There are a number of techniques to shooting great concert photos and I may not have all of the right answers. I’m a firm believer that we all are constantly learning and I continually seek out to learn more. However, I hope that sharing my techniques may answer the question “how do I shoot concert photos?” for many of you reading this.
Before we discuss technique, the gear you might be using will be very important to consider. Many concert venues have tricky lighting and smaller venues tend to have dim lights on stage as well. This makes for difficult situations to get proper exposure and sharp focus.
I currently own a Canon 7D Mark II, but I used to use a Canon T2i (or Canon 550D). I mention this to break the misconception that you need an expensive camera to take great photos or that owning an expensive camera will make you a better photographer. If you have an entry level DSLR, don’t get discouraged.
The Canon T2i I shot with made focusing difficult, or so I thought) when shooting concerts. I also felt limited to shooting at ISO 3200 or under to avoid obnoxious noise. When I upgraded to the Canon 7D Mark II, I learned much hadn’t changed for my difficulties. I went from having 9 focus points on the T2i to 65 on the 7D Mark II and expected a better experience with auto focus in stage lighting. I also expected better performance at much higher ISO settings. Both were true, but not to my fullest expectations. I was able to use focus tracking on the 7DII, but it wasn’t always accurate to where I wanted it to focus. I was also able to move my ISO limitation from 3200 to 6400, despite the camera’s ability to shoot at ISO 12,800. With that said, the techniques I will discuss won’t be dependent on any specific camera as they start with my habits I’ve picked up from the T2i and others I picked up from other photographers.
Lens choice will also be very important. If you only have the kit lens that came with your camera, then don’t worry. I’ll try to share some tips to help make use out of it. Ideally, you’ll want to use a lens with a wide aperture. I used to shoot with the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II, but have since sold it. I used to switch between that and my Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX. I was often close enough to the stage that my 30mm lens was almost all I used and only used my 50mm if I was a little further back. About a year ago, I have added a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 lens to my kit and have almost exclusively used that to shoot concerts. The wide aperture of these lenses (represented by the lower f number) allows more light into the lens. This also provides a very shallow depth of field, which is the effect of the background and foreground blurring while the subject remains in focus. This makes focusing difficult. In fact, the shallow depth of field was so difficult to work with on my Sigma 30mm at aperture f/1.4 that I missed shots trying to find focus. I generally shot near or above f/2, which is why I am happy using the 17-50mm f/2.8 lens. If you’re shooting with a full-frame camera, using such a wide aperture lens isn’t generally necessary and noise performance at high ISOs is much better.
Lastly, don’t expect to use a flash. The flash can be distracting to the performers and audience and it can be blinding for the performers. If you’re set on using a flash, get permission from the venue and bands first. This helps them know what to expect and doesn’t make you appear inconsiderate. Lastly, a flash tends to wash out the stage lighting, making the shots appear bland. There may be some light modifiers and techniques that allow for flash photography to work well for concert photos without washing out the stage lights, but I don’t have the experience with this to comment on it.
Focusing in the tricky lighting concerts can have is one of the biggest challenges. The key to success is choosing the right focus point, cluster, or region instead of letting the camera auto select any focus point. This gives you more control over focus
When a camera’s focus point selection is automatic, meaning the camera will choose any available focus point, it tends to choose to focus on the object closest to the lens. The camera doesn’t know if this is the back of someone’s head, a mic stand, or the guitar neck on stage. By choosing something in the focus point selection, you limit the camera’s ability to choose the wrong thing to focus on. If you know how you plan to compose your shots, you can choose a focus point or cluster of focus points (if available) on one side or choose a region of focus points. The camera will still auto select from the cluster or region, but the selection is isolated to a small section.
Choosing a narrow cluster of focus points or even just one focus point gives you the most control. This doesn’t provide a lot of flexibility for composition, however. Think about your scene and the most interesting way to compose your shots, then choose a focus point based on that. That could mean choosing a focus point near the top right and shooting the stage from the side so that the singer’s head lines up on the focus point and the rest of the frame is filled with the audience and stage.
Musicians move fast on stage to keep the crowd excited and changing focus points during the show can mean missed shots. For this reason, I have learned to love the center focus point. Also, many cameras offer cross-type focus points on the center focus point but not on others. I won’t dive into how focus points work here, but a cross-type focus point means focus is fast and accurate in vertical or horizontal lines of contrast. Non-cross-type focus points only work in one direction of contrast. This means that no matter how you hold the camera (landscape or portrait orientation), a cross-type focus point shouldn’t have problem finding focus whereas other focus points might struggle.
If you’ve read anything about composition, too, you’ll know that centered shots are not the most interesting use of composition. So why use the center focus point? You should notice that although I use the center focus point, my photos aren’t centered. That’s because I use a technique called focus and recompose. This technique is done by putting the focus point on the subject you want in focus, which is generally the musician’s face or eyes, then moving the camera so the shot is better composed. When the focus point is on the musician’s face, half-press the shutter button and hold it before recomposing the shot. This will hold focus on the face. Once the shot is recomposed, press the shutter the rest of the way to capture the moment. You may have to act quickly, though. If the musician moves forward or backward from you, he or she could move out of focus. Also, this technique is easier to achieve when you set your camera up for back-button focus. This allows a button on the back of the camera in comfortable reach of your thumb to function as the focus button. This lets you achieve focus without the shutter button and reduces accidents refocusing again.
Paolo, Joey, and Jacob of As Giants on stage at Bottom Lounge
Picture 1 of 36
Paolo, Joey, and Jacob of As Giants on stage at Bottom Lounge in Chicago, IL.
Getting the right exposure is also challenging with difficult light. This is further complicated when there is a lot of movement on stage. There are three components to controlling exposure and each one has a different effect on the photo. As the aperture widens to gather more light, depth of field gets narrower making it difficult to focus. As the shutter speed is reduced to allow light more time to reach the image sensor, movements blur. Lastly, as ISO increases to allow the camera’s image sensor to become more sensitive to light, more noise (similar to grain) becomes visible.
Knowing your camera’s limitations will help in deciding what you prioritize of these three components to exposure. Generally, you’ll want to set the shutter or, if possible, limit the shutter speed in settings to a speed that has minimal motion blur. The exact value here can depend on the focal length of your lens and the speed of activity on stage. With my 17-50mm or 30mm lens, I aim for shutter speed faster than 1/60, but aim for 1/125 or better. Motion blur from guitars moving, headbanging, etc. blurs badly at 1/60. The aperture and ISO you choose will be dependent on your preferences of depth of field and your camera’s noise performance.
It helps to be familiar with how the band performs and what their music sounds like. Another key to getting great shots is anticipation. Shooting to shoot tends to give you many of the same boring shots of musicians standing there. However, if you know the singer jumps during an upcoming breakdown in the song, you can listen for the moment that is going to happen, find focus, and wait for the moment he jumps to fire the shot. When I shoot the band As Giants, I know Joey, the singer/guitar player, puts a lot of emotion into climactic verses in his songs and look for the right facial expressions when capturing him on stage, for example.
Don’t plan every photo around anticipation either. Some musicians get fairly repetitive and this can mean getting the same shot every time. Use a mixture of spontaneous and anticipated shots for the most variety. Shooting spontaneously is often more authentic, but you also risk missing great moments that you could have anticipated too. Finding a balance between them will help keep a variety of shots.
Shoot shoot shoot
Going along with shooting spontaneously and anticipating the great shots, keep snapping photos. Many bands only allow photos during the first 3 songs, so your time to get great shots is limited. Wasting time equals missing great shots. If there isn’t a 3-song limit, then you can take it easier. Even if you do take it easy from time to time, keep that mindset on capturing the right moment. I can’t tell you how many shots I missed and regret missing because I wanted to take a break It’s not always easy, but you never know what you’ll miss. Memory cards are cheap and photos can be deleted. Missed opportunities can’t be recreated, though.
Also be aware that even professional photos shoot tons of photos for every great one that turns out. Don’t be surprised that 200 or more photos are captured from one performance but only 30 are great. Keep shooting to ensure you have plenty of great shots to sort through. But only keep, or at least share, the great ones. Remove redundant shots and only share the best of them. This is difficult for me to manage because I like so much that comes out. Last year I was keeping 80+ out of 200 shots from one performance. This is too many for most people to care to look through or a band to have time to sort through. The other week I managed to restrict myself to under 40 shots. This is still likely too many, but it’s a habit that is difficult to break.