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Caught in the act: how to shoot live music festivals

Music to your eyes

Live music events are challenging to shoot. With difficult lighting conditions and fast-paced acts, the perfect shot doesn’t happen by accident.

We headed up to the Bathfest music festival in Somerset. But whether you are shooting a large festival or an intimate gig in a bar, the fundamental skills are the same; you’ll need fast shutter speed to freeze the performers and to expose for the lights to capture the ambience. 

You also need the right kit for the job, and a midrange zoom, with a wide aperture, is the workhorse here – the faster the lens the better. Additional zoom lenses will add to the variety of your shots, such as telephoto for more intimate close-ups or wide-angle to show off the entire stage or massed crowd.

If you can wangle it, a press pass is worth its weight in gold; they allow access to the press pit, enabling you to shoot in relative comfort right at the front of the stage or even behind the scenes. It’s definitely worth contacting organizers of smaller events, who may be happy to provide a press pass in return for some images. 

But festivals are about more than just the acts; shoot anything and everything for a more interesting documentary of the day. There is so much going on, from fairground rides to close-ups of festival-goers. With dance events, in particular, the crowds are usually far more interesting than the DJs on stage.

Step-by-step: Getting the gig

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1. All round zoom lens

You will often find that you cannot move much, in which case pick a versatile mid-range zoom lens with a wide aperture that is good for everything. Our EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM worked excellently.

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2. High ISO

To capture the lights in the background, set your ISO as high as you can before the images feature too much grain (which depends on your camera), allowing faster shutter speeds.

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3. Light up the stage

Try using a flashgun to add a blip of light to lift the performers. Don’t use full power as it’ll be too bright, overpowering the stage lighting, and will take longer to recharge between shots.

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4. Picking a position

When there is no press pit to shoot from safely at small venues, try the sides of the stage; be wary of rowdy crowds that could knock your camera or spill drinks over your precious kit! 

Extra essential kit

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1. Telephoto lens

Telephoto zooms enable you to get closer to both the acts and crowds, especially on larger stages. We used Canon’s EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM and EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.

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2. Wide-angle lens

A wide-angle lens, such as our Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, can be just as important when you are trying to squeeze in the whole stage to capture a full band, and are ideal for shooting the audience.

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3. Spare batteries

Always take spare batteries, particularly if you’re in a tent for the weekend with nowhere to recharge them. As a guide, manufacturers claim a battery life of around 800-850 shots.

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4. Memory cards

You don’t want to be held up by running out of space and spending time erasing photos – or sacrificing quality by switching to JPEG. We filled up a 16GB card shooting Raw files in under three hours.

Shoot the crowds

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1. Above and beyond

When stuck in a large crowd, switch your camera to Live View and hold it up, above the crowd, to look across the top. In some cameras, autofocus does not work too well during Live View, so manually set the focus beforehand as it can be difficult to see the screen clearly enough when lifted high.

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2. Access all acreas

Getting a press pass will not only give you permission to photograph but allow you access to more areas, such as the press pit in front of the stage, and sometimes even on the stage behind the acts. This is a great opportunity to shoot the crowds from the stage while including the acts.

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3. Shooting the masses

Get a good vantage point, either above the crowds or in the press pit in front of the audience. At lively events the crowds will often be jumping around with their hands in the air, really portraying the mood. In this image we’ve shot from the press pit, looking along the front of the crowd.

Festival festivities

It’s not all about the acts, the essence of the festival can be captured in the people.

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1. Pass on by

With festivals there is an awful lot going on. Try shooting the less-obvious, rather than focusing only on the performers. Here, a group walk straight past the stage, seemingly uninterested in the band.

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The lifestyle

For many, festivals aren’t just an afternoon out, they’re a way of life. Shooting events can be about capturing this lifestyle, and festival-goers casually relaxing in the sun can provide excellent portrait opportunities.

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3. The little details

Look for little things going on around the event. Festivals are full of colour and interesting sights, such as this rainbow-coloured umbrella with a stream of smoke floating out in front of it.

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4. Ride the festival

To capture the essence of festivals, try shooting people enjoying the rest of the event. To shoot fairground rides, increase your shutter speed to 1/1000 sec and keeping your back to the sun, follow the ride around.

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5. The whole show

With a wide-angle lens we can fit the entire stage in. This technique is well suited for creating a grand spectacle of the set, though it may take a few attempts to get all of the band in a good position at once.

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6. Dance dance

There are always a bunch of ‘interesting’ individuals to be found at these events, creating some bizarre sights to photograph. These banana-costumed funsters made for some excellent photo opportunities.

This feature was originally published in PhotoPlus Magazine, to subscribe, click here