How To Shoot a Live Band Without a Flash

Shooting gigs, in my opinion, is the second hardest form of photography, the first being landscapes. As a photographer, in a mosh pit of excited fans, you have to struggle with low variable lighting, band members moving all over the stage and fans pushing you around. On top of that most large bands will prohibit the photographer from using flash so it’s important, even if you’re shooting smaller bands, to practice this rule so that when Iron Maiden eventually gives you the call you know what to do. This article will thus explore the techniques I have picked up shooting live performances where I have banned myself from using the flash.

Capture the Motion
Getting the right shutter speed is probably the most important aspect of shooting a gig as it will control how much motion you capture. If you want it sharp and crisp, whack that shutter speed up to 1/800 and compensate with a higher ISO and wider aperture, this way you’ll freeze most of the stage movement. Sometimes, however, it can be nicer to capture some motion in the shot, be it a drummer’s arm of hand of a guitarist being slightly blurred; in this case I recommend shooting at around 1/160 which will let more light in the camera and thus give more room to play with aperture and ISO.

Bleed from Within, Brighton

Bleed from Within – 1/160 f/2.8 ISO25600

Shoot with a wide aperture
The key to taking photos in bad lighting without a flash is to open wide the aperture. I mainly shoot with a Canon 50mm f/1.4 or a Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 which both let in plenty of light and are lens I would recommend to anyone wanting to shoot a few gigs. The extra light offered by shooting as wide an f/1.4 is much needed at a gig. However, focusing the shot on a moving subject can become very tricky, I’d recommend shooting at around f/2.8; this way enough light enters the camera without too shallow a focus pane making the shots hard to capture. The other great thing about shooting wide is the isolation offered by the shallow depth of field; it’ll make the photos pop and stand apart from the photographers that like everything to be in sharp and in focus.

Howls, Brighton

Howls – 1/160 f/2.8 ISO2500

Knock that ISO right up
Don’t be scared of the articles that say noise is bad, at a gig, especially a metal gig, a high ISO is a life-saver when flash is prohibited. My technique for shooting a gig involves me locking down the shutter speed and aperture and letting the camera control the ISO for correct exposure. Noise at these sorts of performances is expected and is somewhat encouraged as it adds a gritty feel to the shot. A high ISO becomes your best friend when it means you can close down the aperture slightly or increase the shutter speed to get that perfectly exposed shot.

Shoot the atmosphere
The most exciting part of not using flash is capturing the atmosphere of the gig. A flash would just destroy most ambience that is felt and thus, I feel, not using a flash gives a much more accurate and memorable photograph of the night that the fans and band will likely prefer. This is where you should remember to not just capture close ups of the member of the bands but the feeling of the whole performance. Take a few steps back, or quite a few, and capture the whole stage, this will give a feeling of the overall performance that band member and close-ups cannot always capture.

While She Sleeps – 1/1600    f/4    ISO12800

While She Sleeps – 1/1600 f/4 ISO12800

Be prepared
I always have a few things prepared at gigs, firstly my settings. I always start with 1/120 f/2.8 with auto ISO and will then change settings accordingly depending on lighting. Using the same settings each time for the first few shots gives a feeling for the lighting and the stage ambience and will hopefully prompt a few ideas of what to capture as the gig unfolds. Always carry a few business cards with you, it is inevitable that the band, a fan or another photographer will ask for your details and in the noise of a gig, shouting out your URL just won’t suffice. Remember to always take earplugs, which may sound like your parents talking, but to get the right shot standing right in front of a speaker for a good number of hours is not unsurprising and won’t be a pleasant experience the next morning. Finally, and what I often forget, get a bottle of water from the bar if you can, it gets hot upfront and you won’t want to lose your place because you need a drink.

Shooting gigs is hard work, but at the same time is one of the most satisfying forms of photography. If you follow a few of these tips your gig should go smoothly and you’ll hopefully get some keepers – I often shoot around 300 photos per band and keep about 15 of the them so be prepared, and don’t be surprised, to shoot a lot of bad photos before you get the shot you want.

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6 Comments on "How To Shoot a Live Band Without a Flash"

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Bernard Macababat

Awesome post! I would like to bump my ISO that high, but with the current equipment I have. Bumping ISO to 12600 would lead to SO much ISO noise. I have a D7000 with a 24-70 lens. I always keep my settings to ISO to 1600, F/2.8 and just adjust the shutter speed not lower than 1/250. Do you do noise reduction? In cam or in post? I’m a gig photographer myself and I always get frustrated when I get a great shot but it’s too noisy to use.

Pat Santucci
I like to slow down the shutter to catch motion for some shots. When I shoot musicians live I like to get a variety of image styles including higher shutter speeds for clean images as well as some images with lower speeds to capture the motion. I find that often people prefer the motion images because they tend to be more interesting looking and capture a better feeling of what the show was like live.. I also try and keep ISO down for the most part– i dont like too much noise and if i want more noise I will… Read more »
Amanda Mlikan

Thanks for the advice. I would say I am new to photography, even though I have been taking photos for newspaper throughout the end of high school and a year in college so far, but this advice will come in handy. We sometimes have bands come in, and I always have trouble with the lighting and still capturing the band members.
Do you have and advice on a lens that is good for a beginner but not too expensive? I have the Canon T3i and just have the 18-55mm lens for it.

Andy Hayes
Hi, Great informative article, thanks. Shooting The Lovers at The Fleece tomorrow..I normally shoot Southampton, The Brook etc and The Half Moon, Putney. Question, The Lovers are into monochrome only atm, would you shoot colour n process or a b+w preset, would you add an in camera filter. The lighting looks pretty dire, low quality dreaded red gel..I shoot with a 70-200 MKii 2.8, 24-70 MKii (ouch) on a 7D and 5D MKIII respectively. I have the chance to take either a 50 or 85mm 1.2, what would you take, can’t take both. I want a really nice set of… Read more »
Thomas Asay

I have a Canon EOS from walmart i bought it off another person
lens i am using ef-s 18-55mm 1.3 5-5.6 15
what would be a good setting for low concert lighting when shooting in a smokey bar with cheap par lights. I just learning to use this camera.

Jamie Mooney

Great post many thanks!

I bought the cheap Canon 50mm f1.8 lens for the wide aperture for use at gigs. However I am finding with my 700D the cropped sensor makes the angle of view so tight it is impossible to get a full shot of the stage. A 28mm would probably be better for this on my camera.

Great for photographing individual band members though. I was struggling to focus at F1.8. Will try pushing the ISO next time (I was scared to do this haha), thanks for the tips.


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