"Their entire set was red. Kill me."
This is an actual text I received from a fellow music photographer, and if you've ever shot a concert in red lighting, you know it can be a real drag. The reason for this is that most digital camera sensors record images in three colors: red, green, and blue. When shooting in primarily red light, this color typically takes over the other two colors and thus the entire image. It makes it hard to capture details and causes the image to become oversaturated. Red light often soaks skin tones, making performers look unnatural and unfortunately, you can't always fix this in post-production (though there is hope!). Since concert photographers are often limited to snapping only for a band's first three songs without flash, sometimes, the red is all you're gonna get. That's where you need a plan.
Here are five tips for shooting concerts in red lighting to help you fight the beast:
1. Shoot RAW
This may sound obvious to you if you're an experienced photog, but shooting RAW changes everything. You have a lot more to work with in each image file in post-production if you shoot RAW, and in situations where you may need to do a lot of post work to get anything usable, a RAW file is necessary. So if you're not already, upgrade your memory card to something with more storage (because RAW files take up more space than JPEGs) and start going RAW for your concert shoots.
2. Manually Set Your White Balance
If you're shooting concerts, you probably have some experience using your camera’s manual settings. One way to battle red light from oversaturating your image is to manually set your white balance between 2000-2700. This will create a "cooling" effect on your image so that everything doesn't look so bright. It sometimes allows shots to be processed with more yellow and orange tones too so that you have more to work with in post.
3. Turn Down Your Exposure
This is key for getting anything usable when shooting a show where red is your main light source. Turning down the exposure gives you the best chance at capturing details in an image by decreasing the oversaturation that red light is known to cause. This is a case where it's better to shoot under and then play with your exposure in post rather than to end up with an image where the performer completely blends with the background thanks to the mean reds.
4. Keep Your Shutter Speed High
Shooting with a high shutter speed is pretty standard for most concert photography since it's often an unpredictable, action-filled environment. But it's especially important in red light settings because it gives you the best chance of capturing details quickly after your white balance and exposure have been adjusted; ie: before the performer moves and you find their hand blended into their instrument AND they're oversaturated. Keep the speed up.
5. Post Can Help
If you've done the above and your image is still not looking right, don't give up yet! I recommend checking out this Lightroom post tutorial by Wouter Vellekoop. Give it a try- you might be surprised and end up with a few shots you can use that were previously throw-away.
And finally, if all else fails, get to know your lighting guys and gals at the venues you shoot at! Believe it or not, many will be willing to work with you. Sometimes, the actual performers themselves will have specific lighting plans in place and you’ll just have to go with it, but for those smaller shows where you’re really hoping for some good shots, it’s worth a try!