When you first get started in concert photography, you quickly realise that it is one of the most demanding types of photography out there, both in terms of gear and knowledge. You are often shooting in low light conditions, with artists who move around a stage, in a confined area (either a photo pit or in the crowd).
While you are thinking composition, hearing the music to anticipate the action, your fingers are moving around on your camera changing settings, all within an average of 3 songs (14-18 minutes) to get your set of images.
As a newcomer, it can be easily overwhelming. One of the questions I receive often is what settings I use. So I figured why not make a more extensive blog post about it! 🙂
* Feeling Lazy? Want a cheat sheet without all the bla bla (and tips), scroll all the way down *
1- Camera mode (manual vs aperture priority)
The first thing you need to work on is shooting in (M)anual mode to have full control of your camera. With ever changing conditions, you want to make the decisions and not rely on your camera. While daunting at first, learning how your camera works is key to getting the shots you want.
I know of some photographers who started off shooting in Aperture Priority, where you control the lens opening (aperture) and let your camera decide the shutter speed. This can work well in a concert, and it is probably a good starting point while you progress into full manual control.
2- Spot metering
In order to establish what will be a properly exposed image, you tell your camera how it should meter the light in the scene. There are various options where the entire scene is considered, part of the scene or just a small point.
I am almost always in spot metering (unless I am being creative, like the shot below). I put my metering point on the artist’s cheek and get my reading from there. Think about it… what is important to get perfectly exposed? The artist’s face (yes, this can change, but in 90% of your images, you want to show the artist). So no matter what the light tech decides to do, you are aiming at properly exposing the face.
In concerts, the lights usually don’t light up the entire stage. Going with other modes, such as the entire scene being considered, the camera will see a whole bunch of black areas where there is no light and compensate for this, often giving you wrongly exposed images.
3- How wide to set that aperture?
The answer, when you start off, is simple… as wide as you can go. You want to soak up as much light through that lens, so you are aiming at an f/2.8 or better. Zoom lenses that are a constant f/2.8 are the bread and butter of a concert photographer. However, some photographers prefer to use prime lenses, the ones that don’t zoom. They are usually better in image quality, lighter and more importantly, cheaper.
This is where having a nifty 50 is often referenced. A 50mm lens is a staple for all photographers, the f/1.8 being the cheapest at $120 CAD. When the light is bad (which it will often be in small venues), that extra light coming into the lens will help you get faster shutter speeds or a lower ISO.
-> Closing the aperture slightly to f/3.5 can help get both the mic and face of a singer in focus while doing close ups.
4- Fast shutter speeds
Bands vary in intensity on stage. Some bands can be very calm and barely moving, while others can be jumping all over the place and running from side to side. So you you want to get a shutter speed as fast as you can to freeze the action. My sweet spot is 1/200 for a standard band. You will want to crank that up to 1/320 – 1/500 to get perfect freeze in a jump shot, and you can go down as low as 1/60 for bands that are more stationary.
-> If you are stuck shooting a fast moving band with slower shutters, aim to get images at the apex of the mouvement. It is purely physics. When a guitarist (or even a basketball player or even you) jumps, once they hit the highest point right before coming down, their mouvement stops.
The ISO determines the sensitivity of your … uh… sensor to light. The higher the amount, the more sensitive it is, the faster shutters/wider apertures you can use. The drawback? Image noise. I rather get a noisy image that is frozen than a blurry clean image. So don’t fear cranking that ISO.
Most modern cameras can handle ISO 1600 very well, with little noise. Professional cameras can handle ISO 6400 with little to no noise. So chose an ISO setting that will allow you to get the shutter you need.
6- Auto white balance
If you are shooting in RAW, you can tweak white balance later. With the ever changing light colours, I always shoot in auto white balance and adjust later.
7- RAW or JPG?
If you are only slightly familiar with image processing, then RAW all the time. You will capture more data and can do more processing on the images in post compared to JPG. Softwares like Lightroom are fairly easy to learn the basics.
JPG works, don’t get my wrong. You are letting the camera apply settings on your image and producing the final image. If you are stuck on time and shooting in decent conditions, this can be great. If you have no post processing software, you are kind of stuck with using JPG
But seriously, grab yourself a copy of Lightroom (or other processing software), shoot RAW and learn some basics of processing.
8- Single shot or multiple?
When you are starting out, burst mode/multiple shot will help you get a bigger set of images and capture that moment. But as with all crafts, you should be learning to hear the music while you work and anticipate what is going to happen. So you won’t need to riffle off 6 images of each moment.
This also means less strain on your camera, less images to upload and go through to select. When I cover the Osheaga festival, I cover 14 bands in a day, one every 40 minutes, and images need to be uploaded on their dropbox before the next band is on stage.
Burst mode is great for capturing the drummer shots. You usually want sticks in the air, and it can be hard to nail that in a single image click.
-> when shooting a drummer, you will have more success in getting sticks in the air if you are shooting between beats
-> if you see it happen in your viewfinder, you probably missed the shot.
I know, that’s a bunch of info. Feel free to leave a message if you have questions.
- you can start in aperture priority, but learn to shoot in manual
- use spot metering so your camera only meters a small part of the scene, the one you want well exposed
- use wide apertures
- fast shutters to freeze the mouvement. 1/60 for a calm band up to 1/500+ for fast moving jumps
- don’t be scared to pump up the ISO. Rather get a frozen image with grain than a clean blurry image
- auto white balance if you shoot in RAW
- shoot in RAW 😉
- leave it in burst, but learn to anticipate and only take single clicks
Curious about etiquette in a very tight photo pit? Here are some quick tips on that 🙂