How I use a flash for concert photography

Suicide Commando-Kinetik4-002A friend recently asked me about how I shoot with flashes at concerts these days as he was looking into adding a flash to his concert photography. As I was chatting with him I realized that my experience with this topic could be helpful to others as well.

Basically what I try to accomplish with flash photography is to give myself control of the lighting at the venue where otherwise lighting is all over the map. That’s it in a nut-shell.
I add light to the scene to illuminate the artist enough and create an interesting shot. I try to create some dramatic lighting (like side light, or back light) which generally looks good to me.

I should mention that by the use of a flash (and controlling the light more), you’re starting to sculpt the image yourself in that you’re not really capturing 100% of reality. You’re creating an image (by adding your own light). You’re working on “making” an image that looks great, has the feel of the event, but is more readily captured by your camera (because you’re fully aware of the the challenges in capturing a club/concert image). I’d say I capture 50-70% of reality, and the rest I add with my light sources in order to have some control.
And you’re now actively involved in the “image creation” process, rather then JUST capturing.
For me balancing just enough flash and just enough ambient light to produce a great shot is what I still struggle with, which makes it a lot of work sometimes. It certainly don’t think it’s for everyone. I enjoy the challenge and the images I get at the end of the night are reward enough for me to keep exploring.

Equipment wise, all that is required is a flash that has manual power adjustment, and a wireless flash trigger. A flash can be had for $20-40 and a set of wireless flash triggers can be had for another $30-40. (I’ll speak about recommended equipment to start with a little later in the Gear section)


Placement of equipment

Placement of the light(s) and placement of photographer in relation to the light I found makes a big difference.
The light(s) I usually place on the edge of the stage within arms reach so I can adjust them if need be throughout the show. I point the light(s) towards the center of the stage, or where ever I think the artist will be. Note that the light that the flash puts out, covers a wide angle (some flashes allow for manual adjustment of coverage, called flash zoom). This wide angle of light can be beneficial in that it will cover the artist if he moves around on the stage, and can be detrimental in that it can lite up things you don’t want lit up. Personally I don’t like it when the flash lights up the back of the stage, or the ceiling. There’s a lot of “busy” things (cables, scaffolding, ugly walls, etc) going on there that are normally hidden by the darkness. I prefer not having those features show up in the background of my photos.
One thing that can be done is to use a GoBo. A GoBo (“Go Between”) is any piece of material that blocks the light from spilling in a certain direction. I usually make my GoBo’s from event flyers and stick them on my flash with black electrical tape, but really pretty much ANYTHING can be used as a GoBo. Stick the flash behind a speaker to limit the coverage of the light, and you’ve got a GoBo. Be creative.

With a GoBo I can limit the amount of spilled light in certain directions. I try to keep the flash light from spilling on the back of the stage, as well as on the ceiling.

In the lighting diagram above the Flash Left is allowed to light everything (which includes the back of the stage), where the Flash Right has a GoBo attached, which limits the light, and keeps the back of the stage in the dark.

The power of the flash is usually in increments of Full power, 1/2 power, 1/4 power 1/8 power… and so on. To get a feel of how much light you’ll need, before the show starts I tend to take test shots when the stage guys are setting up the stage.
For example I’ll set the flash to 1/8 power, and my camera to ISO 800 f2.8 and 1/100 shutter. I’ll move to the center of the stage (where I shoot most of the time) and take a few shots and see how much light falls on them. If exposure looks good, then I’ll leave it there. If I need to adjust the power during the show, you can always walk up to the flash and make the changes, though sometimes battling the crowds make this a challenge.

An example, at the Kinetik Festival4 where I shot last year, I placed my flashes on a bank of speakers on either side of the stage. I had to reach up high to get the flash and it was out of the way.
As for concern for equipment being stolen, I don’t worry too much about that. Yes there is a risk of leaving equipment unattended, but I find people don’t touch equipment that looks like it belong there. If I left the flash on a chair at the bar I might not see it again but on the stage long with everything else electronic there, it blends in. Besides, I know the instant it gets nabbed since the image will be lacking the light source. 🙂


Placement of Photographer

Placement of the photographer in relation to the flash(s) I also found to be important. What I try to do is avoid shooting in the direction that the flash is pointing mainly for the reason that I don’t want to see the side of the stage light up. The flash will light the side of the stage, and reveal another “busy” area of cables, scaffolding and other things that were nicely hidden by the darkness.

I try to shoot towards the flash. If the left flash is firing, I try and stand anywhere from center stage to the right of the stage, and keep the camera away from pointing at that right wall.

I usually change the flash position every song or two. This can be done manually by moving the flash from one side of the stage to the other or if you have two flashes and two triggers, you can adjust which flash fires by putting each flash trigger receiver on a different channel, and switch channels from your transmitter. This ability to choose which flash fires is very convenient as sometimes it’s hard to move through the crowds from one side of the stage to the other during a show.

My preferred lighting is to 1/2 or 3/4 side lighting with the flash. The image of Johan at the top of the post is an excellent example of this lighting. It creates a dramatic look (because of the high contrast from dark to light on the face) and it was created at my convenience. I didn’t have to wait until the artist was right under that one bright spot light. I had the freedom to shoot whenever other more interesting elements came together (emotional state, pose, background lighting,etc), and still create a great image.


Camera settings

One huge advantage I find with flash photography (other then providing the light) is that is freezes motion. This is huge when you’re stuck with shutter speeds of 1/100 (or lower) and struggling to keep the camera still. The flash burst of light has a duration of anywhere from 1/800 to 1/2000 of a sec and will freeze motion in the most animated artists.
I try to keep my camera shutter speed around 1/100. Shooting below that (and below 1/50) I notice undesirable blur in the dark side of the image, especially if the artist is moving a lot, and you end up with a 1/2 dark and motion blurred side of the face and 1/2 sharp bright side of the face. I don’t like that. Aperture I will keep around f2 or f2.8 even for f1.4 lenses.  Reason being 2-fold. One, most lenses are far sharper at 1-2 stops away from wide open, and second the depth of field is greater at f2.8. At f1.4 you may have 1inch (if you’re lucky) of DOF, and if the artist moves, you’ve lost focus. With an f2.8, the range where sharp focus is achieved increases quite a bit, and means more in focus shots. Of course the DOF depends on the focal length of the lens, so try out a DOF calculator to see how much the DOF is for your lens.
ISO I’ll start with at 800 and adjust as needed.

One thing to remember with flash photography is that shutter speed has no effect on the amount of light that is captured by the camera (because the flash duration is so short). So if you want to adjust the amount of light you capture from your flash, adjust the aperture, and modify either the ISO or shutter speed to maintain the same amount of ambient light.

For me, making interesting images starts with setting my camera for the (average) ambient light conditions. I will always want the ambient light on the artist to be the less dominant light, and the flash light to be the dominant light. With that in mind I will adjust the shutter speed, ISO and aperture to be about 2-3 stops darker then the proper exposure. Then I will adjust the flash power until I get acceptable exposure on the subject/artist. This takes some experimentation as the artist doesn’t stand in one place for the whole set, and the ambient lights don’t put out a constant amount of light.



For a inexpensive wireless flash trigger system I would go with something like the RF-602 triggers for $35 on Amazon

As a starter flash, I would get something inexpensive like a Yongnuo YN-460 for $42 on Amazon. Other flashes will work as well, just have to make sure it has manually adjustable power setting.

This entry was posted in Technique.

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