5 Tips for Better Concert Photography in Low Light Conditions

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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.

1. Choose a Low Lighting Lens

5 Tips for Better Concert Photography in Low Light Conditions - use a fast lens

One of my first concert photos snapped with an old Nikon D90 and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

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.

2. Adjust Your Aperture to Shoot Wide Open

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.

5 Tips for Better Concert Photography in Low Light Conditions

Sometimes you are blessed with ample venue lighting that gives you more flexibility with your camera settings. Shot at f/4 at 1/125 at ISO 640.

3. Watch Your Shutter Speed

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.

5 Tips for Better Concert Photography in Low Light Conditions

4. Increase the ISO

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.

5 Tips for Better Concert Photography in Low Light Conditions

Shot at f/2.8 at 1/100 at ISO 5000. Not the sharpest photo, but it captured a key moment in a venue with horrible lighting.

5. Shoot in RAW

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.

Over to You

What are some of your best tips for photographing concerts in low lighting without flash? Please share them in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Suzi Pratt is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. She is also a prolific blogger who teaches others how to run a successful photography business.

  • Michael James Nelson

    I recently shot a few concerts and while my gear isn’t the best (I was working with Sony E-mount mirrorless which doesn’t have any fast native zooms), I took a similar approach. I shot in manual mode and shot wide open (which for me was F1.8 with my 50mm if I was close enough to the action or F4 on my 18-105mm – these are crop sensor). I also kept my shutter speed around 1/100 and would take it up or down depending on how much light there was during that song or what the individuals were doing on stage. I also set my ISO limit to 3200 so that no matter how I adjusted shutter or aperture, ISO wouldn’t go past that. I came away with some great pictures, even with my less than professional gear. These were shot with Sony a6000, 50mm or 18-105mm lens. Thanks for the article! I’ve learned so much from reading articles on this website. Any tips or constructive feedback appreciated. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8edc1a94ced919adcc360f8715042abcf5ec98e0a1b8a45b4daaeacc61a9e396.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b2bfb2e73c3163d90f91b4d541062e536b3975fe958f8e0280ef5d758d5ba924.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2c493c6880e4af1e0815e370202796330c283dc9290cfe0a466b62cf3566212b.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0d5e148058f838b7260bd8137eef0c98a987aa79c6a3aa1d7d9762aba3097f77.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/46153a3935385e3d9304acc6451eb4440e40ffe7e0fd9f00b33189b589176782.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/acb7ebfc1128cdb16493bcd7a68fb22fcdcb0e75e489c5362e700ce4cbd72a3c.jpg

  • GlennH

    Any tips on dealing with red and blue lighting in post? I recognize that could be another article in itself!

  • Thanks for sharing, Michael! I have a Sony a6300 that I use as my casual travel camera, but I’ve been using it more and more for other types of photography as well. I find that it can struggle a bit with concerts that aren’t lit very well, but it works great in any well lit scenarios.

  • Von Will

    Great tips thanks. Shots of my niece, and her band. Canon 7D, 1/80 50mm F2.8 iso 3200. This is the slowest I would recommend hand holding a 50mm lens on a 1.6 crop sensor. https://www.flickr.com/photos/phyguy/ https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/766341657594956c3146223933b4d2186ca6d5e7af1e46548b7219d1da3036ea.jpg

  • Gabriele Cripezzi
  • Stereo Reverb

    Excellent well written article (most articles stress primes instead of teles and zooms, which i prefer the latter). I’ll add that only time i use aperture priority is during out door events where the band mates can go in and out of shadows/light as they move around, ensuring consistently exposed photos with no work on my part. Indoors, i never do that, because if the lighting tech hits the singer with a bright spotlight, the camera will compensate and keep the singer in proper exposure, but darken down the rest of the band, as well as all the ambient light. I prefer to choose manual and allow for overexposure for a stop on the singer, which in turn, allows the rest of the band and background to receive better exposure. Both can then be corrected and balanced in post by lowering highlights/increasing shadows to achieve a uniformly balanced photo.

    People should always carry a grey card (credit card sized ones are like $6 on Amazon) in your wallet or purse. Because lighting at every venue and show is different, hold the grey card in your hand and taking several shots as the light changes, specifically with there’s a lot of red and magenta on stage (the two worst colors to have to deal with on skin). That way, you can color correct that specific scene in Lightroom and create a correction preset for it (I.e. “Venue X Stage Red Correct I”, “Venue X Stage Magenta Correct I”, etc) The next time you shoot at that venue and edit your photos in post, you have your correction presets already there, ready to go. Of course, you have to shoot in RAW, as JPG’s don’t have the latitude for correction that RAWs possess.

    Also keep in mind that when buying a prime, the 50mm you buy will NOT be 50mm, if you have a crop sensor camera. That 50 on a camera with a 1.6x sensor actually equates to 80mm, which is not what you want to shoot concerts with. A 35mm will give you 56mm and a 24mm will give you 38.4mm, which is what i shoot at with my prime (i use a single 35mm prime on my full frame).

  • Bobby Ferkovich

    “..venue with horrible lighting.” And that damn pole in the middle of everything. El Corazon in Seattle? I’ve been on both sides of that stage, definitely a challenge to shoot!

  • Paul Rogne

    I shoot with an Olympus OMD-EM1 mirrorless which has very good low light sensitivity with moderate noise at 2000 – 3200. Plus it is more compact so I don’t have big gear to hold up or poke through the crowd. I also start shooting with Aperture priority set until I get a feel for the the lighting conditions. When I am comfortable with the set up I switch to Manual mode and can make fine-tuning adjustments as I shoot to either shutter speed or aperture. Sometimes catching some blurred movement of the musicians actually produces an interesting photo. Drummer’s stick’s, fingers on a guitar, hair flying, a guitar neck moving up or down, etc. So my advice is experiment and take lots of shots. You’ll throw many away but get good results. Plus, if it is a small club where I can move around I try as many shooting spots as I can – close to the stage, center, sides, and even back in the crowd. Some of my favorite shots include some of the crowd with hands in the air in front of the stage. I am considering buying a small pocket sized compact camera without interchangeable lenses because some venues won’t allow me to bring in my regular gear. I would like recommendations on such a camera that would have decent quality in low light plus some fairly good telephoto zooming capabilities.

  • Ronald Palmer

    I have 2 pieces of advice – NO flash(2 reasons bad etiquette and it interferes with the show and artist), and move around, I know a lot of concert photographer’s who hunker down in one spot and don’t move. You miss a lot of shots, I shoot close and from a distant left right and everywhere in between. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4d3c9354c75b6f82083b9dd2aae47dd8cc6d44cfa490c17b53505fe637264042.jpg from July 22, 2017 ISO 1250, F/3.5, SS 320, Canon 1D MkIII, Tamron 28-75 f2.8 lens reduced for web only use.

  • Great pieces of advice, Ronald! And thanks for the sharing the phenomenal shot 🙂

  • Oh man, El Corazon’s pole is the worst! I avoid shooting there as much as possible, but had to make an exception for Audioslave 😉

  • I know a few people who shoot with Olympus mirrorless cameras, but not many who do concerts with them. Glad to hear it’s been working out for you! I’ve been toying around with my Sony a6300 at concerts and have pulled off some decent low lighting shots with it when paired with the 20mm f/2.8 pancake lens. This combo also makes the camera pocket-sized. Worth looking into IMO.

  • Ronald Palmer

    Thank you Suzi. I forgot one other piece of advice have fun it will show in your images.

  • Scott

    Know the music you photograph. I started shooting concerts with The Grateful Dead back around 1982. Now I most often photograph Dark Star Orchestra. The reason that I mention this is because as a long-time deadhead I know all the songs – and when the lead, certain vocals or any other aspect that I want to photograph is played. In doing so, I have a pretty good idea of anticipating the lighting – when they’ll be very low light, a bright spotlight, multiple crisscrossing color lights, or some other moment you want to capture. Lastly, experiment. In the digital age it’s easy and inexpensive to try different combinations of white balance, ISO, slow shutter speed, etc.

  • ronald1216

    when i do it takes several seconds and i get a slow motion blur

  • VAHernandez

    Yes. Yes. Yes.
    All excellent recommendations. I would add that if for whatever reason prevents you from the best gear, work with what you got. When my gear was in a different state but opportunity presented itself, I used my phone. Admittedly I chose it because of its camera. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f9df945e4bcc4788b669614e7aef96ef2f0aa675897fa5ebaf02fe2b62407176.jpg

  • JimL

    How do you work concerts in aperture priority? Are you riding exposure compensation all the time? I find it much easier to stay in manual, once I’ve figured out a basic exposure, making changes to aperture or shutter speed as I notice the light levels going up or down. Performers in bright light, while much of the background is dark, results in gross overexposure much of the time. Would you go into greater detail on your exposure method?

    Next question: how do you focus? I’m set up for rear-button focus, and find servo mode (on Canon) gets me better results, especially with the 70-200 or longer. But that means I need to select a focus point (almost never center point) and keep it on the subject’s face. Composition suffers sometimes, due to the layout of AF points on the camera. But when musicians are moving around, what do you do?

  • Ewa Gina? Cumblidge

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    I often shoot at small jazz clubs with notoriously low lighting and most of the time I underexpose by 1 – 1 1/2 stops which offers a bit more flexibility on shutter speed and helps avoid blurred images. This works because typically you don’t need to have the background exposed correctly – after all you’re likely to be shooting with f 2.8 so background is not going to be in focus anyway.
    Secondly – concert photography is about capturing the spirit and emotions. Stage lights often render everything a particular colour so post processing in b&w or using Lightroom Split tone presets can get you a much more appealing result than trying to achieve a realistic photo.
    In terms of composition – don’t be afraid not to shoot ‘straight’. Changing perspective or tilting your camera and using a different angle makes a huge difference.
    Another advantage of having a narrow depth-of-field (f 2.8 or 3.2) is that you can use microphone stands or other stage equipment to frame your shot. They will be blurred but if used sensibly they can add a lot of interest to your image.
    And lastly – I always experiment in post-processing. Some of the venues I photograph at have notoriously bad lighting – and trying to correct for it is tedious. Rather than doing that I test various presets – for example sepia or antique works well when shooting swing /big bands as it is in keeping with the music.
    And if I have a shot I like the composition and energy of but it’s blurred or spoiled by particularly bad lighting conditions, I experiment even further with basic settings in Lightroom, and/or add Heavy grain to make it more impressionist.
    Photos taken with Canon 6D and either Tokina ATX Pro 28-70 f 2.8 or Canon 70-200 f 2.8 and processed in Lightroom.

  • Nik Bartlett

    Really useful article. I mainly shoot equine sports and landscape but the other week had an opportunity to watch a very well known musician and his band in rehearsals in London. Not quite gig conditions but the rehearsal space was dark with basic stage lighting. Wish I had read up on concert photography before attending this but did manage to get a few decent photos. Quickly found that the prime 50mm and 85mm worked the best and the extra reach from crop factor on the 7DMK2 really helped 🙂

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0d97d245ade3e822800169d6f7062d8cbbdc17dfee362028dd051d1f32df71a6.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/70f74995d5e5face931324b7abe540884f4d7e63db930355a291cb4658a23383.jpg
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