As both a longtime gigging musician and film geek, I often end up slipping into the crowd during downtime to take some pictures. And over the years I’ve noticed more and more people doing the same. These days it’s not rare to see kids armed with slick vintage cameras snapping away in the front row. Shooting film gives show-goers their own creative outlet, produces a free souvenir, and does it in vintage style.
But shooting concerts on film brings with it a number of challenges – unpredictable or nonexistent lighting, film that’s too slow to keep up with the action, security snagging our cameras before we’re even in the doors.
Here are five basic tips to help you make great images of your next show on film. There’s aren’t hard-and-fast rules by any means – just a few things I’ve learned from being a performer who just so happens to love film.
Choose the right camera
If you want to take pictures, you have to have a camera. Unfortunately, most venues discourage non-press photography at shows (check with your venue). But these rules tend to be a bit less stringent for cameras that look like an amateur machine. So when choosing gear, try to find one that at least appears to be a non-pro camera.
While vintage cameras in general seem to find their way past security, some can do so more easily than others. SLRs from the ‘80s and ‘90s too closely resemble pro photogs’ DSLRs of today and are sure to be prohibited. Older mechanical SLRs from the ‘60s and ‘70s fare better due to their more archaic designs, and all the better if you’ve got a silver finish camera, since these tend to slip past security more easily than the more professional-looking all-black counterparts.
Rangefinders fare even better. Their old-world aesthetic distances them even further from the professional, modern SLRs, even if they’re every bit as capable as those machines. The Voigtlander Bessa series, Leica M series, and the many fast, Japanese, fixed-lens rangefinders are a few examples of cameras that seem to get past security without a hitch.
But it’s the smallest of 35mm cameras, the point-and-shoot, that’s best suited to sneaking through the gates. They’re often encased in plastic and look like useless toys compared to the monstrous, tech-laden DSLRs that professional concert photographers use. Feel free to bring just about any plastic fantastic point-and-shoot into a music venue, but beware – these cameras aren’t ideal for shooting concerts for reasons we’ll soon explain.
Shake the shakes
Shooting a concert often means shooting in low light, so the camera must be stable enough to shoot handheld at 1/60th of a second or slower (provided the shooter is using a 50mm lens – more on that later). SLR’s are naturally disadvantaged here, as the shooter has to contend with mirror slap. Heavyweight professional SLR’s such as the Nikon F-series, the Canon F-1, and the Minolta XK do a good job of mitigating mirror slap, but these are less likely to pass through security due to their bulk and professional aesthetic. More security-friendly SLR’s with incredibly stable shutters and mirrors include the entire Olympus OM series, the Canon FTb, and my personal favorite, the Pentax SV. I’ve been able to handhold these cameras successfully at 1/15th of a second, often to stunning effect.
But nothing beats a rangefinder for this kind of work. Rangefinders don’t have to deal with an annoying mirror flapping, and are therefore incredibly stable. Interchangeable lens rangefinders such as the Voigtlander Bessa cameras, the Minolta CLE, or any Leica M-camera will do the trick, and with fantastic optics to boot. The only thing we’d watch out for in this category is rangefinder brightness and contrast; some vintage rangefinders lack the handy rangefinder illumination window found on newer models, making low-light shooting next to impossible.
That said, there is a very specific type of rangefinder perfectly suited for shooting live concerts – the fixed-lens rangefinder. These cameras come equipped with incredibly sharp, fast optics, are compact enough to fit inside a bag, and look archaic enough to get past security. But what makes them perfect for the job are their quiet, stable leaf shutters. These leaf shutters enable reliable handheld photography down to a shutter speed of 1/8th of a second (for those of us with steady hands). Cameras which fit this bill include the Olympus 35 RD and 35 SP, the Minolta Hi-Matic 7SII, and the Canonet GIII QL17.
Choose the right glass
It almost goes without saying that shooting concerts means using speedy lenses. As a general rule, I almost never shoot concerts with anything slower than f/2.8. There won’t be a lot of available light, so larger maximum aperture lenses are preferred. If you can, come strapped with your favorite f/2 or f/1.4 lens.
That said, there is an exception to that rule, and it involves another rule – the reciprocal rule. The reciprocal rule states that a 35mm camera’s shutter speed should at least be the reciprocal of the focal length of its lens for sharp handheld photos. For example, a 50mm lens is capable of shutter speeds down to 1/50th of a second. This also means that 35mm lenses can go down to 1/40th of a second, 28mm lenses down to 1/30th of a second, and so on.
The reciprocal rule tells us that wider lenses will excel in low-light situations, even with their slower maximum apertures. This enables 35mm f/2.8 or 28mm f/2.8 lenses to be used for concert photography, although I would personally go for their f/2 variants for extra insurance.
Unfortunately, the rule means that telephotos are at a huge disadvantage due to their need for higher shutter speeds. This does not, however, prevent their usage in the concert photography arena. When used in conjunction with fast film, telephotos in the 135-200mm range become usable, provided they’ve a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8. That said, I’d recommend practicing with those lenses before you go off to battle the forces of telephoto motion blur in a mosh pit.
Choose the right film
Low-light shooting usually means shooting the fastest film you can get your hands on. The logic is simple; faster film enables faster shutter speeds, which means easier low-light photography. But the dynamic, high-contrast nature of concerts and concert lighting means that speed alone won’t cut it. An ideal concert film must also have exceptionally wide exposure latitude in addition to blistering speed.
But what exactly is exposure latitude? Simply put, it’s the amount of over- or under-exposure a certain film can handle. Films with a wide exposure latitude can render clearly a greater amount of detail in the shadows and highlights. These wide latitude films can also be pushed in development to achieve more stable low-light shots while also minimizing the loss in image quality that comes with pushing.
While speed is no doubt important, most high-speed films don’t offer much in the way of latitude. Many of them crush shadows and blow highlights at concerts due to the high-contrast nature of that environment. Ilford Delta 3200 and Fuji Natura 1600 are two films that exhibit these very characteristics, despite their being formulated for low-light shooting. That said, Delta 3200 can be used if underexposed by about a stop to account for bright stage lighting, and Natura 1600 can be used if exposed with a clear bias toward the highlights.
So which film should you take to a concert? Let’s start with the most natural low-light performer, black-and-white film. Two black-and-white films famous for their incredibly wide exposure latitude are Ilford HP5+ and Kodak Tri-X. Both are rated at ISO 400, but avid users of these films know that they can also be pushed up to ISO 3200 reliably, and even further to ISO 6400 if you’re handy in the darkroom. I often find myself shooting both of these films around ISO 800-1600 to give my images a little bit more definition and detail in the shadows and highlights.
Things start to get tricky when we add color into the mix. Most color film is balanced for daylight shooting, and therefore exhibits a noticeable color shift under most types of indoor lighting. The obvious solution to this problem is to shoot film balanced for artificial light (such as a tungsten balanced film like Cinestill 800T) or simply employ a warming or cooling filter, but this becomes impractical considering that concerts often switch between fluorescent, LED, halogen, and tungsten light, in the same show. Add that to the fact that these lights often swirl unpredictably around the stage and shooting color film sounds like a fool’s errand.
But fear not – the task isn’t impossible. If you’re handy with your photo editing software you can edit out some, if not all, of those color shifts. And if you’re willing to get creative with your shots, you can use certain color shifts to your advantage. A synthpop band with a ton of retro-futuristic synths may benefit from the otherworldly blue cast of tungsten balanced film, while a quieter folk band may look a little more at home with the nostalgic yellow glow of daylight balanced film.
All that said, a few color negative films have served me well despite their inherent risks. Kodak Portra 400 and 800 do a great job owing to their exceptionally wide exposure latitude (especially in the case of Portra 400) but require a steady hand to shoot. Speedier films like the aforementioned Fuji Natura 1600 work very well, but if one wants a more unique look, Cinestill 800T is the film to shoot. Cinestill 800T adds a little glow to stage lighting due to its lack of an anti-halation layer and also features an incredible amount of exposure latitude. Cinestill encourages pushing 800T all the way up to ISO 3200 for a noticeable bump in contrast and saturation, which can serve to make a performance look that much more dynamic.
What about slide film? I’d leave the stuff at home. Most commercially available slide film is rated at a sluggish ISO 100 and is infamous for its unforgiving exposure latitude, making most slide films unsuitable for low-light photography. Beautiful as slides are, there just aren’t any commercially available slide films that can handle the rigors of concert photography.
Trust your brain, not your meter
In the chaos of a concert it can be easy, and even sensible, to rely solely upon your camera’s auto-exposure system to make the right exposure. It takes your mind off of your settings and lets you focus on the performance itself. But because concerts by nature are unpredictable shooting environments, I find it’s better to understand exactly what your camera is telling you, decide if that’s something that’ll fit your image, and adjust accordingly.
To start, we must understand the metering and auto-exposure systems that come built in with most vintage 35mm cameras. Most vintage cameras with auto-exposure rely on an average metering pattern, which takes the total amount of light coming through the camera and averages it out to a given exposure value. Some cameras, most notably Nikon SLR’s, utilize a 60/40 center-weighted metering pattern, meaning whatever falls into the center of the frame carries more weight in the total average. This is a great way to expose, but the method can become problematic in extremely high contrast situations, or situations where your subject is off-center.
Take for example the shot above. This is a shot of my good friend Lisa performing at a small cafe. I wanted to try framing her off-center by using somebody’s head to take up most of the frame. I framed up the shot, but my Topcon’s center-weighted meter told me to expose at an unnaturally low shutter speed of 1/8th of a second. I knew that couldn’t be right considering the healthy amount of light at the cafe, so I pointed the camera directly at Lisa, this time without the head in the frame. The camera gave me a much more usable reading of 1/125th of a second at f/1.8. I dialed in those the settings, reframed, and took the shot. If I had relied wholly upon auto-exposure, the audience member’s head would’ve been perfectly exposed, but Lisa herself would’ve become a blown-out, blurry mess.
This brings me to another important aspect of concert photography – deciding how much shadow or highlight detail you’d like in your image. Because concert lighting naturally emphasizes the performers and because shutter speeds must be fast enough to net usable images, I find myself biasing my exposure toward the highlights. However, I do find myself adjusting to accommodate for shadow detail if the occasion calls for it.
Here are some examples, the first two shots being metered for the highlights, the third with a slight bias toward the shadows.
Because these situations are common and require diligent monitoring and manipulation of your settings, I would not recommend using a completely automated camera (such as the aforementioned consumer point-and-shoot) for concert photography. While they are certainly usable in some instances, users are often hamstrung by their lack of exposure information and exposure control. However, autoexposure cameras with manual override are certainly welcome, especially when that camera has an AE lock to make exposure compensation easier. The Nikon F3 and FE SLRs works well, as do the Canon A-series and Minolta X-series SLRs.
Embrace the limitations of film
In many ways, shooting a concert on film seems like more trouble than it’s worth. You have a fixed-focal length lens, a fixed film speed, and a fixed number of exposures, and you’re trying to manipulate these things to avoid unnecessary motion blur, annoying color shifts, and image-destroying underexposure, all while trying to make a meaningful image. Compare this to the relative ease with which modern digital cameras handle the complex lighting of a concert and film looks positively obsolete.
But from shooting numerous concerts on film, I’ve found that the extra effort is more than worth it. Such a demanding shooting environment forces you to use the limitations of film and film gear to your advantage, and can even make you a better photographer for it.
For example, the slower shutter speeds of 1/60th to 1/8th of a second often destroy images with unwanted motion blur. But because these speeds are unavoidable in low light, I’ve learned to apply that blur to artistic effect. I once found myself stuck with some Kodak Ultramax 400 in the middle of a high energy crowd, and my camera wouldn’t give me a shutter speed higher than 1/30th of a second. Instead of stowing my camera away in frustration, I jumped straight into the pit, pointed the camera up at the guitarist, and grabbed one of my best concert shots to date.
Another annoying obstacle is the reliance of most vintage cameras on the fixed focal length lens. At venues where there’s a considerable distance between you and the performer, a fixed focal length lens is a pain. However, there are couple of workarounds. For folks who don’t like to get too caught up in the action of a show, you can use the audience and venue to take up empty space and frame up the artist, which in turns lends a more candid, realistic feel to the image.
But for folks who do like the adrenaline of bumping around at a show, I do encourage jumping straight in and fighting your way to the front, in any venue. Not only will it give you a better chance of getting the shots you want, it’s just plain fun. Just keep your eyes peeled for errant moshers and make sure your camera’s sturdy and well protected.
If there’s just one thing that I’ve learned from taking photos at concerts, it’s that you should do what you’re there to do – listen to the music. Taking photos at shows is a fun, productive activity, and one that can even open up communication with an artist, but remember that concerts are first and foremost about sharing an experience through music. With that in mind, it’s absolutely worth it to grab a shot to remind yourself of how uniquely beautiful live music can be. Especially on film.