Tips for Doing Concert Photography like a Pro

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Imagine being a concert photographer and getting the chance to cover loads of concerts. Imagine standing just feet away from your favourite artists as you capture so many shots of them. Doesn’t that just sound like the best thing? As opposed to other genres of photography like portraiture, fashion, etc., we have little to no control over lighting, the artists, and tons of other factors in concert photography.

So what are some of the best settings and tricks to capture those perfect shots at concerts? Images which will make you proud, make the artists and the viewers sat “Wow that is indeed one brilliant capture.”?

Tips to capture concert photos 7

Use a fast lens and shoot wide open

Using a fast lens is highly important and is a basic requirement for concert photography. Almost all concerts happen during evenings or night, or indoors under low lighting, which is why your camera sensor requires more light to enter through the lens opening. Moreover, the performers keep moving around the stage so you need to use faster shutter speeds to freeze their motion.

A fast lens is one which allows shooting at wider apertures such as f/2.8, f/1.8, etc. By using lenses like the 50mm f/1.8 or 135mm f/1.8 at the smallest aperture value, you can capture a well exposed shot by keeping the shutter speed fast enough. Another reason for using a fast lens is because usually the distance between the backdrop and the subject is minimal, so to create a shallow depth of field with a bokeh effect, a smaller aperture value would have to be used.

Tips to capture concert photography 5

Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode

Using Aperture Priority Mode to shoot concerts allows for more stress-free shooting. You simply tell your camera the aperture you want to use and it automatically sets the corresponding shutter speed. For many newbies shooting their first few concerts and even for many pros, using aperture priority allows for hassle free shooting.

Also, since the your mind is not all occupied by technical settings, you have freedom to look around at the artists, the crowd, etc., and end up shooting something really creative.

Shoot in aperture priority, with your f-number set to the smallest available on your lens, usually f/1.8 or f/2.8.

Crank up the ISO

Tips to capture concert photos 1

Concerts usually take place in low light settings and for many reasons, using a tripod is not possible. So you can resort to the one setting which you have control over and can easily use, the ISO.

Before the concert really gets going, fire off a series of test shots at different ISO values to judge after what point the noise becomes unacceptable. (Usually ISO 3200 or 6400). Some noise is actually okay and is far better than having a totally underexposed or blurry shot simply because you didn’t increase your ISO value.

The noise generated by the high ISO values can be used creatively to capture something unique. A monochrome shot with some noise would lend a really cool film grain effect to your shot. High noise can be fixed later on in post-processing too. So don’t think twice before cranking up that ISO, it’s far better than having no photo to show.

Avoid using your flash

Tips to capture concert photography 2

MOST important- Avoid using your flash at concerts. It is looked down on and frowned upon a lot. Imagine that you are firing your flash towards the performer(s), and there are 10 others doing the very same. That is surely going to annoy the artists, not to mention almost blind them.

Another important aspect of concert photography is photographing the audience, and no photographer would like to distract the audience from the artist who is performing for them. Repeatedly firing the flash at their faces while capturing their photos can easily annoy audience members.

Also, if we are aiming to capture candid photos of either the artists or the crowd, then firing a flash at them surely is not the right way to do that. And yes, a majority of photos using the built-in pop-up flash simply aren’t worth it. They look flat and uninspiring.

Move around

Tips to capture concert photography 4

You are not there to stand at one place and shoot the same picture 10 times. As a concert photographer it goes without saying that you will have to move around. Move with the artists, move as the lighting changes, etc., to capture those standout moments. (Note: unless, of course, the venue or artist has put restrictions on photographers moving around.)

If you find people blocking your view, you have to move. After all, they have paid to watch their favourite artists perform. If the lead singer moves to one side of the stage, then you have to follow him over there.

The lights too will change from time to time, and it is important to know when which area of the stage will be illuminated to capture the performers properly with adequate lighting.

Tips to capture concert photos 6

Moving around will always get you some really creative shots. You could capture a shot of the lead guitarist under the spotlight, a shot of the lead singer standing isolated from everyone else, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Wait and anticipate

Waiting for that perfect moment is as important as learning to anticipate it. This is a habit which can be developed easily, and is only fine tuned over time. Observe the artists and you will notice certain habits of theirs.

Moments such as a guitarist bending backwards during a particularly intense moment, a DJ waving his arms in the air, a singer grabbing the mic in a particular manner, etc., are all moments which would make for a perfect shot. It is important to know when these moments are around the corner so that you are ready to fire your camera when they come.

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Conclusion

These are just a few tips to help you do better concert photography. Please share any others you’ve learned as well as your concert photos, in the comments below.

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Kunal Malhotra

is a photography enthusiast whose passion for photography started 6 years back during his college days. Kunal is also a photography blogger, based out of Delhi, India. He loves sharing his knowledge about photography with fellow aspiring photographers by writing regular posts on his blog. Some of his favorite genres of photography are product, street, fitness, and architecture.

  • disqus_sQ19AhT8kr

    I have covered concerts, celebrity events for years for a wire service. Ever concert states no flash so tip “try to avoid use of flash” is pointless. Concert promoters do not allow flash at any show, as it is distracting to the performer. I have covered people from Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Beach Boys, City In Color pretty much ever major concert that came to my city

  • Bill Ward

    This is a perfect article for its intended audience — me. A lot of us might be able to try concert photography at some point, and this offers a great tutorial. In addition, many of the suggestions are applicable to other shooting venues. Thanks much. I appreciate the shared experience.

  • miker33

    Curious why Aperture mode. It looks like you’re suggesting you set your aperture, crank up your ISO, and let the camera choose a shutter speed. But if the camera picks (or is forced to use) a shutter speed to slow to freeze a performer in motion, you end up with a blurry, unfixable, unusable photo. Seems to me you’d be better off in manual mode, shooting wide open as you suggest, setting the shutter speed as low as possible depending on how fast the performers are moving, and using auto ISO.
    But I’m just a hobbyist; curious to hear what the pros have to say.

  • william arden

    I’ve learned to work in manual mode so that I can set aperture wide open, shutter speed in the range of 1/125 or so, and ISO to auto. That way I can freeze some motion and blur the background at the same time.

  • Stereo Reverb

    Nice article on concert photography, but i respectfully have issues with most of your points: Fast Lens- Using a fast lens is always good for very dark places, but with the performers lit up by the house lights, a 2.8 zoom can easily shoot them properly exposed at a normal iso and at apertures as high as 5.6. It’s only where you have a small local venue with very little lighting that a prime becomes critical. I also don’t suggest shooting wide open, as you have a much narrower plane of focus and risk throwing one of the most critical parts of the shot, the eyes, out of focus. And nobody cares about bokeh, you’re shooting a concert, not a portrait session. 🙂 And of note, if you are using a crop sensor camera, keep in mind the crop conversion on them, usually 1.4x-1.6x, so 50mm equates to 80mm, and a 135mm lens becomes a 216mm lens- that guarantees you’ll only be able to capture one single person, and that 135mm, only a part of them, like their head, because it won’t be wide enough to capture anything else. Your better choice for crop cameras is 24mm, giving you about 35mm, which *will* let you capture the entire group or parts of them on stage. For a full frame, 35mm is more the view that the eye is used to seeing with.

    2. Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode- *Don’t* do this. With different intensity lights hitting the performer at different times, your camera will shoot correctly exposed on the main subject, but risks darkening down the rest of the band. Not ideal. If the light is lower intensity, your camera will try to select a lower speed than you should use, i.e. it could select 1/25s or 1/10s for your 50mm, because you have your Aperture locked at say, 2.8. What happens then, is you end up with an unusable blurry photo because it chose a 1/10 speed. The only time aperture priority is beneficial is when shooting daytime outdoor concerts where the lighting is more predictable and consistent. This is where you want the camera exposing on the fly if the subject moves in direct sunlight, or walks into the shade- being in sunlight, you wont have to worry about the camera ever going below an acceptable shoot speed. Also, learn how to raise of lower exposure compensation with your camera dial, which will help you get better shots (sometimes in shade, you’ll need to boost exposure by a full stop or so, so that you don’t have the rest of the band underexposed)

    For indoor/night shows, you always want to shoot in manual and learn when to set your metering for exact exposure, and when to underexpose/overexpose, based on what lighting you’re shooting in. Very bright red light on singer? Underexpose by a half to full stop, otherwise you end up with a bright red face that you can’t fix in post. Dim yellow light on them? Overexpose by the same amount. Yes they’ll be a little overexposed, but the rest of the band who may have less light, becomes properly exposed… making it easier to balance exposure between the two in post.

    Avoid using your flash needs to be changed to, do *not* use your flash, ever. You *will* get asked to stop immediately by security, or even asked to leave. The band will also personally tell/yell/insult you to stop or just have you removed. If you have shooting clearance by the venue, you risk getting banned from shooting there again. I’ve also seen the crowd shout at a photog to stop using his flash. Don’t do it, ever. If your camera can’t handle the low lighting, either take your chances with high iso and a very low prime like 1.4, or get a better camera that can handle higher ISO. Full frames always handle light better, because their sensors are larger than crop cameras. Their noise is also grain-like, vs crops, which give digital noise artificating. I’ve shot as high as 32,000 ISO on my Mk IV and come out with very nice quality photos after some slight noise smoothing in post.

    Moving around- unless you have photo credentials and get pit access to the front of the stage, you won’t be able to move around- you’ll be stuck surrounded next to everyone else standing with you. Get to the venue early, and claim the spot you want to shoot at. I’ve stood by myself for an hour before show time in order to get the best shooting spot. You don’t need to move anyways, bc the band will be doing that for you. And a zoom lens will easily create different focal lengths and different angles to keep the shots interesting. If the person on stage moves, you will not be able to move, and i can promise that the fans all next to you aren’t going to step aside to let you get your shot either. (Plus, you’ll be interfering with their experience, which eventually, some are going to personally let you know, and not in a good way).

    Two other important points when shooting concerts- grey card your venue in different lighting situations, so that you can color correct in post, or if you can’t, look for something on the stage that’s mid grey- a microphone is usually that color, so you can pick that in post to fix the temperature. The other important thing to know is that cross-type focus points on your camera will always give you the most accurate focusing- and if your camera has trouble trying to lock focus because it’s too dark, use the center focus points (located within the circle in the middle of your screen)- those are going to be the most sensitive to light and let you nail focus much much better and quicker than if you try to use an outer point, which often times, will fail to find focus. It will require you to focus and recompose, so just be aware that you need to have the camera on the same focal plane to achieve sharpness (you’ll need to google that for a more detailed explanation)

    And for beginners (and pros), it goes without saying to always shoot in RAW, as jpg’s don’t offer the latitude for color correction and quality that RAW files do. Also bring a spare memory card or two in the event you fill up your main card, or it fails during the show. Also consider insuring your equipment if it’s expensive, as i’ve had beer, drinks, and rain hit my camera many times, not to mention people bumping into it from time to time. 🙂

  • Stereo Reverb

    Agreed. Aperture Mode in an outdoor situation with sunlight is great, and what i do. But indoors, you have to use manual, because you have to manually compensate for the changing lighting conditions, and using AM will only give you almost all blurry shots, with the rest in my experience, photos that are overall, underexposed, resulting in far more work to fix in post than if it was just shot in manual.

  • The issue with manual mode while doing concert photography is that the lighting changes swiftly, and by the time you change the camera settings you would end up loosing the moments. These tips are for beginners as well as advance users, so that is the reason I did not suggest to use the manual mode. But I agree, manual mode is anytime better, if one is well versed and can quickly alter settings as per the requirement of the scene.

  • Your point is valid, but there are many concerts where use of flash is not prohibited and I have seen people using one. So thought of mentioning it as a tip.

  • Hey Bill, glad you found this article useful. 🙂

  • Hi William, during concerts the lighting conditions could be dim and using a shutter speed of 1/125 might not be an ideal way to go about it. Even if you do the ISO can go way too high and the image would hardly be of any use.

  • Stereo Reverb

    What you have to consider as a photographer, is- would you rather have a grainy image of a spectacular shot that you can salvage in post, or not have an image of a spectacular shot at all? I’m of the camp that i’d rather have a lower quality photo if it means i’ve got that once in a lifetime shot, versus regretting i didn’t take it.

    Your camera should have an option to set the maximum ISO range it can use. Whatever the highest ISO you can comfortably shoot at should be your max. For me, it’s 12,800 for my Mk3, since anything over that loses grain and becomes only digital noise. For my Mk4, 32,000 produces very usable images, so i keep that as my max range.

    If you want to maximize shooting in low light, you can use the reciprocal rule, i.e. setting your shutter speed to match the focal length of your lens. You’ll have to keep in mind the crop factor on the lens if you use a crop sensor camera. If you use a 24-70mm, a crop of say 1.4x, renders your 70mm to a 98mm focal length… so you could really go as low as 1/100th sec on shutter (though i typically shoot at 1/125 like you to compensate for fast movement of the band. If they don’t move around a lot, you could try shooting at a slightly slower shutter speed and pull in more light and exposure, while preserving sharpness. You can practice on a local band, then take the photos back in lightroom or whatever and compare the camera settings from each photo to see which settings worked the best for you.

  • Stereo Reverb

    What you have to consider as a photographer, is- would you rather have a grainy image of a spectacular shot that you can salvage in post, or not have an image of a spectacular shot at all? I’m of the camp that i’d rather have a lower quality photo if it means i’ve got that once in a lifetime shot, versus regretting that i didn’t take it.

    Your camera should have an option to set the maximum ISO range it can use. Whatever the highest ISO you can comfortably shoot at should be your max. For me, it’s 12,800 for my Mk3, since anything over that loses grain and becomes only digital noise. For my Mk4, 32,000 produces very usable images, so i keep that as my max range.

    If you want to maximize shooting in low light, you can use the reciprocal rule, i.e. setting your shutter speed to match the focal length of your lens. You’ll have to keep in mind the crop factor on the lens if you use a crop sensor camera. If you use a 24-70mm, a crop of say 1.4x, renders your 70mm to a 98mm focal length… so you could really go as low as 1/100th sec on shutter (though i typically shoot at 1/125 like you to compensate for fast movement of the band. If they don’t move around a lot, you could try shooting at a slightly slower shutter speed and pull in more light and exposure, while preserving sharpness. You can practice on a local band, then take the photos back in lightroom or whatever and compare the camera settings from each photo to see which settings worked the best for you.

  • Stereo Reverb

    That can be true, but if you practice knowing where your ISO, aperture, and shutter buttons are by feel alone and learn how to check them in your viewfinder against the exposure level indicator while you’re shooting , you can easily adjust any or all of the 3 in a fraction of a second right before you take the shot. As a beginner many years ago, i practiced this before my first wedding, bc i couldn’t afford to miss a shot because i took too much time looking at my camera, so i practiced those adjustments by touch while looking through the viewfinder, which took about 25 minutes until i got the hang of it. The quality of my concert shots and ability to capture the best moments also dramatically increased once i learned that technique. I learned the hard way early early on that the only thing AM did was give me vastly underexposed or unusable photos, bc the indoor stage lighting kept confusing it. :/

  • Trend Shark

    cheers!

  • Matthew King

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. When I shoot concerts I prefer to shoot with two 5D MkIII cameras. One always has my 70-200 2.8 IS attached and the other gets either my 24-70 2.8, my 16-35 2.8, or my 85 1.2, depending on the situation and the lighting. I usually shoot in Shutter mode at around 1/500-1/800 depending on the light. For ISO I will use AUTO for well lit stages, with a max programmed ISO of 6400, and for dim rooms I will set my ISO based on the lighting, which these days is usually crappy LED lighting turned really low or over saturated with Magenta. It’s taken me years to learn these settings have provided me the best shots possible. I do use Manual on occasion when I know the lighting beforehand, but i prefer to pay more attention to the sow than my settings and have missed far too many shots because I was fiddling with my settings and missed a really cool scene. That’s just my way of doing it, and I know many others use a few other methods. My feeling is, if you get the shots you like and they look super sharp and well composed, then power to you. The shooters I have problems with are the ones who aren’t willing to try new settings or learn new techniques and just give up and decide to turn every crappy photo into a black and white because “the lighting looks better”, even though the focus and the composition still either suck or are unflattering to the performer. I especially hate shooters who post on social media, or sell to magazines and papers, photos that are nothing more than gotchas of performers having issues or were caught in poses that would embarrass the performer (i.e the Beyonce pic of her making a horrible face in a split second between dance moves). Our job as photographers is to make the performers look good and to capture truly amazing moments in time, not to ridicule or embarrass our subjects. The ones who do this give concert photographers a bad name and make it harder and harder to get bands to trust us and allow us to shoot their shows.

  • Stereo Reverb

    I don’t use aperture or shutter priority inside a club or hall, because the quick changing stage lighting always results in an incorrectly exposed photos. Plus, most times, i want to overexpose or underexpose on the fly. Im not fond of photogs who have to look at their screen after every shot to see if they took it correctly- i’ve seen them miss so many shots on stage because of that. I’ll look at my screen every so often depending on the light that’s hitting the band and know by the number of dial clicks if which one will give me a clean shot.

    Glad your style works for you, but how high does your camera shoot? 6400 is such a low ISO, especially for clubs. I typically shoot at 12,800, but have gone to 24 and 32k in order to get the shot.

  • Matthew King

    As I said, for small clubs with dim lighting, I’ll bump my settings according to the lighting I’ve got to work with. My 5DIIIs can shoot as high 102400, but I have no intention of ever shooting that high. The noise at that level is just too much. The shots I’ve included here were shot at f/5.0, 1/320, ISO 8000 using my 70-200 2.8L IS with the IS turned on in mode 2. Previously when I shot at this club with my non-IS 70-200 2.8 I bumped up to 12800, but I wasn’t happy with the noise. This is a club that leaves the lights low and practically in total magenta most of the time. Shooting there is a challenge from both the white balance standpoint as well as exposure. Thankfully the bands that play here don’t jump around a lot so that helps. I shoot a little underexposed, say maybe 1/2 to a full stop, then I bump it back up in LR. I shot this in Shutter mode and only chimped the first three shots. After that I left it where it was and just shot the show. I figured that I would get what I get and work with it when I got home. Fully 2/3 of my shots were usable exposure wise, the rest were shots that I metered in the wrong place and they came out too dark.

    (Disclaimer: I’m not sure if these will look as good as they should since I had to export them down in quality to fit the 5mb limit here.)
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b4e62791b0c55906c2d64636268f0d8c8ab31006d8e2087229e80824d0f967f8.jpg

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9764cb2027da7823930c767c14ad6313f16215eec02e917ed3a83134f0935441.jpg

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