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How to Photograph a Concert From the Cheap Seats [With a Point & Shoot]

Have you ever sat in a stadium at a concert or sporting event and wanted to capture the moment?

You pull out your point and shoot camera out of your pocket and line up the shot, check it’s on Auto and – FLASH!!! – you got it…. or did you?

Image: Image by lloydi - Panasonic DMC-LX2

Image by lloydi - Panasonic DMC-LX2

You look at the back of the camera expecting a wonderful shot that just captures the atmosphere perfectly and are surprised to see a shot that has the 3 rows in front of you perfectly exposed – but complete darkness after that.

What’s wrong? Well to put it simply – you should have turned off your flash.

Don’t worry though – you’re not alone. In fact if you look around the stadium you’ll notice hundreds of other flashes going off – followed by people looking at their cameras with confusion and disappointment.

The problem is that your camera’s in built flash is simply not built to light up a stadium. In fact most in built flashes are going to struggle beyond 10 or so meters – so leaving it on is not going to help much (unless you’re lucky enough to be in the front row). To make maters worse if your flash is on – your camera is going to choose settings expecting that the flash will have an impact – so it’ll choose a short shutter speed, lower ISO and smaller aperture – further darkening your shot.

So what’s a photographer to do?

Firstly – you might want to lower your expectations a little. Large dark venues can be tricky to get great shots with point and shoot cameras. You can certainly improve your shot from those you’ll get in Auto mode with the flash on – but there is probably going to be a ceiling in terms of quality.

Keep in mind that most of the great close up shots you see in magazines of concerts are taken by Pros with top gear and most of all – they get access up very close to the stage (in the pit).

Image: Image by Herma - Digital IXUS 960 IS

Image by Herma - Digital IXUS 960 IS

Having said that, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of a shot that captures something of the event you’re at – even if you’re way up back in the last row. Here are a few things to experiment with:

1. Turn off that Flash

This should be your first step. Most point and shoot cameras have a setting where you can override the automatic flash and turn it off. This will give your camera a hint as to what to do – it’ll hopefully compensate by adjusting the settings it chooses with a combination of increased ISO, longer shutter speed and larger aperture. It won’t be perfect – but you’re moving in the right direction.

Image: Image by stumayhew - Casio EX-Z750

Image by stumayhew - Casio EX-Z750

2. Shoot when the lights are up Bright

If you’re shooting at a concert where there is a light show you should experiment with shooting when the lights are at different levels. One of the main problems that you’ll be facing is that in most instances there simply won’t be enough light – so if there is a moment in the concert where the lights are brighter than normal – this could be a good time to shoot.

Keep in mind though that depending upon your camera’s metering that the bright moments, particularly when lights are shining out into the audience, might also lead to over exposed shots – so you might also want to experiment with shooting when they’re a little lower too. In time you’ll work out when the best timing is.

Note: this tip varies a little depending the color of the light. Many concert photographers particularly struggle with lots of red lights.

Image: Image by SBishop - Fujifilm FinePix A350.

Image by SBishop - Fujifilm FinePix A350.

3. Stabilise It

One of the issues you’re going to run into in a dark environment is that you’ll likely need to shoot with a longer shutter speed than normal – this means you’re going to face the problem of camera shake. Usually we’d overcome that with a tripod – but it’s unlikely that you’ll have one of those handy – so look for other ways to keep your camera still.

This might mean finding a wall to lean up against, or a barrier in front of you to place it on…. or just avoiding the guy next to you doing 80’s break dancing moves!

Image: Image by M??K - Sony DSC-W35

Image by M??K - Sony DSC-W35

4. Play with Your Settings

OK – so it’s unlikely that you’ll want to spend the whole concert playing around in your camera’s menu to find the right setting…. but if you do want to experiment (ie: your wife’s dragged you along to a George Michael concert and you’re looking for for a way to pass the time…. hypothetically of course) – there will be a few settings that you’ll want to play around (if your point and shoot has the ability to give you some manual control). The ones you’ll mainly want to play with are the three main ones in the Exposure Triangle:

  • ISO – increase it and you’ll not need to use as slow a shutter speed. Of course the higher it goes the more ‘noise’ you’ll get in your shots
  • Shutter Speed – there is no single shutter speed that you’ll want to choose – but play around with some slower speeds if you can find a way to stabilise your camera. Of course as you slow down you’ll introduce the increased chance of camera shake but also could start to capture movement on the stage (this may be an effect that adds some interest – but you probably wouldn’t want it in every shot). If your concert is one with little movement (I’m thinking of choirs, orchestras etc) you might be able to slow things right down without too much blur.
  • Aperture – aperture is the hole inside your lens – the larger it is, the more light comes in. This is good in a low light situation – however has an impact on the way your picture looks – particularly depth of field which narrows.

Another setting that one friend always plays with in camera is White Balance. I’d tend to leave this til I get home to sort out – but it could be something for George Michael’s second set where you’re really looking for something to do…. hypothetically of course!

Image: Image by thornj - Nokia N95

Image by thornj - Nokia N95

5. Zoom

You’re in the back row…. so you’ll be tempted to zoom that little lens as far as it goes to magnify what ever’s happening on the stage as much as possible. However there are some implications of doing this too.

For starters the longer your zoom the more likely you’ll get camera shake impacting your images. The zoom doesn’t just magnify the scene but any shake.

Also you’ll want to avoid letting your zoom go into ‘Digital Zoom’ range. Most point and shoot cameras have what is known as an optical zoom and a digital zoom. The optical zoom doesn’t decrease image quality (apart from the camera shake mentioned above) but a digital zoom is really just enlarging your shot which means your image becomes more pixelated. You would be better to just wait til you get home and do the same thing on your computer.

Also on this note – if you’re a long way back there might be a way to make the most of that and go for some wide shots and take in the crowd, stadium/arena and show the scale of the event.

What Would You Add?

I’m sure in the dPS community there is plenty more great advice – what would you add?

Related reading on the topic of live music event photography (most of it if you’ve got access to being close to the stage with your DSLR):

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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