Concert photography is arguably one of the most adrenaline-filled niches you can engage in as an image maker. Musicians, magazines, fans, and record labels alike turn to skilled concert photographers to tell a story for the momentous performance. For most music photographers (due to venue constraints) there is less than ten minutes to capture enough great images to populate a full gallery. Partner this with tumultuous circumstances such as sporadic lighting and an excitable audience and you have effectively created a photographic situation that is unlike any other.
As such, shooting with a very wide open aperture might appear to be too daunting of a task! There are common misunderstandings of how to use and work with a wide open aperture! If your inner aesthete drools over soft, dreamy photographs and creamy bokeh, then you better get ready to play with some low, low, low numbers. We are here to tell you how to photograph concerts at f/1.2, f/1.4, and f/1.8!
Why Use an Ultra Wide Aperture?
Here are 5 reasons you may want to consider shooting concert photography with a wide open aperture.
1. Aesthetic and Style
To preface, a lot of the quality and final image look is based on the type of lens used. In the past several years, photography fans are gravitating towards the shallow depth of field aesthetic. If you’re in the business of producing commercial music photography (like myself), you’re going to want to keep following the trends and adapting to what is sought after in the industry.
An added bonus is being able to niche yourself a bit in an industry that has a lot of competition, many photographers are wary of shooting fast paced events with a wide aperture due to potential focusing issues. If you can master this art, you have something that will separate you from others.
2. Low Light Capability
Unless you’re shooting a big name at an amphitheater, a lot of smaller venues will have very poor lighting. You’ll need to use equipment that will illuminate the frame with whatever limited lighting is available. In these low light scenarios you need a lens with a wide enough aperture to let in more light. Using a lens that goes down to f/1.2, for example, is a great way to let enough light in and make the frame bright. Remember, the aperture is the hole the light passes through in your lens. The wider the aperture, the more light that enters the camera.
3. Shallow Depth of Field
The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. Shallow depth of field is great for live concerts because the stage can be rather cluttered compositionally. From instruments to cables, background props, and other band members, there can be a lot going on in the frame at once. Only having one subject in focus with the rest blending into a creamy bokeh makes for a much more visually pleasing and simplified image. With the depth-of-field being so shallow, whatever troubles you about the background can easily melt into a beautiful creamy bokeh.
4. Detail Shots
On the topic of shallow depth of field, if you are photographing for an instrument company, an aperture of f/1.8 will likely become your best friend. This is because photographs taken with a large aperture allow all of the focus to lie on the subject, and the background ceases to remain a distraction. Many instrument companies love to have their products captured in a natural usable setting, such as musicians at a live show.A shallow depth of field will keep the interest solely on your single subject.
Due to technological constraints, lenses that open their aperture below f/2.8 are fixed millimeter lenses (they do not zoom). As a general rule, fixed millimeter lenses tend to be sharper than lenses with a range.
Let’s Talk About the Elephant in the Room: Focusing with a Wide Open Aperture
Right where all of the benefits of an f-stop of 1.2 start to break down is the focusing. The wider the aperture and the shallower the depth of field, the more difficult it can be to focus on what you want. Pair that with a live show in which the lighting is a bit of a mess, and the subjects move spontaneously in various directions, and it sounds like the perfect recipe for a photographer migraine. However, focusing with a wider aperture doesn’t have to be so difficult- it’s just a different thought process.
The Concept of Sharpness
Really, the focus stems from a desire to have an image that is sharp. But what is sharpness? Sharpness is an interesting concept. How sharp a subject appears is a matter of two things: the focus the camera captures and the amount of contrast on your subject. The term “sharpness” is, in fact, an illusion. You see, for an image to be considered sharp, it needs to have contrast. If the there is little contrast in the image, the subject will not look three-dimensional regardless of whether the focus is perfect or not. Biologically, the way that our eyes work, our vision naturally detects edges to register sharpness, and shadows and highlights in order to record the depth in a subject. This is a very important concept to understand when answering the question of how to make images look sharp. When editing your concert photography images, be attentive to the shadows and highlights. And add contrast to define your subject.
In terms of getting your image to actually be sharp (from being in perfect focus), here is the basic concept of how focus works in a camera. When you focus your camera on a subject, it establishes a focal plane. To get your subject in focus, it has to be on the focal plane. Focal planes happen on an x (horizontal) and y (vertical) axis. This means anything along either of those axes will be in focus, and anything not on them will be out of focus. The concern with a wide open aperture is that your focal plane is quite small. As you decrease your aperture number and make the opening wider, the invisible area in front and behind the plane of focus will get smaller and smaller, leaving you with much less wiggle-room. As such, distance from the subject plays a key role in your focus.
When shooting wide open, even the smallest diversion from either of the focal plane axes will cause your subject to be out-of-focus. You cannot take a step forward or back without the need to refocus when shooting at a wide aperture. But by keeping this in mind, you can adjust your photography technique to better accommodate the small focal plane.
Single Point Autofocus
A trick to help make sure that what you want in focus is indeed sharp, is to use single point autofocus. By default, your camera will probably select either the object that’s closest to the camera or what’s in the center of the frame. By using single point autofocus, you tell the camera exactly where to focus, which is extremely helpful with low aperture numbers. Refer to your camera model’s manual to find how to change the focus setting!
The Real Secret
Keeping in mind how the focal plane works, this is the big trick to shooting wide open at a concert: The farther away you are from the subject, the easier it is to get the subject in focus. You can get the subject in focus and still maintain and extremely creamy depth of field.
Whether you’re in a photo pit or just in the main venue floor, your position to begin the concert shoot can significantly affect your success for the rest of the shoot. Keeping in mind that for most general photography passes your time is limited, you need to be ready to jump right into the shoot the very second the music hits your ears. My suggestion is to start on the outer edges of the pit or venue and work your way to the middle. Many concert photographers all flock to the center of the shooting zone, and begin shoving to claim their dead center spot. When you start from the edge, while the other photographers are all congregating and fighting for the center, you have much more room to move freely on the outer edge. This is where you will have an advantage to be able to move a bit further away from your subject in order to expand your plane and get that perfect focus.
Now that you’ve been let in to the secret, go out there and capture some awesome concert shots!