Controlling Chaos

    When shooting a live show there are lots of variables to consider, not the least of which is being prepared for the short amount of time you are allowed to shoot freely at larger shows. Depending on your credentials, and potential access to a photo-pit (should there be one), it’s not always possible to rely on familiar techniques where you can direct your subjects. Live photography is a reactive skill, but there are ways you can approach the image-making by thinking ahead and being prepared that will make the visual storytelling that much more effective.  At first it may not seem easy to compose a striking image with a moving subject, changing light treatments, and volatile shooting environmentbut doing some research on the band and their music, as well as keeping some techniques in mind will make the impossible seem more possible.

    This tutorial will presume the reader is using a digital camera capable of shooting RAW files with a manual shooting mode and has a fundamental understanding of its basic functions including shutter speed, aperture size, ISO.

Liminal Metering

 If shooting in an automatic exposure mode at a professionally lit show, the camera will often try and compensate for the difference in light value between things which are in shadows and things that are under the heat of a spotlight. I recommend becoming comfortable operating your camera in Manual mode or at the very least learn how to use Exposure Value compensation (EV±) to make the most of your tools. The sooner you can learn through practice how to evaluate the difference between a half stop, full stop or a multiple stop change of light, the easier it will be to make adjustments to changing exposure intuitively without double checking your settings. Because of the possibility of very difficult lighting treatments, I recommend shooting in RAW format, to be able to salvage what otherwise might be an under- or over exposed image. It will be useful to learn the tolerances that your camera has for recovering this lost detail as not all cameras are alike.


Two images with similar subject matter that may challenge your camera's automatic exposure and require different approaches to exposure.


I call this type of exposure “liminal metering” meaning finding the edge (or limit) of where your camera loses data and detail and toeing the line to keep the information intact. The images above, (fig [a], fig [b]) while compositionally similar, require control in exposing properly. 

Fig a may have been possible to photograph with an automatic exposure because the highlights of the image are not as extreme or prominent as those on the right. In fig b the shadows would almost definitely have been under exposed if the camera attempted to automatically choose a proper exposure. In a high-contrast lighting situation it may not be possible to accurately expose for the lightest highlights and the darkest shadows you will have to learn how to pick an exposure that maintains the most information (which can be visually monitored in the histogram of your digital camera). It also helps to have your camera set to a flat or neutral profile (especially if you choose not to use RAW) to retain the most information within your file.

At left a histogram of an underexposed photo. Center, a histogram of an overexposed photo, at right, a histogram with no lost highlight or shadow information.

At left a histogram of an underexposed photo. Center, a histogram of an overexposed photo, at right, a histogram with no lost highlight or shadow information.


Anticipating the moment and Capturing Motion

One major thing about live music is the unpredictability of the performers, usually the lighting can be quite interesting, if unpredictable. But having knowledge of the music in advance can give you a little bit of an edge. Once you are able to anticipate song transitions, solos, moments where the singer is not leaning into the mic, you will be able to predict unique opportunities for photographs that will stand out from your more straightforward images.

    The image below on the left is shot with a high shutter speed when Issac is flailing his guitar wildly and captures an instant of peak motion,  the image on the left was exposed with a very slow shutter speed and low ISO, and the camera was shook on a horizontal axis while shooting which creates a dragging effect and emphasizes the motion.

Fast shutter speed and bright lighting treatment makes it possible to freeze motion for an intense freeze frame at the peak of action.

Fast shutter speed and bright lighting treatment makes it possible to freeze motion for an intense freeze frame at the peak of action.

Long exposure and low ISO setting along with a controlled camera movement can give you more evocative and creative images.

Long exposure and low ISO setting along with a controlled camera movement can give you more evocative and creative images.


The first image was created in a situation where there is a lot of light coming from the front and above as well as illuminating the smoke in the back. the second image was shot under much different conditions where the overall light level was low, but a bright spotlight was focused on Issac which allows the blurry subject matter to be effectively isolated from the dark backdrop. Sometime you will have a choice in how best to capture the moment, and other times you will have to be prepared to adapt to changing conditions.

Telling a Story with composition


Emphasis on different elements of the composition can inform the viewer where to look and how to feel about what they are looking at.


The decisions you make when composing your photograph can help emphasize the importance of certain subjects. In the image on the far left many members of the band are composed from head on with a medium-wide lens, which makes them a similar distance from the camera and therefore a similar size in the frame. There is not much commentary on the importance of any particular member of the band and is a good composition when there are many musicians of equal importance contributing to the band. 

The second image introduces a slight emphasis on the singer Issac Brock but still includes the other members of the band. By shooting the front-side of the stage where he is standing I was able to make him slightly more prominent in the foreground and larger in the frame while still including the other members of the band as a secondary element. This will lend stronger emphasis on Issac the singer, but still includes the full band. 

The third image is a close up composition with a tighter focal length, and almost completely eliminates the other band members from the frame, putting the entire emphasis on Issac. Another way to draw attention to a subject is to isolate them within the frameand draw attention to the “negative space” or open air around them which may emphasize how singular or alone they are (see the image on the far right) .  Choosing where to stand and which lenses to use to achieve these images will determine the story you are telling and will indicate to the viewer what is the most interesting thing in the image, and who or what is the subject that you are trying to draw attention to, hopefully with some clue as to why.

The Details

While its exciting to catch the lead singer at the peak of action, its also important to take pictures of quieter moments and include the other members of the band, especially if you are attempting to publish a gallery of images! If there are interesting details such as a collection of interesting instruments or personal items on the stage, include these details in the foreground or background of your shots rather than focusing exclusively on clean “hero shots”. Experiment with the size of the subject matter in the frame and positioning to imply action and moods. its not always necessary to follow the rule of thirds (although its a good starting point). 


Not all gig photos should be close ups of the lead singer, look for a variety of perspectives, details and moments to paint a bigger picture.


Try something in extreme contract to common sense. if there is no light coming from the front of the stage, try to expose to create a silhouette effect of the artist against their backdrop. Don’t just wish for white light, but employ color theory look for complimentary or contrasting color treatments. I enjoy images that have both warm and cool colors because they can create really dramatic high energy shots that set the mood more effectively than just a simple white spotlight.

Anticipate the moment (and be prepared)

By thinking ahead to when the action may be at its most intense, you will be able to document your subject expressively and communicate to the viewer what it was like to be there in the thick of things. If you are able to set your camera to a fast shutter speed and have the mental focus to be keeping track of many things at once you will find that the best most, dynamic, images can be taken simultaneously during the heat of the moment. Don’t forget to turn around while the band is performing to capture some of the most exciting audience moments, especially if you are in a photo pit, you are likely standing in front of some of the band’s most enthusiastic fans!


Wait for the most exciting moment to capture your subjects, the best images come through patience and preparedness.


Workflow and Post Production

I like to use two programs when editing photos at home.  Starting with Photo Mechanic. I do an image Ingest, followed by a quick survey; giving a “star” rating to my favorite images. From there, I import the folder, with ratings, to Adobe Lightroom CC, which applies my metadata templates, and any custom contrast curves and generates previews for reviewing. From there I refine my selections further until I have a manageable and unique set of shots, which I then go through one by one to do simple color corrections. I spend at most 1-3 minutes per image making adjustments as hopefully I was very close to the mark when exposing in camera.

The Develop panel of Adobe Lightroom with a selection of images.

The develop module of Adobe Lightroom CC.


One of the reasons I use two programs when editing ironically is to save time. Images are often due first thing in the morning and if you’re coming back late, it’s important to be as efficient as possible so you can spend more time working with the images and getting a decent nights rest. Photo Mechanic is able to navigate through images (including RAW files) faster than any image management system I’ve worked with and their meta-tags are fully compatible with Adobe programs, so continuing work across platforms is simple. I like to use Adobe Lightroom for photo editing primarily because it includes a lot of tools I use on a regular basis in a streamlined package. Adobe Photoshop is a far more complex and capable program, but I don’t need many of those tools as frequently as I need a system that can batch process files, and keep my folders well organized while switching between tasks.

This tutorial accounts for shooting shows of a certain scale, and there are many more challenges associated with the shooting a live concert some of which are specific to each genre but hopefully this is a good starting point for those of you looking for some tips!


Photos in this post from the Modest Mouse performance at Madison Square Garden on July 14 2016