Shooting live events with Fujifilm X Series cameras

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By Matt Hart

Shooting live music events is one of the trickiest disciplines in photography. Subjects move a lot, often lighting changes constantly and in general it can be a lot of hard work. With that said, live music events have passion by the bucket load and if you can capture that in a single frame it makes for some exceptional images. It could be a front man working the crowd, the guitarist tearing up a solo or people attending having the time of their lives, whatever it is, the subject matter can never be accused of being dull.

In this blog, I’m going to get a bit technical running you through the kit I use to shoot events and the reasons behind it. Also, we’ll cover what to look for when photographing live music. Enjoy!

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The kit

Right, let’s jump straight into it by running you through my usual kit for shooting live music and festivals.

Camera:

I usually take two camera bodies with me. The reason I do this is so I can use two different lenses and change quickly between them. My preference is the Fujifilm X-Pro2 and the Fujifilm X-T2 with the battery grip. Overall, the cameras are similar in terms of feature set but the build and handling of each make them serve a different purpose. The battery-gripped X-T2 has several advantages – Firstly, it allows me to shoot all day without needing to change batteries over. Secondly, I can switch to portrait and landscape orientation easily and lastly, the joystick for positioning the AF point is incredibly useful for accurate and quick focusing on specific subjects.

While the X-Pro2 is more than capable of shooting a live music event or festival, I like to keep the X-Pro2 free to shoot images of interesting people. These days I shoot with the X-Pro2 almost exclusively for my street photography, so bringing it to a festival makes a lot of sense for me. I’m taking my ever-faithful street photography setup and just applying it to a slightly different environment. For me, the main benefit is the rangefinder style. Unlike the X-T2, the viewfinder is off-centre and when you point it towards a subject, it doesn’t look like you’re aiming directly at them. This means people are far less likely to close up and act differently. Pointing a huge camera directly at a person usually means they’ll pose for their picture, but my aim is to capture the more candid, natural moments instead.

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Lenses:

With a lot of events, you will be firmly planted in what is lovingly referred to as ‘the pit’. This is the area at the front of the stage where you can see the performers and have the opportunity to take shots of them. For this, I will opt for the XF50-140mm lens. Its focal length suits subjects that are quite far away and it also allows me to zoom in enough to get a tight shot should I want to capture that. It’s also very useful for capturing people in the crowd on each others shoulder too.

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With the exception of the Fujinon 50-140mm XF lens, I mostly shoot with prime lenses. My kit bag usually comprises of the Fujinon 16mm f/1.4, Fujinon 23mm f/2 and sometimes the Fujinon 90mm f/2 lens too. I like to have the have fast, wide prime lenses, especially in low-light situations. I will alternate between the 16mm and the 23mm often and occasionally draw upon the 90mm when I want to capture close-up portraiture or to shoot a subject I want to isolate from the background.

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Alternatives

In general, I use primes as I just love all the characteristics they give. However, there are a couple of zoom lenses which are incredibly sharp and suit shooting events perfectly. Firstly, the Fujinon 10-24mm f/4 is a fantastic lens. It’s wide enough for big stage shots, capturing crowds and potential to get very creative too. Another great lens is the XF16-55mm f/2.8 this serves the purpose of all of the primes and it’s a bit more convenient not having to switch out lenses.

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What shots to look for

Many moons ago I shot club nights and festivals week-in week-out but these days I’m not shooting for a promoter or club, instead I’m shooting for myself. My brief is set by myself so I’m trying to look images that excite me. It’s all about capturing the mood and telling a story of the event.

Here are a few of the key shots to look for when shooting an event.

1. Performer shots

Capturing musicians in action is quite tricky. If they’re moving fast in low-light in can be incredibly difficult. The important thing to remember though is what the viewer is going to want to see – that’s the musician and possibly some environmental context if it adds to the composition. If the subject is the main focus I prefer to shoot wide open and isolate the subject. If there’s something interesting like a DJ with their decks or a rack of guitars I might stop down the aperture or shoot the scene with a wide angle lens to give a sense of the environment.

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2. Crowd shots

If you’re shooting from the stage or in the pit, it’s always worth spinning around and checking out what the crowd are doing. A well timed pyrotechnic or a person on another person’s shoulder makes for an amazing picture. Sometimes I walk along the front row and pick out a group of interesting people.

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3. People shots

Interesting people and music events go hand in hand. The crowd shots are always good, but I love to get into the crowd and capture the people having fun. Essentially, I take a street photography approach to this. I want people to be relaxed and natural around me, so before I start taking any pictures I walk around in the crowd, blending in and just enjoy myself. Once you’re in there amongst everyone you can begin to capture what you see in front of you which will be a unique perspective.

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4. Capturing the atmosphere

You simply can’t stage atmosphere – It’s either there or it’s not. The shots that I find myself looking at time and time again are the ones that tell the story of what the festival was like. It’s all about capturing the moment and the soul of the event. Now, there’s no hard and fast way to capture this kind of scene but if it sounds good, the crowd are noisy or the hairs are standing up on your arms, shoot what makes you smile!

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The primes of my life

Do you know which prime lenses you use more than any others? I do.

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Things you and I already know about the Fujinon XF lens range:

1) They’re as sharply designed and as beautifully well made as the cameras they attach to.

2) They can, without exception, deliver outstanding results.

3) There’s already a superb line-up and it’s only going to get better.

But there was something that I didn’t know about my own use of XF lenses and felt that I really should; which lenses did I use for what subject and, perhaps more importantly, why. In order to find out, I decided to apply a small amount of science to this with the aid of Lightroom.

If you select Lightroom’s Library module, you can quickly see which lenses you’ve used and how many shots you’ve taken with them by selecting the Metadata option in the Library Filter bar. Once this option is selected, you can use the individual drop down menus below this bar to further refine your search. I did this and quickly discovered that I’d shot with a wide variety of XF lenses, but some definitely got more use than others. What follows here are my top five prime lens choices, in focal length order, what I use them for and why I love them. It’s worth pointing out before we get started, of course, that my suggestions may or may not be up your street. You can use the XF16mm for portraits just as much as you can use the XF90mm for landscapes, so be sure to experiment!


1) XF23mmF1.4 R

This is a firm favourite for plenty of X Series users, but based on my Lightroom-based search my primary usage seems to be in two main areas: landscapes and travel. Both of these are pretty obvious, I guess. The lens offers a modest, distortion-free wide-angle view that suits a whole range of subjects and flicking through my images it’s easy to see the appeal – the XF23mm is spectacularly sharp, right from F1.4. Delving a little deeper into the metadata, I discovered that I rarely used the lens at its minimum aperture, favouring the wide apertures more, except when I was striving for plenty of depth-of-field. I expect the new XF23mmF2 to get similar levels of usage once I get my hands on one (hint, hint…)

Find out more about the XF23mm lens here. 


2) XF27mmF2.8

Given my regular use of the XF23mm, I was surprised to see that I also gave the XF27mm plenty of outings, too. Looking at the resulting shots, though, it was evident that I shot very different subjects with this more compact lens. It’s definitely the one I pick when I head into a city or town to shoot street images, or just want a lens that I can pop on a camera body and head out. There were an inordinate number of pictures taken with the XF27mm when I was out walking my dog (see the shot at the top of this post) and it was interesting to see that my use of the XF27mm had greatly increased when I was testing the X-Pro2. This duo make a killer combination in both portability and image quality.

Find out more about the XF27mm lens here. 


3) XF56mmF1.2 R

The 35mm focal length lenses barely registered on my Lightroom search, so the next in my top five was this beauty in its non-APD form. Compared to the XF23mm and XF27mm, this is a real lump of a lens, but in a good way. It’s supremely well made and the optical quality is truly exceptional – if you’ve ever used one, you’ll know exactly what I mean. My use of it, however, was a little more surprising. Sure, there were a few portraits in the selection, but the majority of my shots were taken with the lens at its widest aperture (or thereabouts) to make the most of the tremendous bokeh effects it offers. Less than 10% of the shots were taken at an aperture of F4 or smaller.

Find out more about the XF56mm lens here. 


4) XF60mmF2.4 R Macro

Another surprise, given its proximity in focal length terms to the XF56mm but, as with my 23mm/27mm lens scenario, the XF60mm gets used for a different set of images. In fact, I’ve shot a great deal with this lens, probably because it remains one of the sharpest in the XF line-up, despite being one of the first introduced with the X-Pro1 back in 2012. Weddings, portraits, still life images, close ups and product shots have all been shot with the Macro, and on a variety of X Series bodies, too. I even took some street images with it, but I guess it’s because I left the XF27mm at home that day…

Find out more about the XF60mm lens here. 


5) XF90mmF2 R LM WR

A late entry into my list of top five primes largely because I’ve been shooting with it so much of late. This is an absolutely stunning lens that has a look all of its own and delivers outstanding image quality. I used it for a lot of shots in my Fun in the Sun blog from a couple of months ago and since then it has stayed pretty much permanently on a Fujifilm X-E2S body. Yes, it’s great for portraits, but I also found that I shot lots of close-ups and detail images with this lens, making the most of its fast focusing and high quality optics.

Find out more about the XF90mm lens here. 


So, which one have I used the most?

This surprised me. Based on this Lightroom search, my undisputed king of prime lenses is the XF60mmF2.4 R Macro which beats the second most used lens (the XF23mmF1.4 R) by almost two to one. I’ve always loved the 60mm, but I never realised that I used it quite as much as I evidently do. It may not be the fastest focusing lens in the XF line-up, but it’s an optical gem which must be the reason why I keep on going back to it. Right, I’m off to do the same experiment for zooms…