Tilman is a freelance photographer and official Fujifilm X-Photographer from Switzerland. He has photographed for nearly 30 years. Originally, his interest was in sports photography, but in recent years, the focus has shifted to concert and music editorial photography.
When did you started taking pictures of live bands and musicians and why?
Actually I already took concert pictures way back in high school for the school newspaper. In addition some friends of mine had a band and they asked me to take pictures of their concerts and some promo pictures. One of these promo pictures is still on my current website. These were the “good, old times” with film and a real darkroom. Nevertheless this was originally when my spark for music photography started. After high school it was on and off and I really got back into music photography in 2008 when I got the opportunity to shoot some Swedish bands at a local club in Bern.
What are the difficulties of live photography and how do you solve them?
You have to deal with variable lighting conditions, moving subjects, tight spaces, and a limited time to get the shots. This pretty much sums up the challenge you have.
Starting with the limited time. There is not really much you can do. At bigger concert you are normally allowed only to take pictures during the first three songs, but don’t be surprised if artists change the rules when you are at the venue to two songs or something else. It simply means that you need take the first song to get some safe shoots and any additional song / time gives you the possibility for some shots from a different angle. At smaller venue or with smaller bands this doesn’t necessarily apply and therefore it helps, especially when you just start. But remember to move around at the venue. First of all it gives you pictures from different angles and secondly, and more important, you don’t block the view of paying audience.
Tight space is not such critical challenge. If you are in the pit (the area in front of the stage), you have to arrange yourself with the other photographers. If there is no pit, then you have to arrange yourself with the audience. They will understand that you are only there for a limited time and that once you are gone, they can enjoy the concert to the full extent. I’m personally not so unhappy if there is no pit, as it gives directly a different perspective and you can include the fans as well in the picture, showing a different angle of the concert.
Luckily artists move around on stage, but of course this provides another challenge. In order to freeze the movement, the shutter speed should be at 1/125 sec or shorter. This means that you normally have to shoot with your aperture wide open, hence you need lenses with an open aperture of f/2.8 or better and crank up your ISO. Yes, the last point means that you will add some noise to your pictures, but frankly speaking, most digital cameras nowadays can handle easily ISO 3200 or 6400.
Last, but not least the biggest challenge: lighting. Unless you are very close to the band, you have no say what lighting will be up during the concert and even then... So you might end up with dim washes of light in single hues of red, blue, or green. While this makes for great audience presentation, it can leave a digital photographer both metaphorically and literally seeing red. In this connection shooting in RAW and using the largest bit depth possible as it retains as much of the image data as possible, comes in handy. Additionally you can make adjustments, if needed, during post processing. A common way of dealing with extensive red light is converting the picture to black and white, but it is not always an option. Sometimes even red pictures can be appealing.
During a concert the light situation can be different within seconds, it doesn’t help if you adjust/change the white balance setting on your camera to a predefined colour temperatures profile. Therefore I keep the white balance on auto mode. You still have the ability to change the white balance setting afterwards in postproduction, again if needed.
Lastly, even if the lighting conditions are challenging, never use flash! In general you are not allowed to use a flash in concert photography. Imagine a couple of photographers bursting their flashes at the same time. This would be quite annoying for the artist and this might also the reason why they came up with the rule “no flash” in the photo pit. I suggest learning concert photography using the available light.
What’s in your bag during a concert?
My favorite combination is the Fujifilm X-T2 + XF16mm F1.4. In addition I use quite often the XF16-55mm F2.8 or for bigger stages my XF50-140 F2.8. I usually have as well my X-T1 in my bag. For portraits I use either the XF35mm F2 or XF56mm F1.2 and for any fun shoots and overviews I have a Samyang 8mm F2.8. Although I own as well a XF10-24mm F4, I have not really used it a lot for music photography.
Are you shooting RAW or using one of the film simulations mode in JPEG?
90% of my shots are taken in RAW. My favourite film simulations are Classic Chrome and Acros. I started to like Acros when I got a Fujifilm X-Pro2 for testing, but I had to wait until I got my X-T2 to use it myself as it is unfortunately not available for the X-T1.
Do you have any advice to give to someone who wants to begin a music photography career?
Start small, one camera and a 35mm or a 50mm lens with aperture f/1.8 is enough. Although a kit zoom lens might be tempting, it is usually less versatile, especially as these lenses don’t have a fixed aperture. It is best to start your concert photography in some local clubs. Usually there is no restriction in terms of taking pictures during a concert, but to be on the safe side, I would still ask beforehand if it is really okay.
Build a dedicated portfolio website as soon as you can, if you are really serious about your photography. It adds more value to your portfolio than just presentation your pictures in a Flickr gallery or a similar website. However be critical with the selection of the pictures for your portfolio. When you start it might be tempting to show all your pictures, but you need to learn to be selective when it comes to presenting them. You are only as a good of a photographer as you show people you are. Quality is definitely more important than quantity...
Overall try to be so good that people cannot ignore you. Try to build value for yourself as a photographer, but as well for the artists and bands. You have to show that you have talent and drive and take pictures that no one else is taking.
Why do you use Fujifilm instead of a DSLR?
There are a couple of reasons, why I sold all my Nikon full frame DSLR equipment and went to Fujifilm. With my photography I try to capture special moments and thanks to the bright electronic viewfinder I see exactly how the image will look later. And because of the X-trans sensor a lot of the images can be used straight out of the camera, reducing my editing workflow to a minimum.
Another reason is weight of the Fujifilm system. DSLRs are rather heavy and so are their lenses. After changing to the Fujifilm not only got my camera bag lighter, but it got smaller as well, and after a day of shooting my back doesn’t complain anymore. In addition I carry my camera more often with me, even on private occasions.
Along with the weight goes the size of the Fujifilm camera. As my X-T2 & X-T1 are rather small compared to my previous DSLR, it becomes more a part of me, almost invisible. This makes it much easier to become unnoticed when taking pictures, especially in the backstage area, creating more closeness between my subjects and myself.
The overall combination of X-trans sensor, the high quality of the Fujinon XF lenses, especially the sharpness with wide open aperture, and the low light performance makes the X-T2 & X-T1 the best cameras I can use for my music photography.
By updating the firmware constantly, even adding new features and functions to existing cameras, Fujifilm itself shows the dedication and determination to the X-system and to its users as well.