Music Photography on Film

For fans of live music, making good images at a show can be its own whole important part of the experience of seeing an artist perform. With a film camera, a roll of film, and an eye for good lighting in a tricky setting, an imagemaker can emulate an artist’s vibe and style with the images they make. Here are some tips to make the most out of 36 frames in a music venue.

Kaytranada at Brooklyn Mirage, September 2022 on Cinestill 800T
  1. The Camera

Let’s start with the camera. In theory, any kind of camera could make an image in a dimly lit music venue, but what that image looks like will vary significantly based on quite a few of the technical aspects of that camera. You don’t have to buy a specific camera body or lens to make music photography–working with the materials you already have may push you to develop a unique style or process of your own.

An important factor in camera choice is the portability and convenience. A single-lens reflex (SLR) camera may provide the most variation for shutter speed and aperture, especially with a solid lens attached to it, but it might feel too big or obtrusive in a crowded venue. Opting for a compact point-and-shoot, or even a disposable camera in the right environment, can keep your whole camera kit light and easy to hold onto in the crowd.

Rina Sawayama at Brooklyn Steel, May 2022 on Cinestill 800T

Because a lot of music venues are low-lit spaces, keep in mind the aperture and shutter-speed range on the camera you’re taking out with you. Aperture and shutter-speed are two of the three components that determine how much light will make it onto the film loaded in your camera. A wide aperture and slower shutter speed will let more light into your camera–ideal for a low-light setting. When I’m entering a low-lit music venue, I defer to an aperture of f/1.8 and a shutter-speed of 1/100 of a second. Pushing the shutter-speed closer to a full second will lead to more motion blur on your images, but honestly? The right amount of motion blur on a photo can add a lot of character to the image.

Note: Some music venues won’t allow SLR cameras or cameras with detachable lenses inside if you don’t have photo credentials for the show. Try to check ahead when you can to find out what the venue policy is on cameras.

  1. Best Film Stocks

I almost always have one of two film-stocks loaded into my camera if I’m headed to a show: Cinestill 800T (a color film) or Ilford Delta 3200 (a black and white film). The numbers at the end of a film stock refer to the film’s ISO–the higher the number, the more sensitive that film is to receiving light. A light-sensitive film will capture more of an image in a low-lit space, like a music venue. 

The ISO of a film stock is one of three components that make up an image’s exposure. This triangle also includes the aperture and shutter speed. To get a properly exposed photo, the three need to balance each other out. When shooting in low light, a higher ISO will also let you use a shorter shutter speed, which can reduce blur from hand shake or movement on stage.

To take your film further, you can push a roll of 800T up to 1600 or even 3200. To push a roll, you just need to shoot it as if it’s ISO is higher, which allows you to use a shorter shutter speed in low-light settings. Pushing film requires some changes in the development process, and every exposure on the roll will have to be pushed to the same number of stops. Cinestill 800T, however, can be exposed normally at light metering for 1600 and 3200 ISO, which means you can expose it as if the ISO rating is higher without pushing the film. 

  1. Get Creative

Music venues, traditionally, have unique lighting production. It can be hard to work with, but it can set you up for some creative images. This is a space to embrace colors that you might not normally experiment with in lighting, like deep reds or full blue washes. Find moments when the person you’re photographing is backlit, or standing in silhouette against a big spotlight, for a different approach to lighting your subject.

Crowd at a Bully concert, June 2023 on Ilford HP5 ISO 4–

This is also an opportunity to play with long exposures, with or without a flash. Without a flash, long exposures bring motion blur to an image and can add a sense of movement and energy to an image. Use of flash is not allowed in a lot of bigger venues, and should be cleared by the artist before when possible. The flash will quickly illuminate the main subject, exposing their image to the film, but the long exposure will keep the shutter open and give the photo light streaks when you move the camera back and forth slightly. 

Musicians often incorporate visual elements in their shows–backdrops, signage, projections, among others.

The next time you’re heading out to catch a show, grab your camera and challenge yourself to make some photographs.

Ceremony at Brooklyn Meadows, October 2022 on Ilford Delta ISO 3200

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