Best Cameras for Concert Photography in 2018
Shooting concerts is one of the most popular entry points for new photographers, and choosing the correct camera for concert photography can be intimidating — especially when the most recommend gear is the most expensive. If you're looking to jump into shooting shows, I've picked 3 of the best concert photography cameras for beginners to fit your budget.
Cameras that perform well in low-light situations are the most well suited for concert photography. Capturing fast movement in the darkness, where you have one opportunity to capture a moment and absolutely zero control over the situation is a photographer’s worst nightmare, and an apt description of most concerts.
If you're searching for the ultra-short version of this post, here are my 3 best recommendations for concert photographers just starting in the field, or those with experience looking to upgrade their camera.
Because of the specific difficulties of shooting shows, a capable camera body is mandatory in setting you up for success. Two of the most important indicators that a camera excels in low-light are the ability to shoot at a high ISO setting while still delivering a usable image, and the ability to autofocus quickly without much light.
Being able to autofocus in low-light situations is self-explanatory — you want to be able to focus accurately and quickly on the artist on stage, even when there’s not much light present.
When you push a camera’s ISO limits to make a properly exposed photo in the dark, you start seeing digital noise, and lose detail in your images. A camera body that can handle high ISO settings well means that your images stay crisp, sharp, and detailed.
This post covers my favorite camera body options for concert photography at the $500, $1000, and $3000 price points, with lots of information presented in beginner terminology for those looking to make their jump into shooting shows. There wasn't much less helpful to me when I was starting out than big tables of numbers comparing specs I didn’t understand, so you’ll find none of that below!
$500 concert photography Camera - Sony a6000
If you’re hoping to get into concert photography, $500 for your first camera body can feel like a huge purchase, but it’s one of the most important investments you can make to set yourself up for success.
At under $500, the Sony a6000 is a bargain. Since its initial release in 2014, the a6000 has been supplanted by 2 newer additions to its line (the a6300 and a6500), however the original a6000 is a fantastic and capable mirrorless camera body for photographing concerts. Due to Sony quickly releasing newer versions of this camera, the price of the a6000 has dropped substantially while the specs of the camera make it anything but obsolete, making it a uniquely as a great and inexpensive choice in 2018.
The a6000 is a great choice for beginning concert photographers because of its relatively low price, ability to shoot well in low-light, and excellent lens choices. Starting with the a6000 starts you in a healthy Sony ecosystem, where a helpful online community has created a huge mass of resources that is invaluable to any beginner hoping to learn what their camera is capable of. As a result of Sony’s increasing popularity, the secondhand marketplace for Sony-friendly gear online makes it very easy to find great deals on lenses, accessories, and other camera bodies in the future.
There are a lot of features that make the a6000 great for music photographers. In the pit, I feel comfortable shooting the a6000 at up to 3200 ISO. The quality of the photos it spits out are excellent, and are certainly usable if published in magazines, or used for posters & artwork — applications that will matter to you if you start getting concert photography gigs. A burst mode of 11 frames per second allows you to capture jumps, guitar flips, and any other quick action onstage. If your interest in concert photography expands into videography, the a6000 doubles as a fantastic & popular starter video camera as well — it’s able to shoot 60fps at 1080p.
As a concert photography camera, the a6000 leaves some features to be desired. Photography beginners may be familiar with the difference between crop and full-frame sensors. The a6000 has an crop sensor, which, in most basic terms, translates to a more narrow field of view.
A piece of information often left out of basic sensor descriptions is that crop sensors don't handle high ISO settings as well as a full-frame camera would, and pushing ISO settings too high in low-light situations, like concerts, results in ugly digital noise on your photos. Fortunately, the a6000 performs well compared to its $500-category crop sensor competition at minimizing digital noise, but when upgrading camera bodies in the future you may want to make the beneficial jump to a full-frame camera body.
The other major weakness of cameras around the $500 level is an inability to focus well in low-light. Camera autofocus systems utilize light and contrast to find their focus, and concert lighting usually leaves much to be desired in this area. The mirrorless a6000’s autofocus crushes those of point & shoot cameras, but compared to more expensive cameras, it performs notably worse.
The past few years have a shown a massive trend towards experienced photographers switching to Sony camera systems. As a result of being the biggest innovator in the industry, beginning photographers can feel very safe about investing into a Sony system — their cameras and lenses will be around for decades to come, and there are great opportunities to upgrade your gear.
I put the a6000 to the test in the photo pit, with the intention of pushing its ISO limits to see how far I could take it, while still getting usable images that I’d feel comfortable delivering to a client.
Sony a6000 — ISO 1,600
If you’re shooting a club show with a bright lighting rig, or a darker show where the subject doesn’t move much, you can get by shooting at ISO 1600. The images the a6000 produced here are totally usable.
Note — in these sample images I provide an original, and an edited image to represent what I would deliver to a client, for the sake of being practical.
Click on the photos to view them larger.
Sony a6000 — ISO 2,000
Not a big step up in ISO, but again, these images are totally usable. You can see noise exists in the image but it’s not overbearing, distracting, or causing loss of detail. I shoot concerts at ISO 2000 regularly, so to me the images below indicate that this is a capable concert photography camera.
Sony a6000 — ISO 4,000
At ISO 4000, it’s evident that you’re losing detail to digital noise. I’d be okay shooting the a6000 at 4000 ISO when it’s absolutely necessary, but at this point you’re going to notice how much better the cameras below can handle low light situations. I personally shoot at ISO 4000 about 15% of the time, and don’t typically use a higher ISO setting than this.
Sony a6000 — ISO 10,000
This is beyond pushing the limits of the a6000, and much of the detail of the photo is lost. I probably wouldn’t deliver an image like this.
Final Thoughts on the Sony a6000
If you want to get into concert photography inexpensively, the Sony a6000 is your camera. It will prove capable in helping you get started, building a portfolio, and getting your first concert photography gigs, all for under $500.
$1,000 Concert photography Camera - Canon 6D
Making the jump to a full-frame camera is likely the biggest camera advantage you can give yourself as a concert photographer. Moving from a crop sensor into full-frame means better performance in low-light, shallow depth of field, brighter viewfinder, wider lens options, and better camera body features that are only present in “pro” full-frame cameras.
The Canon 6D is one of the only available modern full-frame cameras at the $1,000 price point or less. Canon originally released this body in late 2012 as a “prosumer” model, and it resulted in a new full-frame camera being financially accessible by hobbyists for the first time. Canon released a 6D Mark II in 2017, which pushed the price of the 6D down even further.
For beginning concert photographers, the 6D is my most recommended camera, if it’s within your financial means. At $1,000 there is no better deal for a camera that crushes in a dark, concert setting. Compared with the Sony a6000, it's miles ahead. And the difference between the two is much larger than the difference between the 6D and the more expensive pro cameras recommended below.
I personally used a Canon 6D as my main camera body from 2013-2016, and the photos I took with it have been used for album artwork, posters, merch, magazine features, and much more — so the image quality holds up to common uses of a music photographer’s work.
When shooting concerts with the 6D, I’ve been comfortable shooting at 3200 ISO on a regular basis, and even up to 4000 without digital noise making the images unusable. This ISO performance gives flexibility to your other settings, meaning you can use a faster shutter speed or stopping down your lens instead of shooting wide open.
An overlooked trait of a good concert photography camera is durability. Canon’s DSLR bodies can take the heavy wear and tear that comes along with being smashed against stages, barricades, doorways, and other photographers. Not to mention the 6D’s weather sealing can handle a little rain (and sweat).
Despite being the clear best option at $1,000, the 6D has a few drawbacks that hold it back from competing against Canon’s more expensive camera bodies. The most notable I’ve encountered as a concert photographer include the smaller images that the 20.2 megapixel sensor produces, in comparison to more expensive “pro” bodies. Rarely do you get to compose perfectly when shooting a show, so you’re constantly cropping in on your images. It’s helpful to be able to start with a massive image and crop it down, but still be large enough to be usable for social media or even print. Unfortunately the 6D’s 5472 x 3648px files doesn’t provide as much flexibility as, say, the Canon 5d Mark IV’s 6720 x 4480px files.
There are a few other areas of improvement, including only 97% viewfinder coverage instead of the 100% that most pro cameras boast, a smaller continuous shooting buffer that can really screw you over if you shoot heavy bursts often, only one card slot, and a fairly simple AF system. None of these should be dealbreakers if you’re a beginner or even an experienced hobbyist concert photographer, and can only be solved by buying a more expensive camera.
Canon 6D - ISO 1,600
At 1600 ISO, images from the Canon 6D look excellent. Clean and sharp, with very little noticeable digital grain.
Canon 6D - 2,500 ISO
A few notches above at 2,500 ISO, digital noise starts becoming apparent, but is far from being problematic.
Canon 6D - ISO 4,000
Up at 4,000 ISO, you can noise present in the image, especially the shadows, but it's ultimately still sharp and provides plenty of flexibility for editing and pushing shadows. In my years shooting with the Canon 6D, 4,000 ISO was my comfortable limit knowing I'd end up with excellent image quality when I brought them into Lightroom for editing.
Final Thoughts on the Canon 6D
At $1,000, there's no better option available right now for concert photography. The 6D is an excellent low-light camera, and can absolutely be used for professional gigs.
While considering your camera choice, you may want to factor in what camera brand you view yourself growing with. Sony's impressive new cameras and lens options might have some appeal to you if you're making your first big investment in a system — but at the same time, Canon shooters benefit from a vast array of options for both new & used lenses, bodies, and accessories.
$2,000 concert photography Camera - Sony a7 III
If you’re able to invest $2,000 into a camera, the newly released Sony a7 III is the best body you can get your hands on. It’s a mind-blowing low-light camera, with huge selling points for concert photographers. The camera performs extraordinarily well at high ISO settings. And by extraordinarily well I essentially mean… the best. Its low-light autofocus abilities are also worth noting.
Nearly all of the areas where I’ve ever had a bone to pick with Sony are now moot — the a7III has improved battery life, a joystick, and even touchscreen capabilities. The camera has dual SD card slots, can shoot a very quick burst to capture action, and even 10fps when the camera is on silent mode.
I’m trying to think of anything negative I can say about this camera. There’s not much. The LCD screens on the modern Sony cameras are a prone to scratching, but you can get protective films for them. The small size of the bodies makes them feel somewhat delicate, and the amount of things I accidentally smash my camera on in the dark gives me a little concern, but the Sony a7sII (with the same body design) that I’ve had for a few years has held up very well.
Barely worth noting is that the a7III’s 24 megapixel sensor isn’t as impressive as the 42 megapixel sensor in the camera it’s often compared against near the $2,000 price point, the a7RII. The sensor and image quality of the a7III produces images plenty big enough to print, use online, and gives you moderate flexibility to crop in when editing. Besides the sensor difference, the a7III holds a ton of new features and improvements not found in the a7RII.
Compared to the Canon 6D the a7 III is a much more capable concert photography camera. The difference between ISO performance is pretty drastic, and the autofocus in dark situations is also a large step up.
When taking the Sony a6000 to the pit to shoot a few songs of Walk The Moon, I also brought the Sony a7 III so I could make a direct comparison between the cameras.
Sony a7 III — ISO 2,000
Knowing the low-light abilities of the a7 III, I skipped straight to 2000 ISO for my first test. The images are crisp, sharp, and lack any visible digital noise whatsoever.
Sony a7 III — ISO 5,000
This is the lowest ISO setting on the a7 III where I began to see digital noise present in the shadows. Only by underexposing a shot, then pushing the exposure in Lightroom did the noise become an issue at all. I would comfortably shoot and deliver images from a concert at 5000 ISO.
Sony a7 III — ISO 10,000
I managed to once again underexpose the image below, and bump the exposure when editing, which just exacerbates any digital noise in a photo; often making it unusable. But, since the a7 III is a monster of a camera, this image at 10000 ISO is incredibly crisp and has very little detail lost.
Final Thoughts on the Sony a7 III
There's nothing "entry-level" about what the Sony a7 III is capable of, so don't let the marketing fool you — this is one of the best concert photography and low-light cameras on the market. If your budget allows, the a7 III is the right decision.