Shooting Live Music With Olympus OM-D

Last weekend I was privileged to be shooting Bihzhu, a dear friend performing in her own live mini concert show “Bihzhu: In Bloom”, and I thought why not use this opportunity to share my experience and some tips on shooting live music using Olympus OM-D System? Typically in stage shows, the lighting is often far from deal and dealing with low light shooting, use of ISO6400 and above is unavoidable. Most people would hesitate and doubt the capabilities of Olympus OM-D or any Micro Four Thirds camera, having smaller image sensor, having to raise the ISO numbers. I am here to tell you that the camera is good enough and the Olympus OM-D performed admirably throughout the shoot. 
Special thanks to Bihzhu and band. Do check out their awesome music!
Of course, I also made a video about how to shoot live music on YouTube, since YouTube is all the rage now.

The stage was set up outdoors, with LED lights not shining on the performers directly, with plenty of back and side directional lighting. There was no bright white or warm light to neutralize the skin tones, so I was dealing constantly with shifting heavy color casts of blue, yellow, red, purple, green, you name it, all colors being destructive to what we normally consider ideal for stage photography. Nonetheless, my job was merely to document the event and capture the performance as true to what it was on stage, so I was not too concerned about color accuracy.

My gear set up was rather simplistic. I was using my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II with M.Zuiko PRO lenses, 7-14mm, 17mm, 25mm, 45mm and 40-150mm. The 40-150mm f2.8 PRO was the most used lens of the night, followed by 45mm F1.2 PRO.  All the other lenses were rarely used and stayed in the bag just in case.

Here are some tips I can share if you want to shoot live music performance.

Yes, keep moving, and moving. Do not stay at one spot for too long. If you want to add drama and have dynamic shots, standing still won’t deliver much. You need to move around, go to the side of the stage, to the front, behind the stage if possible, shoot from the crowd’s perspective, the more you move, the more opportunities for creative composition you are creating for yourself. The biggest mistake I observe from many newcomers to stage music shooting, was staying at one spot throughout the duration of the show and just rely on the convenience of the telephoto zoom lens. Don’t be lazy, work those legs, and your images will shine. Variety is important, and having composition options can significantly improve your overall series of photos.

Most people shy away from high ISO and cringe when they see grains of high ISO noise in the images. To me, it is more crucial to get the shot, regardless of what ISO number I use. Noise will always be there, and noise is NOT important in this scenario. You should not prioritize clean images with minimal noise when it comes to event type shooting. Focus on the moment, and nail the crucial moments. What is the point of getting a clean shot, if you have a blurry shot due to motion (shutter speed not fast enough), or worse, missing the moment completely? I’d rather have a slightly noisier image with the dramatic moment successfully captured within the frame, to tell a better story! If you did not even get the photo, there was no story to tell. There are ways to clean up the noise later if it becomes too intrusive, but go high ISO if  necessary. For this shoot, I went as high as ISO12,800, and I was pleasantly satisfied with the image outcome.

The stage has constantly changing light with strong color cast, the camera (any camera at all, not just Olympus) has difficulty catching up to the rapidly changing light. Some people swear by the use of “custom white balance” to get the  perfect white balance every single time. I would love to see you try adjusting your white balance manually when the LED lighting  changes in every 5 seconds or less. Shooting in RAW is the best solution in this situation. Not having to worry about color and white balance allows you to pay more attention to the critical moments and nail the crucial shots on stage. I always like to keep things simplified, and I only worry about white balance in post-processing.

This may not have anything to do with camera tricks or tips, but you should always make sure that the mcirophone is not covering the mouth or face, that if the main singer is singing, the mouth should be open! Focus on the intense facial expression, the hand gestures, the body movement, all the important drama that can add a lot of impact to your photograph.

Live music is a two way interaction between the artists and the audience. It is not live music if you do not shoot the audience. Use wide angle lens to establish the location, to show the overall presence of the performers and the crowd. Use longer lenses to zoom into the tighter expression on the audience’s face, choose the more expressive bunch.  That connection between audience and performers is extremely important in any live music shooting.

This was a photography assignment, so I had two photographer friends assisting me. Remember, we are only human, and I can only be at one spot at one time. Hence, it helps if there are other photographers at different locations to cover opportunities that I could otherwise have missed. Also, having back-up shooters are necessary when it comes to photography jobs, having back up to anything is a wise move.

I hope you have found those tips useful! Although I do not shoot live music/concerts for a living, I enjoyed myself thoroughly each and every time I did this. Who does not love music anyway? Being in the middle of the performance, absorbing all the positive vibes and energy while working the camera shutter clicking away, I could not have asked for a better way to spend the evening. 

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