What Rights Do Photographers Have When Shooting at Concerts?

Great question, given that this has been a contentious issue lately. FYI Music News takes a look.

You’ve got to applaud the Quebec newspapers boycott of those goofy photo contracts that seem to appear at every turn from celebrity musicians. We have arrived at a stand-off between bands and event photographers and management teams intent on controlling coverage as music gets to be more about money and power, rather than content.

I’ve been at concert photography a good thirty years and have witnessed the good and bad. The good – most of the marginal hangers-on who shot for sport – are now gone and, mostly, the talented gain front stage access. The over-crowded lens pit has been emptied!

The battle over who owns what and who gets to censor is heating up mostly out of public view as sophisticated “smartphoners” snap away and everyday “selfie” collectors shoot at will and post the most dreadful images.

I’ve endured the Beyonce clamp down. Even had a lens taken away by security who said it was beyond the acceptable size for my camera. I did manage to snap eight to ten concert images. Here’s the keeper, no one cares. The photos that count are those that people have an emotional attachment to. Beyonce is a throw-away, a brief click, look and toss. No one cares anymore.

The magic is gone – the mystique is no longer there. So when a Dave Grohl demands ownership and control – why sign? There’s no value to that photo. There may be value to catching him flee on foot while being chased by a woolly mammoth, but that won’t be displayed in any fine art galleries.

Taylor Swift? There are at least a 150 billion cell phone snaps floating around. Do we need another?

I thought I’d ask a few fabulous photographers who endure the daily bullshit – who with skill and passion make the artist look spectacular — and get their take on the deteriorating state of concert photography in the age of the posturing Kardashians. Here’s what they have to say:

Read on.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37452 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

2 thoughts on “What Rights Do Photographers Have When Shooting at Concerts?

  • If anyone could post some links on how to take pictures while the performer is moving that would be great.

    • So I spent a while last night replying to this with my opinions, but the blog “timed out” when hitting post, and it was all lost. I think this reply is better now anyway.

      My background — I’m a hobbyist. I have a good technical grasp of how cameras work. I love going to shows, and feel that the pictures I take can contribute something for others who were there, or wished they were.

      I haven’t updated for a while (and actually seldom take my camera to shows anymore) but here are the pictures I’ve posted:

      They get worse the further back you go, but I’m proud of the favourites. Sebadoh and earlier were taken with out-of-date Olympus Pens. Wide Mouth Mason and everything more recent were taken with a compact original Sony RX100.

      Sort of aside, I use the RX100 because 1. the sensor is amazing in low-light, no better compact camera available for concert shots. Any one of RX100s would be outstanding. I have the oldest one and it’s fine. 2. as a compact camera, security never cares about it. They can get ornery about cameras with detachable lenses if you don’t have a photographer’s pass.

      To answer your question:

      Step 1: turn off your flash! You just piss everyone off and unless you’re a serious professional, it’s useless.

      In basic terms, you need a fast shutter speed, wide-open aperture, and to raise the ISO rating as high as you find acceptable. You’ll have to experiment with your gear to find what looks good to you. On my old RX100, ISO3200 is okay, but the lower I can get away with, the better. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, your camera’s manual will tell you how to set ISO. Modern cameras have better results with higher ratings.

      You need a camera with manual control modes, basically something that has “P/A/S/M” settings on it. Cameras that allow manual control typically have all four of those, plus full-auto, and other scene/feature-specific modes.

      P is program mode: the camera sets aperture and shutter speed based on other settings. Might be okay and a good place to start.

      A is aperture-priority: you set the aperture of the camera. For a concert, you would set it as wide as possible. I have f/1.8 on my cameras. The lower the number, the more light it lets in. For a concert, you would set it as wide as you can go, and hope it selects a shutter speed that will freeze the action. (That said, the downside of a lower f-stop number, for concerts, is that less of the scene will be in focus. f/1.8 should be fine though for most cases.)

      S is shutter-priority: you set the shutter speed. For a fast-moving concert, you ideally want 1/250ish, but 1/125 might be acceptable. The camera will set the aperture. I think this is the best way to go if you want to make sure the action is frozen, but you may find the images produced are too dark.

      M is full-manual: good to learn, but tough starting out. Set the shutter to be fast enough, set the aperture as wide as it will go.

      The problem is that lighting at shows is almost always terrible for photos. You can hope to get lucky with a strobe lighting the band up at the right moment, so you just take lots of pictures and discard the ones that are too dark. This isn’t a big deal as long as your flash is off, though mind the people around you.

      You can raise the ISO rating and get noisier/grainier results. You can lower the shutter speed and get blurrier results. You can convert to black & white and for some reason that sometimes looks sharper.

      You can/should set your camera to shoot in RAW mode instead of JPEG, but then you need to process the photos with software such as Adobe Lightroom. That has its own separate learning curve. I highly recommend it though, and there are great books like Martin Evening’s. I think it’s essential for bringing out the best in digital photograpy. It’s pretty easy to use if you know your way around a computer.

      The downside of RAW is that the image files are huge, but it can be essential for capturing all the information available and bringing out otherwise impossible/lost detail. It is extra work on top of just shooting/selecting the photos, which is why I’m so far behind on posting mine.

      Hope that helps.


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