Sweat-slicked mosh pits: how to capture live music

This article originally appeared in D-Photo issue 82

Great music lives well beyond the artist’s own years, but music photography helps preserve the memory, and honour the legacy of music’s greatest stars. Kiwi ’grapher Alexander Hallag has shot many local artists and more than a few international acts, and shares his top tips for photographing live music.

Though primarily an auditory experience, music has always paired well with striking imagery. For the avid music fan getting into photography, it’s only natural to want to combine the two passions by shooting live gigs. But with extreme lighting situations, masses of other concert-goers, and restrictive shooting areas, you have a significant photographic challenge on your hands. Fortunately, seasoned music photographer Alexander Hallag has some tips on how to capture the magic of live music through the lens.

 Kora Sony A99, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 24mm, 1/8000s, f/2.8, ISO 1000

Kora
Sony A99, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 24mm, 1/8000s, f/2.8, ISO 1000

Being there

Originally from the United States, Alexander now lives and works in Aotearoa, shooting as many local and international music acts as he can. He has created images of such legends as David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, BB King, and The Buzzcocks. He has also traveled the country documenting our local contemporary music scene to create the book Shhh … The Music is Talking, featuring such acts as Tiki Taane, Lorde, The Black Seeds, Shapeshifter, and Dave Dobbyn.

From tiny little bar stages to packed arenas, the photographer says no matter what sort of act you are shooting, one of the most important things is being present in the moment.

“While making photos, I’m also trying to absorb everything around me, and do my best to be a fly on the wall — so to speak — but also a fly amongst it, at the same time,” he says. “Part of me needs to be removed from it, but a part of me also needs to be involved in it to capture that ‘feel’ of it.”

 Beastwars Sony A9, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 70mm, 1/40s, f/3.2, ISO 1600

Beastwars
Sony A9, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 70mm, 1/40s, f/3.2, ISO 1600

To that end, it is not uncommon to spy the photographer being jostled in the mosh pit, returning from his shoot with his share of bruises. Yes, he needs to protect his gear and make sure he doesn't impair the experience of the punters, but it's important that he experiences the show — and not just through the viewfinder — for the images to truly tell the story of the event.

“My hope is that when they see [my photos], they won’t necessarily feel that they were there, but they’ll feel what it felt like to be there,” Alexander explains. “Most people can take a good image at shows with digital photography, but to convey the emotion, the feeling, that’s what sets the greats apart from the rest.”

 Devilskin Sony A77 II, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 26mm, 1/320s, f/2.8, ISO 2500

Devilskin
Sony A77 II, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 26mm, 1/320s, f/2.8, ISO 2500

And that feeling doesn’t only come from the band performing on stage; the crowd plays just as big a role in defining a show. In being aware of the space to the sides of the stage and watching for interactions between members of the audience and the band, a photographer might just find some of the best shots. But being able to predict those opportunities is tricky, and Alexander’s advice is to spend a good few minutes observing the band play fist, without the camera to your eye.

“It sounds crazy, as often concert photographers are only given the first two to three shows to shoot, and that can pass very quickly,” he admits. “But … you start to see some patterns that the band may do, so when you’re composing, you have a rough idea of what the movements might be, and then it’s a matter of watching the light.”

 Black Sabbath Sony A9, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 1/125s, f/5.6, ISO 2000

Black Sabbath
Sony A9, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 1/125s, f/5.6, ISO 2000

The light fantastic

Without question, the biggest challenges in shooting live music is figuring out how to deal with the light. Most venues are intentionally dim, and will have lighting rigs for the performing bands. Depending on the scale of the show, these could be anything from a basic spotlight to a sophisticated strobe display. When shooting in such environments, much of the standard lighting advice goes out the window in favour of a trial and error approach.

 Kimbra Sony A9, Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS lens, 100mm, 1/320s, f/3.5, ISO 1600

Kimbra
Sony A9, Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS lens, 100mm, 1/320s, f/3.5, ISO 1600

“In a perfect world, I’d say to meter it each time, however, I think a lot of the time it really comes down to instinct,” Alexander says. “You’re having to see the light and anticipate what’s going to happen, and you could be wrong. So I think a lot of it comes from the heart, and just lots of practice, too.”

As unpredictable as the light may be, a big factor in being able to make the most of it is bringing the right gear. When it comes to glass, you will need something fast: many concert photographers roll with prime lenses, but Alexander enjoys the versatility of his trusty 70–200mm f/2.8.

 Ross Burges Sony A9, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 70mm, 1/320s, f/5.6, ISO 800

Ross Burges
Sony A9, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 70mm, 1/320s, f/5.6, ISO 800

“Last night at a show, I was dragged up on stage, and it was perfect,” he enthuses. “I was able to get some shots with the crowd interacting with the artist, and I was able to get some close-ups.”

Even with a lens wide open, however, the problematic lighting situations will likely require a camera that can perform well at high ISO. This will introduce noise to your shots, so counting on the resolution of a full-frame sensor is nice, but even if you are working with a crop sensor you can still capture the frenetic energy of a gig. You just have to slip into a problem-solving mindset.

“With the light, you’re creating a visual story,” the photographer says. “The main thing is to find ways to make the light complement your image, and not be afraid if it’s not going to be ‘perfect’ — ’cause the light’s never going to be perfect.

“If you can find a way to use it to tell your story better, then you’ve scored.”

 Shapeshifter Sony A99, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 90mm, 1/200s, f/2.8, ISO 1600

Shapeshifter
Sony A99, Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens, 90mm, 1/200s, f/2.8, ISO 1600

Alexander Hallag’s local music photography has been compiled into a limited-edition hardcover photo book, Shhh …  The Music Is Talking. The photographic record features exclusive, never before seen photos of some of New Zealand’s most popular recording artists, and offers insight into the unique sound and shape of contemporary New Zealand music.

Alexander’s gear list

  • Sony A9
  • Sony A77 II
  • Samyang 14mm ultra wide-angle f/2.8 IF ED UMC lens
  • Sony A99
  • Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II lens
  • Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS lens