Photographing Concerts in the 1970s & ’80s – By Dan Cuny

I bet you’re thinking, “to write a post on photographing bands in the 1970s, this person must be pretty old”. Well, I have to say that I am, and so happy to have grown up in an era where all the classic rock band recorded and performed. Bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Queen, David Bowie (above, shot in 1976), and many, many more.

I had the pleasure to see them live, but to have photographed them during their performances. The early 1970s was a time when you could see three bands for $4.00. When Led Zeppelin performed in 1973 when I photographed them, the tickets were $6.00 and was appalled they could charge so much for a concert.

Growing up in the San Francisco area, I was only about 25 miles from our favorite music venue, Winterland Arena. By the time my friends and I were seeing bands, The Filmore was closed, and Winterland was the place to see bands. It was OK to bring your camera into the arena to take pictures of the musicians during these times. My friends and I would generally get to Winterland Arena around 9:00 am or sooner so we could be first in line, which was vital to us so we could be right up against the stage. The stage at Winterland was only about 5′ tall, so we could look up and shoot. My friend Dave Miller and I were the only shooters out of the four friends.

Freddie Mercury Photographed in 1977

Please remember, in the 1970s, digital photography wasn’t even a thought. The current digital cameras have at a dynamic range of 10-12 f-stops at least, and the files now can be manipulated so easily. Back when I was shooting, the highest color film speed was Ektachrome 200, with an ISO of 200, which you could push process one-stop by Kodak for an extra fee, taking it up to ISO 400.

Tri-X was the black and white film of choice with an ISO of 400, which kept it simple for the photographer. No need to change ISO on the camera when using the meter. The camera I started shooting with was a very simple Kodak Pony 35, which I used for 1-2 shows, and got some decent results.

My brother, Tim, at the time, had a Praktica 35mm camera with a 50mm and a 200mm lens. Around the 3rd concert, I asked him if I could borrow it to photograph with it. He was reluctant at first, but my persistence wore him down, and he let me. After the first show, I didn’t ask, I just used it, which he didn’t mind. After about ten shows, I bought a Nikkormat which I loved.

Rod Stewart, photographed in 1975

After the first couple of shows, and not having a light meter in my camera, I realized that settings of 1/60-1/125 shutter speeds and aperture settings of 2.8 to 5.6 were getting good results. The lighting at the shows was mainly non-contrasty colors, like red, green, and blue, so when the performers were in this kind of lighting situation, I opened up my aperture.

When the performers were in a little more contrast situation with yellows and white spotlights, I needed to shoot faster shutter speeds and stop my aperture down. Some shows used a lot of spotlights, and I would go to a shutter speed of 1/250, but that was only for the bigger arena shows.

Blondie, photographed in Jan. 1979

When I got my Nikkormat, I thought it might get more natural as it now had a light meter in the camera. Since I was always shooting at ISO 400, I had the luxury of setting the ISO once on my camera, and not changing it with different films. During the first show with the Nikkormat, I noticed the settings were different from those I used with my other non-meter cameras. I took one roll using the meter and the other rolls using the old tried and true method.

The photos with the meter I took were overexposed, and the ones using the tried and true method were great. I thought to myself, “why did this happen”? Then it hit me, the cameras of that era use average metering. There was no internal spot meter. That means the camera looks at the whole image and exposes to what it sees on average as opposed to the brightest object. It comes down to, “how much does the performer fill the frame”?

The majority of my shots I’m shooting in a very dark situation, except for the light on the performer, so the performer was overexposed when I used the meter because he/she wasn’t filling the frame. This is especially true when shooting from the audience and not being close to the stage. From then on, unless the performer filled the viewfinder, I couldn’t trust the meter and the method I started with worked all through my career shooting bands.

The Rolling Stones, Photographed in 1975
George Harrison, Photographed Nov. 1974

The first concert I photographed was Humble Pie on April 22, 1972, and I carried this shooting process through my teens through my days at Fantasy Records shooting jazz concerts through the late ’70s and more personal and paid gigs into the mid-1980s.

Thank you for taking the time to read my post. You can see more concert images on my website and Instagram.

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29 thoughts on “Photographing Concerts in the 1970s & ’80s – By Dan Cuny”

  1. Absolutely wonderful images. Fantastic to hear about your method and how you got worked the camera to get the results you wanted. To a guilty gear-obsessive it’s humbling to read about the limited tools you used… good reminder. Thanks again

  2. Yep, from the same era though I wasn’t yet carrying a camera. The bands you mention plus Jethro Tull, Allman Brothers Band, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Byrds… on and on.

    Well done.

  3. That was amazing! Thank-you. I remember seeing BTO, Alice Cooper, Jethro Tull, and Jeff Beck at various times in Calgary back in the 70’s, but I was either too drunk or too stoned at the time to even think about taking a camera along.

  4. Wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing your story. I graduated high school in 1973 and I love seeing work pre-digital because it shows what could/can be done with a few simple pieces of equipment and a desire to learn. The monetization of the music industry,sports and so much else had not happened yet. This makes me sound like an old timer but it was definitely a simpler time. I was wondering if you ever met or ran into Carl Dunn. His story is right around the same time as yours but his home base was Dallas, Texas.

    1. Bill,

      I’m happy now to have grown up during the Renaissance of Rock music. So much great music and terrific bands. No, I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Carl but tell him to email me, I’d love to share stories.

  5. Great shots and a great time to be a photographer I am sure. In the 80s I took my Voigtländer Vito B into a Bon Jovi concert at Wembly and although I was not even close to the stage I was very happy with the shots I got. There were other cameras I could see being used with flashes going off the other side of the stadium and I remember thinking those flashes are not achieving anything at that distance 🙂

  6. I had the same experience of overexposure at a Cat Stevens concert in the later 70’s. Forgot about the average meter in the Minolta SRT101 I was using with a 135mm with tele-converter lens(es) from high up in the suites. Was an intense study in grain once blown up. Kind of cool, but learned my exposure lesson well!

  7. Those do bring back memories. My parents moved from San Diego to Orinda in the summer of 72 when I was 19. Had to kill the summer until heading back to college at SDSU. Naturally new to the area and zero friends so I started driving around the greater Bay Area, especially San Francisco, during the nights. You can bet I found many great places for music in The City and Berkeley. That music era starting roughly in 1967 and through the 70s was fantastic if you lived here. Prices low and many venues cozy compared to today. In fact my last concert was in 1982 at the Cow Palace.

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  13. Nice shots and great memories. I was shooting tungsten-lit dance performances around then, so the hot setup for me was Ektachrome 160T, which you could get pushed 1 stop to 320 if you paid an extra processing charge. At best the results were kind of awful by today’s standards, which is why when I hear hipsters talking about how great film is, I want to shake them and say, “What the %$#@ is the matter with you?”

    1. I like your comment. It was fun and challenging shooting film back in the day. If I had today’s equipment back then, I would have had so many more images at a fraction of the cost, but wouldn’t give up the experiences.

  14. Wow. What great memories. I lived in the Bay Area and pretty much went to a concert a week. Shot with a Nikkormat EL and 200 (f/4, I believe). Funny about your light meter story (no histogram and reviewing on the monitor on the back!). Great images. Days on the Green and the concert to support school art programs at Kezar Stadium (Dylan, Doobie Brothers, many more), always memorable. Thanks to promoter Bill Graham.

  15. Fantastic shots! In 1968, I was in the Navy attending tech schools at Treasure Island and was fortunate to see bands at the Winterland, like The Byrds, Procol Harem, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. I don’t remember the crowds being too bad, and I could freely move between my seat and down on the floor near the stage. Don’t remember ticket prices but they were well within the Saturday night budget of a sailor making around $120/month. I also went to the Avalon Ballroom to see Country Joe and their opening band The Charlatans. Now that place was small and crowed, and the line literally wrapped around the block. Didn’t have a camera then, but got a Nikon F and a Nikkormat FTN on trips I made to the Far East in 1969 and 1970. Started off shooting Plus X and Tri X using various filters for contrast. Also did some Kodachrome 25 and 64 and Ektachrome 100. Got lots of good shots of landscapes and people on the Japanese Islands, and sunrises and sunsets at sea, but, alas, no rock stars. Still remember sending my film back to the states in Kodak mailers for processing. Mostly used Nikkor 28, 35, 50, 85 lenses and then got a 43-86 zoom. Also had a Vivitar 70-210. Ended up buying a used but pristine Nikon FG in the 1990s. I still have everything except for the F and the 85 f/1,8.

    1. Mike,

      Thank you for your comments. Too bad you didn’t take your camera to some of the shows you saw, but not many did back then. You saw some great bands and performances. I collect cameras too and you have some nice cameras and lenses.


  16. Hi Dan, I’m not even sure I had a Kodak Instamatic before going overseas! A couple of my friends on the ship got me interested in 35 mm photography. Asahi Pentax seemed to be the most popular SLR back then. (Honeywell Pentax in the USA.) I owned one briefly, but didn’t like the screw-in lenses. And the Nikon F ecosystem was simply more appealing to me. I eventually bought an FTN finder for the F body along with a couple focusing screens. I could afford this stuff because prices in Japan were probably no more than 50% of USA prices. I envy you learning how to use your camera back then to get those great photos at Winterland! Me, I was probably just stumbling around in a haze!

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