I have been a concert photographer around Denver for about eight years and it’s been an amazing ride. I love photographing every kind of band in every kind of venue – and I have even started traveling to do it. Here in Denver, we have venues of every size, which makes it great for local and touring bands to move up and down that ladder as they play. Thus, I have shot the smallest rooms in the complete dark up to our biggest, brightest locations.
One thing that bands often ask about is concert lighting – and tips on how to do it from a photographer’s perspective. The easy answer you will hear from all of us is “NO RED LIGHTS!” – but why? There is actually a reason based on color theory, if you can believe it.
And while I know that bands do not always have control over what the venue does with lights – many of the people behind that board are more than happy to do what they can to accommodate your requests … you simply need to know what to ask for.
Absolutely, we concert photographers should train to shoot in all conditions, but sometimes there is only so much we can do because the essence of photography is a camera reading the light.
For me, concert photography is a symbiotic relationship between the photographer, the band, the venue and the fans. Everyone, in their heart, wants the best show that features the best performance of the best music. So these tips have that goal in mind: ways to help you get better photos that will make your band look awesome.
Please remember I am certainly no lighting expert and you should do what works for your show.
Concert Lighting Tips From A Photographer
What We Have to Work With
The general rule of thumb is photographers get to shoot the first three songs, with no flash. The impetus behind this is to have the least interference with fan experience and the band’s work of putting on a show. When things are lit well, and we have pit access, this is usually plenty of time to get enough great shots. When a venue doesn’t actually have a pit, or we are put at the soundboard, or the lights are low or hard to shoot – well – it really could take all night. However, depending on the size, venue and who is running the show – you may have control of when and where photographers shoot from.
Have Us Come In When It Counts
I loved shooting Andrew W.K. because he brought us in for the last three songs – the crescendo of his show. Phantogram used a screen in front for their first few songs, so they had us shoot five, six, and seven. I appreciate this conscientious decision on the part of the bands to think about when it was best to have us take the best photos. You can also just be strategic for good pro photos in the beginning and then build the show drama as the show goes on.
No Red Lights – Seriously!
We really are not joking around about this one. Human eyes see red more strongly – this is why stop signs are red – and digital cameras, which divide light into RGB (red, green blue) overcompensate for red. When lighting at a concert is excessively red, detail in the photo is lost. There are some tricks to make it better in Lightroom and Photoshop – but usually, this is why you’ll see so many photos converted to black and white from red light shows. There is simply nothing else a photographer can do to save the photos. Black and white should be an artistic choice, not a last-ditch effort. Full-on blue and green lights are still bad – but better than red.
White Lights Up Front
Again, this comes back to your style and budget – but in general – when you know photographers are there – the very best light to have on faces is white. You can usually tell if the light is a nicely color-balanced to white by looking at something that should be white (usually the drum kit) and see how tinted it seems. If possible and proper for your band, light up all the members – not just the lead singer … especially the drummer who is tricky to photograph.
Manage The Shadows
A lighting specialist can give you the particulars on how to apply this for concert lights, but in general photography terms, a key light is the main source of light and will most likely be the most dramatic. You can soften the effect with fill lights to your liking. Shadows are important, but sometimes can obscure the subject if too dramatic – or if the band member is wearing a hat!
Go Crazy With The Background
This is where it gets fun and where we photographers love insane lights. Color, strobes, lasers, painted sheets, fairly lights – anything goes. Contrasting color looks awesome. Fog is what makes the light visible in the air and works well – in the back. Use it to highlight, not hide you. Don’t forget props that easily add to the light and atmosphere like everyday lamps or fluorescents from a home improvement store.
It’s your show! The most important relationship is with your music and your fans. If you want a dark, dramatically red show – that is your choice! But another thing to consider is the possibility of not letting any photographers in – at all. I would much rather hear from a band or publicity that lights will be hard to photograph than wasting everyone’s time. On the other hand, sometimes we photographers can pull a great shot out the worst conditions.
And there you have it.
My best tips for concert lighting – from a photographer’s perspective.