Seal in Parnu: Challenges & Rewards of shooting concerts without a Zoom

Seal in Parnu Estonia 2011: Challenges & Rewards of shooting concerts without a Zoom

By Steve Huff

Happy Sunday morning to all! Don’t you just love Sundays? I usually DO love them because Sunday is usually my lazy day off. This way I wake up on Monday energized and ready to post something new to this very web site. As I write this though, it IS in fact Sunday and I have some free time today after shooting a Seal show last night in Parnu, Estonia.

At this moment, I’m sitting here in my hotel room for the last day in Tallinn, Estonia. We will all leave here in about 5 hours for the airport to head to Lithuania for the next show. Just last night (Saturday) I shot the 1st show of the tour in Parnu, Estonia and right off the bat let me say WOW WOW WOW! This was a VERY energetic and fast flowing show.

Instead of just posting images from the show, this time I wanted to write a little but about the challenges of shooting a concert without zooms…meaning only prime lenses. Also, I am not posting every image I shot at this show in this post. More can be seen at SEAL.COM if you are interested in seeing more from the Parnu show. I also have my Seal 2011 gallery HERE if you want to see my fave past shots. So, on to this post…

It all started with Sound check as the band went through a few tunes with Seal… as always, click the images for better versions.

This one was shot with the 90 Summicron Leica sent me to borrow for this tour. Even with the slight misfocus, I love this image. In fact, I prefer it slightly out of focus.

on the other hand, for this tour my Noctilux has been tuned up and is focusing like a champ…

Holly Palmer – one of the new backup singers for the show

For this summer European tour there have been some band changes and additions and I have to say, I have never heard Seal sound better live. Maybe it was the fact that it was still bright outside at 10pm, or maybe it was just that crazy excitement of the first show of the tour that energized everyone, because the whole band was in top form.

1st pic: Me just before showtime all geared up.

J.R. – Fuji X100 – He was wantig to buy my X100 and offered me $1350 on the spot but I turned down the offer 🙂 I do believe Seal sold him one though as he had an extra.

I had my M9 along with a 24 Lux, 50 Noct and 90 Cron. Also had the X100 but it did not get used much at all, if at all. I only shot with it during the soundcheck. Why? Well, when you shoot a concert, or in my case, a tour, some days can be better than others.

Every day when I arrive to the venue I immediately look at the setup of the stage, wether or not there are barriers, and if I will have room up front to shoot. Sometimes, like this first show in Parnu, there were no barriers which means I had to try to squeeze my way through the crowd to get close enough to shoot. Getting in close is the best way to get shots when shooting with a 50 or 35, and to get more intimate images as well.

Sometimes the fans do not like this as they think I am just some gung ho photographer trying to push my way in front of them. I usually get an odd look or two when moving up, and sometimes, like yesterday, I could not position myself to where I really wanted to be because it was so crowded up front.

Be The Zoom

Shooting the shows with just a 50mm means that I HAVE TO BE THE ZOOM. I am fine with this as it is how I shoot, and how I always shoot but some nights are just tough to get the right angles. This makes some nights a real challenge, but I am always up for a challenge and welcome them. In fact, it pushes me harder to get better results with what whatever situation I am dealt with.

Seal in Parnu Estonia 2011 – M9 and the 50 Noct, all wide open at 0.95

I Like to Keep It Simple

Many pro concert photographers have loads and loads of gear. Usually two pro DSLR’s, mass amounts of memory cards, lighting and flash equipment, triggers, and multitudes of lenses. They have cameras set up on stage and have full roaming access and can even position themselves ON stage! I am sure that with all of this equipment you can get some killer shots like THIS guy (love the Bon Jovi Elvis impersonation). I am sure if I wanted to lug around some pro Nikon gear and some super wides and mass zooms I could get some shots like that but upon closer inspection, I am not sure I would want to.

I am in no way knocking his work, hell,  he seems to kicks the pants off of me and his images capture the moment, excitement, and thrill of the show but personally, for me, I like more artistic personal types of shots. I love to play with the color, the depth of field as well as the emotion, and the sweat and excitement of the moment. I also don’t want some automated trigger and flash shooting my shots on stage. I guess I believe more in the Jim Marshall approach (RIP). He is the only concert shooter I have ever been inspired by, and back in his day he walked in with a couple of Leicas strapped to him and shot the show and the personal moments before and after.

Jim’s images with Hendrix, Cash, Dylan and Morrison have what I like to call “Soul”. Was it the Leica that had a hand in this? Not sure, but to me, Jim’s style managed to create classics.

Again, it is all about simplicity. With a simple tool such as a Leica M9 and one 50mm lens, magic can be made. No flash, no zooms, no auto focus. When you hit it, you hit it. When you don’t, you can even still walk away with a great photograph. Other times you walk away with nothing but when you do, it feels really great.

Seal In Parnu. I missed focus in the 1st shot but Seal was in a moment, and that moment was captured. Shooting something like the Nocti or even a 50 Summilux ASPH propels a shot from flat and boring to deep and emotional. The Silhouette is Seals fave shot of the Parnu show. It may also be mine. Why? Because it breaks free from the norm of most concert images.

Over 95% of concert photos I see were taken with Nikon or Canon with Zooms and Flashes. This kind of system will indeed provide you with an almost foolproof way of getting great shots but I have to say it…the results usually look like all of the other concert shots out there.

I have scoured and scoured the net and studied thousands or even tens of thousands concert images and almost all follow the same DSLR/FLASH/ZOOM formula. I could switch to that route but to me that would not be as rewarding, even if I only manage to capture one magical shot per show with my M compared to 20-30 with the gizmos and gadgets.

Before anyone starts commenting that I am a Leica fanboy, what I say can also be done with a D700 or 5D and a 50 1.4, or 85 1.4. Doesn’t have to be a Leica. I am just not into Zooms and flash.

All in all this article was supposed to be about the challenges of shooting concerts with prime lenses but it has seemed to kind of stray off track a bit due to my rambling. Basically, it really is a challenge to shoot a concert without a zoom but my take on it is that you will always get more creative results when you do so. Want to stick out from the crowd a bit? Use one camera, one fixed focal length, and use your body, eye, and mind to create the magic.

Not all of the great shots happen on stage. I always take a walk around during the show to see what is going on in the crowd. Nocti wide open.

90 cron, f/2 (should have shot it a 2.8)

So even though I can’t stand and zoom to compose my shot, even if I don’t have AF, and even if I do not always get a good position to shoot in and a ZOOM would be an easy way to get a shot, I still would not give up shooting the shows with the M9 and Noctilux, which is the perfect lens for this kind of work (IMO) and gives me many rewards back.

As I was sitting here writing this time has flown by and it is now time for me to pack and get everything together for the flight out. Until next time!

The f/0.95 flare…

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  1. I have shot concerts since the 70s. I rarely use zooms most of my best work taken with a 85 f1.2 L also a 135 50 and a 200 . Zooms flare too much. flashes are actually rarely allowed in concert situaitions, though most use zooms. Jim Marshall a friend of mine actually used a nikon at times .

  2. While a prime like the 50mm can give you very good shots, there are many that you will miss if you don’t have a zoom that is both a bit wide and a bit of a telephoto. Something like a 15-85? Oh and what I would give to experience a Jim Morrison concert! 🙁

    A couple of shots with a Canon 7D and 50mm f/1.8 II –



  3. Hi Steve

    I can only echo the sentiments of previous comments. Your shots are amazing, inspiring and have soulful quality that speaks more than 1000 words. Your M9 is clearly an extension of your eye, mind and body. How would you have felt if you only had the X100 to rely on for this shoot?

  4. Steve,

    Probably the best article about photography ever. Not just on your site. It came from the heart, thanks steve. It’s always a joy to read.

  5. Great shots and a great article Steve, thanks!

    The silhouette and “f/0.95 flare…” are two of my favourites…
    but that very first shot, the summicron 90 one, is simply outstanding… i love everything about it.
    I know you’re not a big 90 fan… but you nailed that shot.

    Great job!

  6. Great set of images Steve. I can imagine it’s tricky to meter in a fading ambient light / intermittent stage light scenario like this. How do you tackle that?

  7. Beautiful and unique images! I used to shoot band photography on one of the Nikon rigs you mentioned and I have to agree, you do not get results like this from DSLR’s and zoom lenses! Awesome work yet again 🙂

  8. Great shots Steve ! – Interested on your thoughts re the Summicron 90 you are using – I have one but its so difficult to get spot on focus wide open – I have to use it at f4 mainly

  9. Hi Steve,

    Congratulations on being ‘the’ photographer on the Seal tour!

    Regarding the Seal ‘in the moment’ image: great shot but my personal opinion is that it could have been an outstanding, yes even a classic image if it was in focus…..! A very simple task with any modern AF camera……. I would be totally stressed out that my one shot at making a ‘classic’ image was hampered by my equipment……Like you said, your images could have been made with any Canon or Nikon and a prime lens, so why limit yourself like that? I know you want to be different, but its not the camera equipment that makes you different, its you and the way you see things……..

    Good luck with the rest of the tour!

  10. Hi Steve, it is Monday morning for me here in Bali. For you, I am sure you are in another time zone. I have began my week by reading your post about your first Seal tour images in Estonia. They say pictures are worth a thousand words. In the case of these great photos, the saying is correct. But thanks for adding those «thousand» or so words to them. Both the text and the images are inspiring and as often, when I read your postings, I feel energized and in want to go out and take pictures. Thanks for the link to Jim Marshall. I now know more about the «maker» behind many iconic images. Take care.

  11. Wow. Awesome stuff. Out of interest, can you elaborate on why you didn’t use the X100? I wasn’t sure what you meant when you said “some days can be better than others”.

  12. Your work is inspiring. I have been shooting with an M9 with 35 and 50 mm Summilux for about 7 months. I have an appreciation for how much talent and skill you have to get images of this quality. I follow your posts daily and would like to meet you some day. Great work.

  13. Nice set of images, and a minimalistic approach for sure. I do the same thing, albeit with a Canon system – this set, for example, was shot with a 5D, 35, 85, and 135 alone over the course of two nights. Primes are the way to go for low-light concert shooting.

  14. Hey Steve,

    I love the first image of Seal. That’s one of the things that I like about manual focus, sometimes those “missed shots” turn out to be favourites. Great work as always, I look forward to seeing more from the tour.


  15. steve, what is the ratio of unposted image to posted image from this concert?
    That would be an interesting question for all of us =)

    • I posted maybe 1/3 of them here…

      here is another with the 24 Lux

  16. Steve & Nocti = Pure Awesomeness! 🙂

    Seriously, Steve, you are a brilliant photographer.

    My favorites:

    Seal’s silhouette and the title photo with Seal holding the sun in his hand… 😉

    Thank you.


  17. Wow Steve, some amazing shots, especially the guitar player in the flare bubble, that is totally amazing. Looking forward to more great images……….

  18. Happy Father’s day, Steve.
    One and only Steve Huff, the only event photographer with a press pass, but without 20+lb gears on his shoulder.
    Brilliant use of the lens flare, I love it.

  19. Fantastic shots !! 0.95 is heaven !!
    When you say:

    “Jim’s images with Hendrix, Cash, Dylan and Morrison have what I like to call “Soul”. Was it the Leica that had a hand in this? Not sure, but to me, Jim’s style managed to create classics.”

    I don’t agree… I think the soul of this images are only existing because of the soul of the subject. If you replace hendrix by an unknown singer –> No soul ! All this iconics photographer are not better inspired than other, just at the right place at the right time WITH the right person.

      • I think its certainly true that a cool capture is a cool capture regardless of who it is, same with sports, just because its a photo of a famous athlete alone doesn’t make it into a great photo.

        However, do think that in some cases the overall mystic and “soul” of the subject does transcend a photo to something more.

        Would a shot of any guitar player burning a guitar onstage be cool ?? You bet, however, when that shot is not just a cool photo, but also of a certain James Marshall Hendrix, and the said photo is also documenting America officially being introduced to what many would consider the greatest guitarist of all time at Monterrey Pop Festival, well then its just a timeless image of the 20th century.

        Person, Place, and Event, Need all of those three to make an image a true classic in most cases.

  20. Amazing work, you’re the best, IMHO, who shoots Concerts with Leica . . You deliver full of passion shots ..

    Excited about the rest of this Euro concerts shots . . Keep it up.


  21. Hi Steve!

    Yeah – I really would like to see you shooting a concert with a full-frame DSLR with a fast prime like the 85mm 1.4 Nikkor or 50mm 1.4 Nikkor. I am sure you can achieve great results with it.

    • He’s already shooting with a full frame camera with the fastest, best prime in the world. No autofocus though so maybe that’s what you mean?

  22. Steve – great photography! In my opinion, among the best of your work Seal’s tour trails thus far. Good article too, enjoyed reading it. Yes, the silhouette shot is kinda good but in my opinion, the one right before, where you missed the focus ever so slightly.. now that one is my personal favorite! Emotions, passion, all there!

  23. Great piece and great timing, I took a few concert photos yesterday with X1, just for fun. Felt good to dart around taking a few snaps with a small, capable camera and not worry about zoom. That is not to mention the relief of not having to change lenses like the professional SLR-folk. I think I even managed to get a few keepers. I borrowed the X1 instead of taking my M8 because the festival rules technically banned anything with an interchangeable lens, altough the reality seemed to be somewhat different. Oh well, I’m not complaining.

  24. Wow! Thanks for some insight as to why you work the way you do. It is always interesting to hear from someone why they make the choices they make about the tools of the craft. I’m a big fan of limiting the artists toolbox. With so many options of equipment out there it is easy to distract yourself with so many variables, by boiling the toolbox down to a core I believe it allows you to immerse yourself in the moment and let your creativity be the instrument.

    Thanks again!!

    BTW – I’m glad you addressed the ‘Leica Fan-Boy” bit by saying similar results could be captured on any system with the same principles applied.

  25. Beautiful shots, Steve, my fave is the one taken with the nocti, where Seal is in “a moment”, absolutely brilliant, talk about capturing the decisive moment! it goes even beyond, it partakes of his enlightenment!
    At this level, who cares about technique….
    Much Love to you all.[img]_DSC0133_1.jpg[/img]

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