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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DSLRs for Music Photography
I shoot with two cameras for my music photography work. The reason is that it cuts down on lens changes immensely and this efficiency allows me to focus more on capturing the moments I want to.
My current personal setup includes a pair of Nikon D850 and a Nikon D500. The D850 give me two identical bodies that are high performance but still compact, and massive on image quality. The Nikon D850 is a great, do-it-all kind of DSLR as it features a relatively fast frame rate of 7 FPS combined with massive resolution at 45.7 megapixels.
The flagship Nikon D5 is probably the best choice for event photographers that Nikon has to offer when money is no object. Insanely quick, superlative high ISO performance, and a great balance between resolution and manageable file sizes for work in the field. You get the choice of two XQD or two CF cards. For me, the choice has to be XQD.
I personally use two D850 bodies for my live music photography. The high ISO performance, AF and overall speed are all excellent and up to the challenge of shooting gigs. The Nikon D850 offers exceptional resolution at 45.7 megapixel. If you don't need the resolution, the Nikon D750 is still a huge performer as an alternative, and a body I used to shoot.
The D500 is an APS-C or crop sensor DSLR, which gives an effective 1.5x to all full-frame lenses. I have been using the D500 to excellent effect as a way to get closer to the action for soundboard shoots and festivals, where position can be limited and distances can be large. The AF on the D500, which is the same as the that of the D5, is absolutely a killer for action.
Zoom Lenses for Music Photography
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.
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. I use the latest E version with VR. This is my favorite 24-70mm model yet.
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. Again, I use the latest E version, the best version of this model yet.
Prime Lenses for Music Photography
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.
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 D4.
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.
These are the accessories that I use for my work. Recommended for any music photographer.
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.
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.
For my images, I use Sony XQD cards. The XQD format offers some massive benefits over CF and SD, notably a very robust format, best-in-class speed, all in a very compact form factor. For my D850 and D500, I use 64gb cards. When shooting with 2-3 DSLRs for a concert, I find that 64gb is enough for a whole show shooting all-access.
Just starting out? Please see my article Choosing Lenses for Concert Photography first. 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.
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