Master Class: How To Shoot A Rock Star

Rock and roll photography veteran Robert Knight talks to Co.Create about shooting music legends from Led Zeppelin to Slash, what you need to know before attempting to shoot a rock star, and how to ditch Instagram and get real.


It used to be that when you went to a rock concert, a sea of flames from lighters held overhead would make the venue visible from far away. Those points of light still emanate from a show today, but it’s actually just the dull glow of camera phones clicking away in unison. Everybody wants to leave the concert with a visual memento of the experience, and now technology has equipped us all to do it. That doesn’t mean, however, that any of us is doing it right.


Rock and roll photography has a long and colorful history, and one of the greatest contributors to that history is Robert Knight. Ever since the 1960s, Knight has been shooting concerts, album covers, and magazine spreads, forming close working relationships with legendary artists like Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones along the way. Knight spoke to us recently about how to shoot a Rock God and how not to be just another camera flashing in the crowd.

Co.Create: What considerations go into deciding how to shoot an artist?

Knight: The most challenging thing about a live shoot is that the artist is under no control whatsoever. It’s totally an ad lib situation. It’s important to be as inoffensive as possible when trying to shoot the artist–that way they’ll cooperate with you. One of the tricks I’ve done over the years is to wear the same hat for every concert. What happens is that everybody sees the black beret and they know it’s me. Then they come over and play almost directly to me sometimes. It was sort of a trick I learned early on to orient an artist to who I am if there are a lot of photographers shooting at the same time. Obviously the trick is to anticipate, and find the sweet spot with the lighting. I shoot in a manual mode so I’m constantly changing the light and exposure myself. I’ve been doing this a long time so a lot of it’s instinctive at this point.

The Rolling Stones

What kind of moments on stage do you try to capture?

With some of the bands I used to shoot, like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, what you wanted were those moments where, during “Stairway to Heaven,” Jimmy Page bends back with the double-neck guitar, or Mick Jagger taking his belt off. You want to catch something the other photographers don’t have–you’ve got to know the music, then you know it’s coming. If you’ve seen the show before, you have a pretty good idea. I tend to look at videos of live performances of artists I’ve never shot before to try to see if I can get a heads-up on the other guys to anticipate something the artist might do. You have to kind of do your homework before you go.


What’s the best equipment to use for live shoots?

The Nikon cameras are so versatile that I use them exclusively. There was a time when I used large-format cameras, back when we used film. Now the quality in digital is such that all you do is to set the ISO to the lowest setting so you’re getting the maximum sharpness, color saturation, and megapixels out of the camera. In a studio situation, you go for the lower ISO, but for a concert situation, I live at 3200, that’s the minimum that I shoot at rock concerts. For most cameras, that’s not very good, but for the Nikon D3 and D4 and the D7000, that’s right where they live.

Where is the optimal place to take pictures at a live show?

Most photographers want to be in the pit, which is directly below an artist. But generally an artist doesn’t like those shots because you’re basically shooting up their nose. So what I tend to do is go side-stage and shoot with a longer lens, which is a much more flattering shot. If you can’t get access, though, then you try to incorporate the totality of it all, but you really have to be mindful that you’re shooting up somebody. One of the ways I get an advantage sometimes is that they let me shoot from the tenth row and if you stand on top of a metal case, it’s a much more flattering angle on the artist and then they’re quite happy with this.

How do you go about getting an artist’s personality across in a concert photo?


A lead singer has generally got some kind of stage persona. If it’s somebody like Jeff Beck who really is almost expressionless in his face while he plays, you have to look at his hands or arm gestures or things like that to try to create an image. Some artists are just unbelievably active on stage and others are rather static, so you constantly have to look at angles and lighting. If the artist is particularly static, then I try to create a visual composition with back lighting spot lighting, anything that would enhance what would probably ordinarily be pretty boring, so that you actually use the lighting to your advantage to create something bigger than what’s actually happening. Shot from really low and shoot up into the lighting itself.

Joe Perry of Aerosmith

How do you anticipate or adjust for the lighting at the venue?

Most major concert halls in America have pretty much the same lighting setup, so I can start immediately and not really worry about it. If I’m in a club situation, though, or a less-than-stellar performance space then it becomes really challenging. That’s where the Nikon D3 and the D4 in particular are really strong, because they have a long ISO that you can go into at very high range and still get the image, whereas with traditional cameras, you can’t do that. You’re generally not allowed to use flash. At 99% of shows, they ban flash altogether, so everything comes down to available light.


What goes into lighting a magazine shoot versus a concert?

I do use studio lighting a lot, or fill lighting. It’s very flattering, particularly with the older artists. You try to not create lighting situations where they show their age. You want to be kind to them. It’s sort of an unspoken thing. I have certain artists that I make sure not to put out pictures that make them look as old as they are. If you’re doing a magazine shoot or an album cover, you want to bring your own fill lighting. I use Pro Photo, but most are the same quality. Of course, the softboxes are really important for evening out the light. Chimera makes a whole lot of really, well, beautiful beauty dishes and great big octaboxes that really soften the light, but fill in in a way that’s flattering; whereas if you use a bare flash or a portable flash, it’s not as flattering for studio situations.


What’s the difference in technique between shooting at concerts and shooting artists in a controlled environment?

In a situation where you can control it, where the artist is working with you one on one, you really want to get into the psychology of the artist. You try to move as quickly as possible because most of these A-list artists are used to shooting with the top photographers of the world. They’re bored, they don’t want to take more than a couple of minutes to get something done. You have to have your act together. Generally, I get anywhere from two minutes to 15 minutes to accomplish the shot at hand. So if I’m doing something with Aerosmith or Slash, I try to get into the shoot as fast as possible. If they say I’ve got 30 minutes, I try to do it in 15. If they say 15, I try to do it in seven. So every time the artist knows if I ever come back to them again, that I’m really easy to work with and I don’t push them and I don’t overextend my situation with them.


What kind of artist makes the best subject?

Ideally, you want somebody who is very self-realized. Slash is the consummate rock star, he’s got everything: the tattoos, the belts, the chains, the bracelets, a top hat. Some artists are pretty bland in the way they dress. Let’s say you’re shooting an acoustic artist over a period of a couple hours; there’s very little variation, so you really have to get creative in angles or something. But the best artists to shoot are usually the most colorful, both in dress and personality.

You’ve had friendly relationships with some of your subjects over the years; does it help the photo if you know the subject as a person?


It does. When I first started in concert photography, there weren’t that many of us doing it, and the artists were happy to see us. Now, there are a lot of artists, particularly your TMZ stars, who are annoyed by photographers. They tend to gravitate or work more one on one with you in person if they know who you are and they see that you’re there, as opposed to someone really being obnoxious and just stalking them. So I try to not get in the artist’s face. When you’re in the pit, they’re very conscious that you’re that close. I try to get as close as I can, and yet not be obnoxious. You have to orient them to want to work with you to get a good shot.

You were working with the guitarist Gary Clark Jr. at South by Southwest last month for The Warner Sound Captured by Nikon; what was that like?

A situation arose in Austin where Nikon gave five cameras to five inner city kids, and then Warner Brothers Records allowed Gary, who’s a really big and emerging rock star guitar player at the moment, to come out and meet the kids. He was there to inspire them, but I also got to teach them about how to shoot. When you can impact the kids at that age, it might change the whole course of their lives. That was one of the high points for me, being able to teach those kids something and help get Gary Clark to talk to them. One of the groups involved was this organization called Music Unites, and in this case, it really lived up to the name–I mean, music brought a rock star and these kids and a photographer together to keep rock and roll going.

Speaking of teaching, do you have any final tips for amateurs trying to take a good concert portrait?

If you can handle and know how to use a telephoto lens, you can get a really good ISO and a really good F-stop, and you really want to shoot at a high rate of speed. Your shutter speed needs to be 125th or faster for a telephoto, so I kind of work backwards, if I can get up to 400th of a second 320th of a second, and rather have a small wide or open F-stop, that’s where you really get a flattering portrait. A lot of photographers suffer from not getting close enough to an artist, so it tends to make a picture look more like someone’s using a point-and-shoot. What separates good concert photography is generally when the photographer can use the telephoto handheld and fill the frame with the artist. It looks more intimate and you make a bigger impact when showing your portfolio and trying to get someone’s attention, it shows that you have some form of access and you’re also really good, if you can handle that.

See more of Knight’s photography above.


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[All Image: Robert Knight, except Warner Sound SXSW: Chris Phelps]