If there’s anything you should bring to a live concert, especially if it’s on the rock/punk side of things, bring good earplugs. Here in Switzerland the law says that concert promoters have to provide everyone with free earplugs and that the music can’t be louder than 100db. Considering that at 120db, your hearing already suffers permanent damage even when the impact of sound is very short, I’m kind of grateful for that.
Still (and IMHO ridiculously enough), bands coming here to play concerts make fun of this law. I think even the 100db are insanely loud. Maybe it’s because I, as opposed to people who spend their live playing loud punkrock in small clubs with stone walls, still have decent hearing ;-)
If you’re taking photos at concerts, you mostly stand in the pit – right in front of the bass speakers. Depending on the band on stage during the concert, it can get extremely loud there – I’ve had my bangs shake from the vibrations from there, so I don’t even want to know what that loudness level is doing to the tiny hairs in my ears that allow me to hear.
The earplugs the promoters distribute at concerts are the cheapest kind: Pieces of foam rubber. They do their job of protecting ears during a live music event very well, but they also distort the sound, as they don’t filter out every frequency equally well. Being at a concert with that kind of earplugs, to me, is the equivalent of visiting an art exhibition wearing dark sunglasses.
So I decided to get myself better earplugs for photographing concerts, and found some at the local music & drum store. They’re made of some sort of plastic, have a lamellae-shaped tip and exchangeable “filters” for different loudness levels. Advantage: They distort the live music sound much less than the foam rubber ones. Medium disadvantage: They cost around $60. Disadvantage: They hurt. The lamellae at the tip close the auditory canal, thus quieting the sound, but they’re perfectly circular – which my auditory canal isn’t. Also, they’re wider than my AC, so they press firmly against it. I’ve found myself fidgeting more with those earplugs than actually taking photos at concerts at times because they hurt me too much – and ended up taking them out, which sort of defies the purpose of buying special earplugs for taking photos at concerts in the first place.
The solution to my problem costs around $300: Custom-made earplugs. They too are made of silicone or a similar material that quietens the sound equally over all frequencies, they too have exchangeable filters for different levels of loudness. But they exactly fit my ears. How? Well, I went to a place where they sell hearing aids and told them I wanted custom earplugs for going to rock concerts. They took a mold of each of my ears’ auditory canals, and made a pair of earplugs from that, which took them about a day. Sound- and comfort-wise, I have never been more satisfied at concerts or other events that had loud music. I can hear the mix perfectly while being sure that my ears are protected.
I think the $300 are money well invested, considering that I probably would spend more than that to get my hearing back if I were deaf. The only other “alternative” would be not going to live concerts, really.
In short, earplugs are the most important thing to bring for anyone attending a live music event, whether you’re taking photos with a cell phone, a DSLR, or not at all.
Black Rapid Straps
I put these in the “live concert photography” section because that’s where I use them the most, but I really think that anyone who’s got a SLR and doesn’t put it on a tripod by default should own a Black Rapid Strap. Here’s why:
If you only bring one camera to take photos at a concert, you don’t need a strap. You just hold the camera in your hands and occasionally curse yourself for not having brought a strap because the damn thing is getting really heavy while you’re waiting for the band to take the stage. Or the tiger to appear from the jungle, if that’s what you’re taking photos of.
If you’re like me and are shooting with more than one camera, you definitely will need a way of attaching them more or less safely to you unless you like jeopardizing your precious cameras and lenses leaving them laying on the floor for other concert photographers to stumble over.
Hand straps are not a solution unless you have two right hands (I have yet to see a camera that’s made for left-handed shooters; attaching your camera to your left hand sort of doesn’t work as intended).
The strap that ships with your camera isn’t an option either. I never figured out what purpose those are supposed to serve. Considering their length, they seem to be made to hang your camera(s) around the neck or over the shoulder. But their edges are so sharp you’re going to slice your neck open, strangulate you if you have more than one hanging from there, or then just slide off of your shoulders obeying the law of gravity. For most normally-built people they’re too short to allow wearing them on the opposite shoulder – and again, once you wear more than one, happy strangulating yourself while you try moving one camera up and putting the other one down. As soon as you want to move the camera, the strap has to move too. That’s stupid. And that’s where the Black Rapid straps come into play.
Whatever you do with your camera during the concert, all straps stay where they are. You attach a carabine to the camera’s tripod mount and let that slide along the strap while you pull your camera up and down. They’re nicely padded to keep your neck and shoulders from being sliced open. And since they’re both adjustable in length and can be fixed to one another, you can both wear them across your body (1 camera) or like a backpack (2 cameras) to keep them from sliding of. It’s almost hands-free concert photography :)
Two Cameras, Two Lenses
Over in the section about cameras & lenses I wrote at length about which cameras and lenses I chose and why for photographing live music. But why bring all of that stuff at once, why carry the “extra” weight?
If you only have one lens and one camera, obviously that’s what you’re going to take your concert photos with. But once you have more equipment, you will start having to change your lenses, which will get you dust on your sensor. And even if you’re a concert photographer like me and you mostly take photos at a very high aperture with a very dark background, the day will come when you want to take a photo in bright sunlight against a blue sky and you will see that dust. And hate yourself for not having cleaned the sensor before.
More importantly than that, exchanging lenses takes time. At a live concert, you usually have the first three songs only to take your photos – so you don’t want to waste that time screwing and un-screwing lenses. If you bring two lenses and two cameras, not only do you have a backup in case one fails, your tele or wide-angle lens is always ready for you.
I’m a metalhead and naturally wear a lot of dark stuff. But I’ve seen so many people show up to take photos at a concert dressed inappropriately that I just have to say this:
You can never wear enough black if you work in the proximity of a stage and are not the artist.
Even if it’s summer and blistering hot, please wear at least a dark t-shirt. If you’re one of those people that are bright blond and have an afro that would put the 70ies to shame, please tie your hair back and hide it under a black hood while you’re at it.
If you’re a girl shooting a concert, please remember that people have come to see the artist. The audience is annoyed by the concert photographers being in their line of sight anyway, and you’re not going to make yourself less visible if you show more skin – especially if you’re a pale-skinned chick like me. If you want to show off your female charms at a rock concert, drop the camera and make your way to the backstage entrance.