Basic Gear Guide to Concert Photography

By Adam Assoian
December 22, 2010 from Photography,Tips and Tricks

Juliet Simms / Automatic loveletter

Hey everyone, so this is my first post, and if you’ve read my bio, I am here to talk about Band portraits and Live music photography (concerts, shows, etc.).  So I wanted to start things off by addressing a topic that I needed help with when I first started getting into this very specific type of photography: the gear.

I knew very little about music photography in general when I first started, I knew that I loved the rock show and I loved photography.  I was also always captivated by the images I saw in The Rolling Stones, Spin and AP magazine.  But one question was left unanswered, “What gear do I need to successfully take photos at concerts?”

We’ve all seen (and probably taken) photos at shows with point-and-shoot cameras or even our cell phones.  But as we all found out, our pictures turned out incredibly dark, incredibly orange, and or incredibly noisy.  Each “genre” of photography has its own obstacles, some more than others.  While I might be bias, I believe concert photography has some of the hardest elements to deal with on the job.

The following list is here to help you get on the right path and to start you off with the essentials.  While this list is not a be-all-end-all, concrete decree sent down from the photography Gods, it will give you a good idea of what you need (and what I personally prefer).

The Camera Body

First off, let me say that I am a Canon lover, so if I name a camera or piece of gear, its almost always going to be Canon.  However, do not fear, Nikon has the equivalents to every Canon body (you just need to compare the specs).  Now that that is taken care of; one the most important aspects when choosing a camera body for concert photography is the  shots per second the camera can shoot, since your subjects will be moving around a lot and jumping off of amps, fast firing of shots definitely helps capture the “decisive moment”.  Another important factor in my opinion is how many focal points the camera has.  Obviously for this last one, the more the better; the more focal points your camera has to choose from, the more creative options you have and the finer/more accurately the camera can capture the subject.  The body I chose was the Canon 7D.  While it is a cropped sensor, it has everything I mentioned here and performs amazingly, I highly recommend it.

The Lens(es)

Your camera body is nothing without an adequate lens.  You can have a six thousand dollar camera, and a crappy lens (in regards to concert photography) and your six thousand dollar camera might as well be a six hundred dollar camera.  Because of the nature of concerts, you are going to need a lens that can handle the low light conditions as well as being able to quickly (and accurately) autofocus.  In my experience, to get high quality photos, you are going to need a lens with at least an aperture of 2.8, but if you can, go with something like 1.8 (or 1.4 if you can).  If you get a lens with an aperture of 4 or more, you won’t be able to shoot the low light without A LOT of noise (which is obviously bad).  Also, the lens needs to be able to quickly autofocus because your subject is going to be moving around and will hardly ever stay in one position for more than a few seconds.

Now this is where people differ, some LOVE prime lenses, others (like me), prefer the zoom capabilities.  While primes offer lower aperture (usually around 1.8) and most of them are easier on the pockets, you are stuck with one focal length.  With zoom capabilities, sure you are going to pay more, but think of how many primes are covered with one lens.  To me, it makes the most sense, you save space in your bag (need to carry less lenses) and you are able to zoom in for more dramatic shots.  Personally, my go-to lens is the Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 lens.  It has everything I need.

The Flash

Alright, the flash is an odd thing.  First off, if you are going to use it, do not use the one that pops up from your camera unless you absolutely have to.  The reason that this is a tricky topic is because not many venues allow flashes, and for good reasons (if you were on stage I am sure you wouldn’t want one going off right in your face either).  However, if you are able to use one, it makes ‘freezing’ the action a whole lot easier and can solve some horrible lighting situations.  Personally, I recommend (and use) a Canon 580EX II; this lens offers a powerful punch and a whole lot of options.

Memory Cards

I used to use a 16 GB CF card for my Canon 7D, then it got stolen.  Now I use what was my back up, 8GB CF card.  I have found that 8 gigs is more than enough for most concerts (the exception being all day festivals).  Most venues have a limit as to how many songs you can shoot, the limit is usually the first 3 songs of each band.  8 gigs is plenty for around four bands and should give you some room to spare.  But if you ever find yourself running short, use the time between sets to go through the images and get rid of the ones you know you won’t be using.  If you can, always carry a spare memory card as well.  You never know what could happen and the last thing you want is to be left out on the side-lines while a kick-ass show is going on.  Personally, I prefer the Sandisk Extreme series; it offers amazing write speeds, and has never failed.

Summary

When choosing your kit, make sure you get the right body and lens.  While most bodies have adequate shutter speeds, make sure it has enough focus points and the options you want it to have.  For the lens, this is the most important piece of gear you have.  If you can, splurge and treat yourself to something nice.  You first need to decide whether you want to work with Primes or zoom lenses.  And always aim for a lens with an aperture between 1.4-2.8.  As for the flash, never use the one that pops up from your camera unless you have to, go out and buy one that can attach to your hotshoe.  I suggest the 580 EX II or the 430 EX II.  As for the memory card, you really don’t need anything more than 8 gigs if you are shooting RAW and are only shooting around 4 bands.  But, if you can always carry around a spare memory card.

  • http://www.photoguides.net/?fbconnect_action=myhome&userid=1178&height=400&width=370 Patrick Murphy

    Great post! I’m a nikon guy so I’ll list a few Nikon equivalents,

    Body: Nikon D7000 or D300s for body

    Lens: Most primes are about the same between nikon and cannon, I love my 50mm f/1.8, and 35mm f/1.8 as for zooms again nikon has an exact equivalent for the one mentioned above http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/1755.htm

    Flash : Sb-800 or SB-900

    Memory is the same.

  • http://www.photoguides.net/?fbconnect_action=myhome&userid=6494&height=400&width=370 Adam Assoian

    Hey man, thanks for the reply post! I am glad you like the post. Are you looking to get into concert photography?

  • http://www.photoguides.net/?fbconnect_action=myhome&userid=1178&height=400&width=370 Patrick Murphy

    I used to do some concert photography, but I am in college now and having moved from Seatte, WA with a great music scene to Ellensburg, wa a tiny college town, It’s been hard to keep it up. I would like to get some more experience in concert photography maybe this summer when I’m back in Seattle!
    I’ve never been paid to take concert photos but that would be great :)

    But great article welcome to the Photoguides contributors!

  • http://www.ventphoto.com Jon Burton

    I read this article with interest as I’m a music photographer in London, UK. I share my kit with the other Vent photographers and of the many items we have the killer combination has to be:

    O Canon 5D Mark II – for its high ISO/low noise performance and its ability to shoot several shots every second. Obviously, it’s full frame too, with more than enough pixels.

    O Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS USM II – this is an incredible lens, even on my 400D body. It focusses incredibly quickly.

  • http://www.ventphoto.com Jon Burton

    DISCLOSURE: I’m a Canon man. Nikon have equivalents to all of these bits of kit.

    I read this article with interest as I’m a music photographer in London, UK.

    When I first started out I was using an entry-level Canon 400D body. You’ll quickly realise that anything you try and shoot in a concert venue with the kit lenses that are typically used with these cameras you’re gonna have a really hard time getting decent photos.

    As we all know, there are 4 ways to get more light into your sensor:

    1) expose for longer
    2) decrease the focal length
    3) increase the sensitivity of the sensor
    4) shoot with a wider aperture

    1) Exposing for longer can be thrown out the window. All you’re gonna get at a concert is a smeary mess.

    2) If we take the example of the 17-55mm EF-S lens, it will collect more light at 17mm than at 55mm because it’s casting the net wider. This isn’t always appropriate, of course.

    3) Increasing the sensitivity of the sensor is a tricky one, as the article says, because you’re going to get more sensor noise the more you increase the sensitivity. This is particularly a problem on the entry-level camera bodies as they have cropped sensors. The cropped sensor means denser pixels which increases the effect of electromagnetic interference. Ice found that although it’s often necessary in very poorly lit venues, cranking the ISO above 800 on a crop body leads to nasty shots. The problem is that you lose all of that lovely dynamic range that you bought your DSLR for in the first place. The colours won’t be as vibrant and the blacks won’t be black any more! The reason the professional full frame cameras are so much more expensive is that they are noticeably better at everything. The Canon 5D Mark II will still give you good dynamic range at ISO 6400.

    4) As the article says, this is the thing you need to concentrate on when you’re starting out. The best way to do this is buy the Canon EF 50mm f1.8 prime (or Nikon equivalent). For starters it gives you great depth of field at f1.8. You also collect a huge amount of light compared to the other lenses you’re accustomed to.

    I would also advise against buying EF-S lenses if you plan to upgrade later. If you’re gonna be strapped for cash for a long time the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 is a great place to start. A lot of them come up for sale on eBay in the UK as people upgrade to the Canon equivalent that is more than double the price.

    I share my kit with the other Vent photographers and of the many items we have the killer combination has to be:

    O Canon 5D Mark II – for its high ISO/low noise performance and its ability to shoot several shots every second. Obviously, it’s full frame too, with more than enough pixels.

    O Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L IS USM II – this is an incredible lens, even on my 400D body. It focusses incredibly quickly. If you’re shooting quite close to the artists you’re gonna pretty much get up-the-nostril shots on a crop body. The interesting thing to remember with this one is that a 50mm lens on a crop body is equivalent to 80mm. With the 70-200mm on a full frame body it’s actually a shorter focal length than a 50mm on a crop body!

    The other very useful weapon is the 24-70mm f2.8 L USM. The 24-105 f4 L USM is pretty much useless at a concert!

    Summary is: buy more suitable lenses first. Hope this is useful!