PetaPixel

Camera Settings for Concert Photography

Nikon D800 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 58mm. Exposure: 1/400 second, f/2.8, ISO 2000.

Nikon D800 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 58mm. Exposure: 1/400 second, f/2.8, ISO 2000.

Choosing the right camera settings for concert photography can be a daunting task, even for experienced music photographers. Here’s a breakdown of every major camera setting that I recommend for shooting live music.

Exposure Mode

Manual exposure is going to be your best bet for concert photography. Due to the large dynamic range of a concert, in which there can be very bright lights and deep shadows, any camera-metered mode can be easily fooled and produce poor exposures. As a result, manual mode is a much more consistent way of exposing images over auto modes like aperture priority or shutter priority.

Recommended setting: Manual Exposure

Aperture

This one is easy. Shoot wide open at the largest aperture you can with your lens. This will be the f-stop with the smallest value, which means that the most light will get to the sensor. Even the most brightly lit concerts are dim compared to daylight, so a wide aperture is needed to gather as much light as possible.

With zooms, the only time I stop down in live music photography is if I am already shooting around 1/500 or higher. When shooting with prime lenses with a fast f/1.4 or f/1.8 aperture, I still shoot wide open, since lighting is often poor if I need the speed of those lenses in the first place.

My advice for live music photography: Shoot wide open, or with the maximum aperture of your lens.

Recommended Setting: Shoot wide open!

Shutter Speed

When at all possible, I like to shoot at 1/250 or faster, but this is often only a luxury for larger, well-lit shows. For smaller club shows when lighting may be mediocre, I am try and stay in a range between 1/100-1/200 as a minimum for my shutter speed. This range is fast enough to freeze a fair degree of motion and eliminate most major camera shake, all without needing a ton of light. Below 1/100, there’s greater chance for blur in images, particularly with faster moving bands.

Recommended Setting: 1/100-1/200, faster whenever possible

ISO

ISO levels up to 3200 will produce very good quality for almost all DSLR cameras. For compact P&S cameras, 1600 and lower will produce the best results.

All this said, when light is finite (which is almost always for indoor concert photography), I would never hesitate to crank up the ISO to whatever produces the best exposure. This is especially true when either ISO or shutter speed must change to achieve a proper exposure. I’ll always take more digital noise/grain over a blurry image. Crank the ISO.

Recommended Setting: Whatever gets the job done!

AF Setting

I shoot with AF-C (continuous) on my Nikons, which is the same as the AI Servo mode on Canon DSLRs. This continuous focusing lets me track motion until the moment I press the shutter release. For dynamic subjects of live music, AF-C is a huge benefit.

Recommended Setting: AF-C (Nikon)/AI Servo AF (Canon)

White Balance

Auto. I shoot Auto WB about 99% of the time. While shooting with a preset white balance will offer better image quality if you know the exact values to use, the opportunity and ability to precisely set a Kelvin value during live music is limited at best. Setting WB in post makes for much faster shooting — high speed, low drag.

Recommended Setting: Auto WB

Drive Mode

I recommend shooting in continuous mode at the highest frame rate possible. For those high key moments when you want a high frame rate, you’re set — and when you don’t need the speed, a light shutter finger allows single frames with ease. As a concert photographer, high continuous shooting is the way to go.

Recommended Setting: Continuous (high)

RAW OR JPG

Shoot in RAW. Memory cards and harddrives are cheap. Unless you don’t care about what you’re shooting (which only begs the question, why are you pressing the button in the first place?), there is no reason to pass over RAW for JPG. If you must, for speed of processing and/or delivery, shoot in RAW + JPG mode so that you at least have the RAW files for future use.

Recommended Setting: RAW

Sample Concert Photography Images and Exposure Info

Talk is cheap, so I thought it would be helpful to give some example live music photography with camera, lens and camera settings. These images come from my portfolio and I think that they’re a good representation of the above advice for the real world exposure settings I use.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 24mm. Exposure: 1/200 second, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 24mm. Exposure: 1/200 second, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Nikon D700 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 at 190mm. Exposure: 1/500 second, f/3.5, ISO 800.

Nikon D700 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 at 190mm. Exposure: 1/500 second, f/3.5, ISO 800.

Nikon D800 and Nikon 16mm f/2.8 fisheye at 16mm. Exposure: 1/400 second, f/3.5, ISO 3200.

Nikon D800 and Nikon 16mm f/2.8 fisheye at 16mm. Exposure: 1/400 second, f/3.5, ISO 3200.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 at 150mm. Exposure: 1/500 second, f/2.8, ISO 1600.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 at 150mm. Exposure: 1/500 second, f/2.8, ISO 1600.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 24mm. Exposure: 1/400 second, f/3.2, ISO 1000.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 24mm. Exposure: 1/400 second, f/3.2, ISO 1000.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 at 200mm. Exposure: 1/250 second, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 at 200mm. Exposure: 1/250 second, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 24mm. Exposure: 1/400 second, f/2.8, ISO 2000.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 24mm. Exposure: 1/400 second, f/2.8, ISO 2000.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 24mm. Exposure: 1/250 second, f/2.8, ISO 1600.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 24mm. Exposure: 1/250 second, f/2.8, ISO 1600.

Nikon D800 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 32mm. Exposure: 1/80 second, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Nikon D800 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 32mm. Exposure: 1/80 second, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 14-24mm, f/2.8 at 24mm. Exposure: 1/500 second, f/2.8, ISO 1600.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 14-24mm, f/2.8 at 24mm. Exposure: 1/500 second, f/2.8, ISO 1600.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 at 120mm. Exposure: 1/160 second, f/2.8, ISO 2000.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 at 120mm. Exposure: 1/160 second, f/2.8, ISO 2000.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 at 14mm. Exposure: 1/40 second, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Nikon D3 and Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 at 14mm. Exposure: 1/40 second, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Hopefully these twelve images will give you a good idea of the settings I use as a concert photographer.

To recap my recommended camera settings for concert photography:

  • Exposure Mode: Manual
  • Aperture: Wide Open
  • Shutter Speed: 1/100-1/200 or faster
  • ISO: 1600-3200 (or whatever gets the job done)
  • AF Setting: AF-C/AI Servo AF
  • White Balance: Auto WB
  • Drive Mode: Continuous High
  • File Format: RAW

About the author: Todd Owyoung is an internationally published photographer specializing in live music, lifestyle and portrait photography. Based out of New York City, Owyoung has been published in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Q Magazine, SPIN, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, Alternative Press, and more. You can find out more about his on his website, or by following him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Google+. This article originally appeared here.


 
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  • Wisnu H. Yudhanto

    What does it mean??? Set as Shutter Priority Mode and no lights?
    Shutter Mode means you control the Shutter. Aperture will follow automatically. I don’t understand with “No lights”

  • http://www.empreintedailleurs.com/ Empreinte

    I agree with that. I also try to stay above 2.8 when I can.

  • http://howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/ Matthias Hombauer

    I shoot manual with spot metering mode. For me spot metering is a must since you most likely have only spot lights on the artist and the background is mostly darker (at least for smaller concerts). I have shot The Rolling Stones lately and there It didn´t matter if you use spot or center weighted, cause they had a blast of light on stage. But to be on the safe side use spot metering

  • http://howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/ Matthias Hombauer

    I totally agree with the static ISO setting. I set my ISO at the beginning of the concert and then adjust only my shutter speed accordingly.

  • http://howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/ Matthias Hombauer

    Great post, Todd. Your article explains pretty much the basic camera settings that I also use. I would add the spot metering option (which is already discussed below) and I would highly suggest to use the central autofocus point. This will be the most accurate one. And here is the trick: If you don´t always want to have the artist in the middle of the frame, you have to “recompose”. Simply push your shutter button halfway down to focus on the artist´s face. By holding the shutter button you lock focus. Now move your viewfinder until you get the desired framing and push the shutter button fully down. To use this technique, you have to set your camera to “autofocus single” (AF-S) mode otherwise the camera focuses continously whilst you are reframing. So the suggested AF-C mode from Todd won´t do the trick when using this technique. I set the AF-ON button to focus. Since I use this technique I don´t have any out of focus photos anymore. Try it out.

  • http://howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/ Matthias Hombauer

    totally agree on that Alex

  • http://howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/ Matthias Hombauer

    I would say it depends. I have shot concerts where I used 1/160sec, f1.4 and ISO 6400. So if there is a need for it you don´t have any other option. Otherwise when using the 70-200 or 24-40 anyhow you are limited to f2.8.
    Steve, do you use the middle autofocus point, which is the most accurate one?

  • http://howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/ Matthias Hombauer

    John I don´t think that there is a big difference when using Canon, Nikon, or whatsoever. Sure you can not compare a cheap 50mm 1.8 with a 85mm 1.4 which cost you $2000. But when comparing the top notch camera models and lenses I guess they deliver pretty much the same output.

  • http://howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/ Matthias Hombauer

    do a black/white version of the pics to safe them. I really don´t like to have this ugly colors in my pics.

  • http://howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/ Matthias Hombauer

    Wisnu, sometimes the stage light is very low, so you need good lenses. The best settings would be AF-S mode. Set your 50mm lens to f1.8, ISO 3200 and try to get a decent photo. If it´s to dark adjust the ISO settings to get a faster shutter speed. I use manual mode, bit if you are a beginner use AF-S first

  • http://about.me/fiz Steve

    I haven’t tried to switch the RAW profile, but I’ve run into these lights many times now and the only fix I’ve found is also desaturating the blue/magenta. I’ve been looking up solutions to working with these lights for a couple of years now, and it seems the only common wisdom is to desaturate, shoot more, or try to time the lights (if there’s a pattern) to avoid those blow-outs.

    As much as I hated to do it, I shot a show once where the group’s publicist wanted some “really great pictures” so badly. But their lighting was so awful that at the end of the night, none of the photographers there got anything useable, much less “great”. I think more people need to be educated in lighting and how it can affect photos if you only keep solid LEDs pointed at the musicians the whole time (or other such lighting atrocities as I’ve seen).

  • John Westrock

    Very true about the top notch cameras. Good point.