Shooting moving subjects in next to no light, surrounded by screaming crowds and/or other photographers. Whether you’re chasing paid shoots or just want to capture your favourite band performing live, music photography can be a tough gig. But if you love music and the adrenaline rush of a live show, there’s nothing more exciting or rewarding.
To help you master the art of concert photography, we asked our friend Andrew Treadwell – a professional live music photographer with more than 23 years’ experience. He’s shot the shows of, and sometimes shared the stage with, countless local and international acts ranging from Hall of Fame legends to the latest up-and-comers.
Discover what gear you need, how to land live music photography jobs, and how to take amazing shots with Andrew’s expert band photography tips.
*All lens focal lengths are expressed as full frame equivalent
Life as a Gig Photographer
Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS – Brisbane Entertainment Centre, 2013 Copyright Andrew Treadwell - Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
How did you get to become a band photographer?
During the 90s I was involved in a KISS fanzine and we just made tracks. We got recognised by [the band], which was lovely. Then in November 1996, two ex-KISS members were out here doing a tour. I offered to interview them; I’d met them previously a couple of times. I did the photos that night, and then KISS were about to go and reunite with the original members. The promoter asked if we wanted to be involved in launching the tour because the band were really happy with the magazine content.
So we launched the tour in Melbourne and got invited to the big press conference with them in Sydney. I was asking the band questions, got to chat with them about other stuff and then shot the tour, and it just snowballed.
What does a typical shooting day look like for you?
The day of the shoot there isn’t really much on, though I do like to be there early! The weeks leading up are more important – networking with managers, publicists and sometimes the artist to make sure passes are sorted out. I occasionally watch YouTube videos on some of the bigger bands as they have certain lighting, effects and moves they do in the first three songs we are permitted to shoot.
What's your game plan when you get to the venue?
Check in with venue staff and get credentials/passes sorted. Occasionally they give you a brief, depending on the band or venue. I like to just check it all out, go look at the stage and lights, and the crowd. You kind of know what night it’s going to be from the crowd.
Slash – Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, 2015 Copyright Andrew Treadwell - Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
What have been the biggest highlights of your career?
Growing up with KISS as my favourite band, every time I have shot KISS or a KISS member’s related project is a huge moment for me. I could have the worst night shooting KISS and they’ll still come out great, because they’re just great to shoot.
Recently, John Farnham. That was a bucket list gig. That was a big deal, when you realise the impact he’s had on people. When he played ‘You’re the Voice’, he had bagpipers come on stage and you could see the emotion across the stage. I remember seeing the entire crowd just fixate and then just lose their minds, screaming louder than the band. And it was at that moment when I was like, I’m so lucky to get to do what I do.
But the biggest highlight is any time an artist asks me to shoot on stage with them. There’s a big thing at the moment where bands love to have a photo at the end of the night with the crowd behind them. I’ve been lucky enough to get asked to do it a couple of times.
It’s nerve racking. It’s crazy because you’re on stage with the band, the crowd’s going berserk and you’ve got a limited time to do it.
It wouldn’t matter whether it’s a bar band or the biggest band in the world. That is a huge honour as it’s their domain, their place of business. I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Concert and Live Music Photography Gear
Lars Ulrich of Metallica – Soundwave Festival, Brisbane, 2014 Copyright Andrew Treadwell - Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
What would you recommend as the best camera for live music photography?
Go to shows and look at what the photographers are carrying. They’re all sort of carrying the same cameras: Nikon, Canon, Sony. But a lot of them haven’t stepped into mirrorless. I think mirrorless cameras have so many advantages – speed especially. And Fuji cameras are amazing in low light; you can do 3200 ISO and you’re not going to get grain – or very little grain, depending on the lights.
How to choose the best camera for concert photography
Feel is really important because you could be holding the camera for three songs or an entire day at a festival. So it’s got to feel good in your hand; it’s got to feel like part of your hand.
How the camera feels, how you hold it to your eye, how you find the menu, are all important because you’re in the dark. You’re under time limitation – of generally about 10 minutes per band. You need to be able to change things on the fly with relative comfort and ease. It’s got to feel right in your hand otherwise you’re never gonna get the result you want.
I used to think, it has to be full frame or it will never be good enough. And then I realised when I started out, I didn’t have a full frame camera – but I took great photos. Because I wasn’t thinking about it. I was just thinking about taking a good photo.
Battery life is super important. If you’re shooting a festival, how many batteries do you need to take?
I’m right-handed but the camera viewfinder goes to my left eye. And the reason it goes to my left eye is because I can watch the lights with my right.
I prefer a screen that flips down because if it flips out, it’s gonna get in the way; it’s a target!
They’re rare, but on those occasions when you’re shooting from the soundboard (at the back of the arena, behind the audience) you’ll generally have the camera on a monopod. A flip-down screen lets me see what I’m doing over the crowd while I control the camera via a shutter release.
Richie Faulkner of Judas Priest – Download Festival, Sydney, 2019 Copyright Andrew Treadwell - Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
Gary Cherone of Extreme – Eatons Hill Hotel, Brisbane, 2018 Copyright Andrew Treadwell - Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
I think in-body stabilisation and lens stabilisation is a great help. When shooting live music you are so close to speakers and the vibration from them can be huge. So invest in some great stabilised equipment to supplement your skills.
What are the best lenses for live music photography?
I think if you concentrate on having and learning to use three good lenses, you’ll have everything you need, whether you have one camera body or two. My go-to would be a 50mm f/1.4, a 24-70mm, a 24-105mm, and a 70-200mm (all full frame equivalent). A lot of those interchange but a lot of them have good purposes.
Have at least one prime lens
Everyone should have one prime (fixed focal length) lens in their kit. They’re great to shoot with regardless of the application and you learn so much from that lens. I like shooting with primes because I’m the zoomer, rather than the lens. That teaches me to use my angles and check the lighting a bit better, and not just rely on the camera to do all the work.
Jeff Martin of The Tea Party – The Tivoli, Brisbane, 2017 Copyright Andrew Treadwell - Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
Best lens for low light & small concert venues
If you were to shoot in a little venue, a 50mm prime or 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens would be great. Your 24-70mm f/2.8 is always going to be a go-to when you need a good low-light lens.
When you’re looking at a camera and lens, look at something as simple as a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 on a Canon or a Sony. It works. It’s a really good option. I used one for the longest time; it shot over a million photos and it never, ever, ever let me down. In low light they’re just amazing.
For Fuji, the Fujifilm 35mm f/2 – if you can master that, it makes you a better photographer. It’s got that speed you need for band photography.
Best lens for music festivals & mid-size concert venues
A mid-size venue or a festival? A 24-105mm f/4 is just not going to let you down. It’s a magic lens because it gives you all that depth of field plus, if you’ve got a camera that handles high ISO well, which a lot of them will, you don’t have to worry about having a wider aperture. And that’ll actually help with your shutter speed and moving objects and shifting lights. You’ll get less blur.
I like the Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM because it’s quick. It’s really responsive. It’s everything you need as long as you want to put as much effort in as what you expect out of the camera or the lens.
Best lens for large concert venues (stadiums/arenas)
A 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is really good for an arena or stadium show because you can get the drummer. Or if it’s a big, deep stage, the band will move all over the stage and you can get them moving without them looking like ants. Also, by moving back, you can still get nice side shots of the band if they come right up the front. Even at 70mm pulled right back you’re still gonna get some decent shots up not too close.
Rarely are you going to have those shoots where you need a 500mm lens. If you had to do what we call a soundboard shoot, which is right at the back, you can always use an extender/teleconverter on the 70-200mm and then not have to buy (or carry) a bigger lens.
What other gear do you use on a live music shoot?
I like to use a wrist strap and, because with the camera I’m using there’s only one lens, I’ve got a sling. In there I’ll keep three or four memory cards, numbered so I remember what’s where; a couple of batteries; and a giant snap-lock bag, just in case something goes wrong – like I’m out at a festival and the weather hits.
Not just the number but also the speed of your memory cards is really important. You’re not going to buy a Ferrari and put retreads on it. So don’t invest in an awesome camera and put a slow memory card in it.
Stuff like battery and memory card are super important considerations because if you’ve got to shift out batteries or memory cards, you could lose one. Make sure you’ve got somewhere to store your memory cards when you’re out and about shooting.
Again, after nearly 24 years I’ve really learnt that less is more. If you can’t just pick up a camera and put a lens on it and produce an image that you’re proud of, think about what you need to do to get to that point. You can do more with less if you apply yourself to it.
Band Photography Techniques, Settings & Post-Production
Corey Taylor of Slipknot, Brisbane, 2016 Copyright Andrew Treadwell - Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
What are your go-to camera settings for concert photography?
When it comes to camera settings for live music photography it always depends on your gear and the conditions. For most shows I like to shoot at ISO 1600 or 3200, between f/2 or f/4 and with EV (exposure value) down by 1/3 stop. At ISO 3200 you can pump the shutter speed way up, which will help with reducing blur.
I just adjust the shutter speed, generally between 1/1000 and 1/2000 second, to accommodate the lights and movement. Because things move. People move, lights move, and the lighting at shows is so much quicker now.
I usually use continuous autofocus (AF) set to centre or spot focusing. It really depends. If the band is stagnant, like if there were an orchestra behind them, you could do wide AF. And because new cameras have so many autofocus points now, they’re gonna pick the subject up. Generally I just use spot focus because I’m aiming at one person.
How do you approach composition?
Trying to tell the story—not just getting in the artist’s face—is super important. Try and stay wide to get other band members, lights, etc in.
I don’t use the rule of thirds because you just don’t have time. I remember a couple of months back, I was lined up with the perfect shot. And all of a sudden a security guard pushed me out of the way, and if he hadn’t I would have had a stage diver kick me straight in the face.
I could sit there and compose so much and my photos wouldn’t have half the character they do. Sometimes you end up with maybe a little bit of blur, because the guitar player’s hands are moving so quick. But then he was playing the best solo ever. So you just have to roll with it. But I think it makes for great photos.
Adam Thompson of Chocolate Starfish – Red Hot Summer Tour, Brisbane, 2019 Copyright Andrew Treadwell - Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
What makes a great live music photography shot?
Emotion. Character. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to tell a story. You’ve got a million fans behind you with iPhones that are filming, taking photos. You have to make sure yours are set apart.
If you’re reaching for perfection you’ll never be happy. If you want to tell story you’re gonna have a great time, and tell the story.
What sort of editing does your work involve?
I don’t like to alter; I like to enhance. I’ve been using Lightroom and ON1 Photo Raw, which is set up the same as Lightroom with presets, menus etc. but also does multiple resizing and watermarks. So it’ll export like a print size, a web size and watermark.
For me, I don’t want to sit there all night and edit. But sometimes the lights can just get you at the wrong time and you know it’s a great shot except for that little bit of this, and if you pull the exposure down a little bit add make the blacks a little deeper, it just brings it out. I also like to add a really small fringe of vignette to the shot, to take out the edges so that the object is the focus.
Live Music Photography Career Tips
Joey Tempest of Europe - The Tivoli, Brisbane, 2018 Copyright Andrew Treadwell - Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
What’s your advice on getting band photography jobs?
Study!!! Start with your friends’ bands in the garage, work your way up to pub bands and make your way slowly up to the bigger bands.
I often say to people, if you’ve got buddies in bands, why not offer to shoot them for free to start getting your name out there? And they can go, hey, we know this other cool band that we play with. We know a photographer. And then… It’s all about the relationship as much as the photo. It all flows on and people start trusting you as a person as well as a photographer.
Once you gain the trust that you’re not just out for the freebie and you really get to know the human to human level, then someone might go, oh you did that for them. Could you do that for this person? And that’s when you get connected to things like magazines and publicists and managers. Because the music business is so interconnected.
Jeff Burrows of The Tea Party – The Tivoli, Brisbane, 2017 Copyright Andrew Treadwell - Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
How does it work when it comes to dealing with promoters, managers and/or performers?
You always need to respect the rules set out. Generally a freelance photographer may not be granted access to the show; they prefer it if you are shooting for a publication.
It’s always best to reach out to publications and offer your services. Start off shooting local bands and work your way up from there. There is a golden rule in this field that you never go behind your publication’s, or the tour publicist’s, back and apply [for jobs] directly with band members, management or promoters. I have worked for many awesome online publications and they have helped me get access to many wonderful shows, for which I’m grateful. I also have my own online publication now.
One of my publication’s contributors may come and ask to cover a specific show or artist. So I reach out to the publicist, if they haven’t already sent us press releases for the show, and ask about covering the show. Publications will help promote the show, interview artists, and share the word around online. This shows the promoter or publicist that you are not just in it for free tickets.
When you get to cover a show you also make sure you do a write-up of the show to go along with a gallery, and post it preferably within 24 hours. This helps the tour publicist, promoter, and artist to promote upcoming shows.
Sometimes you do create relationships with the artists and their management and you may be asked to shoot directly for them. I have been extremely lucky in my career to form fantastic relationships and networks worldwide that have enabled me to do this. Their support is invaluable and I consider myself lucky to be doing this, but I have also worked hard and followed all the rules above to get this far. Anyone who wants to be a gig photographer should always remember that there are no shortcuts.
Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski of Behemoth – Download Festival, Sydney, 2019 Copyright Andrew Treadwell - Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
What other advice would you give to aspiring live music photographers?
Always want to learn. And always be thankful and humble to get to do it, as the bands don’t need us there; they have a million phones in the crowd capturing all the action!
All images copyright Hang Me On Your Wall Photography
Want more tips on how to shoot live music photography? Or more advice on the best lens for band photography?
Feel free to ask one of our staff photographers in store, online or over the phone.