Concert Photography Workshop in November!

Next month my wife Wendy Fopeano and I will be teaching a concert photography workshop at Denver’s premiere jazz club, Dazzle! The workshop is sponsored by The Gift of Jazz. For more information and to register, see:

Jazz Concert Photography Workshop

The workshop will take place on two consecutive Saturday mornings – November 13 and 20 – with an evening session on Tuesday, November 16 photographing a live band in performance.

Some of the topics Wendy and I expect to cover include selection of equipment, technique and the unique demands of concert photography, composition, etiquette, capturing the spirit of the performance, processing, and organization. We are extremely excited by this, and hope to see the class fill up quickly!

Concert Photography – Post-Processing

In previous articles, I covered equipment and techniques for photographing concerts. But even if you followed all the advice I gave, you probably came home, looked at your images, and didn’t quite see what you hoped for based on the examples you have seen in my articles or elsewhere. There are a few fundamental things I always do my concert photographs in post-processing (PP) that make all the difference in the world with relatively little effort. In this article, I will explain some of these techniques.

First, I should mention that the software I use for PP is ACDSee Pro. This application provides integrated image management and non-destructive editing much like Lightroom or Aperture or a few other programs. The techniques I describe are mostly things that can be done in any of these or similar programs, as well as other popular editing programs like Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro, or even Picasa. Since I expect people reading this will be using all sorts of different programs, I will try to be as general as I can rather than deal with the specifics of ACDSee Pro.

To give you an idea of the extent of the difference PP can make, I find it useful to look at a whole screenful of thumbnails first before focusing on what might be done to images individually. Here is what I might typically see when I first download my images:

As with the other examples in this article, you can click on it to see it larger.

There are a couple of things that usually end up being disappointing when we first look at our images. One is that we typically have a lot of very similar-looking shots. Part of this is the fact that concert lighting is usually fairly strongly colored. Even plain “white” spotlights are usually pretty orange. The color of the lighting usually dominates any other color in the scene. But another reason we often have a bunch of similar-looking images at first is because of how we typically shoot. We often take a bunch of pictures of the same musician or scene in hopes of one turning out well before moving on to the next.

One of the most important but often overlooked principles of PP is that editing is as much a matter of selecting images as it is of actually adjusting the images themselves. Anyone can look like a much better photographer if we only look at their best images. So as soon as possible, I start the process of rating my images in ACDSee. My scheme is fairly simple: 1-star for images that are out of focus blurry or are otherwise not worth keeping; 2-star for images that are competent and not worthy of deletion but which I don’t particularly need to keep looking at; 3-star for the images I intend to keep copies of after the originals have been should been archived to an external archive, 4-star for images that I think are worth sharing with others. Just by grouping my 4-star images together, already I look like a better photographer.

If I’m going to try to look like a good photographer, however, I am better off doing my PP first. And the other benefit of doing my rating first is that I can focus my efforts on the 4-star images. While I might process those individually, I often just copy the settings I used on my 4-star images to any similar 3-star images.

The following screen shot shows just my 4-star images from the same shoot as the previous example, so there is more variety in the shots themselves. And since I have done my PP – including white balance – there is more variety in color as well. Instead of the screen shot I showed previously, I’d much rather see this:

White balance isn’t the only thing I changed in PP, of course, but it’s the thing that made the most noticeable difference in this screen shot. The other changes I made would be more noticeable in larger views.

So now let’s turn to the specific PP techniques I use. There’s actually not a lot to it, but as the above examples demonstrate, they really make a difference.

The first thing I usually do with a concert shot is to apply a preset I created some time ago that sets the white balance to something that works for basic tungsten lighting, sets noise reduction to levels that often work well with my camera at ISO 1600 (my usual setting for concerts), and adds what I think of as a typically appropriate level of sharpening. With ACDSee Pro, I can apply this preset as a batch to all my 3-star and 4-star images if I like, giving me a good starting place for further processing in just seconds. Many other RAW processing program provide a similar sort of capability, but there are some older applications using an older paradigm that don’t work this way: you can’t apply a preset other than while converting to JPEG, which means no further RAW processing would be possible. I would not like to use such a program, but if that’s what you have, then you’ll have to do all your work on files one at a time.

Here is an image from a recent shoot loaded into ACDSee Pro as it came from my camera (before applying the preset):

After applying my preset, the colors look more natural:

The orange color cast is lessened, but now it is too magenta. The lights on the stage at moment probably used a colored gel. So I further adjust the WB by hand (using an eyedropper on the hair then fine tuning from there) to yield something I liked:

It is common for WB changes like this to affect our perception of exposure. The original image was mostly red light. By removing much of the red light from the image, I’m left with better color balance, but less light overall. So even though the original image actually showed clipping on the histogram – all in the red channel, which is almost inevitable when shooting under red lighting – the result is now underexposed. On the positive side, most of the clipping is gone. Also, I should mention that because my camera is limited to ISO 1600 and sometimes that is not enough to avoid blur, I will often deliberately shoot underexposed and expect to push exposure in PP. Beyond that, I would also say that metering in concert photography is tricky, and there is no shame in needing exposure adjustments in PP.

In this case, I added 0.75EV compensation to bring the overall brightness where I wanted it. This actually blew a few more highlights in the hair and the reflection in the bell of the trumpet, so I used a little highlight recovery to lessen that. While I was at it, I made small changes to two other controls on this same panel. I added a small amount of fill light to lighten shadows further, and I slightly reduced vibrance (similar to saturation, but “smarter”) to make the skin tones a little more neutral still.

Here is the result of those changes. The green dots in the background show where I have deliberately allowed the background to clip to black, and the red dots show where I have intentionally allowed highlights to clip to white:

The next step for me is usually to use the Lighting tool in ACDSee to further balance the highlights, midtones, and shadows, while also increasing local contrast and bringing out detail appropriate. This is a tool that may have have an exact analogue in your software, but similar effects might be achieved using curves, local contrast enhancement, or shadow/highlight tools that you may have access to. It is kind of hard to explain exactly how ACDSee’s Lighting tool works, but the effect is to allow me to lighten the shadow side of face without reducing contrast in that area, and similarly increasing contrast and bringing out detail on the light side of the face. I am not sure if this will come across well here, but here the effect of the tool on this image:

At this size, the image now looks pretty much the way I want it to. But I realize than in larger views, noise will be more apparent. The amount of NR I applied in my preset is pretty conservative, and after exposure adjustments, I often need to apply more. taking an exposure made at ISO 1600 and pushing it by 0.75EV is like shooting at the equivalent of about ISO 2600. Now, I should say that I am not as noise-averse as some are – some amount of noise is pretty much expected in concert photography. Too much NR can smooth away detail, and I prefer a somewhat “grainy” look over a “plastic” one. I should also say that while NR is best done while looking at a 100% view, this is not very representative of how most people will ever see your images. Viewed on the web, they will be much smaller than 100%, and even an 11×14″ print won’t show noise to the same degree as a 100% view on screen. So don’t get too discouraged by how your images may look at 100%. Chances are they will be fine on the web and in smaller prints.

The camera I used here is the Pentax K200D, which is fairly average in terms of noise. It is sometimes characterized as having more chroma (color) noise than some cameras but less luminance noise, with an overall blotchiness due to a small amount of in-camera NR that is performed at ISO 1600 even for RAW files. Here is a 100% view of my images with my other changes intact, but the NR I originally applied in my preset turned off:

Here is the NR applied by my preset (50% chroma, 5% luminance):

While it might not look fantastic at 100% I know from experience it should look good enough at “normal” sizes. But since if I look closely I do see some larger purple splotches that I know I can control with a bit more NR, I turned the chroma NR up to 75% and luminance to 10%:

That’s as far as I’d want to take this. Folks who are really allergic to noise might want to investigate dedicated NR programs like Neat Image, but when I have tried them, I find I do not usually prefer the results I get. I could also try turning up ACDSee’s controls all the way, leading to the sort of “plastic” look I referred to earlier:

Actually, while this is noticeably softer if you click on the image to see it full size, I admit that at typical viewing sizes, the softness is no more likely to be noticed than the noise is. Still, I prefer the image the way I had it before.

The final thing I would consider doing here is a slight crop. I don’t crop very often, and when I do, it is usually because of something really distracting like another musicians’ elbow in the picture or a stray microphone stand. But sometimes it is for purely aesthetic reasons, to achieve what I think of as a better balance in the composition by moving a face a little off center or trying to get the right proportion of body to instrument to background in the shot.

Some have an almost religious belief in not cropping, insisting on getting it right in camera. While I respect this, I feel I don’t have that luxury. Concert photography is too fast paced for me to feel comfortable limiting myself in that way, and when shooting with primes as I usually do, it’s often the case that the lens I have is not exactly the focal length I would choose if using a zoom. I do, however, maintain an equally irrational desire to preserve my camera’s 2:3 aspect ratio when I do crop.

Anyhow, here is the image as it stands before the crop:

All I would want to do here is remove some of the empty space above the head, thus making the face more dominant element in the composition, and paying attention to where I place it. this is what I came up with:

Had I performed a more significant crop that might have affected my perception of the color or exposure, I would have done this much earlier in the process – perhaps right after applying the preset. To be honest, I went out of my way to find an example of an image I had cropped for artistic reasons as opposed to simply cutting out something I didn’t wanted, but I don’t feel very strongly about the need for the crop here.

This leads to a related topic. I virtually never resort to cloning out stands or other distracting items that cannot be cropped away. I suppose this is like some people never cropping. Actually, though, in my case it’s more because cloning is a rather more complex operation, and ACDSee cannot do it within the scope of its non-destructive Develop mode. Instead I need to switch to its traditional Edit mode, which in turn requires me to convert to another format in order to preserve my changes, and a separate copy of my file is created as a result. This just seldom seems worth the effort to me as it might be if I using were a program that aloowed cloning in the non-destructive RAW processing, but even then, I still have reluctance to want to mess with brushes and selections and so forth.

Instead, I mostly just try to be conscious of my backgrounds when I shoot. I try to position myself so there are no distracting elements that would require cloning. In the case of this image, I suppose some might try to remove the bright line to the left of the trumpet (a reflection off the raised piano lid behind him), but I kind of like it.

There are more operations I could employ, and occasional do when necessary, but the steps I have outlined here are pretty much my usual routine. Preset to get WB and NR in the right ballpark, fine tune WB if necessary, correct exposure, play with lighting, further adjust NR if I had to correct exposure by much, and perhaps crop.

Here then, is the finished image:

Because I shoot in manual mode, it is pretty much guaranteed that all other shots I took of the same musician from the same vantage point will have the same issues in terms of color, exposure, and noise. So I can simply copy these settings (everything but the crop, which will rarely match from shot to shot) to all my other similar images in one operation, thus giving me a very useful starting point for further processing should I wish to do more. Often, though, I find no further processing is necessary at all after copying settings. But if the color of the lights changed, I can adjust WB while leaving everything set. Or if I had changed my shutter speed while shooting, I can adjust the brightness to compensate, again while leaving my other settings intact. This allows me to process a large number of pictures relatively quickly.

Concert Photography – Technique

I’m going to assume you’ve already read my article on equipment, or else you are already satisfied with your equipment choices. And by the way, when you finish this article on technique, check out the third installment on post-processing.

To summarize the article on equipment, you’ll want a camera that gives you acceptable quality at the high ISO speeds you will often be needing, and a lens or lenses with a relatively wide maximum aperture (f/2.8 or better, ideally) in a focal length range that provides the sort of field of view that works for you. For me, that means a DSLR (Pentax K200D) and lenses in the short to medium telephoto lengths. 100mm is the sweet spot for me on APS-C, although I know others prefer wider angles, and longer is useful if you can’t shoot from as close to the action as you otherwise might. Although I mostly use primes, I think a 50-135mm zoom would be ideal for most people.

Pretty much any camera that satisfies these basic requirements – good high ISO performance, wide aperture lens – should also give you control over ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. It doesn’t really matter whether this is done via a completely manual mode, or via the use of aperture priority or shutter priority modes combined with exposure compensation, exposure lock, or other manual overrides. Basically, any DSLR should do the job, but a film camera or full featured fixed lens camera that provides this same type of capability would be fine too.

Before we go further, I should point out that my main musical interest is jazz, and that affects my photography in some significant ways. For one thing, it means my photographs tend to be more about individuals than the the “band”, because such is often the nature of jazz. It means that my subjects are often playing wind instruments, which have their own set of issues regarding focal length choice, composition, and focus. It means I am often working in small clubs with very simple but very poor lighting – not the type of elaborate lighting displays typical with some rock bands. And the listening environment is often pretty quiet compared to typical rock shows. So if some of my comments seem strange to you – like if you cannot possibly imagine anyone caring about the sound of a DSLR shutter – then feel free to take those with a grain of salt. Still, I expect most of what I have to say will be relevant to anyone who has stumbled upon this article.

Here’s an example of the kind of photograph I like to take:

Even if you have a different creative vision than I do, you may still find my technical commentary useful.

Basic Settings

Beginners are often bewildered by the various settings on their cameras. I can cut through some of that by telling you there are only three that really matter – ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. These are the basics of exposure and have been since the dawn of photography. If your camera provides controls over sharpness, contrast, saturation, and so forth, that’s fine, and feel free to mess with them if you like. But none of those things make a fundamental difference to the image in the same way the basic exposure settings do. And especially if you shoot RAW – more on that in a moment – you will find that the exposure settings are the only things that are fixed when you take the picture. All else can be changed later.

I personally use “M” (manual) mode to control my exposure. I did this at first because with my old manual lenses, it is the only way exposure can be controlled. But I soon realized I liked the control it gave, and I found I would get more consistent results that way too, so now I use it all the time even with my modern lenses. The optimum exposure doesn’t vary from shot to shot nearly as much as an autoexposure system will tend to think. Consider a person wearing light colored clothing in a spotlight standing against a dark colored background in the shadow (a typical situation). As long as the person doesn’t change their clothes or move out of the spotlight, there is no reason for exposure to change. But an autoexposure system can easily be fooled by such irrelevant factors as how much of the dark background is visible in the shot, whether the lighting on the background changes, whether a second person enters the shot, whether an instrument or microphone happens to catch a reflection from the spotlight, whether the spotlight itself is in the picture, etc.

Also, the autoexposure system often recommends a shutter speed that is too slow to stop camera shake or subject motion. In low light concert photography, you often need to be prepared to underexpose in order to get a sharp pictures, and then expect to improve the exposure in post processing (PP). You will probably be needing to override the default suggested exposure more often than you think. So some amount of manual override is often necessary no matter what mode you shoot in.

On the other hand, if you are not used to shooting in “M” mode, it can be daunting at first, and you are indeed likely to blow some shots until you get the hang of it. Stage lighting often varies in color from one part of the stage to another, and sometimes in intensity as well. An exposure that works for one musician in one area of the stage might work another musician in another area of the stage, but it might not. It will be up to you to monitor changes in lighting across the stage, and also over time – systems that change the lighting every couple of minutes are common in some venues.

So anyhow, as I see it, you have two choice: use “M” mode and watch for changes in lighting, or use an auto mode and watch for everything else. Your call. If you use an autoexposure mode, you need to either make liberal use of your exposure-lock control or expect to be constantly adjusting exposure compensation based on your read of the scene. Otherwise your exposures may vary wildly for no good reason, even when shooting what seems to be the same scene, and some will be blurry from too slow a shutter speed.

I’ll deal with the specifics of setting exposure later. For now, I want to run down the other camera settings you can make before you start shooting and mostly leave alone.

First, as I alluded to before, you’ll want to shoot RAW. Whatever you might think about doing PP, it’s almost always going to help a lot in concert photography, and need not be particularly time consuming in order to be useful. Batch setting white balance, noise reduction, and perhaps a global exposure adjustment can be done in seconds for an entire cardful images, and will turn a set underexposed, noisy, orange-colored images into something you can really be happy with. There are programs that try to provide this same level convenience to JPEG, but the very nature of JPEG is such that you will not be able to maintain the same quality when doing these sorts of adjustments. If you insist on shooting JPEG anyhow, be my guest, but expect to never be able to get rid of of the stage lighting color casts, and expect any shots you underexpose in order to get a fast enough shutter speed to never look anywhere near as good in terms of detail or noise as it could – it is just not possible to PP that type of JPEG image to the same extent as with RAW.

If your camera or lens features some form of stabilization (IS, VR, SR, OS, AS, or whatever the manufacturer of your gear calls it), turn it on unless you are using a tripod and the manufacturer recommends it not be used with a tripod. Most stabilization systems work fine with a monopod. If you don’t have stabilization, a monopod is a cheap way and relatively unobtrusive to improve stability.

If your camera gives you a way to quickly switch between auto and manual focus, find it and learn to use it. Pentax DSLR’s have a button that can temporarily disable AF while pressed without needing to actually switch to MF mode; I find that incredibly useful. Others like to set up their cameras so that pressing the shutter does not perform AF at all, but instead a button press does. That’s an option too. What we’re looking for here is a way to achieve focus on a subject, then make sure the camera doesn’t refocus while you fire off a string of shots of that subject.

If your camera requires you to do something special to turn off flash, do that now. If you plan to shoot with flash, you can safely skip the section on exposure, because it won’t be relevant. You’ll have to turn elsewhere for help with flash exposure. But do make sure you know flash is acceptable before assuming you’ll be using it. As a musician myself, I can tell you it’s never acceptable during my performances, but that’s my world. Yours may be different.

Although ISO is one of the three exposure parameters that in theory might vary from shot to shot, in practice, light levels are often low enough that you’ll just want to set it as high as you stand (in terms of noise) before you start shooting and not mess with it again all night. I shoot at ISO 1600 practically all the time in my concert photography.

Positioning And Composition

Once your camera is set up, your next step is to position yourself and frame your shots to get the results you want. This is the part that is the most personal, so my advice here will be pretty general.

In general, the closer you are, the better. You’ll be able to capture more detail, you’ll have more dramatic perspective and depth of field effects, and it will be easier to position yourself to avoid obstructions. You’ll also be less intrusive to fellow attendees if you are between them and the band than if you are continually pushing through the crowd. Although you do want to be respectful and not stand directly in someone else’s line of sight for long. Nor do you want to be so close you are distracting to the musicians. But shots like this can’t be taken from further back:

If you are close and you want a shot of the whole band, you’ll need a wide angle lens, and if you don’t have anything suitable, standing further back will have to do. Sometimes the only convenient spots to be near the stage don’t allow for unobstructed views of all the band members, so some shots might have to be taken from further away with a longer lens. This is obviously very specific to the venue and band. Depending on the arrangement of the musicians and where you position yourself, you might be able to capture shots of the whole band from surprisingly close with a 50mm lens, or even 70mm, as I did here:

While occasionally it works out that you can get all the shots you want from one position, more often than not you’ll be better off moving around. To minimize disruption, it is usually best to do all the shooting you need to do from one spot (including lenses changes as necessary), then move to another spot, rather than constantly flitting around. On the other hand, you may also want to minimize lens changes, and that might suggest taking all shots you think you will want with one lens, moving around as necessary, then change lenses and repeat.

Because my main musical interest is jazz, and jazz is so much about personal expression, I tend to be primarily interested in capturing images of individual musicians more so than shots of the entire band. I usually take one or two band shots just to have them, but I mostly focus on more intimate portrait-like shots, as you can see from the examples I am including. Because so much jazz involves wind instruments in the front, and piano, guitar, bass, and drums further back, I can often use a longer telephoto lens and still incorporate the whole instrument than I could if I were mostly shooting guitar players in the front line. But all this varies according to the specific band and how they are set up on stage. One of the things I do in planning my shots is think about what focal lengths I will need to capture head-and-instrument portraits of each musician from a variety of different vantage points.

Obviously, you will never be able to completely anticipate every shot you might want. You will likely find that moving around suggests shot to you that you might not have thought of otherwise. But if you try to keep these ideas in mind, things usually go smoother. Here’s a shot I had not planned to take, but once I arrived in the spot where I was planning to shoot the pianist, I saw an opportunity to shoot the whole rhythm section:

Any shot you can take while leaning against a wall, or post, or other support – or seated – is likely to come out sharper than any shot you take while standing unsupported. Camera/lens stabilization and monopods can help, but still, the steadier you are yourself, the better.

All basic compositional concepts you might learn about in any book on photography technique – or drawing or painting, for that matter – apply. However, given that you should be expecting to post process your shots to some extent, and that can include cropping, it might not be worth obsessing too much about composition while shooting. But there are some things that you are much better off paying attention to now than trying to deal with later. When lining up a shot, try to be aware of things that are in the frame but might turn out to be unnecessary or distracting, such as overly busy backgrounds, objects or people in the background that appear growing out of your subject’s head, etc. When shooting singers using microphones or people playing wind instruments, it is often best to shoot from an angle to either side so that you can still see most of the face:

On the other hand, sometimes with a wind instrument especially, the “coming right at you” look can be quite effective too, even if it partially obscures the face:

I also like to be on the lookout for interesting geometric shapes formed by the musicians, their instruments, and whatever else is in the frame, to create the occasional semi-abstract shot. I don’t know or care if anyone else would find this shot interesting, but I do, and that’s all that matters to me:

For maximum impact, try to get the most contrast you can between the subject and the background – usually a light figure against a dark background. Even “black” skin in a spotlight will often be lighter than an unlit background:

Of course, a darker figure against a lighter background will “pop” just as well, and that can happen at times even with “white” skin if the lighting is right:

Watch your subject for motions that keep repeating and see if you can identify a spot in the cycle where the subject is holding a pose for a moment – that will allow you to shoot with a relatively slow shutter speed and still get a reasonably sharp picture. For example, for anyone who rocks back and forth, there is always a point of zero motion at either end of the “rock”. On the other hand, shots of musicians engaged in an action that cannot be stopped at the kind of shutter speeds you will be using can be effective too – nothing says motion and excitement like a little subject blur. Particularly if parts of the subject are in motion but parts are not. I usually strive to freeze the face but show motion in the limbs, at least for instrumentalists:

One more word about the sort of portrait-like shots I usually take. I tend to go for shots showing moments of intensity, often featuring almost pained looks on the faces of the musicians:

These seldom turn out to be the musicians’ favorite pictures of themselves. So I do try to capture them smiling or otherwise looking as they might like to see themselves:


Once you’ve settled on a basic location and composition for a series of shots, you need to set exposure before you can actually shoot. Yes, I know – your camera has autoexposure, and in other settings it works just fine to just point and shoot and let the camera take care of the rest. But for various reasons that I alluded to above, this doesn’t usually work so well for concert photography. I will be more specific about this now.

When shooting a single lit figure against a dark background – something very common in concert photography – a camera autoexposure system will typically try to exposure the background to “medium” brightness, like an 18% gray card. This will virtually always result in an overexposed figure, and depending on your aperture and ISO, probably too slow a shutter speed to stop blur. You want to expose for the figure in the light, not the dark background. Here is an example where the dark background would have led the camera to suggest a shutter speed that was unusably slow, yielding a blurry subject and blown out detail in places, and it would have ruined the effect of the dark background as well. If you think the cord growing out of the keyboardist’s back is distracting now, imagine how it would looked if the background were a stop brighter:

Conversely, if there is a bright light in the picture frame, most cameras will underexpose the shot in order to avoid blowing out that light and to keep the average brightness of the scene down. This picture would have come out almost completely black except for the spotlight if I had just blindly accepted the exposure suggested by the camera:

To some extent, overexposure and underexposure can be dealt with in PP, but best results are always obtained when you get thing as close as practical in camera. The trick is in learning how to do this efficiently.

Instead of letting the camera choose an exposure based on the whole scene and then trying to figure out how much adjustment might be necessary and in which direction, I usually find it more effective to use substitute metering – setting exposure based on a scene that is dominated by the kind of lighting I want to expose for. Spot metering can be useful for this, although I actually prefer center-weighted. Either way, you can point directly at your subject and zoom in to center the meter on him or her, then set and lock the exposure using the exposure lock control or simply by being in manual exposure mode. Or you can use a spot on the floor or wall that is in the same light as your subject if that works out better. Once you have set the exposure in this way, you can shoot any composition you want containing that subject with confidence that your subject will remain consistently exposed regardless of how the rest of the scene changes from shot to shot.

For example, the camera-suggested exposure in the following shot would have been far too low because the spotlight in the frame would have fooled the meter. The singer would have lost in the shadow:

But the following shot, taken moments later, would have been overexposed because the spotlight was not in the shot, so the dark background would have fooled the meter instead:

By carefully metering on the singer himself in the shoot, and then leaving that exposure alone while shooting, I was able to capture both scenes as I wanted them, without having to dial in different amounts and types of exposure compensation throughout the series. The same exposure worked for all shots of that subject form that vantage point, and that is going to be true more often than not.

As I mentioned before, I use manual mode more or less exclusively. Pentax cameras provide a button that quickly sets what it thinks is an appropriate shutter speed while I am pointed at my chosen metering target, so I can still take advantage of the camera’s metering system, and I can then adjust that suggested exposure as necessary to get the subject as bright as I want. Once set, I can and do simply leave exposure alone until the lighting changes or my attention turns to a subject in different lighting.

Even when using substitute metering techniques, you might still need to use compensation at times, however. For instance, positive compensation is often needed for subjects under bright spotlights or else the camera will try to expose to make your subject look only medium bright instead of looking like he or she is in a spotlight. Or, if you are deliberately trying to create a silhouette against a light background, negative compensation might be necessary if metering off the subject. Also, shots taken under strongly colored lighting are likely to cause one color channel of the camera to “clip” – and therefore lose detail – long before the picture looks overexposed as a whole. So you often need to underexpose in strongly colored light. For these reasons and others, compensation can still be necessary. But it is much easier to adjust based on your subject and how you want it to appear, rather than trying to figure out how to adjust an exposure your camera is making based largely on one aspect of a scene (like a dark background or a spotlight) in order to make a totally unrelated aspect of the scene (like your subject) come out the way you want.

I should note that in practice, I actually don’t bother going through all of this very often. At some venues where I shoot regularly, I know before I arrive what exposure settings with work. ISO 1600, f/2.8, and 1/45″ is so typical at one venue, for instance, that I can set that before leaving my house and never revisit it. Usually, when I first begin shooting at a venue I will take test shots of different spots on the stage to see if exposure needs to be adjusted up or down from one spot to the next because of the arrangement of lights. I then memorize the shutter speeds that worked: 1/45″ when shooting most of the musicians but 1/30″ for the drummer and 1/60″ for anyone at the front microphone, for instance. Again, using manual mode makes it simple to actually get the camera to use the settings I want, as long as I remember to change shutter speeds when appropriate.

You might find that your favorite venue lets you be similarly consistent about exposure. If it is especially well lit, you might not need ISO 1600 or f/2.8, or you might be able to get a faster shutter speed. If it is not as well lit, you might need to increase ISO further if your camera allows, or use a larger aperture if your lens allows. Or, you might just settle for an underexposed picture in order to keep shutter speeds high enough, and hope to be able to correct this in PP. I routinely shoot a little underexposed at ISO 1600 and push exposure up to a stop or so in PP – giving me the equivalent of ISO 3200 – and still get acceptable (to me) results in terms of noise. That depends on your camera and your standards. But if you’re thinking that you’ll be able to shoot with a typical f/4-5.6 zoom at ISO 200, you are likely to be extremely disappointed.

In case you are unclear on the tradeoffs between ISO, apeture, and shutter speed, you might want to read up more on exposure elsewhere. What I’ll say here is this: higher ISO means more noise (graininess); larger aperture – represented by smaller f-numbers – means shallower depth of field (DOF) which can make getting your subject in focus more difficult; slower shutter speed means blur from camera shake or subject motion. Expect to need ISO around 1600 and aperture around f/2.8 in order to get a shutter speed fast enough to combat blur. The faster the shutter speed the better, so even if I have the luxury of having enough light to not need ISO 1600 or f/2.8, I’ll often leave ISO and aperture there just to take advantage of faster shutter speeds. But if your camera or lens does not perform well enough for you at those settings, by all means, decrease ISO or stop down the lens when you can do so without introducing too much blur.

I find 1/30″ a good benchmark for controlling blur from subject motion if my timing is good, and it’s fast enough that between the stabilization technology built in to my camera and taking advantage of whatever physical aids I can (walls, posts, chairs, etc), I don’t have to worry too much about blur from camera shake even when using my 135mm lens. Of course, 1/30″ won’t stop a subject in active motion, but as I said, if my timing is good, I can expect a high percentage of reasonably sharp pictures.

If necessary, I’ll shoot slower, but I expect to need to take more shots in order to get lucky enough to have one come out acceptably sharp. I’ve occasionally resorted to speeds as slow as 1/6″ and managed to get good results, but that’s not something one can count on. Here’s one where I got lucky at that speed:

At 1/120″, unless you are shooting at long telephoto lengths (200mm or beyond on APS-C) or not supporting yourself and the camera at all, you can reasonably expect most shots to come out sharp. Some musicians I find notoriously difficult to get sharp pictures of because the move so much, but if I can get them in a situation where I can use 1/120″ or faster, I can usually nail them. So although f/2.8 is usually adequate for me, I am happy to have a 50mm lens at f/1.7 to help me get those those kinds of shutter speeds when I really need them:

Most of your shots will probably end up between these extremes, so your success will come down to your timing and ability to stabilize yourself and the camera/lens.

Focusing And Shooting

Focus similarly can be done using a combination of automatic and manual techniques. The main problem with simply pointing and shooting is that often, the camera will notice a microphone or instrument and focus on it instead of the musicians’ face. This is of course most likely not what you want. Also, AF tends to be slow on many cameras in low light, and erratic in highly colored stage lighting, causing you to miss more shots than you might like. Plus, when taking multiple shots in a row of the same subject – something you should be in the habit of doing in order to increase your chances of at least one coming out blur-free – you don’t want the camera stopping to refocus (and possibly getting it wrong) between shots. So just as with exposure, you will often want to set focus once, then shoot a whole series.

The specific of how to do this vary with camera brands and models, which is why I suggested looking into this when initially setting up your camera. As I mentioned, I have mine set up so that a button on the back of the camera temporarily disables AF. I’ll half press the shutter to perform an initial focus, and if I judge that the camera was successful, I will then park my thumb on the AF cancel button while I snap as many shots as I want. Others will use a button to focus and have their cameras set so that pressing the shutter does not refocus, which accomplishes the same goal: focus once, shoot as often as you like.

That initial focus, of course, is very important. Many of my favorite concert lenses are manual focus only. That takes practice, but I am pretty good at it by now. When using an autofocus lens, I will usually let the camera try, but knowing that it might miss, I rarely accept its focus without verifying it for myself in the viewfinder. Most modern Pentax lenses allow you to override focus manually after AF lock has been achieved, without having to turn off AF, and I use this facility quite often. So even if you mostly use AF, having good MF skills can help a lot.

Psychologically, many of us have a tendency to make the same mistake the camera does: to focus on a microphone or instrument in front of the subject rather than the subject himself. You have to be very careful not to allow the camera to do this when using AF, and also not to do this yourself when using MF. Here’s a shot where an AF system might have been fooled, but focusing manually I was able to get what I wanted:

I will often take a test shot and examine the results on the LCD at high magnification. Only after convincing myself that focus is good will I take more shots. I might do this several times before being satisfied. Luckily, musicians usually tend to stay in one spot long enough – or at least return to one spot often enough – to make this feasible. In that sense, it is easier than most sports. So by all means, check images and/or histograms on your LCD periodically to make sure you are getting the shots you think you are in terms of exposure and expression as well as focus. But be aware that depending on the setting, the bright light from the LCD might be distracting.

Speaking of distractions: for all their other advantages, DSLR’s have a reputation for loud shutters (and Pentax DSLR’s especially so). Even the quietest DSLR makes more noise than is normally acceptable during a quiet classical concert. I try to time my shots to occur during moments when it is not likely to be bothersome. For some concerts, that means I can shoot whenever I want, of course. For others, it means avoiding shooting during certain tunes only. For others, it means waiting for the loudest passages, or perhaps only when the applause starts at the end of a piece (but hopefully before musicians have put their instruments down).

I’ve given my opinion on flash elsewhere, but again for the record: don’t use it unless you know for a fact it won’t be disruptive. And I don’t know about any other musicians, but from my own perspective, I can tell you it’s always disruptive to me. If you do shoot in a situation where it is acceptable and you don’t think the light from the flash will ruin the mood of the shot, that does of course change everything regarding exposure, but you’ll have to turn elsewhere for advice on that – it’s just not my thing.

One final note: I usually shoot with some sort of objective in mind. For instance, to capture at least one good shot of every musician, to capture different group poses that seem representative of the band as a whole, to capture of a shot of someone playing a specific instrument that I have not captured them using before, and so forth. When I think I have shot enough, I usually put my camera away and go back to just listening. This frees up space for other photographers if I am in the front, but it also allows me to enjoy the music more – which is, after all, presumably related to why we shoot concerts in the first place.

Concert Photography – Equipment

I do a lot of writing, a lot of teaching, and a lot of concert photography. So I figured it was time to combine these activities and write up some advice on shooting concerts. This first entry will deal with equipment. There is also a second article on technique, and now a third on post-processing.


Let me start by telling you what kind of advice you won’t get here: advice on using flash. That’s for a different blog, one perhaps entitled “how to annoy musicians and fellow listeners while ending up with pictures that fail to capture the original mood of the event”. OK, that’s a little harsh – flash can be effective and useful for certain effects and in certain settings, but it’s just not what I do.

Instead, we’re going to be talking about available light photography. For outdoor concerts, life is pretty simple, but not so for indoor concerts. While the lights on stage may seem bright in comparison to the dark of the club or hall, they usually aren’t very bright by photographic standards. So we’re talking about low light photography. This means shooting at relatively high sensitivity (eg, ISO 400, 800, 1600, or even higher) in order to get shutter speeds fast enough to avoid blur. Many of the techniques we’ll talk about involve dealing with these issues.


Now, it is certainly possible to shoot concerts with film cameras, and obviously, people have been doing this for much longer than they have with digital. Most of the advice I give will be similar between film and digital, but I will be focusing on digital, since that is where most of my experience is. In general, you’re best off with a digital single lens reflex (DSLR), as they are able to shoot at higher ISO values with lower noise (graininess). So the rest of my comments assume you are using a DSLR. As of this writing, I use a Pentax K200D, which has more than adequate noise performance, even when forced to underexpose at ISO 1600, as is often the case. It also has built-in stabilization, which allows me to shoot at lower shutter speeds than I otherwise might. Stabilization is discussed further below – in the section on lenses – because on other camera systems, stabilization is a function of the lens, not the camera.

Of course, some “point and shoot” (P&S) cameras are also capable of good results if you know how to use them to their best advantage. The controls are often different, but if you understand how they work, you may be able to make use of much of the advice I will give on using a DSLR. And even though you cannot change lenses as you can with a DSLR, the discussion on lenses below might be useful in choosing a P&S camera, as you not only want good high ISO performance, but also a lens that will do the job for you, since you won’t be able to change lenses later.

Your camera will need to provide manual exposure controls of some kind. I prefer the fully manual “M” mode, but creative use of exposure lock, exposure compensation, and other controls in an autoexposure mode can be just as effective.


There are two critical factors in considering lenses for concert photography: focal length and maximum aperture. Aperture is easy: basically, you want the biggest maximum aperture (ie, the lowest f-number) you can afford for the focal lengths at which you will be shooting. That is because larger apertures translate into faster shutter speeds, and in low light, we are constantly struggling to get fast enough shutter speeds to combat both camera shake and subject motion. Indeed, lenses with large maximum apertures are often called “fast” lenses, because they allow fast shutter speeds. “Slow” lenses with a maximum aperture slower than f/4 are essentially useless, and you really want f/2.8. You might think that f/2 is even better, and sometimes it is, but not only do lenses get more expensive as the maximum aperture increases, but they also get bigger and heavier, and for telephoto lenses, this can be a very significant factor. Also, f/2 is not always practical for concert photography because the depth of field is so small – it can be impossible to get a musician and his or her instrument to both be in focus. So f/2.8 is kind of a standard maximum aperture to shoot for. The f/2 lenses are more of a special luxury except at certain focal lengths like 50mm where you can get relatively small and inexpensive f/2 lenses quite easily.

Focal length is the more difficult consideration in choosing lenses, as this is more subjective, and it probably is not the case that one focal length will suffice. Most photographers these days are accustomed to using zoom lenses, which provide a range of focal lengths, so to some extent, the decision is easier than if you had to choose a single focal length. The advantage of a zoom, of course, is being able to take both wider angle shots and more close-up shots – and everything in between – from the same location. The downside is that f/2.8 zooms tend to be fairly expensive as well as large and heavy. Zooms faster than f/2.8 are practically non-existent, and they are even more expensive, large, and heavy if/when you do find one. So prime lenses – ones with a single focal length – still have their places.

As is the case with the guitar player here, many of my concert photographs are basically head-and-shoulder or upper body portraits with instruments. These are the sorts of images musicians like to use as “action shots” in their promotional materials. I suppose I gravitate to these because I am a musician myself. And as you have probably gathered my now, my main interest is jazz, so I am dealing with clubs rather than auditoriums. I tend to shoot from a table in the front at a club when possible, so I am usually only a few meters away from my subjects.

To get these kinds of shots at these kinds of distances, a focal length of around 100mm is just about perfect. My most used lens is the manual focus Pentax-M 100 f/2.8, henceforth referred to as the M100/2.8. This is what I used for the guitar player at left, for example. Note that my camera has a 1.5X “crop factor”, meaning that 100mm is the equivalent of a 150mm lens in terms of what would produce the same field of view on 35mm film. Most DSLR’s are similar in this respect, but be sure to know the equivalent crop factor for your own camera if comparing focal lengths to mine.

If I cannot get close to the front in a club, or if I am in a larger auditorium and have to shoot from further back, I will use a longer lens, but the further back I am, the lower the expectations I have regarding the results. I have a manual focus 135mm lens (maximum aperture f/3.5) that works well for me when I am not in the very front, and a manual focus 200mm f/4 lens that I will use on rare occasions when I know I will be really far back but still want to try to take pictures. I have also used a 135mm lens with a 1.4X teleconverter to yield the equivalent of a 200mm lens that is one f-stop slower, but I’m not sure this does better than simply cropping the image from my 135mm lens without a TC. In some larger auditoriums I have even used a basic cheap 50-200mm zoom lens with a maximum aperture of only f/5.6 at the long end. The good news is that stages in large auditoriums also tend to be better lit than in small clubs, so f/5.6 might be fast enough. This is also the lens I used most for outdoor concerts during the day.

Here are some samples to show how these focal lengths work. First, another shot from the front row with the M100/2.8:

And this one from just a little further back with the M135/3.5:

This one was in a larger auditorium where I was perhaps 20 rows back. The stage was lit well enough that was able to use the DA50-200/4-5.6 zoom at 200mm and f/5.6:

There are 70-200/2.8 zooms available for most camera brands, and these are quite popular for concert photography. This focal length range worked well for 35mm film, but on cameras with a “cropped” sensor, I find these lenses unnecessarily large, heavy, and expensive (the better part of $1000, and that’s without stabilization). Pictured here is a Nikon version:

If you’re serious enough about concert photography to consider buying such a lens, you are probably serious enough to go out of your way to position yourself close to the action so that you don’t actually need the 200mm end very much. In situations – like sitting 20 rows back in a large auditorium – where you might you feel the need for 200mm and f/2.8, you’ll probably find a 70-200/2.8 too large to deal with if there are other people sitting next to and in front of you. On the other hand, if you’re at an outdoor concert during the day, you might want 200mm, but wouldn’t need f/2.8.

The upshot of this is, I think most people are better off with lenses a bit shorter than 70-200mm as their main concert lenses. A 50-135/2.8 or 50-150/2.8 zoom is not necessarily much cheaper than a 70-200/2.8, but they can be significantly smaller, lighter, and easier to handle, and I think these are more useful focal length ranges for concert photography on a camera with a 1.5X crop factor.

Still, even a 50-135/2.8 lens is over twice the length and three times the weight of my M100/2.8. In fact, the M100/2.8 is even smaller than the cheap 18-55mm zoom lenses that most DSLR’s are packaged with. Lens size and weight may not matter to everyone, but smaller lenses do help me feel less self-conscious about taking pictures from the audience, and they make the camera easier for me to handhold. Throw in the fact that one can buy an M100/2.8 for under $100 and you can see why I recommend it so highly for Pentax users. But I am not sure if anything comparable exists for other brands. I think Canon and Nikon owners would do well to look at the 70mm, 90mm, 100mm, or 105mm f/2.8 macro lenses, or the 85/1.8 or 100/2 lenses, that are available for these systems.

But at around $400 for a single focal length, these are getting expensive enough that many folks may decide that a more versatile 50-135/2.8 or 50-150/2.8 is worth the extra money to cover their telephoto concert needs. Certainly if I were a full-time professional, the lens would pay for itself easily, and I would appreciate the flexibility if I were under pressure to get a certain number and range of pictures. With primes, sticking to one focal length is a little limiting, but changing lenses often can be a hassle. For my purposes, a couple of primes that I change only occasionally meets my needs.

Of course, if you’re looking to capture full body shots, or wish to include more than one musician in the picture, you’ll need a correspondingly shorter focal length. In that case, something like a 50-135/2.8 zoom can make more sense than a longer prime. Or, you can do as I do, and bring a shorter focal length prime as well. I usually bring my DA40/2.8 “pancake” (which takes virtually no space in my bag and runs only a little over $200), although sometimes I will instead bring my manual focus A50/1.7 (also quite small, and well under $100) if I feel I might need something faster than f/2.8. I also have a DA70/2.4 to give me yet more options. But I rarely take more than two of these lenses with me, I decide based on the venue which two to take.

The 50mm focal length is worthy of special mention if for no other reason than the fact that this is usually the first “fast” lens people buy – often as fast as f/1.4. While 50mm is shorter than I usually prefer, you can always crop the results to resemble those from a longer lens. And 50mm can be an interesting focal length in itself:

However, 50mm or even 40mm on a “crop factor” camera is not usually wide enough for shots of a whole stage. For that, depending on the size of the stage and how close you are, you might need 28mm, 18mm, or even shorter. If you move back from the front row, then you don’t need such a wide angle lens, but then you usually find the people in front of you end up in the photo, too, which you may not want. I normally have my M28/2.8 (under $50) with me, although I rarely use it for concert photos, because I normally prefer taking more closeup pictures. But here is an especially small stage where 28mm was just barely wide enough to fit all four musicians in:

For people who take many shots like this and are not as interested in getting as close as a 100mm lens would allow, a 28-70mm, 28-75mm, or 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens can make for a nice compromise. With these, you can capture both semi-wide angle shots like above as well as semi-closeup shots, and these lenses are not terribly large or terribly expensive ($400) considering their versatility. While 70mm is not really as long as I would like, it’s still enough to isolate individual performers and show them in some detail. You can certainly do quite well with such a lens.

Of course, no one is limiting you to just one lens. A 28-70/2.8 plus a 105/2.8 macro and perhaps a very inexpensive 50/1.8 would cover your needs better than a 70-200/2.8 for roughly the same price. For the record, I usually have three lenses with me: either the M100/2.8 or M135/3.5, either the DA40/2.8 or A50/1.7, and the M28/2.8. I rarely feel constrained in any way with these.

There are two other considerations worth mentioning here in choosing lenses.

One is focus. Pentax users are in the enviable position of having access to a great many used manual focus lenses that work just fine on our cameras. My M100/2.8, A50/1.7, and M28/2.8 lenses cost me around $200 combined. Auto focus is often slow and/or unreliable in low light, and it is also easily confused by the instruments, microphones, standards, and other paraphernalia on stage. So if you can save money by going with used manual focus lenses, that is worth thinking about.

The other consideration is stabilization. Dealing with the slow shutter speeds we are often faced with in concert photography, stabilization can be a very useful thing. With some camera systems, stabilization can be built into the lens. Although it costs more for a stabilized version of a lens versus an ordinary one, it can be worthwhile. At a focal length of 100mm and a shutter speed of 1/30″, stabilization can make the difference between having most of your shots come out acceptably sharp and most of them ruined by camera shake. Here, Pentax users have the advantage of having stabilization built in to the camera, meaning that all of our lenses – even a used manual lens you find for $20 in a pawn shop – end up being stabilized. On the downside, lens-based stabilization is generally claimed to be somewhat more effective.

Still, any stabilization is far better than none, so I think in-body stabilization is more practical for most people. Both Canon and Nikon make stabilized 70-200/2.8 lenses, which may be one reason these are popular with professional concert photographers despite being quite expensive (around $1500) and longer than usually necessary for most people. But realistically, most beginning Canon and Nikon concert photographers will probably have to pass on the benefits of stabilization for concert photography, as only the slower lenses are available in stabilized form at an affordable price. And while stabilization allows you to take shake-free photos at slower shutter speeds than you would otherwise, slow lenses won’t allow fast enough shutter speeds to freeze subject motion.

Other Equipment

Aside from the obvious – camera and lens, perhaps spare batteries and memory cards – there really isn’t a whole lot else you might need.

Since we’re dealing with low light and slow shutter speeds, a tripod might seem a logical tool. In practice, I find dealing them too distracting, and indeed, they usually aren’t allowed at most venues. A monopod can be a reasonable compromise, however. But I usually do well enough simply bracing myself against my chair or a post, and with the shake reduction provided by the camera, I usually find subject motion more of a problem than camera shake.