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Concert photography is one of the hardest subjects to nail down for one main reason: the conditions almost always have low lighting and you aren’t allowed to use flash. With that said, there are some tips for optimizing your concert photography experience. Whether you’re equipped with a DSLR and a photo pass for a big arena show or simply shooting a local band in a pub or a school performance, use these tips to enhance your low lighting photography.
Generally speaking, the gear you shoot with doesn’t really matter, except when it comes to low lighting photography. In this case, you’ll want to have a fast lens with the lowest f-stop possible. For most concert photographers, this equates to a 24-70mm f/2.8 and/or a 70-200mm f/2.8. These are two of the most popular concert and event photography lenses thanks to their low f-stops and vast focal length coverage.
However, fast lenses like these two can be very expensive. If you’re on a budget, consider an affordable prime lens such as the 50mm f/1.8 or 85mm f/1.8. While you sacrifice the ability to zoom, you gain an extra stop or two of light while also saving money.
Now that you have a large aperture lens, switch your camera over to Aperture Priority or Manual mode and shoot “wide opened” at the lowest f-stop number your lens allows. This will let the most amount of light get to your camera’s sensor.
As a tradeoff, the lower f-stop number means a smaller depth of field, meaning your images may not be as sharp as if you were shooting at a higher f-stop. So if you happen to be shooting in ultra bright lighting conditions, consider bumping your f-stop up to get more of the scene in focus.
If you shoot in Aperture Priority mode like I do, then you won’t have to worry about setting your shutter speed. However, you should always take note of it while shooting and understand how it may affect your image.
As a baseline, your shutter speed should be at least 1/250th to freeze motion while shooting concerts. But this is a luxury often reserved for shooting well-lit shows or outdoor concerts. In low lighting conditions, your shutter speed will probably be much lower than 1/250th. I can usually push my camera to go as low as 1/60th and still pull off decent concert photos, but it’s best to not go any slower than 1/100th.
Increase the ISO until you are able to shoot at your desired aperture and shutter speed. For most conditions, this means cranking the ISO up to 3200 or even as high as 6400. The exact ISO limitations will vary according to your camera. And just because your camera can shoot at ISO 10,000 doesn’t mean that you should. Experiment with your camera until you find the highest ISO that you are comfortable using (based on the noise level, etc.).
As a tradeoff, a higher ISO means you’ll have more noise or grain in your images. However, many digital cameras today produce very good quality images even at high ISOs. Also, there is noise reduction software available that will help you reduce noise in post-production. The bottom line is that more digital noise or grain in an image is better than having it be blurry due to a slow shutter speed. Don’t hesitate to increase the ISO.
If your camera allows for it, shoot your images in RAW format, rather than JPG. Concert photography is notorious for having inconsistent lighting with red or blue lights that can flicker or change throughout a concert, making it hard to adjust the in-camera white balance. If you shoot in RAW, you’ll have more flexibility to fix and edit those photos in post-production.
What are some of your best tips for photographing concerts in low lighting without flash? Please share them in the comments below.