Have you ever stood barricade at a live show and wondered how the photographers in the pit got access? I definitely have. I would see women my age with camera equipment very similar to my own capturing once in a lifetime moments of bands that I love. And it led me to think, “If they can do it, I can, too”. It’s just a matter of how. Determined to find out, I eagerly went home and did my research. After hours and hours of reading blog posts and watching Youtube videos, I kept running into this stumbling block– how am I supposed to build my concert photography portfolio without experience?
To obtain approval to photograph a live show, you first need a way of showcasing you’re abilities to the magic photo-pass gods and prove to them that you’re deserving of the coveted photo pass. So let’s get this straight… In order to receive a photo pass, you need a portfolio. In order to build a portfolio, you need high quality photos. In order to capture high quality photos, you need to use professional equipment. In order to bring your professional equipment into the venue, you need a photo pass. And that brings us back to square one. See the dilemma?
To me, it feels a lot like needing experience for a job that you can only get from the job itself. This catch-22 makes breaking into concert photography feel like an impossible dream. But I promise you, it is not at all impossible! I built my entire initial portfolio without ever having professional experience, and it granted me the honor of receiving my first photo pass. If I can do it, you absolutely can, too.
You don’t need to be a seasoned pro to create an impressive portfolio. With dedication, a few key strategies, and a bit of creativity, I whole-heartedly believe that you can and will turn your dreams of becoming a concert photographer into reality. In this blog post, we’ll take an in-depth look at the practical steps you can take to build a standout portfolio from scratch that will open doors of endless opportunity for you.
7 Practical Tips To Build Your Concert Photography Portfolio Without Experience
Use What You Got
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re a regular at live shows. And if so, that’s great news. You’re already well on your way to pursuing your dream of becoming a concert photographer. If you attend gigs to see your favorite bands and happen to wield a smartphone with a camera, congratulations – you’re a concert photographer.
I know that’s quite a dramatic statement. But let me prove to you that it’s not outrageous. Every single photo featured in this blog post was taken by me with my trusty iPhone. Yes, iPhone. No special access, no VIP seats, no exclusive privileges. I was simply a fan attending shows and using the tools that I had available to seize the moment. These very photos became the building blocks of my initial portfolio, all achieved without prior professional concert photography experience or an approved photo pass.
Admittedly, these photos may not boast the highest quality. If taken with a professional camera, they’d undoubtedly be a hundred times better. But you don’t need to be the best in the game to get started. You just need to start. And the best way to start is by using what you got. All you have is all you need. If you can’t make the most out of the tools you have now, what makes you think you’ll excel with higher-quality equipment down the road? If you’re waiting until you feel fully equipped and ready to start pursuing your dream, you may just never begin.
Get Close To The Stage
Your proximity to the stage will dramatically impact the quality of your images and the types of shots you’ll need to build a well-rounded portfolio. The closer you are, the easier it will be to capture the energy and emotions that make live music so exhilarating. Here’s the caveat– getting a prime spot for great photos requires strategic planning. It’s important to note, if you’re ticket is assigned a seat, you won’t be able to get a closer spot without fooling a few security guards (I’ve done it, but I don’t recommend it). If you do have a general admission ticket, there are a few key things you can do to help the odds work in your favor.
General admission, or standing-room concerts, often operate on a “first-come, first-served” basis. This means that the earlier you arrive, the better the chance you’ll have at securing a spot close to the stage. How early should you get to the venue, you ask? Great question. There are a variety of factors to consider when determining how early you need to line up. Sometimes, it’s a few hours. Sometimes, it’s a camp-out-the-night-before type of situation. There’s never a surefire way to know, but being conscious of the following can help you make an educated guess.
The Popularity of The Band
If you’re planning to see a main-stream band with a dedicated fan-base, expect the competition to be fierce. For example, you will not need to line up for a local, growing indie-pop band as early as you would need to for a more well-known band like Wallows or Twenty One Pilots.
The Size Of The Venue
Larger venues, like stadiums and arenas, can house significantly more people than smaller, more intimate venues can. The more people attending a show means that you’ll have to fight more people for a good spot. On the other hand, smaller venues have more limited spacing near the stage, which makes the stakes for a good spot higher. It’s a bit of give and take. I suggest researching as much as you can about the venue before arriving. Google images of the inside of the venue, and try to plan where you want to stand ahead of time. Some venues also have a specific queueing system where they’ll allow you to come during certain hours earlier in the day, give you a numbered wristband, and have you queue up closer to show time according to your number. The Kia Forum in Los Angeles operates this way. You can read more about it here. Personally, I really love the queuing system because you can get your wristband and then leave the premises to get food or do other activities. .
Major cities with large populations, like Los Angeles and New York, typically have more passionate fans. Shows in smaller towns tend to offer more chill and relaxed atmospheres. I always notice a stark contrast in the intensity of crowds when I attend concerts in cities like San Diego or Phoenix as opposed to shows in Los Angeles.
The Day Of The Week
Most people won’t call off work just to wait in line for their favorite band. Don’t get me wrong, people do. However, it’s more likely that a concert happening on a weekday will have fewer people lined up early than a show that takes place on a Saturday.
You may also find helpful information regarding a specific show by checking online forums, social media groups, and fan communities related to the artist or band. You could keep tabs on a band’s tagged photos or stories on Instagram, and try to get an idea from the fans that attended the shows before yours. If you do plan on heading out early, just make sure to bring plenty of snacks, water, activities, and comfortable shoes!
Wait For Good Lighting
Lighting is the lifeblood of photography. The very essence of the art form revolves around capturing and manipulating light. If there’s no light, there is no photo. And what’s funny is that as a concert photographer, your goal will be to capture light in extremely low-light situations (most of the time, without the use of a flash). This is what makes concert photography such a thrilling yet challenging endeavor. Most concerts, if not outside in the middle of the day, foster an atmosphere that is dark, dramatic, and moody. To the concert-goer, the ambiance of a show is a true hallmark of the overall concert experience and can create a stunning and memorable visual narrative. But to the photographer, however, it presents many challenges, that if overcome, are incredibly rewarding.
Not only is stage lighting difficult in general, it is also incredibly unpredictable. Don’t let the amazing lighting during the opening band fool you, because it could instantly make a 180 flip as the headliner steps out. To add even more unpredictability, stage lighting can change drastically from song to song. Prepare yourself mentally now for nothing to go as expected.
I meant it when I said that all you have is all you need. No, you won’t have control over the lighting. No, you won’t be able to tell the artist to go back and do what they just did again. But you can make the most out of what is presented to you. You can start by becoming more conscious of the different elements of concert lighting. Next time you’re at a show, make note of how different elements like smoke machines, lasers, projection screens, spotlights, specific colors, etc., can affect the lighting. Becoming more aware of these special effects will help you learn to identify when a certain lighting scenario is more optimal for photography than others.
Remember that experiencing live music is a privilege and passion, and is meant to be enjoyed. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to capture the perfect photo that you miss entirely the fun of the moment. The last thing you want to do is leave a concert feeling disappointed and distracted. In my own experience, it is difficult for me to document the moment while also being fully present. I have learned to limit myself on how much time I’ll spend trying to take photos or videos on concerts. Before the show, I’ll typically pick three songs that I know we’ll be on the setlist and dedicate those minutes to photography. And I make a pact with myself, that no matter how awful I think the photos came out, I won’t photograph more than those 3 songs.
Take A Million Photos
Okay, I know I literally just said to limit you’re photo taking, and I really believe you should. But also, here is my next tip: take a million photos. During the time that you are intentionally taking photos, take as many as you can. The more photos you take, the higher the chances that you’ll capture a stunning moment. Since there are so many unpredictable elements of concerts and the fact this is probably your first time experiencing this show on this tour, you’re pretty much going in blind.
Unless you can see into the future, you just can’t know when the lead singer is going to do a kick flip off the piano. You’re best bet in getting a great shot is by using the “spray and pray” method– meaning, click that shutter button as quickly as you can. Don’t even look at the photos, just tap, tap, tap away and hope that you catch a stunner. By taking a large number of photos, you increase the likelihood of capturing those fleeting moments of pure magic. You’ll still need to be strategic with the “spray and pray” method. If you’re a little too mindless when clicking away, you’ll just end up with a ton of blurry, unusable photos. Here’s what you can consider to do it effectively…
Your Phone’s Capabilities
Smartphones are called smart for a reason. Some of their features and abilities are almost comparable to DSLR cameras. Before a show, take some time to play around with your phone’s camera settings. Depending on how recent your phone model was released, you potentially have the ability to shoot in RAW format, which will help you immensely during the editing process. Get familiar with all the adjustments you can make in your camera’s settings. For iPhones specifically, these include settings like frame rate, lens correction, macro control, night mode, portrait zoom, pro res, live photos, etc. There’s a lot you can play with. Learning what your phone can do will help you operate it better and more efficiently during a show.
Anticipate the Action
I’m assuming you’re familiar with the songs that the band will be playing. If that’s true, than you can anticipate high-energy moments. The choruses and bridges of a song are typically when artists are most expressive. Keep your phone pointed toward them and get ready to hit the shutter. You don’t always have to take photos during high-energy songs. A slow ballad, in which the artist is barely moving, also serves as the perfect moment to get a good shot.
Diversify Your Shots
Don’t take the same shot repeatedly. Make tiny, slight adjustments as you rapid fire in order to diversify the composition, angles, and focal lengths of your photos. Be careful not to move too quickly, as an unsteady hand will cause blur and light streaks. Play with the zoom and lighting settings. Capture wide shots that show the entire stage, close-ups of individual musicians, and even crowd reactions. Zooming in too far often detracts from the quality of the image, however turning down the exposure down can sometimes offset its pixelated side effects.
The Position Your Phone
If you’re short like me, it can be difficult to see the band, especially if someone way taller than you is standing directly in front of you. You don’t always need to photos from your eye level. Don’t be afraid to lift your arms up high above your head to get better views of the stage. Even if you can’t see your screen, just point your phone towards the stage and fire away.
Continuous Shooting Mode
I’m not the biggest fan of this method, but it does have the potential to work in your favor. Continuous shooting mode is when you hold down the shutter button and your phone takes a ton of photos all at once. I tend to find that using continuous shooting mode slows down my phone and often doesn’t produce quality photos. But I think it can work if used sparingly and only during cool, high-movement stunts, like an artist spinning around or crowd surfing. Try it for yourself and see how you like it!
Charge Your Phone & Check Your Storage
I almost forgot to mention, make sure your phone is charged! If you push your phone past it’s limits, it may lag, overheat, or even shut down completely. Also, this is really important, make sure you have enough storage on your phone! If you are low on storage, don’t wait until the last minute to clean up your photos. I’d hate for you be mid-concert, sorting through and deleting memories of Grandma’s 90th Birthday Bash or other precious moments when you could be taking photos and enjoy the concert.
Edit! Edit! Edit!
Editing is the secret sauce that can take any average photo and make it great. You don’t need to be an expert to enhance your photos, and you don’t need to pay for industry-standard editing programs to do so. Before you begin editing however, you do need to sort through your photos to find those promising shots. Trust me, is not worth your time to edit hundreds of photos. A majority of your photos won’t even be viable anyway. Let’s say you took 500 photos using the “spray and pray” method, I wouldn’t be surprised if you only ended up with 5 really good ones. While a 1% success ratio sounds absolutely astounding, remember… the goal was never to take a million photos so that you could walk away with a million photos. The goal was to get the one shot that will help you build your concert photography portfolio before eve having professional experience. We just used the advantages of “quantity” to increase our chances of capturing “quality”.
Here is my method for sorting through photos efficiently– I’ll start at the top of the night and swipe through each photo fairly quickly, not spending more than 2 seconds on one image. When an image does catch my eye, I heart it. I don’t examine the image further, I just favorite it and keep moving on through to the end of the night. Once I’m finished with that round, then I’ll go through my hearted photos and repeat. This time, however, I’ll pay a little bit more attention to detail, focusing on the composition, facial expressions, sharpness, lighting, colors, etc. Mind you, I haven’t started editing yet. I’m just trying to condense my need-to-edit list by weeding out the ones that aren’t as compelling.
When sorting through your photos, don’t ever be too quick to dismiss one. It’s easy to glance over a dark shot and assume that it’s not even worth trying to save. But you will be surprised at how much potential can be unlocked through the power of editing. That dark, seemingly unusable shot may hold hidden treasures waiting to be revealed.
Once you have a handful of your best shots, it’s time to enhance them. Editing is where your photos truly come to life. It’s the process of refining your shots that make them shine even more. Be careful not to over-edit. You don’t want to fabricate or take away from the authenticity of live music. You more so want to elevate the quality of your photos in order to better communicate what it truly felt like to be there in that moment.
There is so much you can do through editing. Here is where I like to start…
Exposure and Contrast
Usually, the very first thing I adjust is the exposure and contrast. You’ll want to find the balance between brightening up underexposed areas and toning down the overexposed parts. If you shoot your photos in RAW format, you’ll have a lot more range and capability when adjusting the exposure. You can take it even further with selective adjustments. For example, you can adjust the exposure or contrast of a certain part of the photo rather than the entire photo.
Oftentimes, concert lighting can make an artist’s skin appear blue or pink. While it can be tricky to find the right settings to portray a natural look, it’s not impossible. I typically play with the white balance, saturation, and green/pink tints. It will take time to learn what combinations of adjustments work well. As you gain more experience, you’ll find yourself getting quicker in the process.
Sharpening & Grain
Because you’re taking photos on your iPhone or smartphone, increasing the sharpness may help a photo look of higher quality. Be careful not to over sharpen, otherwise, it may cause harsh lines and look unnatural. Grain is probably my most favorite effect ever. I don’t think I’ll get tired of grain. I know… people always ask, why would you add grain, aren’t you trying to make it look higher quality? I don’t care what people say about grain. I personally, think grain (when executed well) adds the pizazz. I don’t know that I can explain why, a photo with the right amount of grain just feels more real to me. Adding grain can also be used to your advantage when it comes to iPhone photos. Grain can actually hide or mask a low quality photo. For example, if a photo isn’t as sharp as it could be, just add a bit of grain, and voila… it looks intentional. Play around with grain for yourself and see how it effects an image.
A lot of beginner photographers take cropping for granted, but it is SO important. Cropping allows you to adjust your photo’s composition. It is a powerful tool that you can use to refine your shots and direct your audience’s eyes to the most captivating part of your photo. If you’re unsure of where to start when it comes to cropping, I encourage you to look up terms like rule of thirds, background, and foreground. If you’ve been staring at a photo too long and don’t know where to crop it, take a break from looking at it, then come back to it and make yourself aware of where your eyes draw to first. Do your eyes draw first to the random guy’s face on the very edge of the photo? You may want to crop him out. Does the subject of your photo have a ton of space above their head? You may want to crop the top of photo. Play with different crops as well, make slight adjustments and see how you like the framing of it. I can be a bit perfectionist when it comes to cropping, I will literally make the slightest adjustments until I find a position that feels right. A lot of editing is trial and error. As you edit more, you’ll notice what you do like and what you don’t. Have fun with it!
Spot removal may take a little bit more practice. If your photos have distracting elements, like spots or blemishes, spot removal tools can help you clean up your images. I like to use spot removal for things like weirdly placed lights, exit signs, or anything that can be removed that would enhance the photo. There are apps that help with spot removal, but it can be finicky. Be careful not to remove a distraction at the cost of making a focal point blurry or distorted. For example, if there is a light that is coming out of your subject’s ear, you’ll risk distorting their head in order to remove the light.
Filters and Presets
If you’re completely lost on where to start with editing, filters and presets are a great launching pad. Presets don’t always work for every photo. In fact, you may still have to make adjustments after applying a preset. However, they are a great starting point. When using presets, I typically will apply a preset that I think looks pretty good, and then I’ll adjust the exposure or the white balance to enhance the photo even further. If I have a batch of photos that are similar in lighting, I like to edit one first and create my own preset. Then I’ll apply that preset to the rest of the batch and make slight adjustments as needed. This saves me a ton of time in the long run.
Editing is more than just adjusting the brightness and contrast; it’s about bringing out the colors, details, and emotions that might have been lurking in the shadows. Elements of a photo that you can play with are cropping, exposure and contrast, highlights, shadows, color correction, sharpening, noise reduction, grain, vibrance and saturation, hues, white balance, spot removal, filters presets… truly the possibilities are endless.
Don’t limit yourself to a single editing program. Experiment with multiple apps and explore their features. One app may offer a unique capability that another one doesn’t. Try different variations of edits for a single photo. Go back and forth between edits and try to identify how specific tools affect a photo in what ways. Apps that I used starting out, and still use to this day, are VSCO, AfterLight, SnapSeed, and Photoshop Express.
Remember that editing is a process that takes time and involves trial and error. There is no one-size-fits-all. What works for one image might not work for another, even if they are very similar shots. As you experiment, you’ll learn what editing techniques you resonate with, and you’ll be able to refine your style with time and experience.
Don’t forget to have fun while you’re editing! Put on the setlist you just experienced live, embrace the challenge, and enjoy the journey. The satisfaction that comes with turning a seemingly hopeless photo into a stunning work of art will be well worth it. It’s not just about the destination; it’s about relishing every step of the creative process that unfolds as you breathe new life into your photos.
Lean Into Your Creativity
Remember, photography is art. And art is subjective. There is no right way to create. There is no wrong way. If you like what you create, that is all that matters. Whether other people like your art or not does not subtract from the value of your art. Art is an expression, and what you choose to express and how you express it is completely up to you.
As a beginner concert photographer without professional experience, truly the world is your oyster. You have the freedom to experiment. As you take more photos and as you edit, you’ll start to develop your own style. You’ll learn what you like and don’t like. A challenge that esteemed photographers can run into is getting stuck in one style and feeling stifled, or fearing people’s disapproval if they do try to break out of their style. But you don’t have that issue yet. You have free reign to experiment as wildly as you please. You can edit a photo one way and then the next day, edit it a completely different way. This is your season to discover. Don’t be afraid to make “bad” edits. Sometimes the “bad” edits help us realize what a “good” edit is.
No matter how much you edit a photo, sometimes it just never works because the photo is just too low quality. This will happen more often while you’re taking shots on your smartphone. But, that doesn’t mean you have to throw out your photos. Here’s where you can lean into your creativity. An image is too blurry? What if you add even more blur to it so that it communicates motion? Boom– that’s art. Can figure out how to make the artist’s skin tone look natural? What if you added a vibrant color gradient map over the entire photo? Boom– that’s art. Is your subject’s face too dark? What if you made their face even darker and added some light scribbles over their face? Boom– that’s art. The point I’m trying to make is that whatever creativity you unleash, don’t be ashamed of it. Lean into it. Appreciate it. Be intentional. Your confidence in your art will translate so much more than the technicalities of it.
Remember that creativity is a journey, not a destination. Your style and vision will evolve over time as you gain experience and inspiration. Don’t be afraid to take risks and push the boundaries of your creativity. Your portfolio will be all the more captivating for it.
LAUV | Show Date: 10.19.19 | Los Angeles, CA @ The Wiltern
Focus On Storytelling
Beyond the technical aspects of photography, storytelling is a powerful tool in your portfolio-building journey. Storytelling involves how you capture the atmosphere, emotions, and narratives of live shows through your images. A compelling story can elevate your portfolio and encapsulate the essence of the event, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in the experience. As a concert photograph without professional experience, you can heavily lean on storytelling to captivate your audience’s attention.
Here are some techniques to help you tell a compelling story through your concert photography:
The Opening Shot: Start your story with a strong opening shot that sets the scene and captures the essence of the event. This could be a wide-angle shot of the stage and the excited crowd or a captivating detail that draws the viewer in.
Capture Emotions: Music is an emotional journey, and your photos should reflect that. Focus on capturing the emotions of both the performers and the audience. Shots of a singer pouring their heart into a ballad or fans lost in the music can be powerful storytelling moments.
Sequence of Shots: Use a sequence of photos to narrate a specific moment or performance. Capture the buildup, climax, and resolution of a musical moment. This storytelling technique allows viewers to experience the music’s dynamics.
Behind the Scenes: Don’t forget the behind-the-scenes moments. Candid shots of musicians preparing backstage, fans queuing up, or crew members working behind the scenes can add depth to your narrative.
Interaction: Highlight interactions between musicians and their fans. Whether it’s a high-five from the stage, a musician connecting with the crowd, or fans singing along, these interactions tell a powerful story of connection.
Crowd Reactions: The audience is an integral part of the live music experience. Capturing their reactions, from ecstatic cheers to heartfelt sing-alongs, is key to storytelling.
Capture the Journey: If you’re photographing a tour, document the journey from city to city. Showcase the different venues, the changing crowds, and the band’s evolving energy.
Moment of Impact: Identify the pivotal moments of a performance, whether it’s the singer hitting that high note, the guitarist’s epic solo, or the drummer’s heart-pounding beat. These are the moments that leave a lasting impression.
Artist’s Connection: Pay attention to the connection between the artist and their instrument. The intense strumming of a guitar, the fingers gliding over piano keys, or the sweat on a drummer’s brow all tell a story of passion and artistry.
Closure and Reflection: Conclude your story with a closing shot that brings the narrative full circle. It could be a shot of the crowd’s satisfied smiles as they leave the venue or a quiet moment of reflection after an intense performance.
As you curate your portfolio, ensure that your selected images align with your storytelling vision. Arrange them in a sequence that flows naturally and evokes the atmosphere and emotions of the live shows you’ve captured. With storytelling at the forefront of your portfolio, you’ll engage viewers and transport them to the heart of the music experience.
By following these comprehensive steps, you can confidently embark on your journey to build a remarkable portfolio, even if you lack professional experience. Photography is an ever-evolving art, and with each click of the shutter, you’ll enhance your skills, creativity, and storytelling abilities. Your portfolio will serve as a testament to your dedication and passion for the craft, reflecting the joy and energy of live music through captivating images.
LANY | Show Date: 09.03.21 | West Hollywood, CA @ The Troubadour