Getting the correct exposure when doing concert photography is pretty tricky. Learning a few basic settings can make all the difference.
Ever see your favorite band, take some shots, and find that the quality just wasn’t there? Maybe they came out underexposed or blurry? The reality is, concerts have some of the most challenging lighting to work with, especially when the artists are moving around a lot. The over-saturation and quick changes look great on stage, but can be a nightmare for getting sharp, well-exposed shots. Whether you’re shooting a small, hole-in-the-wall venue or a large arena, the following tips should help you get the shots you were hoping for.
Photo Credit: Maelle Ramsay
While there may occasionally be a lot of lights shining onstage, you’re more likely to be fighting a lack of exposure, not an overabundance. As a result, DSLRs that can take photos at a high ISO without adding in noise work the best in these conditions.
Because of the dim lighting, you’ll want a fast lens—up to f/2.8 or f1.8—if you can afford it. Many concert photographers will tell you to shoot with your lens wide open (at f/2.8 or wider) so that you can have a faster shutter speed and a lower ISO. But others insist that it’s just not worth sacrificing the depth of field—a guitar player’s face and fingers should in focus, not just one or the other. But anything slower than a f/4.0 (a higher f-number) risks causing you to have to bump up your ISO considerably to avoid slowing down your shutter speed.
Photo Credit: Jorge Gordo
Getting the Right Exposure
If you’re just starting out, you’ll probably want to begin with Aperture Priority. This will allow you to set the aperture and the ISO, while the camera chooses the shutter speed. Concerts can be pretty hectic places with lighting that changes quickly—if you’re not experienced, aperture priority is going to be your best bet.
If, on the other hand, you’re experienced in shooting in Manual Mode, this will, of course, be your best bet, as you’ll also be able to control your shutter speed.
Unless you’re at a show where the performers don’t move around much, you’ll want a shutter speed of at least 1/200. Anything slower is likely to come out blurry. Of course, if you’re shooting a low-light venue and the artists aren’t moving around much, you could probably get away with something a bit slower.
Photo Credit: Marc Antoine-Depelteau
This is the tricky part, as you already know that you need to have a fast shutter speed but you don’t want to bump up your ISO to the point where it adds in a bunch of noise. If your camera can shoot at high ISOs without adding in noise, by all means, bump up that ISO—it will help get you that fast shutter speed and maybe even a stop or two of the aperture. But if you’re working with a less expensive camera or shooting in Jpegs, you’ll need to watch you ISO levels. Even without a particularly exceptional camera, you can still get away with fairly high ISOs in concert photography. Contrary to film days, today’s editing tools make it fairly easy to edit out noise if you’re shooting in Raw. That being said, it’s always best to go for the lowest ISO you can get away with—in this case something between 1600-3200 should do the trick. (If you’re shooting in jpg you’ll need to keep the ISO as low as possible.)
In the end, if you have to choose between a grainy photo with a sharp image and a blurred shot, choose the grainy (higher noise) one. It will be much easier to work with in post-processing and can actually turn out great when converted to black and white.
Photo Credit: Jesse Darland
Shoot in Raw
Concerts are notoriously difficult for getting the right exposure. Shooting in Raw will give you the wiggle room you need to make sure you don’t lose an otherwise passable shot. It will also help you to edit out noise in post-processing.
Set your drive speed to Continuous High at the highest frame rate possible. This will allow you to catch those moments of high action, but will also let you easily take single-frame shots using a lighter shutter finger. If you’re using Autofocus, you’ll need AF-C/AI Servo AF so that your camera can stay focused on anyone moving.
Photo Credit: Anthony Delanoix
Getting the Best Shots
Try shooting small, intimate venues first. These will often allow you to move around freely, with few or no access restrictions. They also tend to have fewer lighting changes and can help you get the practice you need, before trying on more difficult venues the lighting is continually jumping around.
Know Your Show
Believe it or not, the flash won’t help you much in concert venues. It will simply annoy those around you. It’s better to know the show and/or be able to anticipate the lighting. If it’s you’re your first time covering a band, ask the light board operator for a head’s up of what the show will look like. Also, if you know any of the songs, you should be able to anticipate the lighting changes. Certain places in the songs—like the choruses and bridges—will lend themselves to certain types of lighting.
Solos are a particularly essential to be prepared for. Believe it or not, scenes that are lit just by a spotlight on the singer will come out much better than a scene where the whole stage is lit. Remember, it’s more important to catch the mood or feel of a show than it is to document every fragment of what’s going on.
Photo Credit: Austin Neill
With these tips in mind, a little time and patience—and a LOT of practice—you’ll be turning out stellar concert shots in no time.