Concert Photography 101

After screwing up some potentially good shots at the last concert I attended, I figured it would be a nice opportunity to apply one of the principles mentioned in the original article which led me to open this blog : write for yourself, as a way to order your thoughts. So here goes.

A concert is generally fast moving subjects in low, yet high-contrast light conditions. If anybody can think of worse conditions to take pictures, I’m seriously curious to hear about them. Therefore you need wide-aperture lenses. f2.8 is a minimum, constant if possible. Stabilised optics are even better. On my Canon 20D, I am lucky enough to carry the 17-55mm f2.8 IS and the 70-200mm f2.8 IS. The first one is also a very good walk-around lens. The 2nd is of the “pry from my cold dead hands” kind.

Camera setup :

  • aperture priority (AV) mode. Set it to the widest aperture you have.
  • increase ISO, depending on the light conditions. 400 is the usual minimum, 800 is more common, 1600 is tolerable. You need to get 1/25 maximum exposure time (above that, you’ll get motion blur no matter what, IS or not – unless the whole band is under heavy sedation)
  • no flash : it bothers the performers, and it’s useless (except in very small venues, in which case it will bother the performers even more). Don’t even think about it, flash is explicitly forbidden in most venues anyway.
  • spot metering mode (or anything close enough your camera has). This is very important, because your camera has very little chances to figure out the right exposure by itself. More on this below.
  • if needed, under-expose a little. Noise or under-exposure can be fixed (to some extent), blur cannot. So if the current lighting won’t give you a short enough exposure time, set the exposure down a bit. 1.5 stop is generally the most you can afford without getting picture you won’t be able to ressuscitate. Be aware that even the best image noise processors will leave this caracteristic “plastic-like” look on skin, or turn hair into blur (which is avoidable, but takes time).
  • yet, a concert is one of the situations where motion blur can actually look good. But it’s generally better if you have it on the subject you’re shooting while not on the background.
  • standard, “one-shot” auto-focus mode. If your camera has some kind of ‘focus servo’ mode (where the camera automatically keeps focus on the subject if it moves), don’t use it. You’ll be reframing often (and often significantly), and the focus will be messed up. (This is the bit which cost me a bunch of good pictures last time).
  • burst mode : fast moving subjects, talking (well, singing) in many cases – shooting in burst mode will increase your chances of taking a good picture where the subject doesn’t look goofy.

Why spot metering : as I said, you’re shooting subjects in high-contrast light conditions. What’s more, the performers themselves will very often be highly contrasted, namely wearing dark clothes. The part which you want to be properly exposed is the face (a shot where the subject’s face is either under or overexposed will generally look bad, no matter the rest). If you use any other metering mode, it’s quite likely the camera will evaluate an exposure longer than what you need, because of the subject’s dark clothes, or the dark surroundings. Not only you’ll get motion blur, you will also have overexposed faces.

So when shooting, you need to lock light metering on the subject’s face first. Only then go ahead with focusing, reframing if needed (it often is), shooting. This is a quick reflex game, it does take some practice.

Finally, some more general tips : ear plugs, small torch light (always comes in handy), high-capacity memory card. Behave nicely try to be as inconspicuous as possible (don’t ever try to attract the performer’s attention – you’ll be thrown out, and if not you should be).

(add : a compilation of links regarding concert photography).

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