I take photographs at various music concerts/festivals/etc. and at Open Mikes in the Boston area. This site provides links to sets of these photos.
Ever since digital cameras achieved the right combination of features I’ve been enjoying photographing musicians in action. My wife and I both enjoy going to music concerts, mostly those which fall into the broad category of “Folk Music”. That includes Folk/Traditional/Celtic/Singer-Songwriter/Americana and some amount of Rock. We currently attend somewhere between 100 and 200 concerts in a given year. I also photograph musicians at open mikes, mostly at ones in the Boston Metro-West area.
Generally I set my photo permissions to:
In all cases I grant permission for the artists or venues in the photographs to use the images in any way they want – though I’d appreciate it if you let me know what you do with them, and attribute the photos to me. I tend to get a little grumpy if someone carefully trims the watermark off one of my photos and uses it in a concert poster without acknowledging me.
I generally do not photograph concerts for hire. If a friend requests that I photograph one of their shows I’ll usually try to do so, if I can schedule it. If a musician of whom I am a fan requested it I’d probably also try. Otherwise I don’t want the hassle of someone feeling that I owe them something in particular because they’ve paid for it.
Photo sets are categorized either as Open Mikes or as Concerts. You can see an index, sorted by date, of each by using the Indexes menu in the righthand sidebar. Alternatively you can search for particular sets by clicking on the magnifying glass at the right end of the menu bar.
These photo sets are also stored on Flickr, including a lot of sets which predate this web site. If you want to find an older photo set:
- Click here to see the Flickr collection of all of my Concert photo sets
- Click here to see the Flickr collection of all of my Open Mike photo sets
My Concert Photography Philosophy
My general philosophy of concert photography is that I am a member of the audience with no special rights over any other member. That means that even though I enjoy taking photographs it is a requirement that I do not do it in a way that diminishes the enjoyment of any other audience member. That means
- no flash
- my camera should not make any unnecessary noise. In particular, part of my technique for getting good shots is to frame a shot and then take multiple images until I get the expression, or the position relative to the microphone, that I want. This means that a DSLR with an audible shutter or mirror clack on every shot would be unacceptable.
- I should move around as little as possible. I should not walk around the room or climb on stage to get shots. Generally at a seated venue I consider it to be part of the challenge to get as good shots as possible from wherever I am seated. If I have been explicitly asked to photograph a show, or if I am working an open mike, then I will relax this rule but it is still important to not get in the way of the audience.
Given the constraints on how I take photos I have a fairly stringent set of requirements for a camera to be useful for concert photography
- It must be one I can take into the venue. Many venues forbid “professional equipment” which tends to mean no DLSRs
- Since I do not use flash it must have a good low light capability and a fairly fast lens. My current camera supports ISO 12800.
- Since I am taking photos from some distance from the stage, a zoom which covers a wide range and has a good telephoto. My current camera has the equivalent of a 25mm-400mm for a 35mm camera. That’s ample.
- Good image stabilization
- No extraneous sounds. No mirror clack or shutter noise. The ability to disable all artificial shutter sounds.
- A viewfinder. I do not want to annoy my neighbors with a glaring LCD display. A photo review in the viewfinder is also necessary.
My current camera (as of September 2014) is a Panasonic Lumix FZ-1000. Up until very recently I have been using a Panasonic Lumix FZ-150. For the past few generations this family of cameras has best met the requirements above. Panasonic comes out with a new model every year and I have upgraded every few years. These cameras are a compromise:
- They have a reasonably good set of features.
- They are easy to carry, and don’t require extra lens to meet the range of focal lengths which are useful for concert photography.
- They are relatively inexpensive compared to a DSLR package. Even the FZ-1000, which is twice the cost of my previous camera, is only 1/3 the cost of a DLSR with lenses. This means that I can upgrade every few years as technology improves.
On the other hand image quality is somewhat compromised compared to a DSLR. It would be nice to have a larger image sensor, something on the order of APS-C sized. I console myself that given the low light levels, and odd lighting colors, where I shoot, the performers don’t look perfectly natural anyway, so I can aim for an “artistic representation” of the performance rather than a fully photorealistic image.
I have been keeping an eye on the newer mirrorless interchangable lens cameras and if I can find one that meets my other requirements I may go down that path the next time I upgrade. Sony has announced what sounds like a very nice low light ILC (the Alpha-7S), but with lenses it is more than 3 times the cost of my current camera, plus I am a little leary about committing to the Sony system of lenses. I’ll probably wait awhile longer either of the price to go down or to see whether Canon comes out with an equivalent model.
Generally I use very few fancy features when taking photos.
- I set the ISO to whatever is needed for the venue, usually 3200-12800 though occasionally one will have enough light to use something slower.
- If I get the opportunity I may use a neutral-gray card to set the camera white balance. Otherwise I’ll either use the camera’s “artificial light” setting, or if I know the venue I may set the color temperature – for example, Club Passim 2700K usually produces good results. If a venue is using colored LED spots for lighting then it’s hopeless to get good color matching so I just use the “artificial light” setting.
- I generally do not take RAW images. My feeling is that given the extreme lighting conditions and other constraints I am going to get artistic with the photo processing and any image degradation from JPEG will be in the noise.
- My general technique is to frame shots and then take multiple images until I get the expression or position that I’m looking for. This results in lots of wasted shots but that’s where digital cameras shine over film.
Since concert lighting is generally so poor – very low light and often oddly colored – I have made a deliberate choice to embrace the defects and to prefer interesting, or artistic over realistic in the photos I publish. I do try to set the white balance but if I can’t get the color exactly right I don’t obsess on producing perfect skin tones – in fact, I may enhance unnatural colors during processing if I like the effect. My basic philosophy is: if the musicians did not look “natural” under the concert lighting then I shouldn’t go to heroic efforts to make the photos look natural. That is part of the reason why I don’t bother shooting images in RAW – any increase in image quality from using RAW will be counterbalanced by an increased processing time, and since I will be tweaking the colors anyway there is no net benefit (IMO). On a similar note, if there is blur in a photo but I like the shot otherwise I may use a extreme processing effect on it (for example, black and white with tweaks to parts of the luminosity curve) to produce an “artistic” image rather than discarding the photo because it wasn’t perfect.
In processing a set of photos from a concert or open mike my general workflow is:
- Go though the photos and immediately discard any that are too blurry to use, or have obvious reasons they will not be acceptable (unfortunate expression, head behind mike, etc., etc.). This results in throwing away 1/2 or more of the shots immediately.
- Make a second pass and select the photos I want to post. Occasionally I’ll choose a few extra to decide which will look best after processing, but by this point I can predict that pretty well. How many photos I end up with depends on the type of show: for an open mike I try to choose 2 of each performer and more of the features; for a concert I’ll generally choose between 4 and 12 depending on how many performers there are and how much variety their is in the act (e.g. a singer-songwriter who sits through the whole show will be at the lower end)
- for each remaining photo I go one or more photo processing steps. Almost all the photos I post have been processed in some way, the more extreme the lighting conditions the more likely I am to try to do something “artistic” in the processing to save the photos
Currently the photo processing software I use is digikam, which is an open source package which runs under Linux. I do not use Adobe Lightstream for several reasons
- I’d just as soon use a free product
- I don’t want to use a Microsoft Windows based machine and so far I’ve avoided getting a Mac, so Lightstream does not run on my Linux desktop
- I’m nervous about the fact that Lightstream stores modifications as information in a database, rather than on the photo itself. I don’t trust it to never lose that database.
Digikam works fairly well. It has a few bugs which mostly seem to be related to file locking. Sometimes it will fail to properly save a new image version. Rarely it will lock up while processing a photo – luckily it saves the last setting with each tool so recovering a processed photo consists of just repeating the same set of tools in the same order.
Generally the processing steps I go through are
- Crop the photo to rebalance it. Essentially all photos.
- Adjust the white balance, exposure, green and saturation
- If necessary run the photo sharpening tool
- depending on the photo I may adjust the contrast/brightness, or the color balance
- if a photo needs extra work I may use the “curves” tool to adjust luminosity or colors.
- in some cases I will use the black/white tool adjusting one or more of tone, contrast, or luminosity curves.
After processing all photos to be uploaded I add a watermark to each. I resisted using a watermark for a long time because I didn’t want to put anything on the photos which would detract from the image. However eventually I got tired of seeing things like concert posters where some of the images were blatantly credited to other photographers (though the watermark) and my photos on the same poster were uncredited. So, I settled for choosing as unobtrusive a watermark as I could come up with.