How To Shoot a Band in a Dark Bar

Vasoline at Ramona Mainstage

Vasoline -

To shoot a band in a dark bar or under low light conditions, I start here: Manual mode: f/2.8, 1/160th, ISO 6400.

Who To Shoot

I like to shoot local bands. Yeah, if the Stones asked me I suppose I'd take a few shots just as a favor, but what I really like is shooting no-names, has-beens and might-be-somedays. For one thing, there's a crying need: your average working band has a website full of nasty little cellphone-camera photos, if that. Here's the perfect opportunity to justify the fortune you spent on spiffy gear, and now and then you'll find they're pathetically grateful for whatever you bestow upon them. Theoretically you could even get paid for the shots, but I wouldn't know about that. Hey, they're getting paid maybe $200 for that gig, split 7 ways. Just be nice and do it.

What to Shoot

It all comes down to expressions. You gotta have the technical aspects right, if you want to stand out from the cellphone crowd, but if you don't get a good expression the shot will go nowhere. This means waiting until the guitarist is NOT staring at his fretboard, and the singer opens her eyes.

For me, the money shots are the closeups. Get in with your ridiculously expensive zoom and catch that soulful look in the singer's eyes, or the clenched teeth of the lead guitarist.

Davide Mazzantini with Ain't Nothin But Blues jam

Davide Mazzantini at Ain't Nothin' But Blues jam

Jesse Malley of The Tilt

Jesse Malley of The Tilt -

Zoom past the front line and catch the drummer--nobody ever shoots drummers. Just be sure you get the sticks in view.

Rick Smithwith Burning Down

Rick Smith with Burning Down

Jerry Angel sitting in with The Highwayman Show

Jerry Angel of The Blasters

The cool shots are the closeups, but try to get in some wide shots, too. What makes a wide shot, or a full-band shot, work is emotion. If you can get the players interacting, riffing together, moving around, that's great.

Rattz at Brick By Brick

Rattz at Brick by Brick


DiveBomber -

Smack This

Smack This

Madman at House of Blues

Madman -

I'm big on effects. Mostly I use Nik Software's ColorEfexPro, but I've been known to dabble with Topaz Adjust and just plain ol' Photoshop filters and layers. The thing is, there's only so much you can do with some guy standing behind a mike. And most of these guys are ugly, anyway. And they know it. So. . .bands love weird stuff that makes them look cool. This is way fortunate, because with crappy light--and usually you'll be working with crappy light--the only way to salvage the shoot is to go with effects. Black-and-white is the original effect; great for noisy photos and red stage lights.

Tyler Melen, Back To Black

Tyler Melen of Back 2 Black

Mango Mike Flores of Mango Bay

Mike Flores -

Rich Varville

Rich Varville

Scotty Billion of Madman

Scotty Billion of Madman

Nik's filters offer an endless supply of stuff no band has ever seen. Give 'em a few like these and you'll be a hero.

The Airborne Toxic Event

The Airborne Toxic Event

Billy Alexander

Billy Alexander of the Alaina Blair Band




If you've never shot a band before, look online for local blues jams. They tend to be a mix of wannabee musicians and old guys who once did it all. The dance floor is bound to be empty, so you can walk right up to the stage and click away--since nobody ever shows up with a decent camera, they'll be delighted to have you show what rock gods they are. Introduce yourself and make some contacts; post the pix on Facebook and be a local hero.


Here's where that ridiculously expensive full-frame DSLR pays off: it'll have much less noise in a dark room. But even so, you'll need a fast lens. If you don't have a collection of f/2.8 zooms, bring a couple of primes, like an f/1.4 35mm and an f/1.4 85mm. Or whatever you can afford--Canon and Nikon make f/1.8 50mm primes for around a hundred bucks that'll get you started. I usually have two lenses, a wide and a long; zooms if I know I'll have the light, primes otherwise. Expect to be shooting at ISOs of 3200 or better; it's a rare bar where you can get away with 1600. You need that high an ISO to get the shutter speeds you need--1/160th is pretty much the minimum if they're moving around at all. And they will be, trust me. Typically, you'll want to be on the left side of the stage for guitarists and drummers, though ideally you'll be roaming around. Don't be shy: it's amazing what you can get away with if you're carrying a large camera and act like you belong there. Focus is critical: I use One-Shot to hold the focus on the near eye while I re-frame. Shutter speed is the next most important thing, to freeze the action. Well, sometimes you want a little blur, like for the drumsticks in motion. Depth of field. . .it ain't gonna happen with any sort of a long lens wide open. If you're zoomed in to 200mm at f/2.8, you're not going to get two players in focus. On the other hand, a 24mm lens will give you pretty much everything in focus, even if you're close up. You iPhone users can download the free app SimpleDoF and see beforehand what you're likely to have.


I avoid flash if I can. It usually kills the whole stage/rock ambience, throws shadows on the wall and annoys everybody. When I'm forced to use it, I keep my ISO up around 1600 to minimize the blast. An external battery pack is helpful because it reduces the recycle time--I've been using a Godox that's pretty good. If I can, I bounce the light off a wall for a more subtle effect. The one good thing about flash is that it allows you to catch performers in mid-air.

Stephanie O'Dell with Get Groovin

Stephanie O'Dell with Get Groovin'

Back to Black

Tyler Melen with Back To Black

I often bring two cameras: both are Canon 5D Mk IIIs, one with a 70-200 f/2.8 zoom and the other with a 24-70 f/2.8 zoom. That's if I know the stage lighting is pretty good, or if I know I'll be using flash. For darker bars, I'm currently using two Sigma f/1.4 lenses: 85mm and 35mm. The BlackRapid dual sling is the only way to go.

I usually wear an ever-so-stylish fannypack with a flash (just in case), battery pack, whatever extra lens I might want to play with and accessories like a spare camera battery, CF card, cleaning cloth--and a couple of sets of earplugs! Remember, with any luck you're going to be right up in front of the stage and you are going to get the full force of those big mains. Bring a pair and plan on dropping one; that's why you bring the second pair. I like to wear something dark and unobtrusive. . .like you can actually be unobtrusive with a foot-long white Canon L-lens on your camera. Gotta try, though. Extra points if you can find a beer can holder for your fanny pack. It gets to be a long night if you have to stay sober.