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Camera Settings for Concert Photography

Aerosmith performing at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada on September 22, 2012. (Todd Owyoung)

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, it’s 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.

Photos of Gregg Gillis, AKA Girl Talk, performing at the Pageant in St. Louis on January 18, 2011 (TODD OWYOUNG)

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

Drummer Lars Ulrich of pioneering heavy metal band Metallica photographed on November 17, 2008. (Todd Owyoung)

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

 (Todd Owyoung)

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

 (Todd Owyoung)

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

KISS performs on the Alive/35 World Tour 2009. (TODD OWYOUNG)

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

Skrillex performing at The Rave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 1, 2012. (Todd Owyoung)

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

Photos of Adam Young - AKA Owl City - performing at the Pageant in St. Louis on the closing concert of their five-month tour. May 5, 2010. (Todd Owyoung)

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

Metal band As I Lay Dying performing at the Pageant in St. Louis on July 25, 2010 on "The Cool Tour." (TODD OWYOUNG)

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

 (Todd Owyoung)

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

 (Todd Owyoung)

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

Photos of The National performing at the Pageant in St. Louis on September 30, 2010. (TODD OWYOUNG)

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

Fans at Rusko's  performance at the Pageant in St. Louis, Missouri on February 27, 2012. (Todd Owyoung)

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

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There are 15 comments

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  1. Jeff

    Great article Todd. To expand on your auto focus settings, do you single focus point in AF-C mode or one of the other settings on the d800?

  2. Al

    Hey Todd — great article! A question about the white balance. Doesn’t having it set to auto confuse the camera (or at least leave you with inconsistent temps) with all the colored lighting? For me, I pick a temp (I usually go for tungsten) so everything is consistent and then I can make a global change, if needed (often not), in post and then tweak individual shots as needed (still rare).

    That said, you seem to get great results, so it is more of a “what drew you to your choice” question?

    • Todd

      Hi Al,

      Good question. I find Auto WB accurate enough with Nikon cameras that it gets me very close — any changes in post are often when Auto WB is thrown off by a strong was of LED lighting. As far as what led me to use Auto WB, I’ve found that, at least for my shooting, it’s simply the fastest way to arrive at a close, workable image, and that any tweaks that are needed are very fast to make in post.

  3. Kamera-Einstellungen für Konzert-Fotografie | Nachrichten Heute Deutschland

    […] Über den Autor: Todd Owyoung ist ein international erschienener Fotograf, der auf Live-Musik, Lebensstil und Porträtphotographie sich spezialisiert. Basiert aus New York City heraus, ist Owyoung in Rolling Stone, New York Times, q-Zeitschrift, DREHBESCHLEUNIGUNG, Anschlagtafel, Unterhaltungs-wöchentliche, alternative Presse und mehr veröffentlicht worden. Sie können mehr über seins herausfinden auf seiner Website oder indem Sie ihm auf Twitter, Facebook, Instagram oder Google+ folgen. Dieser Artikel erschien ursprünglich hier. […]

  4. Sean

    As well as a photographer, I’m a lighting technician for live entertainment. A really great post, but the one thing I would argue is your WB settings. AWB will almost always over adjust for coloured lighting and try to compensate. If it’s a modern lighting rig with primarily moving lights, then lock it on Daylight to match the output of the fixtures. If it’s old school rock with a wack of PARcans, then drop it into tungsten.
    Otherwise, the computer in the camera will lose some of the color saturation the designer deliberately created

    • Todd

      Hey Sean,

      Very interesting insight. One thing that I’ve seen when using daylight WB preset is a magenta bias compared to auto WB. However, your point definitely makes sense and I’d be interested in trying out daylight balance in the future. Thanks for the great comment.

    • Todd

      Hey Dale, thanks for the comment. I want to say that the Aldean shot was more like in the latter 3/4 of the set or so. My brother Chris and I were doing tour photography for Aldean, so we had the run of the place — thankfully no 3-song limit!

  5. Summer

    Hi Todd,

    Thanks for the great article. Do you do any noise reduction in your post processing? If so can you please explain what you use and what settings work for your images?

    • Todd

      Hi Summer. I don’t do additional noise removal. I use the Lightroom default of 25 chroma noise reduction, and no luminance noise reduction. The files of the D800 that I use have a very fine grain, so combined with the high resolution, noise isn’t an issue until over ISO 6400.

  6. Brumbie Williams

    Todd,
    Is there ever an instance at a concert where you cannot avoid using flash? Most of the places I shoot are not well lit, so even with the max ISO of 3200, still come out very underexposed. (I use a Canon 40D w/a 50mm 1.8 prime most of the time). Thanks for the posts!

    • Todd

      If you’re shooting wide open at ISO 3200 and light levels are still too low to get a proper exposure, it’s gotta be quite dark. In these instances, assuming it’s a smaller venue with a more casual atmosphere, I think you could experiment with flash, but it really depends with the situation.

      When I do use flash, it’s trying to mimic stage lighting. So this means off-camera flash.


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