Arno Carstens at Fugard Theatre, 2010-05-11

Photo: michael.currin.co.za

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Concert Photography Tips – DSLR settings

You can see a growing of many list of concerts I have taken photos at, mostly small dimly lit clubs and couple of large stages in Cape Town, South Africa. I took the photos in this article with a D90 and a Nikon 18-105mm kit lens or a  Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8, edited in Lightroom.

Dim stage with a slow kit lens

LA Cobra - 18mm, 1/80, f/3.5, ISO2000

A kit lens that comes with the camera will typically say f/3.5-5.6 which is considered “slow” as you have to use longer exposures (meaning blur) or higher ISOs (meaning noise) to achieve as much light as a higher quality low-light lens (read on for that).

  • Aperture: 3.5 is the best at a wide angle, your lens will be forced to f/4, f/5, f/5.6 or f/6.3 as you zoom. So for bright photos, stand closer, zoom less and crop more on your computer.
  • Exposure: 1/125, 1/100, 1/80 or even 1/60 if you already have a high ISO and have something to lean on to stablilise yourself, you have a VR or IS lens,  or the band is standing fairly still.
  • ISO settings: Turn AUTO ISO Off so that it stays at a value you fix. I prefer ISO 800, I use 1600 at some venues and if its really dark I use 2000 or 3200. Those last two mean you should probably turn the camera’s noise reduction to High, or leave it off and use higher values in Lightroom 3 etc.
  • Mode: Manual

Dim stage with a low-light lens

Stonecollar - 24mm, 1/100, f/2.8, ISO800

  • Aperture: A zoom lens with f/2.8 on it will stay wide open at that aperture throughout the zoom range so that you don’t lose brightness as you zoom. Even better can be a prime lens such as 50mm f/1.8 or 30mm f/1.4.
  • Exposure: 1/160, 1/125, 1/100 or even 1/80
  • ISO settings: Usually 400 or 800, sometimes having to resort to 1600 or 3200 at some venues but still achieving professional and fairly noise free photos.
  • Mode: Manual, or Aperture priority with an EV of say -3.

Bright stage, any lens

Wishbone Ash - 42mm, 1/400, f/3.5, ISO400

  • Aperture: you can probably afford to use values like f/4 and f/5.6, or like f/8 and f/11 if the lighting is shining right at you, which will also give a starburst effect. These settings allow use to get more of the musicians in focus (wider depth of field) while also reaching your lens’s “sweet-spot” for sharpness usually two stops above the widest. e.g. on a f/2.8 lens the sweet spot is f/5.6, on f/3.5 it’s f/8
  • Exposure: you can probably use 1/200, 1/320  or 1/500 which will freeze musicians and their hair as they jump about the stage.
  • ISO: If the lighting is pretty constant, set AUTO ISO ON with values from 200 to 800 and set a value for  Exposure Value (EV) compensation at like -3 or -2. The ISO will change based on if you are aiming at a light or dark part of the stage. If the the lighting is changing every second so that your camera always gets the photo brightness way off,  you are better off setting ISO yourself (AUTO ISO OFF) and using Manual mode.
  • Mode: Manual, Program, Aperture Priority (e.g. f/2.8 for narrow depth of field), Shutter Priority (e.g. 100 for wider DOF or 200 for freezing action).

Small stage with flash

Heldervue with mixed remote flash (from below) and stage lighting - 24mm, 1/60, f/2.8, ISO500

I have only used my new flash (SB-600) so far at once concert and it was a dark venue with lights aimed at the guitars rather than musicians’ faces. But my flash was capable of lighting up the stage well, or the whole crowd when I aimed it over their heads.

I like to use handheld off-camera flash (remote) and bounce it off the low ceiling (works well even though its black).

I use the built-in diffuser camera most of the time since I am close to or on the edge of the stage.

The point of flash is to get sharp pictures (little or no blur) even in dimly lit enviroments, as well as using it creatively. An advatange is that you can use lower ISO values such as 200 to reduce noise, but even at 400 or 800 (which makes the flash seem to reach further) I had no problems of noise in the bright or shadowy areas. I used JPG and Normal Noise Reduction – when not using flash, I highly recommend using the RAW format unless you hate post-processing which involves touching up your photos without losing image quality.

So I suggest…

  • Aperture: f/2.8 or f/3.5 for narrow depth of field effect. This makes photos look more professional if the focus is right and the wider value will also mean brigther photos especially shooting musicians at a distance. Use f/4, f/5.6 or f/8 if you are close the musicians and you want more of them to be in focus (face as well as guitar, or guitarist and bassist).
  • Exposure: Using 1/60 (default in program mode) will let it a decent amount of ambient stage lighting but might get ghosting and blur on strumming hands. You can use a shorter value in Shutter Priority or Manual Mode, or set flash on Rear Curtain sync on the camera.
  • ISO settings: 200 to 800 should be fine. If you leave AUTO ISO ON, you should probably set Exposure compensation (EV) on the camera. Also generally set Flash compensation (FV) on the camera or flash to a lower value so that the flash lasts longer or pictures are darkened.

Reburn's singer showing front curtain flash ghosting - 24mm (cropped photo), 1/60, f/2.8, ISO400

Turn High Speed Sync on and it will automatically kick in should you use shutter values shorter than say 1/250 of a second, but it’s not really necessary for concerts.

I like to be able to change quickly between flash and non-flash shots with as few buttons as possible. So I set my camera up as follows: External flash is on, camera in manual mode at 1/60 and whatever aperture I need. Auto ISO is ON with values 200 to 1600, but stays at 200 while the flash is on. I turn the flash unit off, ISO changes to 1600 (because the scene is dark) and I change exposure to something like 1/100 (2 turns of the dial) and aperture to f/2.8 if it wasn’t there already.

Depth of field

Black Market Riots - 65mm, 1/100, f/2.8, ISO250

If you are using a low light lens (f/2.8 or faster), then depth of field will be much smaller (less in focus). This is great for artistic reasons (see the photo above) but if you don’t want that effect all the time, use a value like f/3.5 or f/4 when lighting is bright during a certain song, stand further back,t use the wide rather than zoomed end of your lens. Set AF-area to Single or Dynamic rather than Auto, then you can use  AF point system in the viewfinder to aim at eyes and faces, usually on the musician closest to you. Focusing in Live View seems to be slower and less accurate in my experience but helps alot when used with Manual focus (set on both your lens and your camera body) if your camera struggles to find something to focus on.

 

A good lesson I found on choosing lenses for concerts. Choosing Lenses For Concert Photography

 

Band photography – how to not miss “the shot”

All photographers know what’s like to miss the perfect shot when it happens in an instant, so here I identify my own mistakes which you probably share, then I address them with solutions. I spend most of my time photographing local bands in Cape Town, South Africa, but some of this advice is also based on my experience in taking photos of sport and people too.

Watershed at Kirstenbosch, Cape Town

Be ready

As the action unfolds, you realise that your camera…

  1. is off
  2. is around your neck and not in your hands
  3. still has the lens cap on

Solutions

  1. If you know you have more than enough battery for the event, leave it on for a few seconds longer each time, or put in on in anticipation of the crucial moments.
  2. I can get tired holding my camera with a heavy zoom lens, but the least I can do is keep it around my neck while still holding it loosely with both hands.
  3. If I have a lens hood or filter on, I don’t mind leaving my lens cap off for a few minutes when I have nothing to shoot at the moment. Also I keep a lens cloth in my camera bag so I can wipe any dust or finger prints off straight away.

Planned shot of Just Jinjer's dreadlocks

 

Keep your eyes on the action

I have missed a few key shots on stage because I was too busy…

  1. checking the monitor to see if the previous shots came out alright.
  2. going through the last 10 shots to delete a few
  3. admiring the most recent shot, while something better happens.

Solutions:

  1. Wait for breaks in the action so you can review the image composition as well as settings. Choose Program, Aperture priority or Shutter speed priority, with EV compensation (like -4 or -5 on dark stages) and ISO limiting (e.g. 200-1600), then trust your camera for a while. If the light in unpredictable, or low, you’ll have to check image quality more frequently.
  2. I like to delete my bad photos on my camera as I find it more efficient than on my computer for a few reasons. But I try to avoid the decision-making of to delete or not, while the action is happening. In between bands is when I often take time out, to find my best shots so I can get more like that and to delete the bad ones.
  3. I know it’s tempting to look at a photo that you know turned out really well, but don’t let that take preference of taking another like it a few seconds later.

Focusing for mystery and interest

Stay in focus

With energetic events and moving objects, you might not get the right moment in perfectly focus because…

  1. autofocus let you down
  2. manual focus failed
  3. you got camera shake
  4. the depth of field is too narrow or misplaced
  5. you timed the shot wrong

Solutions

  1. autofocus let you down – If you choose the default version of autofocus mode, it will likely choose whatever object is biggest, brightest, or closest in the view. You can lock the focus and exposure with the AE-AF buttons or by half-pressing the shutter. More conveniently, I find when I want to keep the eyes and faces of people in focus, I set autofocus to the AF-point system. I then use the buttons to move the point around so that the face is in the top third of my photo, whether in portrait or landscape mode.  Also note that Autofocus will be less accurate in low light, so I like setting the AF point to the person’s face (which reflects) rather than their clothes or the background (which are harder reference points). I find the dynamic “3D” autofocus mode great sport or moving objects – while keeping the shutter half-pressed between shots to keep it locked on. (e.g. I have 11 AF points on my viewfinder, but it works differently and less efficiently in Live View. Live View also focuses incredibly slow in low light, but in good light it’s worth using for the facial recognition if it’s turned on).
    I caught this moment with rapid shot
  2. you got camera shake – I read an article in a photography magazine reviewing the difference an IS or VR lens makes and that feature is definitely useful especially at shutter speeds like 1/60 or longer (though it uses batter faster, it’s worth it). Still, it helps to find something to lean on – a wall, a chair, railing – to get sharp shots. By looking through the viewfinder against your face, the camera will be more stable than holding the weight out at a distance when using Live View.
  3. the depth of field is too narrow or misplaced – Since you’re shooting in low light, you’ll get narrow depth of field from a f/2.8 or f/1.8 lens, or from zooming in a lot. This can look very dramatic, make sure the focal point is spot on such as having eyes and face in focus (sharpening with a mask on the computer can help for misplaced focus). What usually takes priority over that rule, is focusing on what is nearest to the camera (as in the guitar back shot above, but not in microphone cases such as below).
    Focusing on the microphone blurs and softens faces
  4. I have missed a few cool shots because I was too busy thinking, “wow I can’t believe he’s jumping that high” or that “the chameleon is really catching the fly”. I have to work on remembering to take the photo. To catch quick movements like that, rapid shot /drive mode work well, but it’s really important to autofocus before the thing happens the since half a second it takes to autofocus could mean you miss the moment.

Other suggestions

If you know your memory card is getting full or your battery is running low, change it early during a calm moment so that your camera won’t let you down in a crucial moment.

My equipment:

  • Nikon D90, 2 batteries and a 16GB memory card
  • Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
  • Sigma 24-70m f/2.8 lens
  • Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens
  • Sony H20

All photos in this post were taken by me. See my band photography WordPress blog at michaelcurrinphotography.

Photo of the Week entries

Every week I submit a Photo of the Week for the saockdigest and these are some of the best, from January to March 2010.
You can see my band photography portfolio at michael.currin.co.za.