For some reason concert photography is considered one of the most technically frustrating areas for a shutterbug to master. I will not lie, it is a specific process and gear is a factor, but the only real hurdle for most is patience, both while shooting and building your skills. A huge percentage of concert photographers are in their first year of shooting. Seems odd right? This is because so many people find it theoretically alluring and then give up when they find they are not amazing right away. It’s like someone picking up a guitar and being instantly disappointed that they are not as good as Steve Vai. Photography is a science and an art, like so many things. Concert photography is a fine balance of the two, after all, you are shooting a subject that is moving in the dark.
In terms of gear I will suggest my ideal setup. A full frame DSLR with a lens that goes down to at least 2.8 AP (aperture), but we will get into that in a second. There are really only three main factors to consider once you have done the research and gotten the right gear; specifically, the aperture on your lens, your shutter speed and your ISO. These basic functions are applicable to basically any modern camera, digital or not.
I will start with some definitions. Your Aperture might be the most significant potential factor when shooting in darkness. Aperture is the size of the metal eye in your lens; the bigger it is, the more light gets in and the shorter the depth of field. Aperture is one of the main reasons a good lens is so important and sometimes so expensive. Shutter speed is quite literally the length of time during which your camera exposes the sensor to its surroundings. The more time, the more light gets in, and the harder it is to capture moving targets. ISO has to do with the International Organization for Standardization, weird right? ISO is quite simply a way to describe the light meter inside your camera, it’s a way of measuring and or artificially boosting the exposure. Most cameras can go up to 3200 ISO, some higher end cameras can go as high as 100,000 ISO, the danger here is that the higher you boost the ISO, the more grain in your picture. In fact, some people do not like to ever boost the ISO past 1000 because of the grain it creates, but that is no longer the case with modern C-MOS sensors. I have myself gotten usable pictures with my ISO set as high as 12800; it is frowned on by most photographers but the end result is all that matters and post-production can be a very useful factor. ISO can be classified as 'film speed'. It is hard to explain beyond the basic level of 'light sensitivity versus censor exposure' without getting into quantum efficiency. A side note for our nerd readers, ISO is often misinterpreted as an acronym, it is not, and is actually pronounced 'iso'. It became the standard in 1978, combining the previous two standards, ASA and DIV.
I know this seems like techno babble, but once you learn how these three elements work and then learn to balance them, simply nothing can stop you. As promised, here are a few secret recipes, which are really just a good jumping off point. The settings described on these photos are not applicable to every situation, but it will be an easy place from which to make adjustments. I know this sounds about as obvious as a pig in pajamas, but photography is about looking at your surroundings and appraising them, developing one’s eye is actually far more important than your gear. Your angle and your choice of composition is the most important thing there is. Not only is it useful to be able to look at a situation and know what settings it calls for, but you will also understand why you are getting the results you are and be able to control them. This is why I recommend shooting in manual while you are developing your skills.
These recipes are obviously from my own perspective and thus I will use my own gear to describe them. If your camera does not accommodate these settings, approximate them as best you can. I am going to show you several of my photos as examples for the settings of my camera used at the time, I will also give a brief description of the surroundings in which the photo was taken. Additionally, one factor that should be noted in these photos is the use of Adobe Lightroom for post production, software that acts as an amazing modern day darkroom. I highly recommend it.
You will notice a fourth factor displayed with the pictures, the millimeter of the lens, this is a compositional choice (although it can affect the aperture), but being a little beyond the basics and I will not direct you on its use beyond saying that one should match their shutter speed to the length of their lens (1/200 sec = 200mm), although I often do not adhere to this particular baseline. The settings or ‘recipes’ in these 15 pictures vary from a shutter speed of 1/40 of a second to 1/2000 of a second and the ISO settings range from 12800 to 100. In other words, there is no one perfect recipe, you have to play with it and find out what is right for your gear, for your surroundings and most importantly for you.
Below legend represents my format for indicating the camera settings when each photo was taken.
1 - ISO, 2 - MM of the lens, 3 - The Aperture or F stop, 4 - Shutter Speed
Happy Shooting! Feel free to ask any questions you have in the comment section.
Article By: Gideon Greenbaum-Shinder