So, you have the camera, and hopefully at least one lens. Or maybe you are in the enviable position of having money ready to spend on new gear. So what are you going to need to pack to ensure great shots? Of course the old adage, and to a great extent it’s true, is that it’s not about the camera, it’s all about the photographer. Well… kind of. It’s fair to say that a great photographer is going to secure some memorable shots compared to someone with all the gear and no idea how to use it; but modern camera gear has actually opened up a host of new opportunities for the concert shooter.
Firstly, the biggest problem faced by most concert photographers is the inability to use flash. This is stipulated in almost every venue and is out of respect to the performers and concert goers alike. What’s more, if you are looking for truly great photos the chances are you will get much closer to what you are looking for by using available light. This is where certain cameras have a distinct advantage over others. Ideally you will be using a camera with good low light capabilities. This will mean not simply having a reasonable ISO range (up to 6400 is usually more than ample, although modern cameras will often go well beyond this), but also being capable of shooting cleanly at high ISOs instead of producing a muddy, noisy photo. There is simply not the scope in this blog to discuss individual cameras, other than to say the prime reason I moved from the Canon 40D to the 5D iii was for its legendary status when it comes to low light.
Other than great low light capabilities you will need to aspire towards great lenses. Why spend ridiculous amounts on a few bits of plastic and glass? Quite simply, not only do you improve the chances of a pin sharp shot (something that can be impossible with some cheaper kit lenses), but a professional level lens will usually provide much improved colour, reduced flare and chromatic aberration, a wide aperture down to f2.8 and a whole host of other benefits of which you will constantly remind yourself as you hand over your credit card.
Great camera, great lens… great settings.
So what settings do you need for an average concert shot? Well, if ever there was an average shot, it would be something along the lines of:
- Take your camera off the auto picture setting. These are not snapshots you’re taking, they are works of art. You must have total control over the golden triangle of ISO, shutter speed and aperture. If you are not sure about any of these – Google it! You will not be able to understand your SLR (digital or film) without this knowledge, and it’s nowhere near as difficult to understand as some people would try to make out it is.
- A fast enough shutter speed to freeze the image (this should usually be at least equivalent to the length of the lens – e.g. 1/200 sec for a 200mm lens, but the faster the better). Obviously if the subject is moving about the stage at pace then you need to up the shutter speed to compensate.
- A high enough ISO to get a decent shutter speed, but not so high that you lose image quality due to increased noise. In a dark concert hall using light from the band’s lighting rig you would expect to be somewhere in the region of 800 ISO to 3200(ish) ISO. You will only find the correct ISO once you start shooting in the venue. Again, this is hit and miss. With few shadows a 3200 shot can look quite clean, whereas with shadows around the eyes it can all become rather unsightly.
- Manual or autofocus? It’s your choice. Personally I’m happy with autofocus, but with my dodgy eyesight it’s more out of necessity so I don’t have a choice. If you like autofocus but get fed up with objects moving you can use the back button focus technique (not available on all camera bodies) or you can switch to AI Servo mode for constant focusing. (This is called something different by Nikon and other manufacturers).
- Set your focus points in advance for horizontal and vertical shots and use a focus point that is nearest the subject’s nearest eye. That’s because as humans we are naturally drawn towards the nearest eye in a photo (test this out on a few magazine shots).
- Use a largish aperture, many concert photographers will be forced down to 2.8 (if their lens goes to 2.8) in order to keep noise to a minimum. This will however have the added benefit of making the artist stand out from the messy background of drum kits and roadies. Be aware however that many lenses have a sweet spot (usually around the f5.6 or f8 mark) where the focus is sharpest. Certainly try to avoid the smallest apertures like f16 and f22 or you will see the sharpness drop off quite rapidly.
- Focus on the eyes, always on the eyes, not around the eyes. You may have the world’s greatest framed shot of the ultimate superstar, but if it’s out of focus it’s unlikely to grab anyone’s attention, especially the picture editor holding the chequebook. Of course, if you wish to be artistic then you may find a picture works better by picking out a specific part to focus on other than the eye – maybe the headstock of the guitar, leaving the artist as a blurry background, or the plectrum as it resonates a string. Experiment!
- And finally, for the moment… give some thought to your light meter setting. Many concert photographers will set their camera to spot focus, ensuring that light readings can be taken from a small section of the veiwfinder. In most cases this should be the performer’s face. It’s not set in stone however and it doesn’t always provide the best results, but as with everything – shoot lots, and practice, practice, practice!