Most people have been to concerts, loved the music and the atmosphere but have come out with disappointing photographs. Low light conditions coupled with artificial and unpredictable lighting, as well as crowds of people nudging you out of the way can make concert photography extremely challenging.
A Word of Cauton
As a word of caution before you go, be aware of the rules for the concert venue. Check the back of your ticket or the website for the concert venue, because photographic or recording equipment of any kind may be prohibited. The last thing you need is to be turned around at the door because your camera is not allowed inside. In any event, when you know photographic techniques for the unique conditions found in some concerts, you should be able to leave with an impressive range of images.
Taking a well balanced image in low light is difficult. Flash can ruin the effect and carrying a bulky tripod into a concert is impractical, so you need to consider other options. First of all you should use the widest aperture possible (f/2.8-f/4) to let enough light in. Try using spot-metering if your camera has this option. Spot-metering gives an accurate reading of the light levels – try pointing it at the artists face for the reading.
Blur is likely in a low light environment, due to the longer shutter speeds. Additionally, movement in the arena will cause blur. Besides steadying yourself (remove yourself from crowds of people if necessary), try to see what settings your camera gives you on Auto, then adjust the settings. Increase the ISO to around 800, or open the aperture more to see if it gives you an acceptable shutter speed.
A good way to capture movement if you are in a concert is to use a slow shutter speed (1/30-1/60s should suffice, but experiment). You can obtain interesting photos if you capture the way that light travels on the stage. Bands use creative lighting systems that flatter their music, so hold your camera as still as you can and take the photograph. There’s a little used technique called Slow Speed Sync in which you can set your flash to be synchronized to slower than normal shutter speeds. When you set your camera for slow sync flash you will most likely be presented with the two options (rear or front curtain sync). Rear curtain sync tends to give a faint image trail and a tack-sharp main subject, whereas front curtain sync tends light up the main subject and acquire the ambient light.
If you are in a very dark venue, capturing silhouettes of people in the crowd gives a dramatic feel. As long as the stage is bright and the crowd area is dark, use a wide-angle lens, open the aperture wide (f/2.8 – f/4) and make sure your flash is turned off. Use either spot or multi-zone metering mode; take the camera light reading from the bright background, then point the camera at your subject and shoot!
Flash could ruin the colorful effects of a laser show, so it’s important to choose a high ISO from 800 to 3200 and open the aperture to between f/4 and f/8. It is possible if the lights move quickly you may get some movement or light trails on the image – this can look good as long as you keep the camera as still as possible so it’s the light moving, not you.
Experimenting is the key to successful concert photography. The key to a good image is keeping at least one area of the photograph sharp, rather than just a mass of colors. Start with an ISO of 800 and use a wide aperture – f/2.8 is ideal. Use a wide-angle lens and a shutter speed of 1/160th of a second. If getting a sharp image is a struggle, consider using night time flash (slow sync flash), which is delayed and gives a different effect.
A good starting lens is a high-quality 50mm lens with f/1.4 or 1.8 (this refers to how wide the aperture on the lens can go), or a wide angle 17mm-28mm. The problem with telephoto lenses, is that they require more light than wide angle and standard lenses. Under the low light and hand held conditions in a concert, the resulting image would be blurred unless you had an extremely expensive high-end lens. Specialty IS (image stabilizing) lenses are useful but expensive.
Concert photography is fun and exciting, though it is not always the easiest type to do well. The key is practicing before you go to the concert. Try going out at night to take some images to get used to photographing under dark conditions. Remember the tricks to help you if you cannot take a sharp image at first: open your aperture, use a higher ISO, and use a wide-angle or 50mm prime lens. Don’t forget to have fun, enjoy the music and keep your eyes open for various opportunities; it can be hard to look around during a concert, but keep your eyes peeled and the camera ready!