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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Taking Concert Shots in Low Light

One of the very first subjects that attracted me to photography was live music. I've always been passionate about music (I've done my own FM show on WPKN FM in Bridgeport, CT for more than 20 years) and the ability to photograph some of my musical heroes up close has always been a ton of fun. Over the years I've photographed everyone from Van Morrison to the Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix. I started shooting concerts as a teenager with a point-and-shoot camera and eventually got to the point where, as a professional, I was allowed to join performers (including greats like Rod Stewart, Pete Seeger and Van Morrison) on stage. I shot this photo of the great singer/songwriter Jonathan Edwards at the FTC (Fairfield Theater Company) in Connecticut.

The toughest part of shooting concerts (particularly indoors--outdoor festivals are much easier) is getting close to the stage and not getting busted by security. But some venues are much more tolerant than others and if you're discrete and polite you can get a lot closer than you think. I used to walked in festooned with photo gear--and if I had permission, that was fine. But these days I am much more sleek (i.e. low key) in my approach and my gear. I tend to bring one dSLR body and a 70-300mm lens. If I think I might want a few wide shots, I'll slip a wide-angle zoom into the pocket of my denim jacket. (Speaking of which, my denim jacket has huge inside pockets that are great for sneaking camera gear into shows.)

Once you're in the venue though, getting the shots is pretty easy. In small halls with a 70-300mm lens (it's the equivalent of a 105-450mm on my Nikon bodies, so long enough by far) I can usually just shoot from my seat. I try not to annoy the people around me and only shoot during "loud" moments unless I can turn off all of the sounds the camera makes (look for a "silent" or "museum" mode). Here are some tips for actual shooting:

  • Crank up the ISO to 1600 or higher. I shot the photo above of singer Jonathan Edwards at ISO 2500 and the exposure was 1/50 sec at f/4. 
  • Turn off the focus-assist light. This is the white light that shoots out to help the camera focus. The performers can see this and it's extremely annoying: shut it off (it's a menu option on most cameras).
  • Focus manually. I tend to focus manually about 70-percent of the time simply because it lets me focus on a performer's eyes (or fretboard, etc.) without the camera getting fooled by a mic stand or another instrument. If I have a clean line of fire, though, I will use AF.
  • Bring a monopod if you're allowed. I shoot at a small theater in Connecticut a lot with whom I have a working relationship (and I give them free photos for their site, etc.). A monopod buys me a few extra stops of shutter speed and helps keep my arms from getting tired. Of course, image stabilization works very well, too.
  • Set the white balance manually. Forget auto white balance in a concert setting--the lights are just too unpredictable. I shoot in RAW (so I can modify the settings later) but I also set the WB to tungsten and then use the fine-tune adjustment to manually adjust the color balance to the existing lights. Most dSLR camera have a "color picker" feature that lets you visually adjust the WB. Then just take a few test shots and see how your settings are working. I love this WB feature because it lets me keep a nice neutral look to the photos but still lets the colors show up.
My new book is out in two weeks.  My new book Digital Photography FAQs (Wiley) will be out at the end of July. It contains 365 questions and answers about all aspects of digital photography--including some pages on concert photography and is illustrated with several hundred of my photos.

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