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Event Photography: How To Take Electric Photos of Rock Bands

Do you remember the photographs that inspired you to want to take photography more seriously? If so, you must have a better memory than me. ;)

I don’t remember the specific photographs that made me want to keep me camera with me at all times. Maybe it was Henri-Cartier Bresson’s street photography, or maybe it was Andreas Gursky’s Rhine which sold for more than 4 million dollars.

But it could easily have been Annie Leibovitz’s photos of the 1975 Rolling Stones World Tour. I guess when you grow up in a forest as a “nice Michigan boy,” with a family full of teachers and working class folks… if you see sex, drugs, and glamour something stirs inside you, and you want to give that a try for yourself. Or at least take photos of that sort of thing.

Annie Leibovitz was one of the hottest young photographers at the time, working for Rolling Stone (the magazine). The Rolling Stones were the biggest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. Annie was naive at the time…

I brought my tennis racket with me. I thought that maybe as we went from city to city I would take tennis lessons. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. -Annie Leibovitz

But she immersed herself in this world and took some images that blew my little Michigan socks off. Since then, I’ve loved photographing rock bands. I can relate to their creative expression and over-the-top fashion sense. And usually they’re as hungry for someone to photograph them, as you are to have a photogenic subject.

Photo by Rainer Keuenhof

Photo by Rainer Keuenhof

But how do you take eye-popping photos of music?

You can’t exactly photograph the tunes, so you have to photograph them expressing it. It’s a challenge, for sure. But living in a city like Austin, Texas, “The Live Music Capital of the world.” I’m having plenty of opportunities to learn the art of rock photography.

So if you don’t mind being shoulder-to-shoulder with sweaty rocker kids, you can get some cool shots too. You might even be able to make some buds. Most non-rock stars would love to have amazing images of them playing and might even give you free tickets or give you a seat on their next tour bus (more likely, it’s going to be a weird VW van that’s jammed full… but whatever). You might even get to be front row or take in some of the rocker after-parties.

Here are 7 tips to taking electric photos of rock bands:

1. Know The Band

Photo by Ta Ma

Photo by Ta Ma

When photographing any subject, I want to find the “essence” of who they are. Fortunately, when musicians sing they’re often opening up their soul for you at least a little. Sometimes a lot, so you might have a lot to work with. But it helps to know what to look for. So before I shoot a show, I’ll research my subjects extensively (aka I’ll Google-stalk the heck out of them for 3 hours or days). If it’s a big gig, then you can create a Google Alert and watch what is written about or by them.

I’ll also look at as many other photographs of the band as I can find. This gives me a start and hopefully an inspiration for a way that I can take a unique angle on them.

2. Prepare For Low Light

Photo by Rainer Keuenhof

Photo by Rainer Keuenhof

Most of the time, you’ll be shooting in bars, clubs, or dark venues, so finding light is a challenge. Flashes are usually a no non. With DSLRs, you’ll be surprised by the high-quality results you can get in low light (you probably know this already though). But there are ways to improve your shots even more:

  1. Get a fast lens with a wide aperture.
  2. Set your ISO to 1600 or higher. Do some tests to see how grainy your photos turn out, but you might be able to push it to 3200 (if you dare).
  3. Use a monopod, if you’re in the media section.

3. Embrace The Dark Mood

Photo by Ta Maf

Photo by Ta Maf

Or embrace the dark mood. Most rockers are expressing their moody side anyways, so darkness can be your new friend. Use it. Make your photos dark. Don’t worry so much about finding the perfect composition and instead look for moments when the darkness of the venue and the performer come together in perfect harmony, haha. Or something like that…

4. Anticipate the Great Moments

Photo by Rainer Keuenhof

Photo by Rainer Keuenhof

If you’ve been to a rock show, then you know there’s a pattern to how a show goes. Typically, the first song is sets the tone for the show. You can get a lot of great images in the first song. Or even the first few, because the rockers know they need to start strong. Then, there’s often a lull as they test out some new material. Until there’s another push of their best material. Finally, ending on some of their strongest stuff, so you’ll leave the show with stars circling your head.

Be looking for those moments and you can probably get all your images then. Leaving you the rest of the time to rock your heart out.

5. Seek Boring (Intimate) Moments

Photo by Clayton Araujo

Photo by Clayton Araujo

You don’t have to just take photos at the show though. In fact, some of the most interesting moments are in the creation of the tunes. Brad Elterman is a master at the candid moments, like the shot of  Joan Jett eating french fries on the Santa Monica pier. These quieter moments can be more truthful and intimate portraits of who the star is behind the music.

To get these shots though, you’ll need access. AND to get access, you’ll need trust. Rodney Bingenheimer, a deejay at KROQ-FM (106.7) said, “Everybody loved Brad. They trusted him more than the other photographers.” This trust gave him access to some one-of-a-kind moments and you’ll need to walk a balance of finding telling personal moments while protecting the artists too.

6. Get Close

Photo by Rainer Keuenhof

Photo by Rainer Keuenhof

Getting close does a lot to help your photography. It lets you shoot better shots in low-light. You can get more visceral shots. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to get close ups of the musicians. You might even be able to sweettalk your way into getting on stage. At smaller shows this can work, but you’ll need to be pretty bold to get the kinda shots you want.

7. Focus on the Face of the Band

Photo by Rainer Keuenhof

Photo by Rainer Keuenhof

Choose the most photogenic member of the band and focus on them. Hayley Williams, Mic Jagger, or heck, Kendrick Lamar… would your subject of choice. Don’t focus on the nerdy drummer who hates having his photo taken.

Of course, I’m sure some of this advice is old-hat for you. So please share your experience with us. What’s helped you take better photos of rock bands? Or maybe you have a question? If so please write it in the comments below and we’ll try to answer you personally.

Benjamin Jenks

Benjamin Jenks offers creative strategies to help you live, work, and travel, like an adventurer at AdventureSauce.com.
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