Tutorial : Photographing with Red Light

It’s no secret that red light is a concert photographer’s kryptonite. Digital camera sensors are much more sensitive to red light than any other color, making it very difficult to catch detail when your subject is lit in all red especially when they’re moving around.

So what happens when you are in the photo pit and the first three songs are lit completely in red? Don’t worry. First, you have to accept that you aren’t in control of the lighting and that it is what it is. Give yourself some grace, take a breath, and utilize the light you do have.

Death Cab for Cutie at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 2015 for The Baltimore Sun
Sorry for the low resolution on this one – I don’t have the original on hand.

Chances are you will have some sort of fill light going on to work with. Angles are key here. Move to the side of your subject where the light hits their face in a way that there aren’t a lot of dark shadows. For example, this photo of DCFC – Ben’s face is lit, separating him from the background. If I was photographing from the other side of him, shadows combined with the red would have made it impossible to capture any facial detail. LOOK at WHERE the LIGHT is HITTING.

How to edit red photos after the fact : Don’t have a strong fill light available? That’s ok, we can fix it in post. Don’t up your contrast – it will blow out all of your detail. Instead, bring down your exposure – this will help keep your detail (facial features, instruments, etc). Up your shadows a bit and sharpen slightly if you desire. When it’s very, very red I like to bring down the saturation a bit too – this also helps for clarity and detail. Add some black shadows if that works for you as well – don’t be afraid to do some toning to bring out your subject a bit more.

Portugal. the Man at The Anthem 2022

Now sometimes, it’s just bad news all around and you have to get what you can get. Remember music is about a vibe, an aesthetic and sometimes red is just what fits it. Photojournalism is about documenting the look, feel and truth of a movementand sometimes the truth of a moment looks like this! It’s not a bad thing. Sometimes we focus so much on getting the “perfect shot” that we miss catching the vibe – it’s not that deep.

Alt J for The Anthem, 2022
Foster the People at Firefly Music Festival 2013 for The Baltimore Sun

What camera settings should I use for red light? Y’all love to ask this question and rightfully so. Concert photography is constant math. You are constantly adjusting for light, movement and focus so you need to really understand the math behind your ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

Aperture – Use a lens with a f/2.8 and shoot wide open. This will give you that separation of your subject and your red background. It will also allow for more light into your lens, allowing you to increase your shutter speed without sacrificing clarity. Also, the 70-200 f/2.8 is sharp as hell.

ISO – I don’t like to go higher than 6400. You can always brighten in post if you need to. If the red is really bad, shoot RAW – I typically only shoot large JPEG but RAW will allow you the most elbow room in editing if you so feel the need.

Shutter Speed – When the light is like this I hang out between 1/80 and 1/200 and usually average around 1/100.

YungBlud at RamsHeadLive! 2022

Lastly, if you need to you can always pump up your ISO and then de-noise but I only do that as a last resort. If you are planning to photograph an artist or band, it’s helpful to google search photos and videos from the tour they are currently on to give you an idea of what their lighting setup looks like – they are usually very similar from venue to venue. It’s a great way to prepare yourself. I hope these tips help and if you need more feel free to ask questions or visit these resources:

Five Tips for Better Concert Photos
Concert Photography and Red Lights

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