Being a concert photographer can be very exciting. Imagine yourself standing 6 feet away in front of your beloved idol and taking portraits of them. However, concert photography is one of the most challenging fields in photography and this article should help you get started (even when you’re on a budget).
Start in small clubs
When beginning your career as a concert photographer, start in small, local clubs. This is the easiest way to get experience, you’ll almost always get in with your camera equipment without any restrictions. The advantage is that you don’t need press accreditation for these concerts.
Just search your local magazines, blogs or event webpages for bands you’d like to take photos of and you’ll be ready to go. In the beginning, everything will be new and scary, so just keep it simple and don’t get frustrated if you’re not allowed to shoot your first concert at Coachella!
Use fast lenses!
When deciding which lenses will work best for concert photography, you’ll always come to the same conclusion: use fast lenses and shoot them wide open. What does this mean? Fast lenses refer to the aperture of a lens. The aperture is the opening within the lens which enables you to select how much light hits the digital sensor of your camera. The larger the opening, the more light can enter (this corresponds to a small f-number). The maximum aperture is written on the lens itself e.g f1.8, f2.8.
Why is this important? In concert photography you have to deal with ultra low-light situations and you need the smallest f-number possible to get a decent exposure. These lenses can be very expensive but there is one no-brainer lens that every concert photographer should have in their bag. For beginners on a budget, there is no better choice than the 50mm f1.8 prime lens. This lens is available for almost all camera brands and enables you to start as a concert photographer right now without any excuses.
Get a Camera with Great High ISO Capability
Another important setting on your camera is the ISO value. ISO refers to the sensitivity of your camera sensor. The higher the ISO setting, the less light needed to achieve a correct exposure. However, the higher the ISO value, the warmer the sensor gets resulting in more noise being visible in your photos. As we’re dealing with low-light situations in concert photography, you’ll find yourself changing your ISO setting up to 1600 ISO or higher to get a decent shutter speed.
As a beginner, your best option is to get a DSLR camera with the highest ISO possible within your budget. I would suggest at least ISO 3200.
Here are my Top 10 camera settings for concert photography:
1. Aperture Priority Versus Manual Exposure Mode
I started off using aperture priority mode; you tell your camera the aperture you want to use and the camera sets the shutter speed accordingly. This is a great option for a beginner to use, because you’ll be stressed enough with all the other things going on around you. However, I soon recognized that only manual mode would give me the flexibility I was looking for. I set aperture, shutter speed, and ISO and then change them on the fly using the internal exposure bar in the viewfinder. I am constantly checking my LCD screen and have a look at the histogram to see if my exposure is correct.
2. Use the Lowest Aperture Number
When deciding which lenses will work best for concert photography, you’ll always come to the same conclusion: use fast lenses and shoot them wide open. Set your aperture to the smallest number on your lens e.g. f/1.8 (which reflects a big aperture). This allows the most possible light to enter your sensor and is a must-have setting in ultra low-light stage conditions. The best zoom lenses have an aperture of f/2.8, the best prime lenses f/1.4 or f/1.8. For beginners on a budget I suggest to get a 50mm f/1.8, which is cheap and therefore a no-brainer for concert photography.
3. Use a Fast Shutter Speed
Have you ever been on a concert where the artist was hyperactive jumping from one side of the stage to the other? To freeze these movements you have to use a fast shutter speed. In general, I set my shutter speed at 1/200sec and faster. Otherwise you risk blurred photos.
4. High ISO Values
ISO or film speed refers to the sensitivity of an analog film. Today the term is used for the sensitivity of your digital sensor. The higher the ISO setting the less light is needed for a proper exposure, but the more noise you will encounter in your pictures. Depending on the ability of your camera a good starting point for ISO is a setting of 1600. If my shutter speed is too low, I will crank up the ISO setting to 3200 or 6400.
5. Spot Metering
Set your camera’s internal light meter to spot metering. This takes a light reading limited to the center of your viewfinder (a very small percentage, and some cameras allow you to choose where to meter ñ check your manual). When shooting concerts, you will often find yourself in a situation where the artist is lit by a spotlight and the rest of the stage is almost dark. When using spot metering mode, place the artists face in the middle of your viewfinder and you’ll get the right exposure for it. When using the Matrix (or evaluative) metering setting, the camera will take a light reading at several points in the scene and you’ll probably get overexposed faces if the background is dark.
6. Use the Middle Autofocus Point
On your camera, only use the central focus point in low light situations. This will be the most accurate one. If you don’t always want to have the artist in the middle of the frame, you have to recompose. Simply push your shutter button halfway down to focus on the artist’s face. By holding the shutter button halfway down you lock focus. Now move your viewfinder until you get the desired framing and push the shutter button fully down.
To use this technique, you have to set your camera to Autofocus single (AF-S for Nikon, One Shot for Canon) mode, otherwise the camera focuses continuously while you’re reframing your picture. You can also set the AF-ON button to focus, which I prefer.
7. Use Auto White Balance
I use the auto white balance setting on my camera. The reason being is that I shoot in RAW format and can therefore adjust the white balance setting in post-production anyway.
8. Multiple Shot (Burst) Mode
Set your camera to multi-shot mode (may be called High Speed shooting mode). It allows you to rapidly shoot three to four photos in a row (depending on the frames per second of your camera model.) It’s more likely that at least one of the four photos is tack sharp whereas the others might not be in focus.
9. Don’t Use Flash
First, you are not allowed to use a flash in concert photography. Imagine ten photographers burst their flashes at the same time. This would be quite annoying for the artist. Second, straight flash pictures don’t look awesome.
10. Shoot in Raw Format
Always shoot concerts in RAW format. If you shoot in JPEG mode, the internal camera computer adds contrast, saturation and sharpness to your photos. These files look great when you open them on your computer, but don’t leave much freedom in post-production. If you shoot in RAW format, the camera does not process the photo at all. The advantage is that you can change parameters like exposure, white balance, saturation, contrast, clarity and so on afterwards.
Here is a summary of my ten must-have camera settings:
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With these camera settings you will be able to get great results when shooting in low light conditions such as concerts.
About the Author, Matthias Hombauer
I used to study molecular biology. When I started my Ph.D. thesis in 2008 I still believed that one day I could win the Nobel prize. However, four years later, my work left me frustrated and depressed. Unhappy with my life, I decided to follow my two passions – music and photography – and become a Rockstar photographer. It turned out that following my impulse was the best thing to ever happen to me. Since then, it´s been an unbelievable journey – working with artists such as Iggy Pop and The Prodigy; being published on album covers and tour posters, as well as a regular contributor for international magazines/blogs such as Rolling Stone Magazine, The Huffington Post and Peta Pixel: advising people at workshops, exhibiting my music pictures and traveling around the world as a tour photographer. It´s hard to imagine that, without having any professional training in photography, I went from being an absolute beginner to shooting for the most famous alternative bands on this planet. Following my advice here, and being passionate about the things that you love the most, will get you to places you have never dreamed of.
For more concert photography tips, check out Matthias Hombauer’s site for tips and freebies to help you achieve rock star photographer status.