Music Photography Gear Guide
For anyone interested in pursuing live music photography, AKA “low-light action portraiture,” the issue of the most appropriate equipment is an inevitable question. Below are my recommendations for the best cameras and equipment for music photography.
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Nikon’s professional line of DSLRs offers some great options for music photography, including the current king-of-the-hill, the Nikon D3s. I shoot with the D3 and D700 in tandem for all my live work, which make an excellent pair since the image quality of the two is essentially identical.
On top of excellent image quality, top-notch AF on both the D3 and D700 offer best-in-class low light performance to boot – an essential in live music photography. If you’re looking for a more economical DSLR to start with, the Nikon D7000 offers very good high ISO performance for an APS camera.
||Nikon D700||Nikon D600|
|The D3 is my go-to camera for music photography – exceptional low light imaging abilities with the ergonomics and build to match. The new D3s takes all that juice and takes it to 11.||The D700 features the same, low-light loving 12mp sensor as the Nikon D3 but weighs in in a more compact form factor and a considerably nicer price point. Perfect as a second body.||The D600 is a new full-frame DSLR with a 24mp sensor. While the AF system isn’t quite as robust as that found on the D700 and Nikon D3s, the image quality is impeccable.|
Nikon f/2.8 Lenses
I use three zooms as my main lenses for music photography: the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8. These lenses cover 14-200mm in a highly effective manner, all in a fast f/2.8 aperture. For concert photography, the constant aperture is a tremendous boon. These lenses rule the arena, amphitheater, and larger club shows.
With all of these three zooms, I never hesitate to shoot wide open if the situations calls for it; they offer excellent image quality at f/2.8 with no exception.
|Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8||Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8||Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR|
|The 14-24mm is a lens that makes other photographers cry. Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal for maximum effect.||Nikon’s standard zoom, this 24-70mm features exceptional image quality at wide apertures – perfect for concerts. I shoot this lens wide open without hesitation. For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens.||Right after a midrange zoom, I consider a good 70-200mm an essential piece of kit for live music photography. A must-have for close-ups and drummer shots at larger arena & amphitheater shows.|
Even with the jaw-dropping performance from top of the line cameras like the Nikon D3s and D700, there are just some situations that still call for fast primes. These three lenses get the job done in light that makes f/2.8 lenses weep. In my kit, I use the 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 extensively at club shows.
|Nikon 24mm f/1.4
||Nikon 50mm f/1.4
||Nikon 85mm f/1.4G
|If you need a fast wide-angle lens, the new Nikon 24mm f/1.4 is basically the only game in town. Nikon has thrown in all the bells and whistles with this lens, and with the $2,000+ price tag, I’d expect nothing less.||A 50mm f/1.4 prime is the cheapest f/1.4 you’ll use, and a great entry into low light photograph. While the 50mm focal length on APS cameras like the D300s is a little tight for my tastes, I love this lens on the D3.||On full-frame, the 85mm focal length is great for tighter shots of band members, and especially singers and drummers. For DX cameras, the 85mm offers a narrow field of view that’s great for headshots.|
I’m a big fan of Nikon’s speedlights and their “Creative Lighting System.” I use three Nikon SB-900 flashes for a super-portable location lighting kit that simply can’t be beat for size.
|Nikon SB-900 Speedlight
||Nikon SD-9 Battery Pack
||Manfrotto Justin Clamp
|The SB-900 is Nikon’s flagship speedlight flash. It’s big, expensive, and it kicks butt. It’s roughly the same power as the SB-800 it replaces, but with a much improved user interface, complete with a jog dial on the back for super-easy control of remote flash when used in commander mode. I use three of these SB-900s supplemented by two Nikon SB-600 speedlights for location work that calls for a very light setup.||The Nikon SD-9 is a battery pack that can take 8-AA batteries, and acts as a big fat power supply to the Nikon SB-900s. The result is much faster recycle times, which is very important if you’re shooting at full power with small flashes. I use two SD-9s with my SB-900s – one for each remote light that I’m controlling with my commander flash. This ensures I have plenty of juice to concentrate on shooting – not waiting.||For run-and-gun type portrait shoots – or just about any band portrait that takes place in small and slightly unpredictable locations, the Manfrotto Justin Clamp is a lifesaver. At the core of the Justin clamp is basically a high-tension spring clamp. Manfrotto has added a tiny ballhead and coldshoe. What this means for location shoots is an amazing way to position flashes in spaces that make lightstands cry.|
These are the accessories that I use for my work. Recommended for any music photographer.
||Black Rapid Double Strap
||Black Rapid R-5|
|I’m a big fan of the Kinesis camera bag system, which is a modular system that is truly as functional as it is a disaster for the fashion conscious. There’s simply not a more comfortable way to carry camera gear than a belt system. Plus, there’s an accessory pouch for just about everything you can imagine – the only thing that won’t fit is your dignity.||The Double-Strap by Black Rapid is my preferred way to carry and shoot with two camera bodies.DSLRs are kept at waist-level and at the ready, while the harness system keeps the weight well balanced. Indispensable for concert photography with two bodies.||Black Rapid’s R-5 isn’t your average camera strap. BR’s straps connect via your camera’s tripod mount, which means that the strap is naturally out of your way when shooting.That, and, thanks to its sliding design, it’s quick on the draw. Perfect for narrow and crowded photo pits.|
|SanDisk Extreme Pro CF
||Nexto DI Portable Storage
|For my images, I prefer SanDisk CF cards. With newer, UDMA-enabled cameras like the D3 and D700, the write-speeds amazingly fast.I shoot with 168GB cards, which have more than enough space for most three-song live music shoots.||For all-day festivals and other on-site jobs where bringing a laptop is impractical, I bring along my Nexto drive to securely download images and free up your memory cards.The lithium-ion battery is good all day, and it’s small enough to pop into your camera bag without a thought.||These Etymotic Research earplugs are great for lowering the levels of live music while still maintaining clarity. Perfect for musicians, and great for music photographers as well.These also come in a “BabyBlues” smaller size for better comfort for those with more narrow ear canals.|
Computer Hardware & Peripherals
You thought this was just going to be about cameras, didn’t you? With the advent of digital photography, pressing the shutter release is only the first part of making an image. Here are three tools that are indispensable in my digital workflow.
|Apple Mac Pro
||Wacom Intuos4||Datavision Spyder3 Pro
|I use an Apple Mac Pro with two Apple Cinema Displaysfor my photo editing and digital processing. 9GB RAM keeps Photoshop happy.While these machines command a premium price, the quality and experience with these Apple products is exceptional.||For photo editing, I personally think that there’s nothing easier or better to use than a graphics tablet. I use a Wacom Intuos4 tablet, speeds up my workflow and editing, not to mention that it’s much easier on the wrist than trying to use a standard mouse. Precise work is a snap with the pen and tablet interface.||For monitor calibration, I use the Datavision Spyder3 Proon my Apple Cinema Displays. Regular calibration ensures accurate color for post processing and output.If you don’t need to calibrate multiple monitors, grab the Express version for almost half the price.|
Considering the ubiquitous low light of indoor venues, song limits, energetic performances, and the generally frenetic pace of rock shows, the proper gear can ease some of the intimidating constraints of concert photography.
Just starting out? Please see my article Choosing Lenses for Concert Photography first.
In both the consumer and professional lines, just about any current DSLR on the market is capable of producing very usable results at ISO 1600 and should make a reasonable fine base for exploring concert photography.
While various details of performance will vary from model to model, for the most part, lenses will often have a more dramatic affect on one’s ability to make images in low light. Even a relatively inexpensive DSLR can produce excellent quality images with good glass in front of it.
For Nikon shooters, it’s important to note that the entry-level DSLRs like the Nikon D3000 and Nikon D5000 do not feature built-in focusing motors, and can only use newer lenses with their own AF motors.
Throw away your 18-55 f/8-32 kit lens. The range is great. But, as they say, speed kills.
If you’re just starting off with concert photography or are looking to upgrade lenses, please see my article Choosing Lenses for Concert Photography for a list of recommended equipment.
In general, I would recommend buying lenses with wide apertures – as fast as you can afford. Though often a stop or two slower than prime lenses, zoom lenses offer unparalleled flexibility, which can be essential for the quick pace of concert photography.