This concert photography article has been updated 2/5/20
Concert photography is certainly among the more demanding domains for photographers and their equipment. Over the past few years, I had the chance to cover quite a few concerts. Learning the basics of concert photography at the free OFF concerts at the Montreux Jazz Festival and various other free concerts in public places.
I am now able to receive accreditation at paying concerts such as the Zermatt Unplugged Festival in Switzerland. Much of this can be attributed to honing my skills in photographing concerts.
Now I am oftentimes being asked about my shooting techniques for concerts, therefore, I am sharing here my personal approach to this challenging activity. This is by no means to be understood as the one and only way to cover the subject.
Almost all cameras on the market today are excellent performers when shooting under normal conditions such as landscapes or portraits in a fairly good light.
Concerts are seldom given under a bright sunny day and oftentimes bring push the equipment to its limits.
The level of requirements depends on the final usage of the photos. Photos taken for the press or for the musicians’ CD booklets require another quality level than photos taken for the web.
The requirements also depend on the type of music. A pop/rock concert differs from a classical concert in terms of the type of equipment used.
Low Light Photography
Whatever kind of music, concerts are in general given in very low light and flash is always forbidden. Some photographers cannot refrain from using it anyway. This is a reason for the organizer to shorten the already narrow time frame which allows accredited photographers to take photos.
A camera with good high ISO performance is required for serious concert photography. I recommend testing your camera to find out the limits for acceptable noise levels. By using exposure settings typical to concert photography, you can find the correct settings for concerts. Night or low light photos should be taken with shutter speeds around 1/200th second with an ISO of 1600 to 12800.
Pop Rock Concerts – Your Camera
Pop/rock concerts ask for fast and precise autofocus. This will allow you to follow the musicians on stage and capture the right moment. I am shooting with a Nikon D4 for this type of music concert. The most sophisticated autofocus (AF) modes like the 51 points 3D-tracking certainly come handy in order to follow the action on stage.
However, you can lose precious processing time that could be better used on fewer AF points in order to keep pace. I achieve the best results when using the 9 points AF mode making the continuous AF extremely reactive. This is especially effective when coupled with one of the fastest focusing lens, the Nikon AFS 70-200/2.8 VR2.
A classical music concert does not demand special requirements for autofocus. However, neither the public nor the musicians will want to hear the loud shutter of a professional sports camera. It is best to use a camera with a shutter that is quiet.
Ideally, I would recommend a mirrorless camera. However, I have yet to find a good performing camera. One that would allow me to shoot in low light and allow manual exposure and RAW format.
The key here is not to shoot too close to the public or to the musicians. Depending on the shutter noise, press the shutter only when the music is loud enough to cover the sound of the shutter. For this kind of music, I prefer using a Pentax K-5 with a much quieter shutter noise than the Nikon D4.
A fast f/2.8 lens allows not only better isolation of the musician from the background, but it also allows keeping the ISO sensitivity one or two full stops lower than with consumer f/4-f/5.6 lenses.
The lenses I use the most when shooting concerts are the Nikon AFS 70-200/2.8 VR2 on the Nikon D4 as well as the Pentax DA*50-135/2.8 on the Pentax K5. A standard zoom in the 24-70 area allows a few shots of the entire group of performers on stage.
Train the skills
As an official or accredited photographer at a paying concert, shooting time is in general limited to three songs at the beginning. It is difficult and stressful.
One is supposed to demonstrate being up to the task and delivering the best possible photos, all while not hindering the other press photographers. The time is too short to experiment and it is definitely not the right playground to start building up your skills in this domain.
In addition to the concerts you have to pay for, there are many music festivals that offer a wide range of free concerts. These are usually held in public parks and indoor venues. Usually, there are no restrictions regarding shooting as long as a flash is not used. The musicians are lesser-known and happy when photographers cover their performance.
Furthermore, the festival organizer, in general, welcomes the additional publicity the photographers might bring. In addition, one is free to take photos during the entire concert if one likes.
These free concerts are the ideal playground to train your skills. Check the photos in the press or on various websites; the photos you would have liked to have taken yourself. Which are the ones you would have taken differently? A full concert offers enough time to experiment with composing images and creating one’s own style.
Great Place To Learn
I definitely recommend using the time at the bottom of a free concert’s stage to learn how the equipment reacts in these demanding conditions. The area reserved for the press photographers at paying concerts is in general in almost complete darkness. One has to get confident enough to handle the equipment without being able to read what’s written on the buttons.
Get To Know The Musicians
This part only applies to the free concerts as there is very little chance to be able to talk with the stars of the paying concerts neither before nor after the performance.
Whenever I cover a free concert, I try to talk with the musicians before the concert, asking permission to take and publish photos.
No one ever refused as most are more than happy when getting some wider attention and it gives them the opportunity to get special shots that they may want.
This is also a good moment to hand out your business cards in order to discuss the photos at another less busy time.
They May Want To Buy Your Photos
Some performers ask about the conditions for using the photos on their own website. Some mention they would need an excellent photo for the cover of their next CD. Others may express limitations such as not wanting the photographer coming too close to the stage.
Because the group members know you and are pleased with the audience during the concert, they will start to play for your camera. This gives you an opportunity to get those expressive shots.
The most important thing to remember when shooting concerts in low and artificial light is to set the camera to RAW.
Processing RAW files do not take much longer than processing a JPG, but it offers a last chance to rescue a missed photo because of a wrong white balance or slightly off exposure.
Extremely bright faces because of strong spotlights surrounded by a dark background, smoke and all kinds of artificial lights bring even the most sophisticated exposure metering to the limits.
Whether it is a Pentax K-7 or K-5, or a Nikon D700, D3s or D4, we all come to a point in concert photography where the metering simply does not work reliably.
I have ended up switching my camera to full manual exposure. I set the shutter time between 1/100th – 1/200th second depending on the kind of music.
Set the aperture to get the depth of field you want. I usually set mine to f/3.2 to isolate the musician and adjust the ISO sensitivity to get a correctly exposed photo. Whenever the light condition changes, it takes me about 2-3 frames to have it correctly exposed again.
Concert Photography You Capture Emotion
Since you are not able to capture the music, you need to capture the emotions. Concert photography is somehow similar to portraits photography. With the exception that you can’t direct your subject. You have to wait to capture the right moment. This means the camera needs to be ready.
A smile on a face or a particular expression in the eyes is not going to last. I set the AF to continuous mode and select the fewest AF points that the camera offers as this brings the most reactive AF.
Modern cameras feature impressive shooting rates of more than 8 frames per second. I always use it when covering fast paced sporting events. With concert photography, I try to refrain from using high continuous mode. I prefer to take a single frame at the right moment. Not only does it make the sorting process much faster after a concert, but you also eliminate the annoying sound of the shutter especially when you are in front of them.
Keep The “Noise” Low
Given the light conditions at concerts, the camera will easily be at 1600iso or even much more. Depending on the high ISO sensitivity of the camera, the resulting photos will be more or less noisy, but the noise will definitely be present.
To keep the noise as low as possible on the final result, I try to fill the frame as much as possible with the main subject to keep the cropping limited. I also try to get the exposure as good as possible in order to avoid having to brighten it up in post-processing.
If the manual exposure was done correctly and the main subject fills the frame, post-processing should be limited to adjusting the white balance. Depending on the camera’s high ISO sensitivity performance, one might want to apply some noise reduction as well.
Concert photography is certainly demanding and requires control o the subject, light, and background.
It is important to know the equipment you use and its limits. Find how it reacts, know the performance limits regarding the high sensitivity. Don’t be being afraid of leaving the fully automatic exposure modes to go to manual exposure.
There are many free concerts in public places that offer opportunities to learn the subject and improve one’s skills.
Performers and organizers enjoy great photos and both might invite you to other events.