Getting The Gear You Need To Take Amazing Concert Photos
So you want to shoot concerts? Whether seasoned or novice, you may find some of this information useful to sharpening your skills as a photographer in live music. I’ve had an increasing number of people approach me about what lenses I use, how to get into concert photography, and so on. So I figured I’d lay it out in a weekly column and you can use it to go back to as a reference.
First and foremost, it doesn’t matter how much equipment you have if you don’t have the motivation and inspiration to shoot live concerts. Keep in mind when you’re starting out, you’ll more than likely have to shoot in small clubs locally. That’s how a lot of concert photographers start out, and that’s how I did. It’s not the most exciting place to shoot at first, and can sometimes be challenging due to poor lighting and lack of space (most clubs don’t have a photo barricade for photographers), but you work with what you have and learn to conserve, making the most of what you have to work with. The bottom line is you have to keep up the motivation to keep shooting local (and sometimes national) bands in small places until you can advance to theaters and arenas for high profile and popular bands. Just don’t give up easily. More on that later. Right now what we need to focus on is what you’ll need once you make the commitment to shoot concerts.
Choosing Camera Bodies
This can be tricky, especially if you’re on a budget, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. Many different high quality brands of cameras have both their pros and cons, so what you choose to work with in the end is entirely your decision alone. Nikon and Canon, two of the leading camera companies, have affordable options in midgrade/”pro-amateur” camera. There’s also Sony, Pentax, and Olympus among others. I wouldn’t recommend spending thousands of dollars on the highest end DSLR they have at first unless you magically start off your career as a concert photographer shooting for magazines. I’d like to break down the levels of DSLR so you’ll know what best suits your needs and your wallet.
Level one: Starter DLSRs
Cameras like the Nikon D3100, or the Canon T3i (Digital Rebel XTi) are good DSLR’s to start out with. They’ll get you what you need to start taking great photos in the photo pit at concerts and quite user friendly, and retail around $600-$1000. You can save even more money by just buying the camera body (in concert photography, you won’t need your kit lens, which I’ll explain in a bit) if you’re working with a tight budget. Most of these have high ISO ranges up to 1600 and beyond, which will be fine for most venues and situations, and if you’re just starting out in DSLR photography or have no experience in DSLRs and how they function, go for one of these and practice practice practice. You don’t want to get caught in the photo pit not knowing what you’re doing, because chances are you won’t have time to figure out what you’re doing and won’t be able to get the shots you need (happened to a someone my photographer/friend knew when she went to photograph MCR on their 2008 tour-only one of her photos came out). You don’t want to be that person. This is also a great option if you’ve been working with a specific brand of camera for a while and want to add a different brand to your concert photographer gear as a second camera body. Another note: You’ll probably outgrow your starter dslr within a year or so, so take good care of it so you can resell it on places like amazon or ebay.
Level two: midgrade, “pro-amateur” DSLRs
This level of DLSRs can have a wide range, and if you have a good familiar feel to them and are comfortable with taking it to the next level, this is where you need to start looking. Several examples of mid-range, “pro-amateur” DSLRs are Canon’s 60D (I would’ve recommended the 7d, but it’s been known to have a ghosting glitch in continuous shoot, and that’s not something you want to happen to you while shooting concerts), Nikon D90, Sony a580, and so on. These cameras have better sensors, higher ISO’s (usually up to 3200-which also increases shutter speed), more frames per second, more AF points, and more advanced settings. You can take some seriously stunning concert photos even with starter cameras, but you’ve outgrown your first DSLR or expand your knowledge in DSLR capabilities, this is the route to go. These are an amazing range of cameras that don’t cost thousands of dollars but will give you amazing images. Retail these cameras will usually range between $800 (for camera body only) to $2,000). Be sure to shop for the best price through nextag, read reviews on amazon and photography forums, etc. before picking which one is for you.
Level three: the holy grail of DSLRs
If you’re ready to shoot some serious images, and you have a great extensive knowledge of how DSLRs work in concert photography (and the major money to spend or great credit), it’s time to move to the holy grail of DSLRs. Nikon d3 and Canon MarkIV are some great choices; if I had to pick between the two I’d pick Nikon for concerts and the Canon MarkIV for portraiture work, but both have been known to take some epic quality shots. They can battle against noise in low light settings like no other line of DSLRs, and have incredible megapixels (up to 25 mp), highest of ISO ranges up to 16000, which allows the best photo quality in low light situations like concerts. The price is hefty (anywhere from $2,500 to $8,000 depending on what model you get), but you do get what you pay for. I highly recommend renting one of the models before purchasing and doing extensive research on the web before selecting a professional level DSLR. I highly recommend Lensrentals.com; they have an extensive selection of various lenses and cameras as well as reviews for each item.
Choosing Lenses for concert photography
These lenses are at a fixed focal length, and I recommend either the 50mm 1.4 (or if you’re working with a tight budget, go for the 50mm 1.8 though sometimes a 1.8 struggles to keep focused in serious low light), or if you don’t want something quite as close and are willing to spend more money, I’d go for a 35mm 1.4. These will produce some of the sharpest images of all lenses, with the exception of the 1.2 f stop lenses. They’re also some of the most affordable of lenses. When I started shooting shows, I bought a canon 50mm 1.8 and I still occasionally use it, although I’m looking to get a 50mm 1.4 or 35mm 1.4 sometime in the near future. Below is an example of the sharp images you can get from a prime lens:
Sing It Loud live @ The Metro (taken by yours truly, with a Canon 50mm f/1.8)
Mid-Range: Standard Zooms
These are the concert photography standards, with a range of zoom anywhere from 24-70mm to 24-120 (pictured at the left is a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8). You don’t want anything slower on the f stop than a 2.8 because this will allow maximum light into the camera while enabling the camera to work at the best shutter speed. These standard zooms look great in just about any concert venue, anywhere from small clubs to ampitheatres, and will allow the most flexibility (getting a wide angle with 24mm to a decent close up with 70mm and everything in between). These are a bit more expensive, but this lens will be your best friend when it comes to concert photography. A great alternative is to seek out third party lenses, like Sigma and Tamron, who make lenses for the top brands like Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Olympus, cost less, and almost always perform just as well as name brand glass. Unless you’re a glass snob, this a great route to go. I shoot with a Sigma 24-70mm and it works wonders and isn’t nearly as heavy or as expensive as a Canon 24-70mm.
Yeah Yeah Yeah’s @ The Pageant (taken by yours truly with a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 at 27mm)
These are the motherships of camera lenses. Depending on your needs and the venue, you can choose anywhere from 70-200mm f/2.8 (pictured above left is a Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 for Sony and Pentax) to even more unique fixed “super telephoto” lenses like the 300mm f/2.8 (pictured above right is a Canon 300mm f/2.8). The standard telephoto you’ll need for larger concert theaters will be the 70-200mm, and the smaller the place the closer the shot you’re going to get. That’ll enable you to get incredible close ups where you can practically see the band members sweat pouring and the pores in their skin. A great example of this is the great Steve Mitchell’s close ups of My Chemical Romance in 2005 while they were on Warped Tour. With super telephoto zooms, up to 400mm+, you can get the shots you need if you’re in a situation at a show where you’re only allowed to shoot from the soundboard but need the focal length to get the shots you want. I personally used both my 70-200mm f/2.8 and rented a 300mm f/2.8 for the recent Muse show I photographed in Chicago since we were shooting from the soundboard area. I don’t recommend purchasing a super telephoto, because unless you’re shooting sports photography or from a soundboard full time, there’s no need to fork out $4,000 for a lens with that focal length. I would suggest renting those lenses when they’re needed. However, I DO recommend getting a 70-200mm f/2.8. Again, third party lenses like Sigma and Tamron have some great affordable options for telephotos and perform just as well if not better. The following photos are some examples of shows where I’ve used a telephoto zoom lens:
William Beckett live @ Reggie’s Rock Club (taken with a Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 at 200mm- you can click the link then the “full size” to see even better detail of what a telephoto does.)
Dominic Howard – Muse live @ United Center in Chicago (click link and then full size/original-even shooting from the soundboard, the Canon 300mm f/2.8 was incredible and sharp)
IMPORTANT NOTE: I recently met a photographer from the Chicago Sun-Times, whose been in the concert/sports photography business for 20+ years, and we had a discussion about equipment and concerts, and we both agreed that it doesn’t matter how many fancy cameras you own, the real ability to take great shots is within you. “It’s this,” he said and pointed to his eye, “That’s the real photographer. If you don’t have the eye for it, it doesn’t matter if you have the best camera and lenses on the market.”
Other vital accessories you will need:
Fast, large compact flash/SD cards
Depending on what your camera will use, you want to go into the photo pit with at the very least 4 gb card. I prefer to use 8gb cards, because while shooting in RAW (which I recommend-more on that next week), this will allow you to take up to about 400 photos. Trust me, you’ll take more photos on continuous shoot in concert photography than you’ll ever take in your entire life. You want an SD card that can record images very fast as well, so there’s not a lot of lag from the time you can shoot again. Don’t be caught in the pit with anything less than a 4 gb, or you’ll run out of images to take on your card and this will just aggravate the shit out of you.
Sturdy, large DSLR camera bag
Nothing is more annoying than having to carry around multiple small bags for DSLR and lenses. Trust me, I’ve been there. I spent a good part of 2009 carrying my camera in one hand and a small bag in the other for my standard zoom, but once I got my telephoto, I needed something larger that could hold my cards, my ID, multiple lenses, and camera all at once. It’ll lighten the load and come in handy when you need to walk a distance from your car to the venue, as well as in the pit. Case Logic (pictured at left-what I use) and Kinesis make great camera bags which I highly recommend. These will be pricier than an average sized bag, but again, you get what you pay for and you don’t want back and shoulder problems from lugging around multiple bags at a time. Choose well and choose wisely.
Post Production Software
Two examples of the best editing/post production software out there for photographers are Adobe Lightroom (top-photo courtesy of MiseryxChord) and Apple’s Aperture 3 (bottom-which is what I currently use).
So why can’t I just use photoshop? you ask. You can, and I say definitely encourage using photoshop. However, storing all those RAW image files onto your computer without post production software specifically geared to handle RAW images are going to take up A LOT of space on your computer’s hard drive very quickly (and if you have Windows, forget it-it’ll slow your computer down like molasses). So I advise you GREATLY to use photoshop only as a secondary editing program for your photos.
One of the greatest things about these types of software, like Adobe Lightroom (for both PC/Mac users) and Aperture (Mac only) is that they’re geared to import a large amount of photos from your RAW files on your 8gb card and storing them within the program’s library as little smaller bits of data without compromising image quality. That is, those 400 shots you got of the band you shot earlier that night aren’t going to take up the rest of the space on your hard drive or make it lock up. More specific editing features include RAW image adjusting, noise reduction, enhancing brushes, exposure, histograms adjustments if needed, so on and so on. You can basically look at your batch of photos all at once, select the definite ones that you don’t like, tweak the great ones, and enhance the best shots you got quickly. This will help cut your post production time nearly in half, which is important when you have deadlines to meet. One of the best things about the software is that it’s relatively inexpensive, retailing around $199 (Aperture) and $299 (Lightroom) and each software has an option to test it out for 30 days as a free trial.
External Hard drive = BACKUP, BACKUP, BACKUP!!!!!
Do you see a pattern forming here? Get an external hard drive to store your photos on. Why? 1-you’ll want to keep your unwatermarked originals, 2-even with software that manages RAW files, the space on your hard drive can be compromised after a period of time and you’ll want to keep it managed well, and 3-YOU NEED TO BACK UP YOUR FILES. There’s nothing worse than your computer crapping out on you when unexpected and saying goodbye to your photos forever. I’ve seen people cry over this when I worked in computer/retail) and it’s something they could’ve prevented. Just remember, while even if you have a pimped out Mac Pro with all the bells and whistles, no computer is invincible and will ‘live’ forever. So do yourself a favor, and save an extra $100 or $200, and get yourself a decently sized hard drive (around 500 gb). Be sure to get one with firewire 400 and/or 800. USB only is just too slow if you want back your files quickly. Companies like Western Digital and iOmega have some of the best portable devices as well if you don’t want something very large in size and have many affordable options.
Also, make note you’ll want to get extra batteries to take with you in your bag to shows and/or purchase a battery grip. It’s much like the condom of concert photography. Think of it that way.
Leave any further questions or feedback you have below and I’ll cover them as we go and try to answer them as best as I can! Thanks for reading!