Tips for photographing concerts

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Not long ago, I photographed a local band performing a concert in Chicago. After the show, I began to analyze my technique to understand what I do well and what I can improve upon. This inspired me to share my own tips with the world in hopes it improves any aspiring photographers out there.

Gear

While the camera is important, the gear you use with your camera can make an even bigger impact on the quality of your photos. I shoot with a Canon T2i (well, until now – I am switching to a Canon 7D Mark II, which is ordered but still in delivery at the time of writing this). My Canon T2i is an old, beginner’s DSLR. I bring this up because I have taken some amazing photos with it, despite the entry-level status of the camera. This is proof that skill matters more than the camera. Don’t feel as though you need the best gear to take the best photos. My philosophy is to understand your equipment’s limitations and work within them. If you have an entry-level camera, don’t be discouraged when you see impressive work.

The lenses you use matter more than the camera in many cases. I tend to use prime lenses, or ones that don’t zoom, because they tend to be sharper and allow more light into the lens. The most recent concert I shot, I switched between my Sigma 30mm f/1.4 and my Canon 50mm f/1.8 lenses. The Canon lens is quite affordable, generally going for near $100.

To summarize:

  • Canon T2i (Entry-level camera)
  • Sigma 30mm f/1.4
  • Canon 50mm f/1.8

Technique

Finding focus and the right composition is what’s important when capturing the right photos. Keeping the camera entirely on automatic mode may not grant you the results you want. I am going to break this down into smaller sections to address many issues I’ve faced and how I’ve overcome them.

Exposure

Exposure is very important when shooting anything. With the dark environment of many concerts, I’ve found it acceptable to slightly underexpose if I’m shooting in RAW and correct this in post. This is important to note because we have three components of exposure to control (aperture, shutter, and ISO) and we have limited light in many venues. If we examine the shutter settings, remember that the slower the shutter is, the more light can be captured but also the more blur occurs.

Where I am going with this is that we want to take control over the shutter to minimize the blur we capture, especially if we have active performers that move around a lot. In order to maintain control over this and allow the camera to compensate for changing lighting conditions, I switch my camera to Shutter Priority (TV) Mode. Here, I will experiment with an appropriate shutter speed for the light and movement of my performers. I want to find the right balance of slow enough to expose the image, but fast enough not to blur. During my previous concert I shot, I chose a shutter speed of 1/100, though I could have easily adjusted it slightly in either direction. This, I felt, was the right balance of blur and captured light. The lens you use and the amount of light available will change what setting works best for you. Also, as newer cameras improve on their ISO capabilities, they can capture the same level of exposure while using an even faster shutter speed.

Focus

At concerts, especially if you are on the ground level in front of the stage, there are plenty of obstacles on stage to distract your camera from the action. I’ve found many time my camera preferring to focus on a mic stand rather than the performer. Many cameras focus on the object closest to the camera than the action happening behind it. To compensate for this, it’s crucial to choose your focus point(s) on the camera and not rely on the camera choosing for you all of the time. Each camera and manufacturer will offer different steps to achieve this. In choosing a focus point, the camera is still in autofocus mode, but you are dictating which area of the viewfinder or frame the camera will seek focus. This gives you more control over composition and less need to worry about the wrong object in the frame being in focus.

Focus and recompose:

Now that we have a focus point chosen, we’re one step closer to great composition. There are two problems with choosing just any focus point, however. The best composition won’t always use that focus point and it takes time to choose another one. When this starts to become the problem, I simply switch to the center focus point.

The center focus point has many advantages in most cameras. For instance, it usually is the only or one of the few cross type focus points. That means that it can focus when areas of contrast are both horizontal and vertical to the focus point. Other focus points may not be cross type and can only find focus in one direction. Many cameras also favor the center as it can be the most sensitive and collects the most light. That means this focus point may focus faster and more reliably than the others.

“But Graesen, we shouldn’t center all of our photos!” Yes, you are correct. I rarely focus with the center in mind. I might point the center focus point toward the performer’s face as that’s what I want in focus, but this leaves a lot of empty space above and to the sides. Half-pressing the shutter button to hold focus where I want it, I will then quickly reposition the camera for the composition I want and press the shutter button the rest of the way to snap the photo. As long as the subject that was in focus hasn’t moved much, this will work to focus on what you want and recompose the shot after. If you have an option on your camera to use back button focusing, this works much better than half-pressing the shutter.

Now this option isn’t perfect either. It’s time consuming – by the time you reposition the camera, you could have lost the moment you were trying to capture. If movement is significant, you can also lose focus entirely. This makes it difficult to use with bands that move around stage a lot.

Flash

I don’t use a flash and if you can get away without one, I recommend you keep yours off too. However if you must use one, I recommend talking to the performers ahead of time and asking if they are comfortable with it and give them a heads up. Flashes are bright and distracting. Setting one off in a performer’s face at close range could disorientate them and alter the energy of the show. Letting the band know you planned to use one could give them an opportunity to prepare mentally and keep their eyes away from your camera.

Lastly, if you must use a flash, use a diffuser on the flash. The flash generally leaves harsh shadows and washes out the stage light colors. A diffuse would reduce all of these harsh effects. Diffusers spread the light out smoothly, softening shadows and helps to preserve the color in the shot.

Wrap-up

You will develop your own techniques but I hope mine have offered help to many reading this. Sometimes it’s intimidating trying to figure out just where to start or feeling like you have to experiment. With that said, I welcome anyone to send me your techniques and perhaps I can compile the best tips into one post to help others.

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