After some time shooting concerts, a number of challenges, quite specific to this kind of photography, become evident:
There's a limited amount of time to get the shots (the first three songs, usually), there might be no room for photographers, who might be shooting a little too close to the mosh pit for the comfort of their expensive gear.
There are physical barriers to clean shots, such as flailing arms, mic stands, monitors, iphone flashes going off, and all the other amenities that a concert has to offer.
Once you have addressed these, found your spot and considered your angles, the next issue is the usually rather extreme lighting you will be dealing with.
Conditions on the stage will typically range from dimly lit to flooded in contrasting color lights within the span of half a minute, with the added bonus of lights shining directly into the camera sensor on a pretty random basis.
Solutions will come with experience, and I will talk about my preferred camera settings and techniques in another post, but you would mistaken if you thought your concert photography issues ended here.
In the short time frame you are given, and with the issues I just mentioned, you also need to be creative in the way you take your photos, unless you want all the concerts you shoot to look the same.
Luckily there is some good news in this department.
Every band will have a different stage presence, moves, lighting patterns and props, and all these elements, when consciously assessed, will help you get some form of variety in your images, even when shooting the same venue on a regular basis.
But variety isn't creativity, and photographers, usually, want to be creative, and there are some small and elementary choices that can be made to give a unique take to the concert you are documenting.
The way you approach those crazy concert lights, for instance, can change dramatically once you decide to embrace that craziness.
Now I should mention this might lead you to make some extreme choices, like popping the hood off your lens and looking the spotlights straight in the pupil, and not all photographers might be comfortable enough to try techniques they are unaccustomed to, but once you give it a try, you might just find that those horrible artifacts in your images actually capture the feel of the gig much more than a more polished set of photos, and while you might choose not to go crazy with the light, it's still important to know the option is there, a lens hood away.
I tried this approach out a couple of weeks ago, after buying a new lens and reading some reviews about it.
The lens is the Tamron 17-50 f2.8 XR (Pentax mount) which I thought would be a decent option for gigs, quality wise, while still being affordable enough that I wouldn't have to spend the evening with gear-protection anxiety.
One of the aspects of the lens that some reviewers mentioned, was that it tends to have strong flaring when used against direct light, and that is obviously not good for concert photography, but lens flare can usually be addressed, so I bought it anyway.
I decided to test it at the Me First and the Gimme Gimmes concert at Melkweg, in Amsterdam.
This band, formed by members of NOFX, Lagwagon and Foo Fighters has a repertoire of classic songs which are covered punk-style, and their shows definitely pick fun over hardcore intensity.
Adding to that, the opening band for the evening were Masked Intruder, a punk band with witty stage presence and colourful ski masks.
Given the lineup and the style of the evening, I figured I could be a little experimental myself, so off came the lens hood.
I quickly noticed, as you can see from the opening image, that the reviews I found online were fairly accurate, and the flare was a little strong.
At the same time, however, it offered the opportunity to draw some interesting light halos around the musicians, which I found very interesting.
Especially when used at 17mm, the artifact almost took over, with mixed, but interesting results, as you can see here:
While this is by no means the perfect image, it still shows the amount of interesting possibilities that can be explored by not sticking to habits, and just "doing the wrong thing" now and then, and it captures the vibe I was feeling from the band.
Trial and error will lead to experience, and experience will lead to the ability to control the defects and imperfections, making them an aesthetic choice, rather than an accident.
After Masked Intruded it was time for the main act!
The lighting for Me First and the Gimme Gimmes was definitely easier, generally brighter and less erratic.
This, however, also meant that flaring was less easy to slap into the photo, as the conditions didn't provide as much flashy contrast as the previous band did, as you can see here:
Flare was still there, but not as crazy, or random. There was no halo and no reflected cone of light.
Also, the spotlights hitting the camera head on weren't hardly as frequent, so I thought I'd try something different.
Here is Joey Cape, guitarist for the Gimme Gimmes and singer of Lagwagon.
The black background, Hawaiian shirt, direct spotlight resembling the sun, and planetoid flare to the left made some photos look like Cape is playing in space, or in some weird studio composite from the 80's.
While not everyone might like weird artifact in photos, which is a perfectly reasonable position, I still think it's extremely interesting how the simple unscrewing of a lens hood can dramatically change what is picked up by the sensor, and I think it's a very useful exercise to try and learn how to control, and possibly use, what would normally be a problem or a defect.
After all, even if you couldn't care less about possible creative application of flare, you will probably be faced with having to take an image in less tha ideal conditions, at some point, and you might as well be in control of the inevitable imperfections you will have in your shots.
I didn't go all out flare-crazy in all the photos I took, obviously, and you can check the rest of them here!
And should you have some doubts about the performance of my new lens fearing the flaring might be a constant issue, there is no need to worry. Some attention to light patterns, and the use of the hood make for some very different, more "traditional" photos, as you can see in the photo below, taken at the Amsterdam date of Italian band Elio e le Storie Tese's European tour.
Using a lens hood or not can make a huge difference in the images you take at a gig, and it's a quick and easy way to test a different take on your photography when under very binding time constraints, and should you not be satisfied, you can pop the hood back on and keep shooting comfortably.
Try it out, see if it works for you, and decide whether flare can be flair for you!