Live Performance Photography
Updated: Jun 20, 2019
There are few situations more challenging for camera technology than live performances in indoor venues. The lights at concerts are often low and change constantly. They look dramatic and atmospheric to the audience, but to a photographer they present all sorts of challenges. And given that at most medium or larger venues, even when you have full accreditation the restrictions for photography are ‘first three songs only, no flash allowed’ you really are at the mercy of the lighting technician. Add in the fact that the act you are shooting will be moving around on stage and we now have a real photographic dilemma.
Movement in your frames necessitates faster shutter speeds. But low light demands slower shutter speeds. This means we often need to operate at the extremes of our equipment’s capabilities.
Lenses with large apertures (low F-numbers) are our friends here. F2.8 or lower will help you get as much of that precious ‘artful’ light onto your camera’s sensor as possible. Most pro concert photographers will carry something like a 50mm f1.4 prime lens in their bag as well as well as standard f2.8 zooms. However, these large apertures mean we have a very shallow depth of field, so it’s essential to be very accurate with your focusing. You must become very quick at focusing and recomposing, or master the AF-On button if your camera has one.
The second major weapon in our concert photography arsenal is the all-important ISO. In all but the very brightest venues you will need to increase your ISO significantly to attain workable shutter speeds. At most rock concerts I expect to be set to at least ISO 1600, and often higher. Experiment to see how high you can crank the ISO on your camera before digital noise starts to look obvious and unsightly, and expect to operate near your top limit when undertaking indoor concert photography. You may have to live with a certain amount of digital noise… it is the nature of this sort of shooting.
Shooting in RAW format rather than jpeg will also give you more scope for adjustment of your images on the computer, so that you can bring out detail in even very underexposed images.
Personally I only use flash if I absolutely have to, and the venue/act allows it – I prefer to try to capture the ambience of the show itself. But when I do I tilt my flash head and bounce the flash off the ceiling as much as possible – head-on camera-mounted flash is often very ugly light. Depending on the act I sometimes use slow-sync, rear curtain techniques to create dramatic light trails and action shots – a technique more suited to a chaotic punk rock band than something relatively sedate.
If you are not confident working in manual mode to set your exposure, I suggest using aperture priority, but make sure you switch to spot metering and that your centre auto-focus point is on the performer’s face, so your camera’s metering worries only about getting the light right on them, not brightening up all the dark corners of the surrounding stage.
Our final tip is that you expect to have to take quite a few frames before you nail a great one. Indoor concerts are often difficult to photograph even with the very top professional gear, so if you take 50 frames and come away with a handful you really like, with the performer in a good pose, a good exposure, a shutter speed fast enough to capture the action and your point of focus in the right place, that’s a job well done.
You can learn many of the techniques mentioned in this article on our Explore Your Digital Camera Part 2 workshop.