As I settled in to listen to the group Little Dragon and take some concert photos at The Black Cat in Washington DC, I noticed I wasnít the only one with a DSLR. There were quite a few. If youíve ever met me, you know I like to talk so I had a quick conversation with most of the people that I saw with cameras and I didnít tell them, but I knew it would be rough going. I just handed them a card and told them I teach photography classes if theyíre ever interested.
The challenges with concert photography are always light and movement; too little light and too much movement. The best way to solve that is to shoot in manual mode 100% of the time. Thereís really no point to even bother with the other modes. Read on to find out exactly why you MUST shoot in manual mode. But first, letís lay out what makes a good concert shot.
It has to be frozen and you need a great exposure. Pretty easy, right? OK so the exposure part entails ISO, shutter speed, and aperture and I know itís not that easy. Those three settings are all you have to work with since flash isnít typically allowed in concert venues. Even if I was allowed, I wouldnít use flash anyway. That would be too easy and it would wash away the ambience. So hereís where your settings need to be to get a great exposure:
ISO Ė No mystery hereÖ It needs to be high, so just go ahead and set it at a high ISO. How high? How nice is your camera and how much noise can you tolerate?
Aperture Ė Again, no mystery hereÖ go wide. But it depends on your taste, ability to focus, and the lens you have. If you tell me you only have an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens, Iíll tell you to sit back and enjoy the music (go home was a little harsh anyway). If you tell me you have a 50mm f1.8 lens, Iíd say letís take some shots!
Shutter speed Ė How fast is your subject moving and how much movement do you want to capture? Are they thrashing all around the stage or sitting on a stool singing? Do you need them perfectly frozen or do you want to show some movement. Take whatever you need, but the faster you want the more you need to get from your aperture and ISO.
So letís say you dial in what you want for ISO/aperture/shutter speed and take a shot. Yikes! Itís probably a bit dark, but it might be perfect. If so, keep on snapping! Now, the only things that can be wrong with your photo are that it can be too bright or too dark since youíve controlled all of the other settings. You canít complain about ISO, aperture, or your shutter speed because youíve picked those and you knew what you were getting into.
If itís too bright thatís great! That means we can reel in our exposure a bit and improve on our image. What do you want? Less noise, faster shutter speed, or a smaller aperture?
If itís dark (and it probably is) then you have a decision to make. You need to concede on one or some of your settings. Which is going to hurt your photo the least? Wider aperture, slower shutter speed, or more noise? You make that choice. If you max out everything and you still have dark images then you need to upgrade your camera or get a lens with a wider aperture.
Itís not all bad news. That dark photo can be saved if you are shooting RAW files. If the gap isnít too wide between the exposure deficit and the extra exposure saved with a RAW file you can turn it up with a program like Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture.
You donít want to do it in post processing? Then that photo isnít going to happen. Why not shoot in shutter priority? Well, your camera already told you that you donít have enough camera/lens to get the shot and changing modes doesnít change physics.
My mentality when it comes to low light photography is get the shutter speed right and donít underexpose too much. You can bridge that gap in post processing. If you want that photo to look perfectly exposed in camera then itís going to cost you a little ISO/Aperuture or shutter speed and that might just cost you that great image you saw in your head.