The lights in the venue are off. The intro music is playing and the band is about to come on. You look down at your camera and twist the dials in a panic as the chords of the first song come on and the stage lights come on…
Choosing the right camera settings for concert photography can be a daunting task, even for experienced music photographers. As a professional concert photographer, here's a breakdown of every major camera setting that I recommend for shooting live music.
If you're new to music photography, be sure to check out this post for all the basics beyond the technical for how to get into music photography.
Manual exposure is the ideal exposure mode for the majority of scenarios in live music photography. The high contrast and extremely variable contrast ranges of a typical stage performance can easily trick a camera meter. From bright stage lights to deep shadows, the swing of dynamic range can be massive. However, while background lighting can vary greatly, lighting on performers will often be much more consistent, so shooting in manual exposure will let you stay locked into that front-lighting.
If you shoot mirrorless and use a live view mode, I find it extremely helpful to display a live histogram in the viewfinder while shooting, which can help dial in exposure even more precisely.
Recommended setting: Manual Exposure
Metering Mode: Matrix/Evaluative
I keep my cameras in Matrix metering mode for my Nikon cameras. While I'm a huge advocate of shooting in manual mode and trusting my own intuition or a live histogram to make my exposure adjustments, metering can have its place as a reference. Matrix or evaluative metering will be most useful for productions where lighting is more even, or there are not extremely deep shadows nor intense backlighting in the frame. While shooting, I will often use metering as a passive reference, but will ultimately rely on my gut feeling and experience to fine tune the exposure. With mirrorless cameras, you are seeing the relative exposure of the scene as you shoot, so this can make metering mode somewhat irrelevant as well.
Recommended setting: Matrix/Evaluative Metering
With my f/2.8 zoom lenses, I will shoot wide open almost exclusively. The reason is simple: I'll almost always take a faster shutter speed to freeze motion and/or a lower ISO over increased depth of field or an increase in sharpness from stopping down. For me, stopping down 1/3 or 1/2 stop isn't going to offer dramatic increases in depth of field or sharpness when shooting at high ISO.
If there's the “luxury” of choosing between stopping down, I will always spend that light on a lower ISO or towards freezing motion instead. With zooms, the only time I stop down in live music photography is if I am already shooting around 1/1000 or higher and below ISO 1600. The reason for me is that freezing motion or a lower ISO will almost always result in more detail/information than stopping down.
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. If you struggle with focusing with very shallow depth of field, work on technique and AF targeting — stopping down doesn't solve the fundamental issue.
Recommended Setting: Shoot wide open!
For me, shutter speed is all relative. Making images of a band playing in a small club, for me, creates different expectations than shooting a big arena rock show. When photographing arena or amphitheater productions, I will aim for 1/500 or faster because this is usually a luxury I can afford when the lighting allows it for shows of this size. The big productions are very well lit (and by that I mean it's possible to shoot around ISO 1600, 1/500 at f/2.8). I feel there's more of a fit with super crisp, technical executions for these large shows, but this is really down to personal preference.
For a smaller theater show, I might lower my threshold for shutter speed to 1/250 or so, while for a small club I might feel comfortable going to 1/60 or as low as I can get away with without very obvious motion blur.
In addition, preferred shutter speed may also be influenced by subject. For photographing drummers and freezing their drum sticks in mid-swing, I like 1/1000 or faster. A slow moving vocalist may let you get away with 1/100 or even slower with no obvious motion blur.
Similarly, focal length will affect apparent motion blur. A 500mm telephoto will warrant much faster shutter speeds to minimize camera shake than shooting with a fisheye lens.
Ultimately, with finite light, shutter speed is up to your tolerance for digital noise or motion blur. If I'm trying to maximize image quality, I will always try to shoot at 1/200 or faster, but you should determine your own preferences.
Recommended Setting: 1/200, faster whenever possible
Any modern full-frame or APS-C camera should deliver very good quality up to ISO 3200, if not ISO 6400. My own personal preference is to shoot in the 1600-6400 when possible as with the cameras I use, this range is a good balance between higher sensitivity and image quality.
All this said, 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. Like shutter speed, I feel that the overall image quality (and levels of digital noise) are subjective and relative to the scale and look of the production.
If you're used to shooting at lower ISO, you're probably hesitant to shoot at settings where you can see visible grain. A great antidote to this feeling is to make prints of images made at high ISO — even at relatively large scale, the prominence of noise is generally dramatically lower for real-world use. This exercise should give you much more confidence to use the higher range of your camera's ISO sensitivity.
Overall, I'll always take more digital noise/grain over a blurry image. Don't be afraid to crank the ISO when you need it.
Recommended Setting: Whatever gets the job done
Autofocus is the best way to capture the action of live music. Unless the light levels are so low that your camera cannot accurate focus (and this should be rare), autofocus over manual focus will give you the best results, particularly with moving subjects.
I shoot with AF-C (continuous) on my Nikons 100% of the time. This continuous focusing mode lets me track motion until the moment I release the shutter release. This is in contrast to AF-S mode AF Single mode, which only achieves focus at the start of AF activation, but not for as long as the shutter or AF-ON button is pressed. For dynamic subjects of live music, AF-C is a huge benefit.
I also pair using continuous autofocus with back button focus or AF-ON focusing when using a DSLR due to the smaller autofocus coverage area. This separation of the shutter release and activating focus let's me focus and recompose to create more dynamic compositions outside of what's possible with the smaller AF area of DSLRs. With mirrorless cameras like the Nikon Z 7, I use have AF activated by the shutter release as here the 90% coverage across the frame lets me compose with extreme freedom and recomposing isn't necessary.
Recommended Setting: Continuous AF
The AF mode that I use the most is the 3D AF on my DSLRs like the Nikon D850 and the Auto Area Tracking mode of the Nikon Z 7 mirrorless. Both of these modes are essentially identical and offer the control of being able to choose a single AF point while having the camera's AF system dynamically track the subject across the frame if the subject moves from your original AF point.
What I love about this mode is that it allows for the best freedom of composition and the precision of choosing my subject. The reason I use this mode over a face detection or “Eye AF” mode is that it works at all ranges of scale and composition for my subjects, while Eye AF works best with much tighter framing best suited to portraits. Both modes offer fantastic tracking options, but I prefer the utilitarian 3D AF or tracking mode because it best suits the way I shoot concerts and offers fantastic flexibility.
Recommended Setting: 3D/Tracking AF
I shoot Auto WB about 99% of the time. For one, Nikon in particular does an amazing job at naturalistic color rendition and I love the color science I get from my D850 and Z 7 even under extremely weird or challenging lighting conditions at concerts.
In addition, the use of often mixed lighting — LED, gels, halogen, xenon arc lamps, older incandescent lights and so forth — is very common for live music productions. Because of this mixture, there's rarely the opportunity to dial in a specific color temperature that will be ideal for all images. Even balancing just to the spotlights at a larger show, these will often change from song to song depending on the lighting direction and what tints or corrections are called for.
Setting WB in post makes for much faster shooting — high speed, low drag. Unlike auto metering modes, I feel like Auto WB gets me close enough in-camera that I don't sweat it. Shooting in RAW offers the quality and flexibility that it's overall not worth the limitations of not using Auto WB in most instances.
Recommended Setting: Auto WB
I generally recommend shooting in continuous mode at the highest frame rate possible. The rationale is simple. When you need the speed, you have it. When you're only shooting single frames, you can still do that, too.
In concert photography, using a high continuous frame rate is useful because it allows you to capture multiple images in succession when the key moments of a live music performance happen. It's often that the first frame will be the best — that's just how reflexes work. But if you can anticipate a key moment and shoot through it, a high frame rate will also allow you to capture and then select the peak moment.
For me, this is the best of all needs and there's no reason not to shoot at the highest frame rate available. The one caveat is that now with mirrorless cameras, the behavior and experience of using the electronic shutter (which may be utilized over the mechanical shutter) may offer a higher frame rate and other considerations may apply based on your preferences there.
Recommended Setting: Continuous (high)
RAW or JPG:
This is an easy one: Shoot in RAW. The truth is that memory cards and harddrives/storage are relatively cheap compared to other pieces of photography equipment. More importantly, if you care about the ultimate quality of your images, RAW will give you the highest quality and the most flexibility to process your files, which can be a critical point for working in the less-than-ideal conditions that are so common to concert photography. Changes to white balance, exposure and so forth can be done with dramatically higher quality than trying to make the same changes to a JPG file.
By using the RAW file setting, you maximize the flexibility of your files in post-processing and print quality. 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.
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: 1/200 or faster (relative)
- ISO: 1600-3200 (or whatever gets the job done)
- Focus Setting: AF-C/Continuous
- AF Mode: 3D/Tracking Mode
- White Balance: Auto WB
- Release/Drive Mode: Continuous (high)
- File Format: RAW