From the first to the last, every shot has a lesson to teach

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The first time I ever snapped a photo of a musician was on Nov. 22, 2012 when Walk Off the Earth played the Starlite Room in Edmonton before they were selling out stadiums and touring the globe.

I was there in the front row, my iPhone held up before me in a vain attempt to capture a photo that could symbolize how it felt to be there in that moment.

What I got was a learning experience, a lesson in photography that I’ll never forget: smartphones do not generally take great photos of musicians.

It was a disappointing revelation, but it set me on a path of learning. I wanted to take photos that would make people excited to see a performance.

So I bought a beginner DSLR camera and spent a summer taking blurry nature photos while I learned to properly focus the lens.

I enrolled in journalism school and learned all about aperture, shutter speed and ISO, how they relate to an image and how this knowledge let me take photos in almost any condition.rsz crusaders copyAudiences are used to seeing a musician handle their instrument in a certain way. Keeping an eye out for that moment when the guitarist whips their axe in the air, or the drummer spins their sticks, can make for an excellent photo. Photo by Jodi Brak

I found I excelled at photography when I had the right tools, the right knowledge and proper access, so I turned my attention back to photographing musicians.

I was obsessed with the gritty appeal of Neal Preston’s photos of Led Zeppelin, how low angles and high contrast made these larger than life figures seem like giants. They were so full of action and personality, each image capturing not only what it was to be Led Zeppelin but also what it was to be rock ‘n’ roll.

At times it was inspiring, and at others it was disappointing. Taking notes from masters of the craft helped me strive to learn more, but it also showed just how far I had to go.

Yet every setback somehow provided a learning experience. I thought I had taken 2,500 useless photos for a local band, Chron Goblin, to use in their sponsorship by Orange Amps.

The stage lights were such a saturated tone of purple that it seemed to ruin each shot, but instead of giving up I did some research and learned that black and white images eliminate the problem with colored lights.

My toolbox was getting bigger, and it seemed every problem I ran into had a solution. Much like the musicians whose moments on stage I was attempting to capture, I developed a rhythm.

I fell in time with the click of my shutter and each bad image prompted me find a way to make a good one.

While shooting another local band, Doberman, I caught a great photo of their guitar player snarling at the crowd like a mad dog, which sort of captured their aggressive style in a snapshot.

Produced by: Jodi Brak and Paul Rodgers

I started to pick out the little details that would stand out like facial expressions or unique lighting. Little things can make a photo stand apart from thousands of similar shots and speak to the character of the subjects.

Even now, every time I pack up my camera and head to a venue I learn something valuable. The last performance I photographed, after nearly being suffocated by a smoke machine, I learned that smoke can diffuse colors from stage lights, resulting in a unique look.

The one before that I learned the value of taking candid shots before a performance starts, capturing the musicians in a more natural state that many fans may never have seen.

If you’re not willing to continuously learn, you’ll never succeed at anything, let alone something as technical as concert photography. Every photo you take, every slider you adjust in Photoshop and every article you read on composition tips, editing tricks and gear advice should be treated as a learning experience.

You will fail at first, but how you respond to that failure is what determines whether you’ll ever take that truly great photo you’ve been looking for.

For when your basic lens doesn’t cut it

16-35mm F2.8 – If I had to use one lens to shoot concerts for the rest of my life, it would be the 16-35mm. The versatility it provides is unmatched by anything else I have used, allowing you to quickly switch between wide angles and extreme close up shots in an instant. This lens also has a generous focal point, meaning you’ll spend less time adjusting for proper focus while shooting.

28mm F2.8 –The field of view on a 28mm is just the right size to capture full frame photos of a single band member from close to the stage. A fixed zoom lens like a 28mm will also allow you more freedom to adjust your depth of field and create a unique look, but also requires more careful focusing of the lens to capture sharp images.

50mm F1.8 – A great lens for especially dark venues due to its low aperture, the 50mm lens is ideal for capturing head shots and detailed facial expressions. This lens won’t capture the entire scene like a wide angle, but will allow you to focus on subtle details and be very selective over what is in the frame.

70-200mm F2.8 – If you don’t want to be shooting from the front row, a zoom lens with a low aperture is ideal. Boasting a 200mm zoom while still keeping an aperture of 2.8, this lens will allow you to sit in the back of the room and still capture high quality images that look like they were shot from the front row. However, this lens is extremely heavy and takes some practice to focus correctly at low light.

Fisheye F1.0 – If you’re fortunate enough to have access to a fisheye lens, it’s in your best interest to experiment with it. These lenses capture an unbelievable field of view, allowing you to show the entire scene and put the band, the stage and the crowd all into one frame. However, fisheye lenses can distort the scene due to the unique field of view, so it’s best not to use it as a primary lens.


Exposure Settings:

Neal Preston Photos:

Photo editing tips:

Composition tips:

Equipment guide:

The editor responsible for this article is Zarif Alibhai

Thumbnail: Photo by Jodi Brak

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