-foot stand works even better. A third option for off-camera flash is to have an assistant hold the flash for you. You can even work out a system where your assistant aims the flash at different band members.

When photographing Justin Townes Earle playing on the indoor stage at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin, I set up one flash on a light stand at stage left (photographer’s right). I pointed the flash head straight up to avoid a harsh direct light. At stage right (photographer’s left) I aimed the flash with a blue filter at the background to add some ambiance. Taken with a Nikon D700 with a Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8D at 125mm; ISO 3200 for 1/25 at f/2.8, spot metering – 0.3EV. I used PocketWizard transceivers to trigger the off-camera flashes. The output of the flashes were set manually.

If you’re feeling particularly creative and you have enough remote flashes, you can also set up background lights. One good position for a remote background light is on the floor behind the drummer with the flash head pointed straight up. This gives a nice fill light, adding to the overall brightness of the scene.

Gear

There are no hard and fast settings for this technique of off-camera flash because every venue is different, and even the same venue can be different depending on where the band members have set up. One thing is certain, however: you will need at least one remote flash and a device to trigger the remote flash wirelessly. There are a number of different options, which range from cheap to very expensive. There are caveats to all of the options, and I’ll quickly touch upon the most popular options.

The most obvious solution is to look to the manufacturer’s accessories. Almost all camera systems have a proprietary flash system that allows wireless operation. The Nikon Wireless Speedlight Commander SU-800 or the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 is what I recommend overall, because they use invisible, infrared pulse modulation technology to trigger the remotes. Some accessory flashes and built-in flashes allow you to control remote flashes. wirelessly, but they require a visible flash burst, which brings you back to flashing in the performer’s face. These types of transmitters are sometimes referred to as line of sight transmitters, because the commander must be visible to the remote flash’s sensor to receive the commands. When using these there’s a probability of misfiring due to limited sight distance.

The biggest benefit of using the manufacturer’s accessories is having the ability to control of the remote flash setting right on the camera. The most reliable solution is to use radio triggers. These use radio signals to trigger the remotes, which doesn’t require a line of sight between the commander and the remote flash. The downside to this is that each remote flash must have its own receiver. Radio triggers come in a variety of price points; you can find a cheap set of radio triggers on eBay for less than $50, or you can go the more expensive route and spring for a couple of PocketWizard Wireless FlexTT5 Control TL transceivers, which will cost you about $500.

For this shot of local Austin rockers Monarch Box, I set up a flash on either side of the stage using a clamp to attach them to a fixture on the wall. Using the Nikon Wireless Speedlight Commander SU-800 I triggered the lights using TTL metering. Taken with a Nikon D300s with a Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 at 32mm (48mm equiv.). Shot at ISO 1250 for 1/60 at f/5.6, matrix metering.

If you’ve ever wanted to take dynamic and vibrant digital photos of your favorite band in concert, but aren’t sure how to tackle such obstacles as approaching the stage, tricky lighting situations, or even what equipment to use, then look no further!Concert and Live Music Photography is a comprehensive guide to shooting live music performances, providing you with the right information on equipment, camera settings, composition, and post-processing to get the best out of each performance shot. J. Dennis Thomas, whose work has appeared in such magazines as Rolling Stone, SPIN, and Country Weekly, shares tips on lighting, common problems, etiquette, and recommended camera settings for shooting in a variety of different venues, including clubs, bars, outdoor concerts, theatres, stadiums, and arenas. He also explains how to get the right credentials to get you closer to each performance.

Text ©2012 J. Dennis Thomas. Book excerpt courtesy of Focal Press.

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