HomeA Digital Concert Photography Primer

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A little over four years ago, I discovered the world of a cappella. Besides the thrill of singers who can actually sing and drum sounds without any drum in sight, a cappella brought me another surprise – a heretofore undiscovered passion for photography. What began as a desire for little more than non-blurry photos of my favorite groups in action snowballed into an ongoing quest for the perfect photo. Four years ago, I was using a disposable camera; today, I use a 10-megapixel digital single lens reflex camera. Though I've never had any formal training in photography, I've learned a lot along the way through research, guidance from other photographers, and just plain trial-and-error.

Is concert photography hard? Yes and no. You're trying to take photographs of moving subjects in a low-light environment, where the use of flash is generally forbidden. Too often, photos taken in a concert turn out dark, blurry, or both. These are clearly less-than-ideal conditions for photography, but they also provide you with distinct obstacles to overcome, and a road map to getting the results you desire. In my experience, digital cameras lend themselves especially well to the inevitable experimenting a budding concert photographer will undertake. Although the remainder of this article is written with digital photography in mind, it should be noted the general concepts can be applied to film photography as well.

One of the biggest issues is getting enough light to take a photo. Taking a properly exposed photograph depends on 3 main settings: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO equivalent. You can think of the aperture like the pupil of your eye - an adjustable opening that controls the amount of light that passes into the camera. The size of the aperture is specified by an f/stop, which you'll see written as f/number. Although it may seem counterintuitive, smaller numbers represent a larger opening; for example, f/3.5 is larger than f/11. (If you're curious, this is because an f/stop is given by the ratio of the diameter of the opening to the focal length of the lens.) Just as the aperture controls how much light enters the camera, the shutter speed controls how long the light is let in, anywhere from several minutes to the tiniest fraction of a second. Finally, the ISO equivalent dictates the camera's sensitivity to light, with higher numbers denoting greater sensitivity. In a nutshell, larger apertures, slower shutter speeds, and higher ISO all result in a brighter picture. On the other hand, larger apertures may leave areas out of focus, higher ISO settings may result in graininess, and slower shutter speeds may leave your image blurry. The trick, of course, is to balance all three settings to result a well-focused, properly exposed photograph.

My typical concert settings include an aperture of f/2.8 (the largest setting my favorite lens can accommodate), shutter speed of at least 1/100th second or faster, and ISO of perhaps 640 or 800. I almost always leave the aperture on the largest possible setting, and simply make sure I focus directly on the intended subject. If the photo comes out too dark, I'll take turns adjusting the shutter speed and ISO until I have the desired result. This is one of my favorite things about digital photography - the ability to check your work on the spot.

The average digital camera cannot replicate the settings I use, but the same principles still hold true. If your camera offers the ability to shoot in full manual mode, do so. Leave the aperture on the largest setting. Don't forget, smaller f/stop numbers represent larger apertures. Most cameras will reduce the size of the aperture when you zoom in on a subject, so consider taking the photo zoomed-out and cropping it later if possible. This is especially useful when you have 5 or more megapixels to work with. Although some non-SLR digital cameras offer higher ISO settings these days, most max out at ISO 400. If your highest setting is 400 or lower, choose that. If you are one of the lucky folk with more options available, experiment to see how high you can go before the graininess becomes intolerable.

Choosing a shutter speed can be tricky. Prior to purchasing a DSLR, I typically used shutter speeds of around 1/30th to 1/60th second. You may experience some blurriness if your subject is moving a great deal, but the results will generally be acceptable to most people. If you find yourself in an especially dark environment, you may have to use a slower shutter speed and wait until your subjects are relatively still to take the shot. If your camera does not allow you to shoot in manual mode, there are still ways of "forcing" it to use a faster shutter speed. Look for a sports setting, "burst" setting, or any similar such feature that will take a series of photos in rapid succession. You may have to leave the aperture and ISO to be auto-selected by the camera, but just increasing the shutter speed can offer significant improvement to your previous results. Do not use a "night" setting, even though it may seem logical. This is actually one of the worst things you can do when shooting moving subjects, because it makes the shutter speed much slower.

One final issue that often arises with concert photography is color washes, resulting from the use of colored lights on stage. Even if you have a properly focused, clear photo, the subjects will often be tinted an unbecoming shade of red, blue, green, or any other hue. Many image correction programs can handle this problem, but there is one simple setting that can help avoid or reduce it in the first place – a custom white balance. In laymen's terms, when you take a custom white balance, you are telling the camera, "even though this shirt looks pink because of the red lighting, it is really white." The camera then corrects for the pink tint, giving you more realistic color. The best part is that even the most basic of cameras typically offer this feature. After selecting the setting, focus the camera on a white or neutral grey object on stage and snap a photo. (Sometimes it's difficult finding a suitable object onstage - this is why I love when performers wear a white shirt!) Some type of indicator will tell you if the white balance was read properly or not. If not, simply try again; it may take some practice. Note that you will need to take a new custom white balance each time the lighting changes color. You can expect a significant improvement over using automatic settings, but do not be disappointed if you don't get "perfect" color. Keep in mind that for more advanced photographers, this is only the beginning. Few if any of my photos meet the public eye without scrutiny and refinement in Photoshop.

There is more to being a good photographer than mere technical competence, but these tips can help you understand and overcome the most common obstacles encountered in concert photography. Over time, you'll develop a feel not only for which settings to use in a given environment, but an eye for what makes an interesting and exciting picture as well. It can be very easy to get wrapped up in taking the perfect shot, so don't forget to enjoy the show. That is why you're there, after all. The best advice I've ever been given is to practice, practice, practice - and in my book, any excuse to attend another concert is a good one!

See more of Rachel's work here: www.supersixone.com