When it comes to shooting concerts, I'm a big advocate of shooting in manual mode. Even though it might seem daunting, shooting in manual mode actually simplifies your photography and arguably eliminates more headaches than it can possibly create.
Consider this a case against auto mode.
As one often does, I was recently checking out uploads to the Flickr Concert Photography Group, when I came across one particular image. The shot was well enough exposed, but seemed particularly brightly lit for a concert shot, so I was curious about the camera settings.
Clicking over to the EXIF data, here's what I saw.
As a professional music photographer, the above EXIF data is a little horrifying. For so many reasons, but mainly three main points.
Shutter Speed: With the shutter speed at 1/50 and above the reciprocal rule for handheld shooting, this is probably the least objectionable part of the exposure overall. But all things considered in a crowded photo pit, 1/50 is pretty borderline. 1/100 (or greater) would have been more suitable and easily achievable with a little human intervention (or yes, shutter priority, another auto mode).
Aperture: First off, I have to say that the image in question had no requirement for immense depth of field. Also, this image was shot with an f/2.8 lens. So, f/11? Does not compute. Four whole stops down from wide open in a concert setting is probably the greatest sin of this auto exposure.
ISO Speed: If this were a Nikon D4 or Canon 1D X, or even a Nikon D3s, I wouldn't really blink at ISO 6400 being used. And with a Canon 5D Mark II? It's a little questionable. But given the amount of light present in this exposure (f/11!), it's downright irresponsible.
What these settings add up to is exactly why shooting in any program exposure mode is often a poor choice when it comes to live music photography. Technically, the image was “properly exposed,” but at the expense of all intelligence.
While program modes have their place in photography and do a stellar job at most conventional scenes, concert photography is anything but conventional. Between extremely strong backlights, large areas of deep black or color washes that don't occur in most “standard” shooting scenes, stage productions will wreak havoc on your camera's meter.
In this respect, shooting in manual mode for live music photography is like taking a loaded shotgun away from toddler.
This has been a public service announcement to just say no to the auto modes. While they certainly have their place in photography, it's probably not with live music photography 95% of the time.
Here's how I shoot in manual exposure for 100% of my photography: