The correct camera settings are key to getting awesome concert photos in low light situations. Maybe you were in this situation before. You used the full automatic mode in front of the stage and – BAM- the little flash monster sitting on top of your camera pops up and throws the ugliest light you can think of onto the singer’s face. At this point, a lot of frustrated concert photography beginners just take their cameras home and never shoot a concert again. But wait, in this article I’ll share the camera settings I use all the time during concert shoots and I promise they’ll help you to immediately boost your career as concert photographer. Let’s start.
1) Aperture Priority Versus Manual Exposure Mode
I started off using aperture priority mode; you tell your camera the aperture you want to use and the camera sets the shutter speed accordingly. This is a great option for a beginner to use, because you’ll be stressed enough with all the other things going on around you. However, I soon recognized that only manual mode would give me the flexibility I was looking for. I set aperture, shutter speed, and ISO and then change them on the fly using the internal exposure bar in the viewfinder. I am constantly checking my LCD screen and have a look at the histogram to see if my exposure is correct.
2) Use the Lowest Aperture Number
When deciding which lenses will work best for concert photography, you’ll always come to the same conclusion: use fast lenses and shoot them wide open. Set your aperture to the smallest number on your lens e.g. f/1.8 (which reflects a big aperture). This allows the most possible light to enter your sensor and is a must-have setting in ultra low-light stage conditions. The best zoom lenses have an aperture of f/2.8, the best prime lenses f/1.4 or f/1.8. For Beginners on a budget I suggest to get a 50mm f/1.8, which is cheap and therefore a no-brainer for concert photography.
3) Use a Fast Shutter Speed
Have you ever been on a concert where the artist was hyperactive jumping from one side of the stage to the other? To freeze these movements you have to use a fast shutter speed. In general, I set my shutter speed at 1/200sec and faster. Otherwise you risk blurred photos.
4) High ISO Values
ISO or film speed refers to the sensitivity of an analog film. Today the term is used for the sensitivity of your digital sensor. The higher the ISO setting the less light is needed for a proper exposure, but the more noise you will encounter in your pictures. Depending on the ability of your camera a good starting point for ISO is a setting of 1600. If my shutter speed is too low, I will crank up the ISO setting to 3200 or 6400.
5) Spot Metering
Set your camera’s internal light meter to spot metering. This takes a light reading limited to the center of your viewfinder (a very small percentage, and some cameras allow you to choose where to meter – check your manual). When shooting concerts, you will often find yourself in a situation where the artist is lit by a spotlight and the rest of the stage is almost dark. When using spot metering mode, place the artist’s face in the middle of your viewfinder and you’ll get the right exposure for it. When using the Matrix (or evaluative) metering setting, the camera will take a light reading at several points in the scene and you’ll probably get overexposed faces if the background is dark.
6) Use the Middle Autofocus Point
On your camera, only use the central focus point in low light situations. This will be the most accurate one. If you don’t always want to have the artist in the middle of the frame, you have to recompose. Simply push your shutter button halfway down to focus on the artist’s face. By holding the shutter button halfway down you lock focus. Now move your viewfinder until you get the desired framing and push the shutter button fully down.
To use this technique, you have to set your camera to Autofocus single (AF-S for Nikon, One Shot for Canon) mode, otherwise the camera focuses continuously while you’re reframing your picture. You can also set the AF-ON button to focus, which I prefer.
7) Use Auto White Balance
I use the auto white balance setting on my camera. The reason being is that I shoot in RAW format and can therefore adjust the white balance setting in post-production anyway.
8) Multiple Shot (Burst) Mode
Set your camera to multi-shot mode (may be called High Speed shooting mode). It allows you to rapidly shoot three to four photos in a row (depending on the frames per second of your camera model. It’s more likely that at least one of the four photos is tack sharp whereas the others might not be in focus.
9) Never Use Flash
First, you are not allowed to use a flash in concert photography. Imagine ten photographers burst their flashes at the same time. This would be quite annoying for the artist. Second, straight flash pictures don’t look awesome.
10) Shoot in Raw Format
Always shoot concerts in RAW format. If you shoot in JPEG mode, the internal camera computer adds contrast, saturation and sharpness to your photos. These files look great when you open them on your computer, but don’t leave much freedom in post-production. If you shoot in RAW format, the camera does not process the photo at all. The advantage is that you can change parameters like exposure, white balance, saturation, contrast, clarity and so on afterwards.
Here is a summary of my ten must have camera settings:
- Use manual exposure mode
- Use your lowest aperture number
- Use fast shutter speeds
- Use high ISO values
- Use spot metering
- Use your middle autofocus point
- Use the auto white balance setting
- Use burst mode
- Never use flash
- Shoot in RAW format
With these camera settings you will be able to get great results when shooting in low light conditions such as concerts.
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So I decided to write the Guide to Rockstar Concert Photography which is a step-by-step guide which will provide you with all the information necessary from shooting your first concert, learning which camera gear and settings you need, how to build an awesome portfolio, understanding the rules of the photo pit, getting signed by magazines, shooting exclusively for your favorite bands, and making money with your work.
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