How to Photograph Bands Performing Live on Stage

I have photographed numerous bands on stage, and it took a while for me to develop the skill.  This is a summary of what I’ve learned.  I hope it will be useful to others who want to produce good photos of bands performing live on stage.

There are three basic challenges to overcome:

  1. Bands Perform in the Dark — With rare exception, the venues in which bands perform are dark places.  The stage lights don’t really light the performers so much as they make it possible to see the performers in the dark.  Human eyes are much more sensitive in darkness than cameras, and seeing the subject and photographing the subject are two different things.
  2. The Lights are Constantly Changing — They blink on and off, they move around, they change color.  Under these circumstances, it is impossible to adjust your exposure settings every time the lights change.  Even the automatic exposure program of your camera can’t keep up.
  3. The Subject is Constantly Moving — Any performer with a modicum of stage presence moves around on the stage.  They usually move fast: dancing, rocking on guitars, swinging drum sticks.  Long exposures will result in photographs with too much motion blur.

Before I start providing solutions to these problems, let me just say that you can’t produce good photographs under these circumstances with a point-and-shoot camera, and you can’t do it with a cameraphone.  Even if you have one that gives you good manual control and can focus in the dark, the tiny sensor will produce so much noise that the photos are unusable.  I promise I’m not usually a DSLR snob, but these are the kinds of extreme conditions under which only a DSLR can do the job that other cameras cannot.

Turn Off Your Flash

Direct on-camera flash is actually the worst kind of light for photography that there is.  This may surprise you, but it’s true.  I won’t go into the reasons why now [maybe I will come back and provide a link to a good explanation], but please trust me on this.  The only reason your camera has a flash is so that any idiot (uh, I mean amateur) can get a recognizable snapshot in bad lighting conditions.  This is why top-of-the-line DSLR cameras don’t even have a built-in flash.  Anytime you can get a photograph without using the flash, it will always be better.  I can’t stress this point enough.  If you don’t turn off your flash, your photos will be garbage (and yes, I’m also talking about the photos you’ve already taken with your flash).

Anyway, unless you have a powerful dedicated flash unit, you probably won’t be able to reach your subject on stage.  The built-in flash in most cameras is good for about fifteen feet.  Cameraphones with an LED flash are even more limited.  Outside of its range, you’re just going to get gray, low-contrast photographs (with lots of red-eye).

That being said, if you have a bounce flash, you may be able to use it to great effect.  I’ll discuss that later.

Of course, shooting in the dark without a flash is going to present some difficult exposure and noise challenges.  Much of what I’m going to be discussing in the rest of this post is how to get the best possible exposure and how to deal with noise.

Set a High ISO Sensitivity

This should be obvious, especially since I just told you to turn off the flash, but there are some nuances.  Before you photograph your band, you need to learn where the sweet spot is for your camera.  In general, higher sensitivity produces more noise.

When talking about digital photographs, “noise” is the occurrence of pixels in the photograph that are completely wrong.  They are much brighter or darker than the pixels around them, or they are the wrong color.  Bright red, green, or blue dots in a dark background are examples of what I’m talking about.  It is similar to what film people call “grain”.  The higher you set the ISO sensitivity of your sensor, the more noise it will produce.  At some point, there is just too much noise.  Noise typically shows up in shadows and dark areas of photographs, and because this type of photo has lots of shadow, you will get lots of noise.

All digital camera allow you to set the sensitivity higher than you really should.  You need to experiment with photographs in low light using different ISO settings and evaluate the results.  Only in this way can you determine what is the maximum practical ISO setting for your camera.  This will depend on the camera and your personal tastes or photographic style.  You should also do a little research online about noise with your camera.  For example, the Canon 5D Mark II is known to produce a little less noise at ISO 1250 than it does at ISO 1000.  This has to do with the native sensitivity of the sensor and the way gain is used to increase the sensitivity.

You want to pick a fairly high sensitivity that produces a little noise.  A little noise is acceptable for this type of photograph, and you can deal with much of it in software (which I will discuss later).  On my Canon 5D Mark II, I consider ISO 1250 to be my sweet spot for this type of work, but I will go higher if the situation demands it, perhaps as high as ISO 2500.

Use a Manual Exposure

There are two reasons for this.  One is that your camera can’t react fast enough.  Almost all cameras have a two-stage shutter release button.  When you press it halfway down, the camera measures the light coming into the lens, and the distance to the subject.  If you have your flash enabled and auto-focus enabled, this can take even longer, even a second or two.  Then when you press the button all the way down, the camera takes the photo using the exposure settings it just chose.  Even if you press the button quickly (which is not a good idea because it adds to camera shake), the light may have already changed before it gets the shot off.

The more important reason is that your camera will pick the wrong exposure.  Your camera is programmed for daytime, and the auto-exposure will try to completely compensate for the darkness by choosing an aperture and shutter speed that results in an 18% overall average exposure across the frame.  However, if you take a photo in the evening and it is exposed like this, it will look completely unnatural, especially if the band is performing in front of a black background.  At night, our eyes see the highlights and not the shadows, and the photograph should be exposed the same way.  (There are cameras with a “scene” program for evening photographs, but I’ve never tried them, so I can’t say how well they work.)

Start by setting the shutter speed.  You don’t want exposures that are too long, otherwise you will get too much motion blur.  If you can manage to squeeze 1/60 out of your camera, you’ll get good results.  If you can hold your camera very steady and take all your shots during moments of less motion (see below), you may be able to work with exposures as long as 1/30.  In general, shorter exposures (higher numbers) are better, but conditions like this offer little room for maneuvering.  Once your ISO sensitivity and your shutter speed are set, start taking test photos to find an aperture that works.  Larger apertures (smaller numbers) will let in more light, but they will also give you a shallower depth of field, making your focus more critical.  I like the look of shallow depth of field, and I’m good at focusing, so I usually open the aperture all the way up.  Juggle your ISO sensitivity, your shutter speed, and your aperture until you get results that look good on your LCD display.

Use your histogram, if you have one, to verify that you are getting good exposures.  You should expect some blown-out highlights, simply because of all the bright points of light directly in the frame or reflecting from shiny objects.  However, you don’t want too much to be blown out.  Because of the colored lights, use an RGB histogram if you have one, otherwise be skeptical of what you see.  Colored lights can be deceiving; for example, a red light can blow out a lot of red pixels, but it will look okay on a histogram showing average luminance because the completely dark blue and green pixels make the average seem okay.

What you’re looking for is an exposure that looks good most of the time.  Because of the constantly changing lights, you’ll never be able to keep the exposure set at something precisely right.  If the lights merely change color, you may be in for an easy ride.  If lights come on and off, it will be more difficult.  If the lights are being run by a light guy, you will hate him, because he will want to have periods of near total darkness and other periods of blinding brilliance.  In those times, you’re better off waiting for the lights to return to something you can use than trying to keep up with the changes.

Use a Fast Lens

A “fast” lens is one with a large maximum aperture.  All my zoom lenses have an f/2.8 maximum aperture, and I consider that a bare minimum for this kind of work.  If you are trying to use the kit lens that comes with your camera, you are making things unnecessarily difficult on yourself.  Zoomed all the way in, the lens currently supplied by Canon in DSLR kits has an f/5.6 maximum aperture, which gathers a quarter of the light that f/2.8 does.  That means you’ll have to quadruple your ISO sensitivity or your shutter duration to get the same exposure.  In these extreme conditions, you just can’t afford that penalty.

I realize I’m talking about a significant financial hurdle if all you have is a kit lens.  However, that kit lens is intended to get you through 95% of the situations an amateur photographer will face.  Photographing performers on stage is definitely part of the other 5%.  I believe this is so important that you should consider any option that equips you with a fast lens, including rental.  Where I live, you can rent a great lens locally for $20-35, and there are also online rental companies that will ship them to you.  Another option is a “prime” lens, which is a lens with a fixed focal length that does not zoom.  The simpler design of a prime lens has far fewer internal lens elements, so they can be made with larger maximum apertures without significantly increasing the cost.  For example, Canon’s 50mm f/1.4 lens gathers four times as much light as an f/2.8 lens and costs around $300 (depending on your sensor size, 50mm may be too wide for photographing individual performers, but this example illustrates my point).

A fast lens is also brighter when looking through the viewfinder, which greatly assists with focusing in low light (both manually and automatically).

Learn to Select Focus Points

When you focus, you usually want to focus on the performer’s face.  There are exceptions to this of course, such as close-up shots of guitars.

One of the first things someone does when they decide they are a “real photographer” is to declare that only amateurs use automatic focus.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  Even under the best of conditions, a good DSLR can focus more precisely than you, and as I’ve said several times now, these are the worst of conditions.  Low light makes it difficult (for both you and the camera) to see well enough to focus quickly and precisely.

The main objection photographers have to auto-focus is that the camera often focuses on the wrong thing.  This is because of the way multi-point auto-focus works.  A DSLR has multiple auto-focus points, and by default, they are all active.  The camera will automatically choose the auto-focus point that is closest to the camera.  Unfortunately, that may not be the part of the photograph you want to have in focus.  This is particularly troublesome when photographing bands, because there is almost always something closer to the camera than the subject (microphones, guitars, drums).  The solution to this is to select a single auto-focus point.

How you do this depends on your camera, and you’ll just have to read your camera’s manual (I know, what a drag).  For most Canon DSLR cameras, it is a button and a dial or the multi-direction button.  Cameras with touch screens often let you select the auto-focus point by touching part of the screen.  Some Canon cameras have a feature that tracks the movement of your eyeball (which I’ve never found to work well).  Whatever method your camera employs, you should learn how to use this feature in the dark, ideally without having to take your face away from the camera to look at the controls.

Alternatively, you may set your camera to a single auto-focus point, such as the center one, and leave it there.  When you are ready to take a shot, swing your camera so that the focus-point is over the part of the subject you want to be in focus, and while holding it there, press the shutter release button halfway down (or press the AF-ON button, if your camera has one).  This will cause the camera to pre-focus.  Then move the camera to frame your shot the way you want it, and press the shutter release button the rest of the way.  The camera will stay at the pre-focus when it takes the shot.  Even if you get good at selecting auto-focus points on the fly, this is a good technique to use when no auto-focus points are precisely where you need one.

There are still advantages to manual focus.  In this situation, shooting in manual focus is much faster.  It can take a long time for the camera to find focus, or to verify it is correctly focused, especially in the dark.  For this reason, I will often switch frequently between AF and MF.  I’ll let the camera focus the first time, then I’ll switch to MF, and as long as the subject and I remain in the same places, the focus will remain close enough.  This is another thing you should learn to do in the dark without looking, especially if your lens has three or four switches grouped together.

Bounce Flash

If you have a bounce flash, use it if you can.  A bounce flash is a dedicated flash unit (that fits into the flash shoe on your camera) which can be pointed in different directions.  A bounce flash is typically pointed at the ceiling and the light “bounces” off of it.  The result is a very soft, diffused light from above.  If you can correctly balance the soft white light from the flash with the sharp colored lights on the stage, the photographs you get will be absolutely gorgeous.

However, before you run out and buy a bounce flash, you should know that they won’t work in most venues.  Why not?  Black ceilings.  These places aren’t just accidentally dark.  They are designed by Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light, and most of them paint the ceilings black to make the venue darker (and also to hide the water stains).  A black ceiling will absorb almost all of the light from your flash unit.  It also won’t work right if the ceiling is some non-neutral color, like blue, because that’s the color of light that will be reflected down onto the subject.  White or gray are good.  An off-white color can be used, but may require a white balance adjustment when you are editing (although a cream colored ceiling creates slightly warmer skin tones, which can be nice).

Also, a word on flash diffusers and other flash modifiers: I’ve tried several different kinds, and on closer subjects they are better than direct on-camera flash.  However, the distance of a band on stage reduces the diffusion effect to almost nothing.  They are a waste of time for stage performances.  If you can’t use a bounce flash, then don’t use any flash at all.

Shoot Lots of Photos

Even though you have made optimal settings on your camera, a large portion of your photographs are still going to be ruined by the changing lights or the motion of performers.  Perhaps half of your photos, maybe less, maybe more.  The exact percentage will depend on how bad the light is at the venue.  Once you’re doing everything right, the only remaining cure is to take lots of photos.  Hundreds.  If a particular shot is important, make sure you get it three or five times.  This will also save you from focus problems, performers who blink, and the camera flashes from other audience members.

Obviously, you will need a memory card large enough to hold all the photos you will be taking.  If you are shooting RAW at today’s resolutions, a 32 gigabyte card will be plenty.  Also, taking photos that rapidly, you will be glad to have a fast memory card.

To minimize motion blur, try to capture the subjects at the moments when they are moving the least.  It often works to follow along with the time of the music, sometimes shooting on the beat, sometimes shooting between the beats.  Keep in mind that even the fastest camera has some delay between the time you press the shutter release until the time the photo is actually taken.  You may think you’re catching the right moment, yet later you discover that you were late.  Review the photos as you take them to find out whether your timing is good or off.

Also, pay attention to closed eyes and moving mouths.  A singer with his eyes closed and putting his whole body into an emotional expression can look very impressive.  A bass simply just standing there with his eyes closed just looks stoned.  Capturing the singer during a long syllable may look good, but if you catch him at the moment his mouth is changing from one syllable to the next, the frozen movement will look quite silly.

Use Back-Lighting to Your Advantage

The stage lighting will typically have a row of lights at the back pointed forward toward the audience.  Depending on their forward angle, these can be troublesome for you.  They will dominate the photo and wash out the rest of the frame, especially if there is a lot of smoke in the air.  Try to avoid these in your photos, if you can.

The solution is to change your position so that the subject is blocking the light.  You will be very pleased with the result, because not only will the distracting bright spot be eliminated from your photo, but the subject will be surrounded by a halo of light of whatever color the light is.  Some of my best photos are ones with a colored light right behind the head of the performer.

In general, back-lighting is beneficial if you can manage it.  This is why the lights are there, and this is why studio photographers use them.  If you can’t get the subject right in front of the light, move the other direction so the light is out of frame and more perpendicular to your line of sight.  This will create highlights on the back and sides of the subject.

Don’t Forget the Drummer

The drummer is always at the back of the stage, hidden behind the drum kit and the other performers.  If you don’t make a conscious effort to get plenty of photographs of the drummer, you won’t.  You can be forgiven for devoting extra attention to a flashy lead guitarist or vocalist (especially if the “front man” is a hot girl), but if you fail to get good photos of any individual performer, you can assume he or she will resent it.

Drummers are usually more challenging to photograph than anyone else.  No one moves faster than a drummer, and his sticks and hands are almost always a blur.  That’s okay for some photos, but also try to get some shots where his hands are nearly motionless.  Take an overabundance of photos if that’s what it takes.  His hands will move less for things he is hitting more gently, and they will be moving more slowly at the bottom or top of his swing.  You might also try a shorter exposure, if possible.

Reducing Noise in Software

I don’t care how good your camera’s sensor is, or how fast your lens is, unless you’re shooting in a venue with fantastic lighting, it’s just not possible to completely avoid noise in your photographs.  You will almost always be forced to choose a balance between some amount of motion blur and some amount of noise.  Given that choice, you should probably concentrate your efforts on reducing motion blur (via shorter exposures), because noise is something that can be reduced later in photo editing software.

I shoot in the RAW format and convert using Adobe Camera Raw (part of Photoshop).  It includes fairly good noise reduction features (under the Detail tab).  Just about any decent photo editing or raw conversion software is going to have some kind of noise reduction functionality.  Many cameras have a user-selectable noise reduction function built in, but I have never been impressed by it.  (Many cameras made by companies with poor image sensor technology rely heavily on in-camera noise reduction, and you don’t even have the option to turn it off, but you’ll see the difference right away if you shoot RAW.)

I should also point out that the effect of noise is greatly reduced when images are scaled down.  No one looks at 18 MP photographs at full resolution on their computer screen.  Photographs that get posted on the web or uploaded to Facebook get scaled down.  The algorithms used to do that vary, but most of them employ some kind of averaging mechanism.  That means a single noisy pixel will be averaged with the pixels around it, and the overall impact will be significantly reduced.  Hopefully, some of your photographs will be used for posters or CD cover artwork, but the rest of your work will be viewed online, after it has been scaled down, and only the worst amount of noise will even be detectable.

Of course at the end of the day, you might like noise.  If you’re an Instagram hipster, you’re probably going to add noise back in anyway.  Many photographers (like myself) tend to be technical perfectionists and try to avoid noise completely.  However, the audience viewing this kind of photography is actually quite tolerant of noise, simply because they have been culturally conditioned to expect it.  You can exert a lot of effort eliminating noise, yet you might be the only one who notices.