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12 Must-Know Camera Settings for Concert Photography

Essential settings for concert photography

Struggling to determine the right concert photography settings for beautiful images of musicians, bands, and even symphonies? You’ve come to the right place.

Selecting the perfect camera settings is a key part of capturing awesome concert photos, especially in low-light situations. If you get your settings right, the results will be spectacular: crisp, clear, and full of detail. But if you get them wrong? Your images will look blurry, unpleasant, and just all-around bad.

That’s why, in this article, I’m going to share 12 settings for concert photography. These are the exact camera settings I use in my own concert shooting, so you know they work. (And I promise: They’ll help you boost your images and your career!)

Let’s dive right in.

The best concert photography settings, in brief

Concert photography settings

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, let’s take a moment to review my go-to settings for concert photography. If you’re eager to grab your camera and head to a gig tonight, these settings will net you solid results:

  • RAW format
  • Manual mode
  • A wide aperture
  • A reasonably fast shutter speed
  • A high ISO
  • Image stabilization
  • Auto White Balance
  • Spot metering
  • Back-button AF
  • Burst mode

Think of this list as your concert photography cheat sheet. It’ll get you about 80% of the way – but to truly shine in this challenging field, you need to understand when to fine-tune your settings, you’ll need to understand why these settings are so crucial and what they actually do, and you’ll also need to learn a few additional camera settings to consider.

Also, always remember that every concert is unique. Lighting conditions can change from one moment to the next, and what works for a high-energy rock concert may not be ideal for a subdued jazz performance. Still, by dialing in these key settings, you’ll be well on your way to capturing stellar images that bring the stage to life.

The 12 concert photography settings everyone should know

Looking to level up your photos of rock concerts, symphonies, and everything in between? Here are the settings that I recommend you keep in mind while photographing:

1. Shoot in RAW format

Concert photography settings

Here’s your first concert photography setting, and it’s a big one:

Always, always, always shoot in RAW.

If you shoot in JPEG, your camera will automatically add processing, such as contrast, saturation, and sharpness. And while it might look nice, it’ll limit your post-production freedom, so you won’t be able to further enhance your concert photos.

On the other hand, if you shoot in RAW, the camera won’t process your photo at all. That way, you can change parameters such as exposure, white balance, saturation, contrast, and clarity long after you hit the shutter button.

(In other words: If you’re careful and deliberate with your editing, you can make your photos look a lot better!)

2. Use Manual or Aperture Priority mode

The Rolling Stones Concert photography settings
The Rolling Stones
Nikon D800 | 185mm | f/4 | 1/320s | ISO 1600

When I started off doing concert photography, I used Aperture Priority mode. I would dial in the aperture, my camera would set the shutter speed accordingly, and I’d hit the shutter button.

And in general, Aperture Priority works well. It’s great for beginners because it partially automates the exposure process, giving you one less thing to worry about.

But after shooting for a while, I recognized that only Manual mode would give me the flexibility I was after. I wanted to set the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – and then change each setting on the fly based on my requirements.

Fink concert photography settings
Nikon D700 | 14mm | f/2.8 | 1/200s | ISO 3200

So depending on your level of experience and comfort, pick one of these two options. Starting with Aperture Priority and working up to Manual can make sense, though if you’re already familiar with Manual mode, you might test it out and see if you can use it effectively right away.

Pro tip: If you do choose Manual mode, make sure to frequently check your histogram to ensure your exposure is correct!

3. Use your lens’s widest aperture setting

Concert photography settings

Struggling to decide which lens to use for concert photography? I always give the same advice: Use fast lenses and shoot them wide open.

Set your aperture to the smallest f-number your lens allows, which will give you the biggest aperture opening. That way, the most possible light hits your sensor.

A wide aperture is especially important in low-light concert photography. If possible, shoot with an f/2.8, f/1.8, f/1.4, or f/1.2 lens.

If you’re a beginner on a budget, I’d recommend grabbing a 50mm f/1.8 lens, which is cheap, features a wide maximum aperture, and offers surprisingly nice image quality.

4. Use a fast shutter speed

Miley Cyrus Concert photography settings
Miley Cyrus
Nikon D800 | 340mm | f/4.8 | 1/320s | ISO 1600

Have you ever been to a concert where the artist was running and jumping from one side of the stage to the other?

This type of action makes for some great photography – but to freeze such movement, you must use a fast shutter speed.

In general, I set my shutter speed to 1/200s or faster (and depending on the level of action, you may want to push this even higher.) Certain concerts will allow you to get away with a slower speed, such as 1/160s, but it’s often better to err on the side of caution and go higher rather than lower, even if you’re forced to increase your ISO as a result. Speaking of which:

5. Boost your ISO

Concert photography settings

The higher your ISO, the less light you need for a proper exposure – and in concert photography, where light is generally limited, this is a key setting to get right.

Your camera’s ISO range likely starts at 100. But if you’re shooting a low-light concert, I’d recommend kicking this up to 1600, 3200, or even 6400. Otherwise, your shots will end up far too dark (or you’ll be forced to drop your shutter speed, which will introduce blur).

Unfortunately, a high ISO does come with a significant tradeoff: image noise.

In other words, as you push your ISO from 400 to 800 to 1600, you start to get little flecks of color and light that look pretty bad. The specifics will depend on your camera (modern sensors do a very good job of minimizing high-ISO noise!), but you should always be cautious when boosting the ISO. Only raise it when absolutely necessary, and be mindful of your particular camera’s high-ISO capabilities.

It can help to spend some time capturing test shots at various ISOs, then magnifying the images on your computer and evaluating the noise levels in your images. Also note that you can sometimes salvage noise-heavy images with noise reduction during post-processing, or you can convert your files to black and white for a grittier, noir-type look.

6. Turn on image stabilization

Concert photography settings

Modern camera gear offers a lot of tech to make our lives easier, and image stabilization is one of those wonderful advancements. Available in many of today’s lenses and some (mostly high-end) mirrorless cameras, image stabilization helps to counteract the effects of camera shake so you can keep your files looking tack-sharp.

Imagine you’re at a concert and trying to shoot in low-light conditions. If your hands shake, you shoot while panning, or you get bumped by an audience member or another photographer, you risk introducing blur into your images, even if you’re working at a reasonably fast shutter speed.

Turn on your camera or lens’s image stabilization, however, and it’ll compensate for minor camera movements. In fact, it can make a noticeable difference in the sharpness of your photos, and it’ll certainly improve your consistency.

Not sure whether your camera or lens offers image stabilization? This feature can be labeled differently depending on your gear. For instance, camera-based image stabilization is often referred to as IBIS (in-body image stabilization), while lens-based image stabilization goes by a host of acronyms like IS, VR, OS, OSS, or VC. When in doubt, do a bit of Googling!

Pro tip: It’s important to remember that while image stabilization can help with camera shake, it won’t freeze the motion of a performer jumping around the stage. For that, you’ll still need a fast shutter speed!

7. Use spot metering

Atari Teenage Riot Concert photography settings
Atari Teenage Riot
Nikon D700 | 50mm | f/1.8 | 1/2500s | ISO 1600

Spot metering limits your camera’s exposure readings to the center of the scene – which allows you to determine the exposure based on a small subject (e.g., a face). It works especially well when your subject and background are differently lit.

When shooting concerts, the artist will often be lit by a spotlight while the rest of the stage remains dark. So here’s what you do:

First, switch your camera to spot metering mode.

Then place the artist’s face in the middle of your viewfinder and memorize the recommended exposure settings.

If you’re using Manual mode, you can dial in the settings, then compose without worrying about fluctuating meter readings. If you’re using Aperture Priority, you’ll need to lock the exposure; that way, you don’t end up with varied exposures as the performers jump around the frame.

If you don’t like spot metering and it’s giving you bad results, you can try your camera’s matrix/evaluative metering mode. The camera will take a light reading at several points in the scene, and this can work – but you’ll want to be on the lookout for overexposed faces, especially when the background is dark.

8. Use the middle autofocus point

Zola Jesus concert photography settings
Zola Jesus
Nikon D700 | 50mm | f/1.8 | 1/200s | ISO 1600

Did you know that different autofocus points feature different levels of accuracy?

It’s true. Peripheral autofocus points tend to work fine in good light, but the performance weakens as the light drops. Whereas the center autofocus point remains effective in both good light and bad.

That’s why I recommend you use the central focus point in low-light situations. It’ll be the most accurate, and it’ll ensure you get the sharpest results, no matter what the artist is doing on stage.

If you don’t want the artist to sit smack-dab in the center of the frame, you’ll need to use a focus-and-recompose technique; simply push your shutter button halfway down to focus on the artist’s face – this will lock focus – then adjust your composition until you get the desired framing. Once you’ve nailed both focus and composition, press the shutter button the rest of the way.

Concert photography settings

Note: To use this focus-and-recompose technique, you’ll need to set your camera to One-Shot AF, also known as AF-S. Otherwise, the camera will focus continuously while you reframe your picture.

(You can also set up back-button focus, which many shooters – myself included! – love. With back-button AF, you use a button on the rear of your camera to lock focus, then use the shutter button to take the shot.)

9. Use Auto White Balance

Skunk Anansie Concert photography settings
Skunk Anansie
Nikon D700 | 85mm | f/3.5 | 1/500s | ISO 1600

White balance combats unwanted color casts in your scene, and it’s important to use if you want good-looking photos.

However, I highly recommend you deal with white balance after taking your photos, during post-processing. So set your camera to Auto White Balance, then ignore the WB setting until you’re back at home.

You see, if you shoot in RAW, the white balance is completely flexible. Whether you determine the white balance setting at the time of capture or whether you wait until you’ve opened up Lightroom days later makes zero difference.

Plus, setting the white balance during a concert is difficult to do, especially when you have different lights flashing all around the stage. So do yourself a favor and leave the white balance setting for another time!

10. Use burst mode

The Prodigy Concert photography settings
The Prodigy
Nikon D800 | 85mm | f/1.8 | 1/320s | ISO 1600

Your camera’s burst mode setting, also referred to as continuous shooting, lets you do rapid-fire photography. With burst mode activated, you can shoot five, ten, or even sixty frames per second, depending on your camera.

And this is hugely helpful in concert photography for two reasons:

  1. If you take several shots in a row, at least one of them will probably turn out sharp even if the others aren’t in focus.
  2. Multiple photos increase your chances of nailing the perfect frame.

Now, I don’t recommend you set your camera to its high-speed continuous shooting mode and use it nonstop. You’ll run out of storage space pretty quickly, plus you’ll just end up with thousands of unnecessary photos.

Korn concert photography settings
Nikon D700 | 130mm | f/2.8 | 1/250s | ISO 3200

But I do recommend analyzing the situation, then – when you’re ready to capture split-second action shots – turn on burst mode and use it judiciously. Of course, be sure to stock up on memory cards, and be prepared to spend some extra time going through your files when you get home. Even a careful burst-mode shooter will end up with a lot of files at the end of a night, and while you’ll likely end up with some absolute gems, storing and finding them can require real effort.

11. Never use flash

Concert photography settings

This is a quick tip but an important one: Don’t use flash at a concert.

First, you’re not allowed; imagine ten photographers bursting their flashes all at the same time – it’d distract the audience and the musicians.

And straight-flash pictures don’t look great. For good flash photography, you’ll generally need to position your flash off to the side of the artist (i.e., you’ll need an off-camera flash), which isn’t really feasible in a concert setting.

So turn off that flash and rely on careful concert photography settings, such as a high ISO and a wide aperture, for well-exposed files.

12. Consider using a silent shooting mode

Concert photography settings

Concert photography can be enthralling. But while you’re absorbed in capturing the event, the noise of your camera’s shutter can be a distraction for those around you – and you might not even realize it!

This is where your camera’s silent mode can come in handy. You see, many mirrorless cameras, and even some DSLRs, offer silent-shooting options; these are designed for quieter events like weddings and award ceremonies, where it’s essential that the photographer remains as inconspicuous as possible. Turn on silent shooting, and the chatter of your camera will instantly disappear.

Not all concerts require a quiet camera, of course. A heavy-metal band, for instance, will drown out the sound of your camera shutter – but in settings like low-key acoustic concerts or classical performances, the quiet or silent mode can make a huge difference. That way, you can click away without drawing attention, and both the audience and the performers will thank you.

Plus, some cameras offer increased continuous shooting speeds when set to their silent-shooting mode, which allows you to capture more frames in quick succession!

Must-know concert photography settings: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re well-equipped to capture some stunning concert photos! Whether you’re a beginner or have been shooting concerts for a while, I hope you found these concert settings tips to be both practical and easy to apply.

So the next time you’re out shooting a concert, make sure to dial in the settings I shared. Your photos will instantly improve!

Now over to you:

Which of my recommended settings do you use for concert photography? Do you have any additional settings you love to use for concerts? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Matthias Hombauer
Matthias Hombauer

is a self-taught music photographer. He has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, but has quickly realized that he wanted to combine his two passions, music and photography, instead.
Currently, Matthias is based in Vienna/Austria and  works for national and international music magazines as well as record labels and bands in order to capture the amazing moments during a rock stage performance. Check out his new blog on How to Become a Rockstar Photographer

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