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Concert and live show shooting is one of the more difficult forms of photography. The good news is, you don’t necessarily need high-end equipment in order to come away with great-looking shots. Although, as you’ll discover in this guide, it sure helps!

How to take photos at a concert

Turn Off Your Flash!

Recently, I was at a concert at London’s O2 arena. I lost count of the number of times I saw people in front of me holding up their compact cameras to take photos, only to see one of the biggest no-nos. Using the flash.

As soon as their image preview appeared on their LCD screens, it was the same story every time – the back of hundreds of peoples heads illuminated and the act on stage hardly visible.

Unfortunately, if you’re a paying fan at a large venue, chances are you’re only going to have a compact camera to hand – seeing as most venues restrict the use of professional DSLR cameras for audience members.

 (Left) The Krimsons – F/3.5, 1/100s, 70mm, ISO 1600, no flash.



DSLR vs Compact Camera

But that doesn’t mean you can’t get great-looking shots using your £100 compact camera. The following shot was taken at Wembley Stadium using a Casio Exilim camera at F/2.8, 1/125s, ISO 80, no flash:

Similarly, below, the photo on the left of the Kris Pohlmann Band, was shot using a Canon 60D plus a 50mm F/1.8. The shot of Mark Knopfler on the right was taken using a £100 compact camera. Again, no flash was used with either camera.

Guide tutorial to concert and live show photographyCanon 60D – F/2.5, 1/200s, 50mm, ISO 1600                                              Casio Exilim – F/4.4, 1/100s, 15mm

Ok, I’ll admit that when you blow these two photographs up to A4 size or larger, you soon see the difference in quality between the Canon DSLR on the left and the cheap compact camera on the right. Plus, the Canon could reproduce its shots time and time again. The Casio would only produce a sharp and well exposed photograph once every ten shots or so. But that’s not necessarily the point. Here I’m proving that it’s often the photographer, and not his/her equipment, which gets the good shots in this environment.

Arm Yourself With A Fast Lens

Kris Pohlmann Band – shot at F/1.8, 1/250s, 50mm, ISO 1600, no flash.

However, if you’ve been given photographer access, then you need to come prepared. So grab your DSLR.

Because concert and live show photography is usually conducted in low-light conditions, you’re going to need a fast lens. By this, I mean a lens which can allow a lot of light in by means of opening to a very wide aperture (low F number), enabling you to operate at a fast shutter speed. Typically around F/1.4 – F/2.8 is ideal. This is the key to great concert photography.

Using a flash or speedlite is pretty much a no-no when it comes to concert photography as it counteracts the stage and mood lighting. Plus it’s very distracting for the performers on stage.

For close-up shots, my lens of choice is my Canon 50mm F/1.8 mkII. By far the most popular Canon lens, and a steal at around £90. It’s a stand-out lens and a must-buy for any Canon DSLR user. If you’re futher back from the stage, you’re going to need a fast telephoto lens. Any of the Canon 70-200mm F/2.8 L lenses spring to mind here!

Next, you’re going to need to set yourself up with some benchmark settings. Typically I start in manual mode, at around F/2.5, 1/200s and ISO 1600 (anything higher than ISO 1600 on an older DLSR will result in a lot of noise and grain in your shots. However, newer and higher spec DLSRs can happily shoot at 6400 and above). From here, I adjust the three parameters depending on the initial shots and the lighting environment I’m shooting in.

If there is a lot of movement on stage, I may find I shoot closer to 1/320s (compensating this with an increase in aperture from F/2.5 up to F/2.0 or F/1.8 (where permitted by the lens) in order to open up the lens and let some more light back in. Coupled with this, I’ll slightly bump up the ISO to increase the camera’s sensor sensitivity to the light.

Once you’ve honed in your settings, you can focus on the job-at-hand – capturing the action on stage. With music concerts, you want to ensure you cover a range of shots. Consider the following:

– Photograph all the musicians (don’t neglect the more ‘peripheral’ members of the band)

– Capture the light show if shooting indoors. This will add to the atmosphere of the shots.

– When photographing a singer, ensure you have shots where the microphone isn’t obscuring their face/mouth.

– Get detail shots – fingers on a guitar fret-board, the singer’s face when singing a powerful vocal, the drummer when hitting a drum fill.

– Stand off to the side of the stage and fill the frame with more than one musician.

– Above all, capture the energy and mood of the show.

– Oh, and enjoy the music!

 Author – Oliver Pohlmann

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