Concert Photography: Choosing the Best Camera Settings

Concert Photography: Choosing the Best Camera Settings

In this post Tom Di Maggio Photography shares 11 tips for taking band promotional photography.

Talking about best camera settings for concert photography is not an easy task. The light changes all the time, people move, and contrary to studio photography it is not you who decide about how much light you use, where and when you use it. When it comes to camera settings for concert photography, there must be as many different points of view on camera settings as there are concert photographers. In this article I’ll show you what works for me. I’ll try to give you pointers so that can have a starting point and find what works for you. I am in no way trying to say that these are the only or best settings ever.

To be successful at photographing a live performance you need to be able to operate your camera blindly, and I mean that literally. Since using a flash light in the pit to change your ISO will usually be greeted with at least a frown from security and/or your fellow photographers, you need to be able to adjust the settings on your camera in the dark. See the picture here from Billy Lunn (The Subways), if I had to have a look at my camera to set the shutter speed I would have missed this shot.

Kevin Lunn – The Subways – Open Air Festival Luxembourg

When you only have three songs to capture the feeling of the concert, every single one of them has to count. The first thing I do before I leave the house is to reset my camera. That includes dialling in the settings of my camera in a way that I found out to be a nice starting point for most concerts or low light situations. It’s a comforting feeling to know that once I get to the venue my cameras are “ready to go”. I was dragged more than once backstage for a quick portrait session.

Since my cameras are ready at all times, all I had to do was take a quick reading for correct exposure, dial down the ISO a bit and start shooting. No twiddling with settings, or cards to format, … get right down to business. Your subject will be impressed by how fast you delivered those high quality shots, and you might be asked to do this again given the speed and professionalism you showed right then and there. I’m repeating myself I know, but a lot in concert photography is about being ready to shoot at any given times and your reputation.

Schmigga – Project54 – Backstage Luxembourg

You might be thinking that something like that would never happen to you. So did I, and it took a painful experience for me before I made a mantra out of resetting my camera before a gig. I wish I could say this happened a long time ago but it didn’t …. I started shooting the first few frames of a gig, it was awesome, the lead singer came straight at me literally posing for some shots. I noticed that my shutter was not triggering anymore. When I checked the back of my camera, I was greeted with a small message on my camera: CF card full !!!! Lesson learned: Always reset the camera before the show.

Heather Nova – Den Atelier — Luxembourg

The way I set my camera before the concert is only a starting point. I like to start with ISO1600, a shutter speed of 1/160th and an aperture of F2.8. When I get onsite and get a feeling for what the light might be, I occasionally tweak them before the concert starts, when I see some pointers as to what the light might be. I have to admit though that I usually shoot one frame and check my LCD to see where I am in terms of exposure, I then adjust accordingly. I would typically start by adjusting the ISO value if possible, followed by the Shutter speed. Changing my aperture only happens when there is enough light for m to drop my ISO to below ISO 400. This leads me to something really important that I want to stress here. Use the ISO sensitivity of your camera to your advantage.

Some people still think that changing the ISO settings should be avoided at all cost. People, …. we don’t need to change films anymore, it’s just one button to click and dial in the new setting. Before you start dialling down your shutter speed, dial the ISO up. To use this method to the maximum you will need to know how far you can push your camera in terms of ISO sensitivity. What I mean is that you will have to experiment the highest ISO setting you can choose with your camera that will result in an acceptable level of noise in your images. Speaking of noise, I used to use third party noise cancellation software for everything Noise related. That changed with the release of Adobe Lightroom 3. I found that the algorithm used by Lightroom combined with the ISO performances of the newer cameras to be a very effective combination. This allowed me to completely remove noise cancelling software from my workflow and thus decrease the post processing time needed for my concert pictures.

Talking about shooting modes is kind of a personal thing. When it comes to concert photography my cameras never leave the Manual Mode. The reason behind that is quite simple. Let’s say for arguments sake that you shoot a performer, he/she is standing on stage lit by one big bright spot.

The rest of the stage is lit as well but many stops below the subject. If that difference is too big and if you shoot in a semi automatic mode you will let the camera calculate an average exposure based on what it “sees”. Usually in concert photography that’s not what you want. I for one would like to take that decision by myself, and thus not taking the risk of having a wonderfully exposed background but a white spot where the face was supposed to be.

My metering mode is always set to spot metering. I want to know the precise reading of a small area more than an average of a bigger one. It gives me a subtle creative leeway which would be impossible in any of the other two modes. I can work with the rest of the scene being a bit on the dark side of the meter, but not the subject. Basically I will always take my exposure reading from the face of one of the performers and work from there. Using any other metering mode will affect my reading in a way that could make me expose for other things in the frame and eventually loose the needed detail of what counts in the frame. A small tip in terms of exposure: I tend to slightly underexpose my pictures. I found out that it gives me a better quality for my post processing.

Ryan Tedder — One Republic – Den Atelier — Luxembourg

I am not talking about the white balance at all since I leave it on auto white balance for anything concert related. I like to keep things as simple as possible, especially in situations that need quick reactions. White balance issues can very quickly and effectively be addressed in Lightroom in the post processing phase of the workflow.

Slash & Porn Queen – Le Zenith Backstage — Paris

As mentioned before I shoot in RAW only, and if it is not the case yet I strongly recommend you to switch your DSLR to RAW and leave it there. Admittedly the files are bigger, but with the price of memory cards being as low as they are today, it doesn’t really matter. I use 8GB Sandisk only, it gives me space for approximately 300 pictures with 20MB files. That is more than enough for three songs.

I also like to have one performance on one card and then change cards for the next one. The reason I stress this, is the amazing flexibility RAW files give me in post processing. I don’t have to worry about my white balance while taking pictures which in concert photography is a real time saver and it gives me a bit more room to play around with the exposure in post processing. If these are not enough there is another reason. Your camera will compress the file if set to JPG and thus impact the colour rendition of the file. I like to work on pictures that are as close as possible to what I saw when I took it in terms of colours. The fact is, .. there is no reason you should still be shooting anything else than in RAW.

Slash – Le Zenith — Paris

See more of Tom Di Maggio’s work at Tom Di Maggio Photography, InFocus Photography and on his Flickr Account.

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Some Older Comments

  • Janet September 27, 2013 07:30 am

    Thank you for this great article. I am a beginner learning DSLR and my passion is concert photography. Love the Slash pic btw.

  • Ravi August 31, 2013 03:58 am

    Tried shutter priority in a school show. Started at 1/500 but finally had to use 1/100 or 1/50 mostly. Also overcome my laziness, bought another microSD card and took pictures in RAW. Worked wonders. I did not have to use flash and the pictures are much better than those i took previously. Thanks for this inspiring article.

  • pranav May 17, 2013 01:57 am

    Tom, thanks a lot. this was a great information on concert photography. I am also a photographer and loves to cover gigs and concerts. surely, this info would gonna help me in future with my work. thanks man for all the brief and to put stress on each and every minute detail about concert photography.
    p.s. : awesome clicks. the first one being the best of all.

  • Alice February 22, 2013 11:06 pm

    Thank you so much!
    I'm a 16 yearold girl from Sweden who's going to shoot my first concert in about a week. and now I'm trying to find some tips and edvice on the internet to help me get the best result I possibly can accomplish. This really helped me out a lot, so thanks for this. Wish me luck!
    And good luck with everything.


  • concert photography June 14, 2012 11:51 pm

    I love the photographs.Very artisitcs.great concert photographs depends on photographer hand even what kind camera he may use.

  • Tom June 2, 2012 12:30 am

    Wow, .. thanks for all the comments :)
    I will try to respond to the questions asked, feel free to send me an email should I forget one or the other.

    @Pranav: The "feel" or "toning" of the RAW output of your camera is very specific to your camera. The picture is unprocessed and uncompressed. You have settings in the menu of the camera that let you tweak these as far as I know. I don't fiddle with these settings in camera though, I do everything in Lightroom during post processing.

    I cannot include tips about classical shows as I don't photograph any. But as Richard mentioned there's a tutorial on the way ;)

    As for the Flash talk. I wouldn't use a flash during a concert, even if it was allowed. (I am an avid outdoor/studio flash photographer, no issues with flash here). Even used as a fill I feel it changes the mood too much of the pictures. I've seen terrific live shots where the flashes were strategically positioned like Charlie mentioned. But they didn't really reflect the mood of the show.

  • Richard Taylor May 31, 2012 07:36 am

    Re classical music concerts
    You may find this DPS tutorial of interest. It will be completed over the next few days (1 post per day).

  • Johnny Mark May 30, 2012 04:01 am

    I have a Pentax K-7 it has a shooting mode that I think no or not many brands have it's TAv (Shutter speed
    and Apeture control) you can manually set the shutter and aperture it's basically fully manual except for one thing - the ISO which automatically adjust to the lighting if it's dark or bright.
    I used manual mode when I shoot for my daughter's dance concert but there were parts of the show that the lighting becomes too bright and my ISO1600 overexposes the shots and I forget to change it, that TAv mode
    would help that in automatically setting the right ISO for that lighting. It's not foolproof or always correct but it works and it helps.

  • Maven May 28, 2012 06:33 pm

    With an ISO 800, spot metering, a steady hand and every shot is winner.Todays cameras really do a great job even budget cams like THE Rebel series can produce outstanding images. Keep it simple with the basics

  • Maven May 28, 2012 06:26 pm

    Good tips for the novice. With an f/2.8 lens set AV/Tv (in Canon

  • ccting May 28, 2012 10:22 am

    Wow.,, great article and advice... as i am capturing photos for concert too.. ;D

  • Gary Mc Nutt May 27, 2012 09:19 am

    Here is a conecrt i was at a few months ago and came back with this shot:

  • Vincent Pelly May 27, 2012 07:26 am

    Excellent article and comments. I started shooting rock concerts two years ago and have found that along with all the fun, excitement and action you really get to showcase your creativity. I shoot with Nikon equipment: D700, 70-200 2.8 and 70-80 2.8 for concerts ISO range from 800 to 3000 all raw images.

    I would like feedback on my work- please feel free to view the following links:

    Wall Street Rocks benefit concert for Wounded Warriors and Reserve Aid:

    Also at

  • Ken May 26, 2012 02:47 pm

    I love taking photos at concerts. I find them to be a real challenge, and pulling off a great photo of an artist who is moving and in poor lighting is very rewarding. However, the only advice I can give is to get as close to the subject as possible. This makes all the difference.

  • Ralph Hightower May 26, 2012 10:26 am

    I took my camera to Trans-Siberian Orchestra "Beethoven's Last Night" concert. I contacted the concert venue to see what their restrictions were. "No flash" was their answer. Since our seats were on the second level balcony (no concert pass, no 3 song limit), I figured my 80-205mm f4.5 was the best choice to bring. I brought two rolls of Kodak T-Max 3200 film (B&W) with me; one was loaded in the Canon A-1, the other in my pocket. Since I was using B&W, I brought my Cokin B&W contrast filters: Yellow, Orange, and Red.

    I was taking test exposure readings and decided to move the ISO to 6400. After the lights dimmed, I decided to move the ISO to 12800, which maxed out my camera's ISO. Grain is evident in the T-Max 3200 pushed to 12800. The grain of photos that used T-Max3200 exposed at ISO 3200 were fine.


  • Paul Broomfield May 26, 2012 07:44 am

    Great tips!

    For me, I shoot either manual or shutter priority. My thing is to lower the ISO and slightly under expose the image if I have to, so that when in Lightroom after I can push the image a little more as the ISO is lower and avoid grain. But hey every gig is different!

    I find I use similar settings when shooting catwalks as well, specially if shooting multiple shows on the same night, the light usually changes between 'walks'.

    I love the rush you get running around in the pit! :)

  • JohnBcheetah May 26, 2012 12:15 am

    Apeture Ray has a good point about "terrible or grainy" shots, and I would also add overexposed ones too. Switching to b&w, then playing with the colour slides, or even reducing contrast and increasing clarity to the extreme will give artistic effects. I saved a shoot once of a choir group that I had overexposed, but by playing around in b&w I got a great result...... and even the choir was beginning to think I was clever!

  • Aperture Ray May 25, 2012 11:36 pm

    Don't think a few people read my post all the way through- i mentioned asking the band beforehand- some wont care while some might. Yes, flash gives off harsh light but i've used it as a very subtle fill on a fong dome where it's almost not even noticeable to anyone. And again- this was cleared with the artist before the show. Most major venues even with a press pass will only give you a few songs to take photos and even with that, flash is a no no.

    Another tip i've seen on other forums is if possible and you're friendly with the lighting guy, some can be persuaded to turn off the red spot lights, which tend to play havoc on skin tones.

    And setting your camera for burst can help capture a clearer shot when the subject suddenly starts moving- you may have a few blurry ones but you should have a few that look clear (though i've never had a reason to burst shoot during shows)

    And a rescue for a photo that looks terrible or grainy bc the iso was too high can look fantastic if converted to b&w, duotone, or toned with a solid color.

  • Navin May 25, 2012 11:09 pm

    A glimpse of my shoot here -

  • Navin May 25, 2012 11:08 pm

    An awesome 'hands on' article this. I only recently indulged in my first multi-genre concert shoot. Thanks for the read.

  • madisoncary May 25, 2012 10:05 pm

    great tips! i plan on using these tonight!

  • JohnBcheetah May 25, 2012 09:55 pm

    yes you're right Mircea, the more familiar you get with their routine, the more prepared you are to catch the "high" points, similar with ballet, I have to know when they're gonna jump, not when they're gonna land!

  • mircea oculeanu May 25, 2012 09:32 pm

    Thank you JohnBcheetah :)...
    One more thing: in case your not limited to the first 3 songs u get the luxury tu wait and see some patterns in what the frontman does...they usually have some routines they repeat at the climax of songs - jumping, or a hand gesture or seldom pays to wait with you eye in the took me 2 long years to have this kind of patience :)

  • Robert May 25, 2012 09:28 pm

    Great article, with some very good advice. I used to shoot at concert using a Canon compact (on manual settings). It is good to know I was doing the right thing within the limitations of a compact. Just bought a Nikon DSLR and loving the difference, especially being able to push the ISO up.

  • JohnBcheetah May 25, 2012 09:04 pm

    Mircea, good pic of the singer, it would make a good album cover. Flash is rarely used in my photography.... it seems to change the atmosphere. The last time I tried was from the back of the theatre for the final bow.... well 200 kids with redeye is a non starter!

  • JohnBcheetah May 25, 2012 08:59 pm

    Sorry, wrote my website wrong, should be if anyone wants a look!

  • mircea oculeanu May 25, 2012 06:08 pm

    Good point JohnBcheetaH! i always underexpose - my old 5D not so good at ISO 3200, the maximum usable is ISO 1600-...
    About flash: the only accetable use in the pit is photographing fans dancing - so with your back to the band - ...but you'd better waite to the flood lights that the light guy usually puts on when the band lets the public sing...
    In small venues flash gives a harsh/ plasticky look to your images... some of my images

  • JohnBcheetah May 25, 2012 03:42 pm

    Another thing I'd like to contribute here is that when shooting in low light I deliberately underexpose by one or two stops so I can increase the speed and therefore sharpness. Adjustment in LR.

  • David May 25, 2012 01:25 pm

    In dark situations, I shoot wide open, decide on my ISO before the concert starts, meter on the artist's face in good light when they come out, then leave the shutter speed alone (unless I want to slow it down to show movement). I don't worry about the changing lights. If that's how the lighting techs want the scene to look, I try and reflect that.

  • Charles Stafford May 25, 2012 12:25 pm

    great tips thanks. Always check the camera before you leave the house. the number one rule.

  • EnergizedAV May 25, 2012 11:15 am

    Concerts sure are thrilling and difficult. I agree with you on shooting blind at times. I took a handfull of shots and calibrated little by little for this Switchfoot concert. Once the settings were right I ended up with about 160 shots.
    Thanks, Tom

  • Jeff E Jensen May 25, 2012 10:57 am

    Shooting concerts can be fun and challenging. The upside is that you get to listen to some good music while you shoot!

  • Charlie O'Brien May 25, 2012 09:25 am

    To the question of flash - it doesn't work most times and the shots can be harsh.
    In major venues with major acts - "no flash' is always the policy. Better crank up th ISO.
    There is better luck in smaller venues - clubs - with indie bands or up and coming artists with flash. Also, the lighting rig is usually poor.
    If you have any personal relationship with a band you are better off and can ask about flash -especially if they know your work and you are following ther tour as band photgrapher. Then you can set up flashes on stage that no one else would be able to do. example of great flash - check Adam Elmakias guest blog on -
    Cool article - but extreme insider access - fairly rare.

  • Dennis MItchell May 25, 2012 08:41 am

    Nice to know I'm not that far off in what I do now. CF cards get formatted and the camera set to manual, ISO 1600, f2.8 (or f4 depending on which lens I use) and 1/125 as a starting point BEFORE I ever leave the house. I use LR3 and yes, the noise reduction works very well, and I hear LR4 is a bit better still. Thanks for the article!

  • Wayne Posner May 25, 2012 08:24 am

    @aperture ray. The ONLY time I use flash, is if I'm in a dingy dive bar shooting some local band. Try using a flash at a large venue and you'll definitely piss off the other photographers around you, not to mention probably get thrown out by security. As for timing your shots with the light, I find that to be mostly luck. I have no way of knowing when the lights are going to hit the subject in my viewfinder, which is why I leave my ISO set to a value I feel appropriate for the venue and adjust my shutter/aperture as necessary and fire in 3 shot bursts. If the lights suddenly go up, yes I'll blow out my first and (possibly) second shot, but the third will generally be spot on.

  • Wayne Posner May 25, 2012 08:17 am

    You can read my post on tips for jazz/classical music photography here:

  • Scottc May 25, 2012 07:59 am

    Great photos, and a worthy article.

    My little bit of experience with show photography has a long way to go.

  • Aperture Ray May 25, 2012 07:26 am

    Would have been helpful if you had included your camera settings with each photo you have posted. :|

    And perhaps one of the most important aspects that really needs to be emphasized is that you can nail incredibly lit shots at a lower iso if you time your shots the exact moment the performers(s) are hit with light, be it a spot, strobe, flood or whatever. Red is usually bad but other colors work well and you'll get some insane shots. I've gotten beautiful clear exposed photos at just 400-800 by shooting when light blasted onto my subject for just a fraction of a second- which also freezes them like a flash does.

    If you can speak to the performers before the show and ask them if its ok to shoot with a flash (a gary fong dome puts out barely noticeable light as opposed to a bright flash from a bare 430ex etc), some wont care and will let you... but use it sparingly and at a very low setting so as not to distract the band- or annoy the people near you.

  • JohnBcheetah May 25, 2012 05:12 am

    GREAT!! First time I've seen an article relevant to what I've been specializing in the last 3-4 years, and good to know that I'm doing the right thing. Ballet and dance has been the most challenging form of photography for me, but the rewards are there too. Using manual gives me the best results, because as Tom says, you've got to get a bead ( exposure) on the face, and (in ballet) on the white dresses, because the rest can be enhanced later in LR, but if you burn out the whites it'll be hell to get them back with detail, even in RAW. Some of the best shots are with the 70-200 2.8 IS lens (Canon), one of the best investments I've made (by the way I enjoy using my 24-70 2.8 lens, but if anyone know of a similar one with IS I'd love to know). There's something I'd like to add to Toms advice if I may be so brash...... it's very true that your cameras MUST be ready before the performance because there's no time for messing about apart from slight exposure adjustments, and when Tom mentioned managing the cameras virtually blindfold during the performance, then it would be of great advantage if the more-than-one cameras were the same model. I use a 1 ds mark 3 and a 5D mark 2 during performances (because there's no time to change lenses on just one camera) . If both cameras had been the same model it would make changes more instinctive and automatic. So my next camera will be the 5d mark 3 to replace the 1ds, but I still have to find a reason (excuse) to justify my next stepping stone!! Thanks Tom for your valuable contribution!

  • kristi May 25, 2012 04:50 am

    Thanks so much for this info it really helps a newbie with an idea of where to start as all the settings & situations can be overwhelming... The one question I have do you have a particular lens size you typically shoot with I realize the lower Fstop the better for low light but was just curious what lens sizes you usually shoot with... & about the need to use an external flash? Thanks so much

  • matej slezak photography May 25, 2012 04:12 am

    i agree with @mariomaranjomolina- some tips on classical music shots would be nice.
    I'm always starting with iso2500 or iso3200. i don't care about noise that much, sharp images are more important to me.

  • Darryl Kerney May 25, 2012 02:48 am

    I've had good results using incandescent white balance at night clubs, I find it captures the lighting colors well. I started using that with my old camera, a Fuji S602Z, haven't had the chance to try with my D7000 yet.

  • Pranav May 25, 2012 01:47 am

    Hello Tom,

    Thanks a lot for sharing this wonderful article. I too shoot Manual and find your settings to be perfectly logical. Have one question for you though in terms of Raw Images. I shoot Raw + JPEG and find that I never use my Raw files. From years, have filed them all properly but hardly ever used them.

    One of the reasons being as you may be aware they look a lot colorless and dull as compared to their JPEG counterpart. Hence my question is how do you get all the natural colour back into your post processed JPEG file ? I had only once in so many yrs tried to use my Raw file purely for reducing its size in LR 3 and ended up with the right size file for the purpose but extremely dull image as the parent raw file.

    I am sure I am missing something out here in the post processing which I am not at all aware of. Kindly advise.

    Thanks and regards,

  • MARIO NARANJO MOLINA May 25, 2012 01:31 am

    When we talk about concert photography I´m always addressed to rock or pop music concerts. Why not giving some advise on classic music concerts; big orchestras or chamber music or soloists... I´m expecting forward to any clues or tips on this... My best regards.

  • raghavendra May 25, 2012 01:08 am

    wow, everyone have a craze for concert photographs.
    Good tips with images.

  • Jean-Pierre May 25, 2012 12:47 am

    Great photos, awesome tips. I like that you show backstage antics. Perspective is pretty important as well.

    This is a photo i took of a local band. Everyone was inside, I opted for a completely different perspective and to do it of the drummer.

  • Charlie O'Brien May 25, 2012 12:30 am

    Great points! The scene changes so fast. I can safely say that my primary settings are very close - always ready for a concert at 1600 2.8, but I tend to start in Shutter Priority with a minimum of 1/160 to stop the action. I've been lucky to shoot some well lit venues like Caesars Windsor from the pit. But of course small clubs are very murky and dark so don't be afraid to crank up the ISO. I did shoot recently at 2500 with my 7D and no problem.
    I like having access to the exposure compensation setting so close on my 7D and I use that a fair bit to fine tune. Because things happen fast I stay on shutter priority and usually auto-focus with spot metering. I may change to manual focus - especially when stuck back on the soundboard so the lens isn't hunting for a lock. With a long lens racked out to the max I can pre-focus safely and stay in the ball park.

    Here's a shot of Peter Frampton from "The Frampton Comes Alive Tour":