Concert Photography: Timing

Metallica @ the Scottrade Center -- 2008.11.17

Despite the often demanding time constraints of concert photography, sometimes it pays to slow down and observe before going in with shutter blazing. With shooting gigs, like so many things, timing is everything.

Learning to see and anticipate the subtle rhythms of a performance is one skill employed by experienced concert photographers and which can help set your work apart.

A Study In Three Songs

I often think of concert photography as a very quick portrait study of one or more musicians under highly demanding conditions. Just like a portrait shoot, the charge is to deliver compelling images of a subject; the dim lighting, limited access, and unpredictable conditions are secondary.

The same demands of portraiture for observing the subjects to determine their best treatment still factor into concert photography. However, instead of the ability to built a rapport with one's subject and instruct pose, live music shooters must rely more on a different skill-set to best capture the action on stage.

The Visual Rhythm

While a large portion of concert photography may come down to instinct and reaction, with a little patience and proper timing, gaining an awareness of the subtle rhythms of a set can translate into more dynamic images.

Just as their own music relies on choruses, refrains and other structures, musicians will fall into patterns in their own movements, gestures, and expressions.

Whether these repetitions take the form of a singer gesturing to the audience during the chorus, a jump kick from the bassist going into the breakdown, or the guitarist coming to the edge of the stage with every solo, these small moments can come to define a performance.

Moreover, attention to these subtle and essential physical rhythms that may mean the difference between making a solid but unremarkable set of images and bringing home a truly epic, portfolio-quality shot.

Lighting & Timing

Beyond the performers themselves, the lighting effects will often follow similar patterns that can be identified and utilized.

Attention to the timing of lighting is especially important for shows that use very short-duration effects, like pyrotechnics, strobes, or high-intensity flare-ups. These treatments are often synchronized with elements of the song structure, and may coordinate with interesting parts of the band's physical performance as well.

For some shooters, it may be useful to think of the lighting effects as additional members of the band, each with their own coordinated contributions to the production.

At best, the savvy photographer can catch both the essential gesture and lighting in a single shot. Keen attention to the natural structure and flow of a performance can allow one to transition from the “lucky shot” to careful calculation.

End Notes

While luck and hail-mary shots will always their place in concert photography, the virtues of timing and keen observation go a long way in supplementing those rare moments of a concert with insight and action.

In essence, attention to the flow of the show for the concert photographer takes a pro-active approach to seek serendipity, calculating for great things to happen and being ready on the shutter release for when they do.

Happy shooting.