Posted by: David Vernon | June 18, 2009

“Mama, Don’t Take My Kodachrome Away” – Rock Photography Tips & Tricks

Styx 11(Note: Today’s guest blogger, Michael Vujovich aka vujiphotos, is a freelance photographer/rebel who specializes in portrait, glamour, and rock photography.  As a singer/songwriter himself, he has met and shot a wide variety of local and national artists.  He also shoots commercially for local businesses.)

I recently attended my first Summer Camp Music Festival. One of my good buddies got me a gig working in exchange for free admittance.  With a ticket price of almost $200 for the entire weekend, that was a sweet deal.  Not to mention, this buddy of mine also hooked me up with the chance to get into the  official press pits for some of the larger shows.  For a guy who is usually content to squeeze his little 5’3” frame up to the front of a crowd in order to grab a shot or two, this was heaven.

As a musician myself, I’ve always had experience with photography and music, mostly on the glass side of the lens.  However, there are very few rock photographers who really blow me away with their images and there are even far less rock photographers who are willing to share their secrets.  That being the case, I decided to “take matters into my own hands” and start shooting the images I wanted to see when it came to rock photography.  There aren’t many in the Peoria area that focus on this type of photography, so I thought a post about shooting live concerts and musical performances would be a bit of fun.

Here are just a few tips, tricks, and things to know about rock photography, at least how I see it.

It’s Not What You Know; It’s Where You Go

That’s right.  I said it.  When it comes to shooting bands, it isn’t about how much equipment you have or what ISO you are using (for the most part).  Shooting during live performances is all about how close you can get to the stage, whether it be pushing your way to the front of a throng of people or just having a zoom lens that will allow you to sit 5 rows back, but shoot like you are sitting on stage.  Don’t be afraid to have some cajones and push your way to the front or try to slide past the security guard.  If you can’t get within your lenses limits to shoot properly, there is no point in really shooting.  I have seen guys and girls with cell phone cameras up in press pits shooting a shot of a performer and ending up with decent shots.  When you are able to get close, you are able to get any shot you want, but if you are at the back of the auditorium, even your 300mm ain’t gonna cut it.  Getting closer also allows you to drop that ISO down and the shutter speed up so if a guitarist is running across stage, you can stop his motion and still grab the ambient stage lighting as well.

While We Are Talking About It…

You will always hear photographers telling you about their style and pushing other photogs to develop their own style.  This is true and I agree wholeheartedly.  However, here is just a very quick (and I mean, VERY quick) rundown of some basic things to keep in mind, technically speaking.

  • Try not to push your ISO up too high… anything over 400 is out of the question when I shoot.  Shooting live performances, you see a lot of black.  When you bump up the ISO, you start to get a lot of artifacts and they show more in that black than anywhere else.
  • Don’t be afraid to up your shutter speed.  It might seem dark in the concert hall, but those stage lights will heat (and light!) things up when they get going.  Let them do their job.
  • Keep the Rule of Thirds in mind.  Try not to put performers in the center of the frame.  It seems simple, but then again, so does a Rubik’s Cube to start.
  • You say you know the rules?  Good… now break them.  Push the performer’s face to the edge of the frame if you want to.  Cut off their fingers or the top of their guitar if that is what it takes to get their face the way you want it in the frame.  If you don’t shoot different croppings and angles, you can’t get “the one.”
  • ALWAYS bring plenty of memory cards and ALWAYS have them formatted before you shoot.

Pretend the WB is Just a TV Station

I know we’ve all had our heads pounded into submission about white balance.  dSLR’s wouldn’t put the WB setting into the menu if it wasn’t supposed to be used, right?  Wrong.  In this case, at least.  The majority of good live concert photography is the play of the stage lights on the performer.  I provided a recent example of one of my favorite shots of Willie Nelson from Summer Camp.  Had this image been balanced for “white,” I doubt that the sort of emotional response I wanted someone to receive wouldn’t have been quite as effective.


With that all being said, my next major tip is to shoot in RAW.  I know we have all heard it and some of us are still shooting JPEG (I was until this past year) just wondering about this mystical thing people call RAW.  Do yourself a favor and shoot in RAW.  Process these things out so that you can keep the originals, bump levels, saturation, contrast (rock photographers best friend!), and all other sorts of non-destructive pieces to your image.  Most of my concert photography doesn’t even get pushed into Photoshop… it’s processed all through the Adobe Camera RAW editor, then saved out as high resolution JPEGs (or TIFs, if you are that guy).  RAW allows you the freedom to take that white balance you ignored and throw it around without damaging your final image.  It also allows you the freedom to re-edit your images time and time again.

Shoot Everything

bar-girlsWhen I go on a shoot, whether it be someone like Willie Nelson, or even a local artist, such as my good friend, DJ Real Juicy, I don’t just shoot that person or that band.  I could end up with hundreds of the same image from a night.  As a musician, I know that not everyone on that stage is worth watching or we all have our little musical “things” that we do such as tapping a foot, smiling at cute girls, or even just standing there with a hand on our microphone doing nothing else.  You can shoot that shot a few times and be done.  Push yourself to not only shoot that basic shot, but go backstage or to the side of the stage, get below the stage level and shoot up, hell… turn around and walk through the crowd, get wide-angles, shoot people dancing, shoot a shot glass on a table with the light on it, shoot the shoes of the drummer as he hits the bass pedal, shoot a couple tequilas with two girls from Big Al’s… Just shoot.

Watch the Performance

I understand that rock photography isn’t for everyone.  I know for a fact that I don’t enjoy shooting family portraits or studio shots as much as some do, but that’s just who you are as a photographer.  However, I urge you to really have a passion for music and the artists that you are shooting when you do decide to try rock photography out.  Also, like it says above… WATCH THE PERFORMANCE!  How can you even get that perfect shot if you have no idea what is going on onstage?  You paid for the ticket (or worked your butt off in the heat for free admittance…) so enjoy the show.  Don’t spend all of your time shooting, but keep the camera nearby and ready to go in case you have the opportunity to shoot.


Also, a little tip… if you start watching, and I mean really watching, the band, you will most likely catch little things between the guys in the group, or little nuances that define that person or persons as a musical entity.  These are also things to shoot.  In the shot above, I decided to shoot Willie Nelson’s guitar and his hands.  His guitar is quite famous because it is the only one he has ever played, which is where the infamous Nelson guitar hole came from.  His hands are also a thing to watch because of his age.  I felt capturing this would be something that would define part of my photography and the moments I want to capture.

On With The Show…

Well, like I said, rock photography isn’t for everyone and if you think you might be interested in the topic, find yourself a local band that might want some free photos done and just ask them.  Every band needs press photos and live performance photos for press kits and you might actually get a steady gig out of it if they like your stuff.  At least you will get a free cover into the bar and maybe a few drinks.  And I know for a fact that drunk girls LOVE photogs, even if they have no idea where the photos will end up… (Ed: This blog entry potentially now rated PG-13).

I want to thank Dave Vernon for giving me the chance to guest post on here and I hope that what you read was enjoyable.  Feel free to leave me some feedback or your own comments, or even your tricks and tips you want to add.  I hope to follow this up with a few more posts as well so stay tuned.

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