Concert photography is all about getting a feel for the music from the inside out to effectively capture the essence of the notes both heard and felt. Our EOS World Master of the month shares some of his rock photographic reflections and tips with us:
To me, concert photography is more about the Shadows than the light. Maybe it’s because I only shoot night concerts. The mistier, darker and rowdier the concert, the more feel you’ll achieve in your images. From every angle is frenzy and loud chaos, not just the prancing rock stars in front of you BUT also the crazy crowd behind you. Concert photography is about feeling the music and using the right lens to capture the spirit of the concert performance.
1. The Shooter is the master of the Camera, not the other way around.
Your camera serves you, not the other way around. Get a reliable (robust and fast) camera that will get you those crucial shots. Present it with the complicated images it deserves. It doesn’t always have to be the latest cameras. I’m still using my faithful Canon EOS-1D Mark III. Just use cameras you feel at ‘one’ with. Eric Clapton can use any old or cheap guitar, and his “sound” will still flow out naturally. I once had a guitar hero perform his hit songs for me and my family in my music room. He took my son’s $1 toy plastic guitar and started tuning it. Then he proceeded to play short renditions of some of his hit songs in perfect harmony, transforming the plastic toy into a precision Martin guitar.
Sonic Solitude by Eddie Sung – "Even the crowd can present interesting scenes. You must instinctively know where and when to press the shutter. After I took the shot, whoever was lifting the guy up, dropped him one second later. Heavy metal, indeed."
It’s the same for cameras. Your trademark shots can emerge, no matter how expensive or cheap the camera is. Sometimes in the private midst of rock stars away from the concert grounds, I shoot with smaller cameras, like the PowerShot G10 and S95. These capture the intimate moments non-intrusively, when the rock stars relax at homes or restaurants etc.
Despite the high ISO range offered by new cameras these days, I only shoot up to ISO 1600. It’s my comfort level. I joke that I don’t need super high ISOs as I’m not photographing bullets. I’m still shooting with my trusty Canon EOS-1D Mark III. Sometimes I take out my other old war-horse, the EOS-1D Mark II, out for a spin. Perhaps for my next upgrade, the EOS-1D X is one of the cameras I would consider.
2. Your Lens is your Paint Brush
People like to have discussions with me about their latest hardware (camera) – with gazillion ISO settings, focussing points, GPS connectivity etc. to which I smile, gently knowing that those who know, would be more interested in the Lens. Compared the latest hot cameras, lenses are so under-rated. I never use lens with apertures that’s bigger than f2.8.
I use my lens to inteprete the scene that’s presented itself in front of me. Regarding my iconic Slipknot “Joey and Crowd” shot, I shudder to think what if I had not used an ultra-wide lens to capture the ‘decisive moment’ up from the stage. Half the panoramic screaming crowd in the background will be chopped off and the whole intensive moment would have been lost forever.
Slipknot, Clown by Eddie Sung – "Here I used my 85mm f1.2 lens to interprete Clown's portrait. He loved it and requested a signed print to display in his home. I'm proud that this image was featured in Slipknot's Live album, roughly three months after the shot was taken."
For beginners, it’s best to use what I call the ‘Trinity of Lenses’ – Ultra-wide 16-35mm, Medium range 24-70mm and Telephoto 70-200mm. Because of my proximity to the stage, I rely mostly on the ultra-wide lens. Then after the first three songs, I move into the concert grounds and use the telephoto lens. Medium range is great when the rock subjects are way behind the stage.
3. Develop your own Style of Shooting / 10,000 Hours
I love shooting in black and white mode. I think it’s timeless and profound. When done right, the planets align. It speaks to the soul. Occasionally I let go some technicolour stuff, but only if the images jump out and grab me. My mantra is “One shot, One kill” – in getting the ‘money shots’. I always shoot Single mode shots, never in Burst mode. To me, shooting in Burst is like using a machine gun, very crude and very ‘kiasu’. I still retain my habit of shooting film, ie. very economical.
Maestro by Eddie Sung – "Shadows spice up a rock image."
Oh yes, and NEVER shoot with flash. You’ll be thrown out of the pit. Worse still, you may sabotage the others who knowingly don’t.
All artists, including rock photographers and rock stars, have to pay their dues. Guitarists have to practise, practise, and practise. Malcolm Gladwell discovered that all great maestros did at least 10,000 hours (more or less) of honing their craft, or signature styles. Before the Beatles hit the big time, they had to earn their keeps by playing endlessly in dingy, smokey bars in Hamburg as I learnt from their manager who brought them there when we chatted on my living room sofa.
Hone in your craft, keep shooting until a style emerges. Remember to always respect the artist’s space and privacy. The less you intrude, the more you get invited to shoot.
4. EYE, EYE, Sir!
It’s all about the Eye. I shoot with my Heart, not my head. I sometimes ponder the situation before taking the shot. I see privileged people having the latest equipment but when I tell them to show me some images, they crinch. Again, it’s never about the expensive camera, it’s all about the Eye. My dear friend, the late legendary Jim Marshall, shoots with a range-finder camera. There’s no time to think. He shoots with his gut-feel yet all his shots are iconic.
Shoot with your Heart, not your head, if you want to capture the Feel in an image. Use your instincts, if you have to think, it’s too late.
Buddy Guy by Eddie Sung – "Eye contact and friendly rapport, whenever possible, with the rock subject is an appreciated visual gift to my lens."
My stance has always been – it’s not who I shoot but HOW I shoot them. Stars are often concerned with unflattering shots being featured in the media. To me, if I can’t get good shots, I rather keep my camera, sip a beer and enjoy the concert. I NEVER sign concert photo release forms. Rather than be restricted by what I can do with my images, I’d rather not shoot the concert. I love shooting rock stars and bands that I respect, especially those that I’ve followed over the years, having gone through highs and especially lows and coming out of the hole, stronger than ever. These are the more humble and cool stars. They have no egos and very easy-going. When Slash saw my black and white images, he asked me whether I’ll be shooting that night. I said no because there were papers to sign. He immediately made arrangement with his manager for me to shoot the concert. Same went for Carlos Santana too. Instead of allowing the usual three songs for the photographers, he let me go on for four songs!
5. There are No Rules!
Be yourself – shoot what you want. Blur shots? Sure. Grainy shots? Go for it! The famous photographer David Lachapelle once wrote in a message to me – “ Follow your heART”. And I gladly share this wisdom with you. Having shot with Tri-X film in the film days, I personally favour grainy shots especially for blues, heavy metal and jazz genres. Grainy shots if implemented right, have more Character, more Feel. The difference is, it must be Intentional. Not a mistake and then make up excuses to say it’s artistically made blur or grainy.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs by Eddie Sung – "Grainy is good. Really up close and personal. Karen's literally one foot from my lens."
Don’t be afraid of shadows. I love concerts where there’s smoke, fog, and low-lit stages. Perfect, I feel right at home. Shadows add spice to any rock picture. The Stage is my Studio!
Want to give pin-hole photography a try? Rock on!
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