Tricks for concert photography (I)

A few days ago I had an interesting conversation with a photographer colleague. She was starting taking pictures in concerts and she was asking for advice to improve her results. At the end, we concluded some tips that could help getting a more interesting outcome from a concert session. I thought they could help other people, so I’ve decided to post it here for everyone.

As a summary, all the tips are directed towards taking pictures in low light conditions. This means that, even if you are not going to take pictures in a concert, it may be worth knowing for other kinds of photography, like street photography at night (if you live in a catholic country you can find them useful now that Easter is close), nightscapes, or a portraiture session using natural dim light (candles, perhaps in a basement). Nevertheless, I’m assuming that you already know how to take pictures in those situations, and that you expect to improve them. If that’s not the case, there are many tutorial where you can learn how to expose correctly (or focusing) in those conditions.

Love the burst

One of the first thing I learnt (the hard way) taking pictures in events, talks and speeches is that people make a lot of funny expression with the face when they talk. If you want to take a decent picture of an orator you must be either very lucky or very patient to catch him while he’s not speaking. In most cases if you take only one picture, you will end up with a grin. And of course singing has a lot in common with speaking. The only difference is… well… that the singer will usually be more expressive, increasing the ratio of bad pictures.

Using the burst mode on the camera will not solve this problem, but will increase drastically your chances of getting a nice picture. Nowadays cameras allow taking between 3 to 9 pictures every second. This way, if some of them go wrong, there is a chance the next one will result in a more appealing result. Because of this, every time you take a picture, allow 3-5 pictures to be taken, so afterwards you have enough material to choose from.

The most obvious disadvantage of this method is the increase in storage. After the concert you will need to select and remove the invalid pictures. During the concert this should be not a big issue. Sure you will need more cards, but storage is really cheap (especially SD cards), and you can get 32 Gb of space (enough for more than 1000 RAW pictures) for less than 15 dollars/euros. Very fast cards will be more expensive, of course, but in concerts you don’t need a lot of speed in the burst, just enough pictures of every moment to have the option of choosing.

Big sensor and bigger ISO

When the singer is on the stage, you can expect a lot of movement (especially in the climax, just the moment when you should be taking more pictures). This means that you should use a fast shutter speed to be able to capture more than just a blurred shadow. If you have a stabilized lens don’t make the mistake of thinking that it will compensate the lack of speed: the stabilizer will compensate your movement, not the one of the target… And you won’t be the one moving.

On the other side, you might have a very fast lens with a very wide aperture. This, of course, can help sometimes, but it also implies a risk: If you are using a telephoto wide open, the depth of field will be very thin. In the stage there is a lot of movement, and it’s easy that the performers will move fast out of those precious centimeters where the focus is. This means that your focusing engine should be very precise (not easy in low light conditions) and you must be very skilled in focusing (if you are reading this, it might not be the case). Also, lenses wide open tend to be a little bit soft, which might be (or not) the effect you want. Closing aperture to around f/5 will increase the depth of field enough to make your picture crisper and your life easier. On wide angle lenses you can open wider, up to f/3, as the depth of field widens with lesser focal lengths.

This leads us to the third parameter used in composition: ISO sensitivity. If you need to use a fast shutter speed and also a narrow aperture, you have no other option. Yes, it is widely known that increasing ISO also increases the noise levels and decrease overall quality. Or… maybe it doesn’t?

It turns out, by the way cameras and sensors work, that noise is always present in the darker areas of the picture. This leads to a curious effect: If you take an underexposed picture with low ISO, and afterwards you correct the exposure, it will probably have more noise that the same picture correctly exposed using a higher ISO level (this is a good post about this topic, in a great astrophotography blog, in case you want to know more). Controlling the noise is a little bit trickier than this but, as an starting rule, don’t be afraid of rising the ISO as much as you need, if the pictures are correctly exposed you won’t find the noise too annoying.

And finally, because you will need to use a high ISO level (it’s uncommon to be lower than ISO 800, and is easy to reach up to ISO 3600), a full frame camera will help to control the noise levels a little bit (the bigger the sensor, the better the yield in low light conditions). Of course, full frame cameras are expensive and not everybody has a budget for that, but if you are thinking on this kind of photography in a professional way, the investment will be worth.

Above the Clouds
This picture was taken using ISO 1250, f/4 and 1/100s. The musicians are not moving from their positions, which allows having a narrow depth of field and using a relatively slow shutter speed. Notice that the image is sharp and clear even with a ISO over 1000.

Av mode for an easy life

If you like to have the control in all situations, you will probably use manual mode all the time. This way you can control exposure in a precise way and get the exact result you want. The problem is that, in many cases, the lighting in the stage is not fixed and you will have a mixture of changing lights moving around all the time. The values you used a few seconds ago might not be useful now.

If you are an experienced photographer, you will know when to shoot and get the lights in the position you expect. But if it is not the case letting the camera expose for you is a good way of securing some “average” pictures. In Av mode you can set the aperture and ISO to the desired values, and let the camera choose a good shutter speed. This way you can focus your mind on deciding the right moment and not on changing the parameters all the time.

It might happen that the pictures seem overexposed and blurred, or too dark. The camera thinks on an average illuminated scene, not the chaotic mess you have in front of you (ok, it’s pretty and charming, but for your camera’s photometer is like D-Day in Normandy). In the first case, the camera will try to compensate the darkness allowing too much light to pass, using a low shutter speed and blurring the image. On the second case, it will measure only on the brighter part of the scene and use a very fast speed. The solution to this eventuality is called Exposure Compensation, and it’s the equivalent of telling to the camera: OK, you are too short/long, compensate that always. A few test shoots will allow you to get the correct value.

Enough information for a day. It’s time to think about it and practicing the concepts. In the second part of this post we will see more tricks, this time less technically oriented but still important.

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