Well-executed concert images are epic! But if you’ve ever tried to photograph a concert, you might have found out how difficult those images are to achieve. Your images keep ending up blurry or too dark or super grainy.
Unlike with other types of photography, you have zero control over the lighting and ambiance of the venue. This means you have to adapt to the environment. You don’t have the option of moving your subject or adding light to the scene to adapt the environment to your image.
These challenges mean that you’ll need the right gear and strong technical skills to get those epic images. Here’s what you need to know to learn how to photograph a concert!
Photography equipment isn’t necessarily the primary indicator of how good your images will be. Great photographers can take amazing images with smartphones and other basic cameras.
In reality, the biggest factor that makes great images is your skill as a photographer. However, because of the challenges of concert photography, there are basic pieces of equipment that you will need to get amazing images.
First off, you’ll need a proper camera. While a smartphone can work for some other types of photography like macro or food photography, concert photography will be tough to pull off. You’ll need an actual camera like a DSLR or mirrorless with interchangeable lenses.
If you are buying a camera with concert photography in mind, make sure to choose a model with good low-light capabilities. You should be able to turn the ISO up relatively high without introducing a ton of noise into the image.
To augment the low-light capabilities of your camera, you need a lens with a wide aperture. Remember, larger apertures allow more light into the camera. However, the aperture is written as a fraction, f/5.6 for example. Thus, a lens capable of a larger aperture will have a smaller number like f/1.2 or f/2.8.
The largest aperture settings generally come on prime lenses (fixed lenses with one focal length).
However, zoom lenses with their varying focal lengths can be very helpful in a concert setting. You won’t have to be switching between lenses to get the framing that you want.
Plus, it’s possible that you even miss a shot completely because you didn’t have the right focal length ready.
A happy medium is the 70-200 f/2.8 lens if you have room for it in your budget. The focal length range gives you versatility, yet the wide aperture still allows a lot of light into your camera.
Of course, you can choose to stick with prime lenses. Just be prepared to change lenses frequently or use multiple camera bodies. Good options include a wide 24mm, a standard 50mm, and a longer 85mm. For the best low-light capabilities, look for maximum apertures of f/1.2 or f/1.8.
As noted, concert lighting presents significant challenges for photographers. You can’t expect the camera to help you much in a semi-automatic mode like aperture priority. With all the different lighting inputs, your camera will struggle.
You need to be comfortable using your camera in full manual mode to get properly exposed images. Remember that it will probably be dark and you won’t be able to see the settings on your camera very well.
You can set the basic settings that we’ll discuss below before you head into the concert. However, the goal should be to be comfortable enough with your camera to change the settings by feel rather than by sight.
Let’s go over the settings you’ll typically need to use in a concert environment.
Start with the widest aperture your lens allows. This will allow the most light into your camera and allow you to keep the other settings less extreme.
Don’t worry too much about soft images at this aperture. The distance between you and your subject is usually enough that the depth of field is big enough to keep your subject in focus.
Of course, you can adjust the aperture as needed for the circumstances.
To avoid motion blur, you’ll need a fast enough shutter speed — which is about 1/250 or faster. In some cases, you might lower the shutter speed to create an intentional blur for a creative image.
If the band members are relatively still, you can also get away with a slightly slower shutter speed. Other images, like crowd shots, also allow for a slower speed.
But for the most part, you’ll want to stick with 1/250 or faster.
When choosing your settings, set the aperture and shutter speed first for the conditions you need. If the image is still too dark, bump up the ISO. This is the equalizer that will allow you to set your other settings to what you need.
However, remember that high ISO will introduce noise into your image. It is generally better to choose a higher ISO than to raise the shadows an extreme amount when editing. But you have to find the right balance.
For concert lighting conditions, you’ll need to set ISO around 1600. Of course, this will vary depending on specific conditions.
The amount of noise that a high ISO introduces will depend on the camera that you have. You can crank the ISO up surprisingly high on newer cameras built for low-lighting conditions without introducing too much noise.
Plus, you can reduce the noise somewhat with the noise reduction tool in Lightroom, or whatever editing software you use. There are also dedicated apps or programs that do an even better job of cleaning up noisy images.
In other words, don’t be afraid to experiment with cranking it up to see what results you get with your equipment.
Finally, use the spot metering setting to help you get the correct exposure. The lighting can vary drastically in a concert setting. You’ll need to make decisions about what parts of the image should be properly exposed and what parts will be dark.
For example, your subject might be brightly lit by the spotlight but the space next to them is in shadow. If you use evaluative metering that measures the whole scene, your camera will struggle to determine the correct exposure for the face.
Spot metering bases the exposure on one small point in the image. It doesn’t take into account the dark space next to your subject. This allows it to focus on exposing the subject correctly and nothing else.
The unbalanced or low lighting often found at concerts might make you want to reach for your flash to properly light your photos. Don’t do it!
Unfortunately, flash is not the appropriate equipment for a concert. It can blind the performers or irritate other concertgoers. You have to get creative about angles and such to make good use of the available light.
Furthermore, unless your flash is ridiculously powerful, the light doesn’t reach that far anyway. To be helpful, your subject generally needs to be a few feet in front of your flash. At a concert, it’s unlikely you’ll be getting close enough to the performers to get any benefit from it.
Thus, it is essential to understand the technical aspects of your camera. Know when you can crank up the ISO or how slow you can put the shutter speed to let more light into your camera.
This tip is very important. Always shoot in RAW at a concert rather than JPEG. If you don’t fully understand the difference between these file types, check out this comparison here.
The short version is that RAW retains more information than JPEG image files. That’s why they are larger.
Some people steer away from using RAW files so they don’t fill up their hard drives so quickly. But this is a mistake in concert photography. You need the extra dynamic range information included in the RAW file.
This allows you to lift the shadows more or tone down borderline blown-out highlights.
You’ll also be able to color correct when different temperatures of lighting are involved.
JPEG files will simply not give you this very necessary flexibility.
Now Get Out There And Photograph A Concert
Now that you’ve got the basics, all that’s left is to get out there and practice. You’ll never get good at photographing concerts until you start doing it!
As we’ve discussed here, concerts present unique lighting challenges that you might not have run into before. To conquer this type of photography, you’ve got to put yourself in it and start practicing.
The cool thing is that you can have a lot of fun while doing it. And the day you get that epic concert image, it will have all been worth it!
… but the really hard part we never mentioned was actually remembering to BRING your camera to the concert! don't get so caught up in the excitement of going that you forget your camera and extra batteries!