Behind the Shots – Death By Decibels Tour

Friday night, I shot a concert at the Masquerade, here in Atlanta, GA. I got a flat tire on the way to the venue, so I missed the first band. I got some great shots of the remaining bands Cattle Decapitation, Malevolent Creation, and Vader. Here are some highlights from the night, as well as breakdowns of how I got these shots. A lot of new concert photographers get extremely blurry pictures. Worse, they fall in love with the colors and think they are really awesome pictures. When you’re ready to shoot sharp pictures of concerts in a variety of venues, read on. I’ll be discussing different techniques and tricks for shooting live bands over time.

We’ll start simple this time, and focus (ha ha) on no-flash musician portraits. Concerts have beautiful, colored lights that make live music otherwordly. Unfortunately, the lights are extreme, unpredictable, and surprisingly dim. Shooting live music is all about compromise. You can have shutter speed, aperture, or ISO (Choose two.). You can use a flash to compensate, but the flash often times blows out the colorful ambient lighting, leaving you with an even, well-lit, yet boring image. I’m going to teach you some tricks on getting sharp band shots without a flash. It’s rather easy.

Set your ISO to at least 1000.

It varies from venue to venue, but I regularly shoot at 1600 and 3200 iso in order to get my shutter speed enough to shoot tack-sharp shots with ambient light. To a certain excent, grain is a matter of course for these types of images (but I’ll show you an idea for hiding grain in concert images later).

joie de vie photography

This first one was shot at 1/160th of a second at f/1.8, at 1600iso. I was able to take advantage of a still moment, with “plenty” of ambient light. I had my iso set high enough to allow me to get this tack-sharp portrait.

Use backlighting, underexpose and get sexy rim-light silhouettes.

Venues often have backlighting. When you can line up your subject between yourself and the lights, you can increase your shutter speed (and therefore sharpness, every little bit helps!) a stop or so, and freeze a moment.

cattledecapitation-11.jpg

I shot this image at 1/800th of a second at f/1.8, at 1600iso. The singer was spitting water. He had done it a couple times, so when I saw him getting ready to do it again, I squatted down to get him between me and the stage lights and cranked my shutter speed up to so I could capture the spray backlit against the stage lights.

Get a great low-light lens for cheap.

Canon makes a 50mm 1.8 AF lens for about $89 that, for the price, is the best low-light lens on the market. Get one. At that price, no excuse holds up.

vader-13.jpg

This was shot at 1/160th of a second at f/1.8, at 3200 iso. It’s only sharp on the singer, and then it falls off. By sacrificing my depth of field (and the fast lens allows me to sacrifice even further than before), I was able to get a decent shutter speed to take advantage of this break in the action.

So, those are some ways that you can get sharp pictures at shows, without using a flash. Your point of focus can easily get off when it is so narrow and your subject is moving. It is not uncommon for you to throw away a lot of out of focus shots. If I shoot 250 shots of a band (I can do that in 3 songs if I’m really working hard), I will cut that number down to about 25. So, I end up keeping 1 out of every 10 shots.

Stay tuned here for more Behind the Shots articles, as well as more about shooting live music!

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  1. Christi Couch

    Thanks for the tips Shaun. I just bought a 50mm 1.8f lens yesterday. I’m planning to try it out this weekend. I also live in Atlanta. I have a real passion to get good at live band photography. So, what is the trick to hiding grain?

  1. 1 Anonymous




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