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How to Shoot Better Concert Photos With A Point & Shoot Camera

Atmosphere during Steve Aoki's performance at the Pageant in St. Louis on February 1, 2012. (Todd Owyoung)

You’ve seen it before. A sea of point and shoot digital cameras and cell phones held aloft during concerts, snapping away for posterity. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ve done it yourself.

Here are six simple tips for making better live music photos when you’re shooting from the crowd, especially with a cell phone, P&S or other consumer camera. Take it from me, a professional music photographer. If I were shooting my favorite band from the crowd at a gig, this is what I’d do.

Trust me. I’m a professional. 

1) Get Closer

Professional music photographers almost always shoot from the front of the stage, if not on the stage itself. This is not a coincidence – the best rock photos are so often made up close and personal.

If you’re a fan shooting from the crowd, getting as close to the stage as possible improves your chances of making great concert images. The ideal spot is often right at the security barricade at the front of the stage if there is one, otherwise along the stage itself.

A close position to the stage not only gets you (and your camera) closer to the action, which is essential for high-impact images, but it also reduces distracting elements in between you and the band. You know, stuff like heads, arms, and people in general.

2) Turn Off Your Flash

The flash on your P&S is minuscule at best. There are basically two scenarios with a small, on-camera flash like those on P&S cameras:

  1. The flash is so weak it’s not even going to light up the stage.
  2. If you happen to be close enough (think first couple rows), it’s going to kill the stage lighting and generally look awful.

More than likely, if you use flash and you’re shooting from the crowd, you’re just going to get a great photo of the back of someone’s head.

Turn off your flash for the best results capturing the stage lighting as the lighting designer – and the band – intend. This is especially true of your position is far away from the stage.

3) Wait Until The Lighting Is Brightest

Your P&S camera has a much smaller sensor than that of professional DSLR cameras, and, as a result the image quality is generally much worse. This is particularly true for low light situations. One way to compensate is to try and time your images for when the lighting is brightest on stage.

Waiting until the lighting is up will help make for less blurry and better exposed images. Moreover, attention to timing will help with making better photos in general. If there’s any design to the lighting at all, the brightest lighting will often correspond to highlights in the song when the musicians are doing interesting (photogenic) things.

4) Shoot A Lot

One “secret” of professional music photographers? We generally shoot a lot – perhaps hundreds of frames for a single band if the activity and lighting on stage are diverse. Shooting more individual images not only can help compensate for technical aspects such as motion blur, but shooting more in general will increase your chances of bringing home memorable images, if only by virtue of a little luck.

5) Use Both Hands on your Camera

Camera shake is often a big problem with low light photography, and concerts are no exception. Compact cameras often suffer even more badly from camera shake since they’re light weight and held out at a distance with support. This goes double for a cell phone.

Using both hands on your camera and tucking your elbows into your body will provide better stability, which will make for clearer images in low light.

6) Share Only Your Best Images

You’re only as good of a photographer as you show others you are. If you only shoot one amazing photo from a concert, you’re an amazing photographer based on that one image. It’s all the other blurry, poorly exposed and mis-timed snaps that make people think  you just got lucky.

The dirty secret of many types of photography, including concert photography, is to shoot a lot. After all, you don’t have to show anyone the bad photos – or at least, you shouldn’t.

7) Put Down Your Camera

This is a serious recommendation to just put down your camera, stop photographing, and just to enjoy the show. (Especially if you see me at the concert – I promise you, I’ve got it covered!)

You might not have as many images to prove it, but by putting down your camera, you might just enjoy the experience just a little bit more. And after all, isn’t that the point of live music?

Recommended P&S Cameras

  • Canon S100: This camera is tiny and has relatively amazing performance for a P&S. Totally pocketable.
  • Panasonic LX-5: This camera splits the difference between the tiny Canon s100 and the bulkier Canon G1 X – great image quality, great lens, in a small package.
  • Canon G1 X: It’s pretty huge for a P&S, but the image quality is fantastic and the manual controls will make for much better shooting if you’re really going for it.
  • Your iPhone: For a phone, the iPhone takes great photos. And chances are, you already have this camera phone. And if you don’t, use whatever phone you do have. After all, the best camera is the one you have with you.

Conclusion

And there you have it. Six tips to help you make better concert photos with a P&S and one bonus suggestion to help you get the most out of a show.

If you shoot from the crowd, do you have any suggestions to share in the comments section?

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There are 28 comments

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      • Cameron

        Based on lens specs, the X10 has the advantage over the S100. The three-stop variable aperture (f/2.0 to f/5.9) on the S100 is pretty deadly for anything beyond 35mm. The X10 doesn’t have quite the reach (112mm vs. 120mm), but the 1-stop variable seems much more tolerable. Not surprisingly, the price of the X10 reflects the advantages.

        • Cameron

          Even better (at least in price) might be the Olympus XZ-1. Similar one-stop variable aperture from f/1.8 to f/2.5, same 28-112mm zoom range. The only thing is its successor is probably on the horizon, so it might be wise to hold off until it hits the market or the XZ-1 sees a price drop.

  1. John

    #7 is the best tip of them all.

    Also, any newer Android phone with a camera equal to or greater than 8.0 mp should work just as well as an iPhone any day. There’s no need to pretend like an iPhone has magical abilities to take photos any better.

    • Todd

      Thanks for the comment. I’m not saying the iPhone is magical – I specifically state, “use whatever phone you do have. After all, the best camera is the one you have with you.”

  2. Ian

    I have been able to sneak my Canon SLR and 135 f/2 into many shows, but have been surprised by the results I have been able to achieve with my little Panasonic LX-5 (as you recommend).

    I have one more tip – shoot in Manual mode. The little cameras have a lot more trouble with the changing lights and overexpose like crazy. I noticed that putting the camera in manual mode, setting it to ISO1600, the largest aperture, and then using the thumbwheel to switch between 1/30s and 1/200s as lighting conditions change works best for me. I just shot Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers the other night and my floor seats allowed me to get some pretty good shots – certainly better than the phones around me.

    Keep up the great work on this site!

  3. Shawna

    How do you get media/photography passes to concerts as many venues do not allow professional gear. Especially if you work for yourself as opposed to a newspaper or venue. I love shooting concerts, but have only shot ones that allow pro cameras in…which aren’t very many.

  4. @MrLeNem

    To keep great pictures and memories of a concert, use the high resolution stereoscopic camera you all have : YOUR EYES ! And stop filming / shooting all concert long as you’re not alone at the show. ;-)

  5. John

    Something not mentioned here but I think very important, is that it’s better not to zoom with most p&s cameras. As an example with the S100 the ‚fast’ 2.0 aperture goes down the sink quickly untilat max zoom of 24mm you get f5.9! At this stage even shooting in raw and hoping Johnny Rockstar will stand still for 1/30 sec (he won’t) you are not going to get a decently clean image on most any concert stage. I suspect this is true of all compacts touted as ‘great for low light’.

    • John

      oops, I just noticed the slow aperture issue has been noted already. If Canon etc could get a good zoom on a constant 2.0 small P&S it would be a winner!

  6. Martin Walter

    Hi Todd,

    I am a concert photographer from switzerland, trying to publish + sell my concert photos.

    I really like your work and your photography tutorials and reviews but with this tutorial I have a problem:

    With this tutorial you encourage the people to bring all their own point+shoots and camera phones to concerts. The problem is that this kills the mood and atmosphere of any show, when the whole audience is just pointing their camera to the band/musicians. And especially for a band it must be weird and uncomfortable when everyone is only looking at their camera screens.

    And in my opinion also accredited concert photographer suffer from this, because the audience doesnt appreciate their work anymore, thinking that their (mostly crappy) camera phone shots are good enough for them.

    I hope you understood my point of view.

    Regards,
    Martin

    P.S.
    Sorry for my bad english :)

    • Yirmin

      I don’t care what the audience is doing. I’m watching the stage and listening to the music. If the entire floor is only filled with people holding up iphone to take pictures I don’t care because I’m not watching the floor. Nor do I care if the people taking picture enjoy the show or not. You sound like someone that is just afraid their business is going under and trying to get people to stop so you can hang on a little longer. If your photos aren’t good enough to make even the common man snapping photo of a concert say “wow, I’ll buy that cause its better than mine,” then maybe your not a good enough photographer in the first place.

  7. John

    Pro spec dslr’s were banned, so I got to test my Cannon S100 at a show last week. On Tv mode(shutter priority), even reducing EV to minus 2 didn’t stop heavy over exposing in spot mode pointed at brightly lit faces. Not sure why that was.
    What finally got me back into reasonable exposure territory was upping Tv to 1/400 sec.

    In the hope of spot metering better I used the Digital zoom. Big mistake! Firstly, this made camera shake unavoidable even at 1/400 sec. Secondly, Raw doesn’t function when using Digital zoom. Thirdly, the noise level left only small web size snaps possible. Better was sticking within the optical zoom range and cropping later.

    Did I miss my D300?!

  8. Jeff Smith

    Shortly after moving to New York City, I attended a few concerts at small venues, and I had a cheap point & shoot camera. Given the results, and I go to and take photos at every concert I can afford to go to, I quickly decided I needed to upgrade to get the type quality photos & video I wanted. Initially, this was just for my own personal enjoyment of having the photos (and videos when I can get them).

    So I went to Nikon’s website for their top of the line point & shoot cameras, and found the Nikon P500. For concert (or live events), it has the following features I regarded as essential for taking photos (and video where able), and to get past security; a decent 12.1 megapixel, wide angle lens, 36x optical zoom, variable tilt lcd screen, and takes still photos when in recording video. The only drawback as with any “p & s” camera is the open mic for questionable audio. You’d be surprised as how good of photos & video I’ve gotten from fairly far back from the stage. You can browse many of these concert photos on my Facebook page, Jeff Smith/ReflectionsNYC.
    Security issues: Since almost all venues allow “personal digital cameras”, or “non-detachable” lens cameras, this p & s camera will get past security every time.
    However, 75% (or more) of the features of this camera are of an slr. A wide angle lens, 36x zoom, plus aperture, shutter, programmed auto modes with presets for x number of shots simultaneously. It also allows you to zoom in or out while recording the video. However, while doing this fast, the lens would shake and affect the lens focus. So Nikon added a button on the side of the lens barrel that produces slow consistent zoom in or out that eliminates the shaking (oh it was bad on the P500).

    As I said, initially this was just for the enjoyment of getting great photos & video at shows I wanted to attend. However, after posting alot of the results on my Facebook page & just showing the photos to others during conversation, I kept having people tell me I had such a great eye for photography, I should go professional. What really got my attention for this is many of these people were professional photographers themselves, far more knowledgeable and experienced than I was. So I finally listened.
    I’m working on upgrading my gear, and I’m taking a professional photography course from NYIP.

    But for anyone that is searching for a great camera for concerts, there are few that can match the Nikon P500 or P510. Nikon’s since released the P510, which is the same camera, but the megapixels is 16.2 with an even greater optical zoom at 42x.

    If you want visual and audio proof, go to my Facebook page above and find the following concert photo albums; Deep Purple, Stevie Nicks, Peter Frampton, Ace Frehley, Olivia Newton John, Queensryche, Thin Lizzy, or Michael Schenker.
    Get the Nikon P510, and you’ll love the results of both photos & video.
    One notation, the Canon EOS 30 is similiar to this Nikon, however when you take photos either in video mode or out, the camera “clicks”, which you actually hear in the video, and it also “shakes” it. I don’t know what idiot designed this in the camera, but it totally defeats the purpose. Do you want a bad shaking & a clicking noise in your video on EVERY photo you take?
    Get the NIkon P510……I can be contacted at [email protected], or Facebook.

    I continue to come to Todd’s website to learn all I can about concert photography & camera gear. He’s an awesome photographer.

    Jeff Smith
    Staten Island, NY

  9. Michael Lewalski

    Todd,

    Your six tips for shooting concert pics could not have been stated better. I am 52 and I took many pictures in the 80′s on 35mm film. I stopped for several years and I just started shooting with a digital point and shoot smaller camera. Your tips are excellent, especially the one “put down your camera” and enjoy the show. I take about 75-125 shots per show and look for those 4 or 6 excellent shots to print. Each group has different lighting. Rush had many good strong lighting opprtunities but Linkin Park was more difficult (even though they are a great band to see live). I do not shoot from the pit so I am further back and have to rely on the zoom and a smaller aperature opening.Once again your tips are right on.

    Mike

  10. Sandy

    I have a little Lumix ZS5 that I use on manual when I can’t use my “real camera.” I never go above ISO400 if the lighting is decent and I have managed to get some pretty decent shots as long as you don’t go overboard with the zoom. Do hate not having a viewfinder, though.

    I recently bought a Lumix FZ150 (which shoots RAW), but haven’t used it enough to form a true opinion of it yet. Got a few decent pics at a show but not convinced it works as good as the ZS5.

    I have a friend in London who gets amazing videos with his ZS5. I don’t know what he uses for settings.

    Interesting article.

    Sandy

  11. Al

    Hi:

    I have a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH25 camera with an 8x zoom and 16 MP. I mainly shoot bands in non-club/non-arena settings–halls, community centers, basements–where the lighting isn’t always great. They’re mainly punk and hardcore bands where the musicians and vocalists are constantly moving. I’m usually able to shoot within a few feet of the band, usually no more than 10-20 feet away. I’ve been shooting bands for years but continue to have problems with those blasted white spots and other “dirt” in the photos. So I need a quick rundown on how I should set it for best results. I use the sports setting and, yes, I keep the flash on, which apparently might be a no-no. Any help would be appreciated

  12. Al

    … and I always seem to get red eye from the people in the background–I like to have the audience be part of some shots, though.

  13. nikon p500 and Nikon P500

    Is the Nikon P500 camera right for you? This is a question many people have asked themselves once they’ve laid eyes on this beauty – and it’s easy to understand everyone’s interest in it, considering that it’s one of the most popular models on the market at the moment. Of course, every camera is different – and some models aren’t for everyone. So let’s have a look at what the Nikon P500 camera can offer you, and why it’s so well-liked on the market at the moment.

  14. JustMe

    RX100 is a very good choice for a pocketable P&S. Done few shows and even ISO6400 is somewhat usable for personal use.


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