Concert Photography How-To: Metering & Exposure, pt. 2


In part one of this series, I covered my basic four-step approach to determining exposure that might otherwise prove difficult if one were to rely on the in-camera meter. In this second installment, I'll cover a few other techniques I use in addition to that feedback loop method.

While the four-step method is a great start to determining exposure for concert lighting, with the practice, it's possible to achieve accurate exposure when the light levels change without as much attention to review and adjustment. Once you've mastered establishing a baseline exposure, as described in the previous article, it's time to take it to the next steps:

  • Simplify
  • Memorize
  • Internalize

Each of these three approaches to metering and exposure for concert photography are designed to increase efficiency; with three-song limits nearly standard these days, any more time you can spend with your eye to the viewfinder instead of on the LCD is going to help.

Note: I shoot manual about 99% of the time, which may be a useful reference in reading these suggestions.


When I shoot, I try to change as few variables as possible in exposure from one lighting scheme to the next. Why? Because having more choices isn't the same as having better choices.

The fewer things you change, the faster and more efficiently you'll be able to work.

While shooting in manual gives full control over aperture and shutter speed in addition to ISO, try limiting yourself to adjusting a single setting. By dealing with the bare minimum of information and decreasing options, you get the simplicity of a program priority mode with all the control of manual when you need it.

In addition, dealing with the least number of variables possible will help you with the next technique: memorization.


Just as music has patterns, so too does concert lighting. For any given lighting scheme, a lighting tech is likely to employ it more than once during a set, if not several times during one song.

One key method for achieving a better metering workflow in the pit is to get into the practice of memorizing exposures as you shoot.

As lighting mixes recur, having memorized the exposure for a specific scheme will save you time and free you up concentrate on closing on those killer images instead of worrying about basic technique.


Believe it or not, your eyes and brain form a capable and responsive judge of ambient light; training them can be a huge boon for achieving more accurate and consistent metering.

In fact, the first step to internalizing light levels is something you're probably already doing regularly in the pit: guessing. You're already trying to estimate the amount of light as the first step in the feedback loop, so make it count and guess smarter.

Make it a game. Take an extra second as you begin the task of metering and ask yourself, “Is this ISO 1600 dark, or ISO 3200 dark?” If you guess wrong, you can always go back to step one. But guess correctly and you've saved yourself a few seconds. Do this often enough and you will begin to know the difference in that stop.

The more you practice, the more precise you'll become at evaluating and calculating light levels on the fly, even without having to review at every step.


The end goal utilizing the above techniques is to remove as many steps as possible between seeing the image and executing it. Or, in other words, to enable you to produce the best exposures possible with the least effort (i.e., as efficiently as possible). Put these tricks together and you should be able to adjust exposure on the fly and with minimal review.

In the next installment of this series, we'll go over some other general suggestions and maybe have a look at the histogram displays for a few different types of images.

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D750:
I use two Nikon D750 for my live music photography. Amazing high ISO performance in a compact body with tons of pro features.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
More Gear Recommendations

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There are 36 comments

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  1. Tom'sWho

    Todd – once again an informative blog.
    Question for you, how many shots would you capture in a three song limit? And what % would you pass as good photo’s (with post processing of course).

  2. Todd

    Hey Tom,

    Thanks for the feedback on this article.

    As for hit rate, that’s a good question. For me, it depends on a few things, such as the band, their music, and exactly how long those “three songs” are. For some bands, three songs is maybe 7 minutes, while others might play for twice as long.

    I think I generally average between 100 and 300 frames for a headliner. From there, about half pass as “good enough,” in that they’re sharp, well exposed, and generally usable. But as for individual, unique shots that interest me, those images are more like 10-25% of the set.

    Let me know if you have any more questions.

  3. Todd

    I’ve found that the D3 is generally very accurate when set to auto WB, which is what I use about 90% of the time. Or, to put it another way, the D3’s auto setting is close enough that I don’t feel obligated to change it in most instances.

    The exceptions are when I want to change the WB to something other than what was captured. These change mostly occur because the WB, though accurate to the scene, is unflattering or different from the look I want.

  4. faithdesired

    Excellent blog! I agree about memorizing the exposure for various lighting. I’ve found that it works for me, even though I’m shooting small bands in clubs. In addition, the simplify step is most important! I shoot manual too, and tend to only mess with shutter speed. I can change the f-stop if I need to, but usually I keep my lens open to maximize my light!

  5. Todd

    Thanks for the feedback, it’s great to hear from other shooters who use these techniques. In many ways, I think that these tricks are natural responses to the chaos that can occur when in the pit.

    For f/2.8 zooms, I usually change the variables in this order:
    1) Shutter speed
    2) ISO
    3) Aperture

  6. Jacob

    Great informative blog… I shoot f2.8 at all times and ISO 3200… i’ve only ever shot 2 gigs and the second was at a prominent event with pit and all… had the time of my life!!!

    I am still to learn bucket loads… and am focusing on using spot metering next time (forgot all about it in the excitement lol)… when would it be in my favour to stray from f2.8 and maybe try f4 (i have only one lens at the moment 17-50 on a D80)

  7. Todd

    Hi Jacob, thanks for stopping by. Welcome to the pit, you get the best “seat” in the house – until they kick you out.

    Exposure is all relative, and whatever achieves your vision is what you should go with. If you have enough light to stop down, go for it, though you should also consider that you can raise the shutter speed or drop the ISO as well – it’s so often about compromise in low light work.

  8. Avangelist

    I am enjoying reading through this. Amazingly we are using the same wp template.

    I have a question

    I use a D80, I have found if I ever bump ISO over 800 I got more and more purple in the blacks. As a result at the majority of shows I go to which are in small poor lit dungeons I have started using an SB600 flash mounted.

    But the flash always blows out the lighting presumably because it is firing more light that is actually in the room.

    Any suggestions, or should I stick to not using flash and being uphappy with the grainy digital effects of high ISO?

    check out my site for some links to flick and camera settings if you fancy a gander.

  9. Todd

    Hi Avangelist,

    I think high ISO noise is part of the game with concert photography. It sounds like you might be shooting in venues with a lot of warm/tungsten lighting, which is going to cause a deficit in the blue channel and can cause problems. This can be particularly true if you’re tweaking the WB in post. Part of the issue could be the sensor, too.

    As for flash blowing out the ambient lighting, it sounds like it’s too strong and needs to be dialed down. You’ll need to use lower power flash and longer shutter speeds if you want more ambient mix.

    Hope this helps.

  10. Kieran

    Thanks for this Todd after reading this a while back I decided to shot my first band using completely manual I wasn’t shooting for anyone so I thought I would take myself out of my comfort zone by changing how I shoot. It has made a hell of a difference and I know feel confident enough to follow this up and keep working on shooting like this so thank you for this mate. :)

  11. Todd

    Hey Kieran, it’s great to hear that you tried out manual mode and now feel comfortable enough with it to keep at it. I’m glad to hear if anything in this tutorial helped!

  12. John Boccabella

    Hi Todd,

    Great blog… I am a frequent visitor, and am learning a lot :)

    Question about blown highlights – you mentioned that you review your LCD and histogram and make sure none of the important details are blown out; what do you look for exactly? For example, if there are “white” portions on the face, how much is acceptable to you? Obviously the more there is, the more detail is lost…

    What about blowing out highlights under color washes other than white light? It seems much harder to pick out blown highlights under blues and reds than it is whites… any suggestions?

  13. Rene Skrodzki

    Excellent series. In the last month I have been doing concert shots and shows a bit. Not something I intended on doing but the GF wanted shots of her Canadian Idol favorites.

    Wish I had found this earlier, but now that I have I am glad i did.

    Very helpful

  14. hitch3r

    Damn.. so much to think about.

    Reading this article really made me to think about important things about concert photography I was never thinking of reading other heavy stuff about photography on the whole and about concert photography in particular.

    Thanks a lot for what you are doing Todd! You are one of the best!

  15. Jeannette

    god bless you sir and your website. i think ive actually learned more here than i have in school.

    if you could ever do a tutorial about how you use PS in post id be forever grateful.

  16. Todd

    Hey Jeannette!

    Thanks so much for the kind words, I’m happy to hear that has helped you so much!

    I do plan to do a short tutorial/article on what I do in my PS processing. Nothing too complicated, really. I might also make my save-for-web settings available for download as an action, since people seem to like the sharpening that is applied.

    I’ll also be doing a post on the steps I take with RAW conversions before bringing the images into Photoshop.

    • Todd

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for the question. I don’t use auto ISO because it’s essentially just another automatic exposure mode and defeats the purpose of shooting in manual. Auto ISO is going to be subject to the same conditions that make other automatic exposure modes poor for some types of concert lighting.

  17. Lourenço Abreu

    Hi Todd! first of all, let me say this: your blog rock’s! It’s a finding! It’s by far the most useful and inspiring blog for someone who wants to get good pictures at concerts.
    Since I will have to do a photo shoot on a rock festival contest, that will last a month and a half (lot’s of opportunities,:-), I was doing some research,come to your blog, and I was stunned by the awesome pictures you have made. Stunning stuff to say the least.
    I have a little question that keeps intriguing me… do you always shoot at f/2.8? that’s because your pictures seem to be sharp all across the image, and I suppose, perhaps at 70mm the depth of field should be shallower.
    Best regards!

  18. Ranjit

    Hi Todd:

    Huge fan of your excellent site.

    Funny story – I started out shooting shows with my trusty F5 and Fuji 800Z, pushing sometimes up to 3200. I constantly kept ISO, shutter speed, and metering options in my mind while shooting.

    I recently shot some gigs at SXSW with a D700. Armed with auto ISO and great low light ISO performance, I found myself thinking less and relying more on the camera (and I learned what “chimping” is all about too). And my shots suffered as a result.

    So back to manual for me…

    • Todd

      Hey Ranjit,

      Thanks for your thoughts and experience here. Sometimes, you just have to go back to basics.

      I think there’s a fine balance between being involved in the image-making process at every step (composition, exposure, AF, etc) and then letting the camera do some of the work. It’s funny, one would think that automation would free the photographer up to concentrate more on making the best images, but in the end, it isn’t always the case.

  19. Laura

    Totally agreed with you here. . while I mentioned in your last mode shooting in app priority mode via spot meter and sometimes tweaking those reads in manual mode. . I can tell right away how spot metering is going based on what I’m reading with eyes and experience as to what my settings should be.

    To those reading this thread, what will help develop this skill is notecards on a ring. Post each show, write a description of the venue, the type of music, who was lighting, what type of lighting (ie color, backlighting, side lighting, spotlight, etc) was happening, band member or type of shot that was successful accompanied with the settings used. Review before shooting shows. All of a sudden you’ll find yourself staring at a stage light thinking iso800, 150mm, f2.8, 1/90 or 1/125, etc. It helps speed the learning curve.

    And to extend to the keep the setting changes simple. I’d say, keep your app at a setting to which you want to stick to keeping the concept of depth of field in mind. . .aim for either adjusting your shutter or iso. Also, with this in mind, stay simple with your lenses and camera body. The more you understand and know your cameras reaction with certain gear, the better you get. Just buying the latest and greatest isn’t going to automatically make you better unless you already know what your doing.

    I worked for years with 28-300mm f3.5-6.3 on a Pentax in lowlight settings, which isn’t the best gear, but pushed me to really learn how to use it. I’ve upgraded my lenses as my learning process improved (well and as my wallet got bigger), but haven’t upgraded my kit. Its not always about the gear, but more about the person shooting and their knowledge of using it.

  20. Rob

    Hi Todd,
    First I want to say that your Concert photography is some of the very best I’ve ever seen and I know loads of photographers. I have a tremendous amount of respect for you and your work. I’m fairly new to shooting rock bands and I’m still experimenting a little. I’ve seen enough to know it’s some of the most challenging photography that I’ve ever encountered with constantly changing lighting and constantly moving subjects. I was a wedding photographer for 8 years and never had to deal with anything like this. Anyway, Since I’m shooting film, I can’t use a histogram. I like what you said about guessing exposures. That’s primarily what the experienced, knowledgeable photographer would be doing anyway because we know the meters don’t give accurate readings under these conditions. I’ll be shooting a music festival that’s coming up this summer and what I’ll probably be doing for available light shots is shooting ISO 400 speed slide film pushed 2 stops to ISO 1600 and I’ll be bracketing in Aperture Priority toward underexposure as to not blow out highlights. I’ll burn a lot of film. But, bracketing 3 shots in half stops is probably the only way to be sure to get a good exposure with slide film. Here’s something I thought you might like to check out. Sometimes I like to use a camera with a broken meter and guess exposures. It’s fun and challenging. This is a portfolio I shot called “Guesswork”.
    I’m on MySpace also.
    Thanks for adding me as a contact on Flickr. You and your photography Rock !

  21. woody

    I am in my 6th year of shooting a week long venue. I have finally got smart and started shooting everything in RAW. So much better. If I am off in my WB it is so easy to change it later. I shot Billy Squire last night and the stuff is so much better. I am going to use your advice on going strickly manual tonight I have to shoot Cheryl Crow and Saving Abel.
    great stuff

  22. Rich


    thanks for the tutorials. I found in probably 80% of my shots the levels looked more like the image found in pt.1 than pt2. However they came out fairly well. There were only a couple of dark shots. I actually shot ISO 640 for most of the night, anytime I tried to bump it up the whole thing blew up in my face. Would love to hear your opinions on these:

  23. Retrato

    “The more you practice, the more precise you’ll become at evaluating and calculating light levels on the fly, even without having to review at every step.”

    Absolutely, I think you can memorize a lot of material but it will all come down to experience and how that will end up making things easier for you in the long run.

  24. Suf

    Hi Todd,

    I have a question with regards to shooting with 2.8 aperture.

    I’ve been shooting more with f/4.0 and f/5.6 because I find the with f/2.8, the light tends to get overblown and create ugly blobs in the photo. Any advice on how to avoid that?

    Thank you!

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