I recently got the opportunity to shoot a live music event in Trois-Rivières, QC. This annual event, Metalfest, was held in an industrial building over two days. Having shot concerts in many small venues over the years I have gotten accustomed to shooting these small rooms where the crowd is easy to get around and the bands are easy to get close to. This event, on the other hand, featured a huge main stage that was shoulder height: a totally different animal.
I definitely didn’t want to bring my whole bag with me, so I figured I should narrow it down to two lenses. In my bag is a 14-24mm f-2.8, a 24-70mm f/2.8, an 80-200mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.4 and a 85mm f/1.8. There are others, but their use was negligible. I could go either with zoom lenses or with prime lenses, or I could do a bit of both.
What I ended up going with was the 50mm and the 80-200mm, figuring it would cover any acceptable range. I thought the stage would have been too large to need the 14-24, and therefore left it home. How wrong I was.
I probably have learned many more things during this experience, but here are the top 7:
Don’t break the rules. Bouncers don’t like that. If you don’t know the rules, find out what the rules are.
A 50mm lens won’t do much for you, neither from the front of the stage or from the crowd. It’s too much of a normal lens and it won’t get you close enough or grant you access to interesting angles. Primes may sound like a good idea given their larger aperture and their ability to shoot in lower light, but being stuck to a single point on the floor makes it difficult to properly frame the subject. Hence the need for a zoom lens.
An 80-200mm is too close for shooting from the front of the stage, dead centre. It being a metal show, most lead singers enjoy to stand right at the edge of the stage, which makes up-the-nose shots plentiful, but still not flattering. I still found the 80-200mm better than switching to my 50mm if I stuck to the sides of the stage and shot across from one side to the other.
A 14-24mm would have been the best lens for the front of the stage. Especially when you get these singers leaning in for the scream. Such a super-wide lens stuck in their faces, or the camera held at arm’s length would have made for some awesome perspective shots.
The best shots came from the crowd area, standing near the side of the pit, with my 80-200mm. As a metal fan I really enjoyed my time at the front of the stage, but mostly because I was so close to some of my idols that you could have been pulling on their leg hairs (which I didn’t do). Maybe I would be singing a different song if i would have had my 14-24mm, but I found the better shots came from standing from within the crowd, bordering the pit (pro tip: keep both eyes open). At the 80-200mm range you’re right in the wheelhouse of flattering portrait focal distances. Now I don’t know if the three song rule applied to everywhere in the building or just to being at the front of the stage, but I didn’t ask. Like Jared Polin says: I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission. However, it may be safer to refer to item # 1 above if you want to avoid pissing off large hairy men dressed in uniform.
Go extra-wide and telephoto: no need for in between. A 24-70mm, much like the 50mm, is a bit too normal to be of any use, especially when a 14-24mm is available. I was debating bringing the 24-70mm, but it turns out it would have been too much of a normal lens.
Don’t forget the drummer. Although he’s tucked away all the way in the back, he’s part of the band and needs to be photographed as well. I took a few shots of only two of the drummers I encountered. For the others, I was simply overcome by the pressure that installs itself once the bands make it to stage, knowing that you only have three songs to work with. Once you’re back at the back of the room, it’s way too far to get a decent shot of the drummer. I should have used my 80-200mm to get these shots while at the front. Drummers have feelings too.
Lesson learned. You can find a selection of the event’s images here.