Best Concert Photography Lenses in 2017 for Canon

Best lenses for concert and music photography on Canon cameras, 2017

I won't make you scroll for it... here are my top picks for the best lens for concert photograph in a few different categories. I've provided more information and descriptions below on each of these and more at different price tiers, and I also describe why I like or dislike each lens in a concert photography context.

Picking The Best Concert Photography Lens for you

The Best 35mm Lens

Canon 35mm f/1.4L II

The Best Ultra-Wide Lens

Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

The Best 50mm Lens

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

The Best Telephoto Lens

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II

The Best 24mm Lens

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II

"If I Had To Pick one Under $1,000" Lens

Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art


 

What makes a "Concert Photography" lens?

Every niche of photography has their own set of challenges, and shooting concerts certainly doesn’t come easy. Moving subjects? Sure. In a dark room? Of course. Constantly changing lighting conditions? You bet. Nothing can make it simple, but having the right gear puts you in the best position to get a good concert photo.

If you're just starting out, it's tough to wade through all the data and opinions out there. I hope to provide some good options at different price points for those looking to get into concert photography but may not have a clear idea of what lenses to invest in.

The best gear doesn’t come cheap, but thankfully there are many options that are more affordable. If you’re starting out in the world of music photography, you’re likely shooting close to the stage in a small club, which gives you more flexibility in lens choice.

Why can't I use my kit lens that came with my camera?

If you are shooting moving musicians on a dark stage, you want your shutter speed to be quick — roughly 1/250 if everyone is moving a lot, otherwise motion blur will be clearly evident in your photos. If you’re shooting with a kit lens that has an aperture of f/4.0, and a shutter speed of 1/250, to properly expose the image you may have to crank up your ISO to 3200 or higher. This is going to result in a very grainy image — perhaps so grainy that it’s unusable, if not simply unappealing.

Take the same constraints; a 1/250 shutter speed trying to expose musicians properly on a dark stage. A lens with a wider aperture, for example f/1.4, lets more light into your sensor. You’d be able to keep your ISO to a manageable 400 to get the same exposed shot as the previous example. 

If you're looking for more information regarding settings for concert photography, check out my other blog post on the subject.

So now that we’ve concluded your kit lens won’t make the cut, let’s talk about what will work. What you’re ultimately looking for in a lens for shooting shows is a fast lens with a wide aperture of f/1.2 - f/2.8 so you can keep your shutter speed up, and ISO down. 

Image Stabilization IN A CONCERT PHOTOGRAPHY CONTEXT

Image stabilization is a popular feature on lenses that helps you take photos at slow shutter speeds without getting a blurry photo.

A rule of thumb for shooting at slow shutter speeds is don't shoot handheld if you have to shoot a slower shutter speed than the focal length of the lens... for example at 200mm, don't shoot handheld slower than 1/200. 50mm -> 1/50. Sounds useful, right? It is, but image stabilization does not provide much of help for concert photography. It's a fantastic feature for taking handheld photos of static subjects in low-light, but when your subject is moving, it won't do anything to decrease motion blur. The only situation where it may be beneficial when shooting a concert is a rare situation when the subject is staying completely still on stage, and you want to capture that moment.

Please note: this post specifically provides information for those with Canon camera bodies with EF or EF-S mounts, though many of these lenses are available on Nikon and Sony mounts as well.


The Best $50 Tier Concert Photography Lens

Mount: Canon EF | Weight: 0.26 pounds

The “nifty fifty” has been the standard recommendation for those starting to shoot concerts for years. The low price tag combined with the 1.8 aperture makes it an excellent choice to wet your feet without spending an excessive amount of money. Until a few years ago, Canon’s offering of a 50mm f/1.8 was the only real choice, but Yongnuo has created a 50mm 1.8 clone that actually outperforms its Canon counterpart in many respects.

Comparisons report that between the speed of the autofucus, accuracy of the AF system, and even physical noise are indistinguishable between the original Canon and it’s Yongnuo counterpart. This lens does suffer from soft parts in the edges of the frame. The optics on either are not excellent compared to more expensive lenses, but you simply cannot beat this lens if you’re on a severely restricted budget. 


The Best $100 Tier Concert Photography Lens

Mount: Canon EF | Weight: 0.4 pounds

Another sub-$100 Yongnuo. 35mm is a classic lens length that is a go-to for many photographers. I don’t know how Yongnuo can produce a lens like this for the price, but with acceptable performance you once again can’t go wrong if you’re on a tight budget.

A word of warning with these Yongnuo lenses, they aren’t going to have the same build quality or optical performance of the other lenses lower on the list. You get what you pay for when it comes to glass.

But these certainly have their place as a budget product that performs acceptably for under $100 where you could spend $2,000 on something comparable. If you get one of these and want to stick with shooting concerts, you’re going to want to upgrade very soon, so just be wary of spending too much on inexpensive glass like this. 


The Best $400 Tier Concert Photography Lenses

Mount: Canon EF | Weight: 0.94 pounds

This lens is timeless. Fantastic optics, autofocus, and build quality are just a few of the strengths of Canon’s 85mm f/1.8. In a sea of wide-angle lenses, it’s the least expensive "long lens" you’ll find, allowing you shoot from the back of most concert venues to get an excellent perspective. This lens is also incredible for portraits, just another added benefit.

Canon makes a much more expensive 85mm f/1.2L that is known as the "ultimate portrait lens" in some circles. The color, contrast, durability, and sharpness are all much better than the 85mm f/1.8. But the 85mm f/1.8 is great lens for a good price.

Mount: Canon EF | Weight: 0.64 pounds

Canon's 50mm f/1.4 is one of the older lenses that's still relevant today. It's a classic, with good autofocus speed, acceptable image quality, and pretty lightweight compared to some modern lenses. There's not much more to say about it; it's a solid all-around performer and works well for concert photography, but there's nothing flashy about it.

In comparison to other 50mms on this list, it's absolutely better than the Yongnuo, but falls short compared to the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art further down on this list. Read more about that lens below.

Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX lens | Lens for low light concert and music photography

Sigma 17-50mm F/2.8 EX - Note, for EF-S cameras only

Mount: Canon EF-S | Weight: 1.19 pounds

One of the less expensive f/2.8 zooms out there on the market. Some people are really into zoom lenses instead of fixed “prime” lenses because of the extra flexibility you get. That often comes at a cost; either a more expensive lens, or a f/4 or so aperture. This Sigma 17-50mm intended for crop sensors looks to provide a happy medium, and at f/2.8 will be able to handle most concerts acceptably. 


The Best $500 Tier Concert Photography Lenses

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X116 Pro DX II - Note: For EF-S cameras only

Mount: Canon EF-S | Weight: 1.21 pounds

The Tokina 11-16mm is perhaps the least expensive introduction into ultra-wide lenses that can operate in low light, with a f/2.8 aperture. This lens is intended for crop sensor EF-S mounts, but does indeed properly mount on full frame EF cameras, but suffers from drastic vignetting at 11mm-15mm focal lengths. If you’re shooting on a crop sensor, I cannot recommend it enough. On a full frame, it’s a spectacular option to keep at 16mm. The performance of this lens rivals some older versions of the much-more-expensive Canon 16mm-35mm f/2.8 that has been a standard in most pro concert shooters’ bags forever.

Sigma 30mm F/1.4 Art DC HSM - Note: For EF-S cameras only.

Mount: Canon EF-S | Weight: 0.96 pounds

The Sigma Art series is one of the most hyped up lines of lenses out there, and for good reason. We'll get to more later. The least expensive of the line is the 30mm f/1.4 meant for crop sensor cameras. The autofocus isn't speedy, but it can find a subject in low-light and is an alright option for shooting shows. When shooting wide open, this lens struggles with image quality on the edges of the frame. This is still a good, affordable option if you're shooting on a crop camera body.


The Best $1,000 Tier Concert Photography Lenses

Mount: Canon EF | Weight: 1.47 pounds

Now we're getting into a big list of Sigma Art series lenses. Sigma launched the Art line of lenses in fall 2012, and the 35mm f/1.4 was the inaugural release. It was an immediate hit. Canon's 35mm f/1.4L I was the reigning king of 35mms, a popular focal length among photographers of all types, but Sigma surprised everyone by releasing their 35mm f/1.4 which was often rated as having better optics, and certainly had a better price tag.

For concert photographers, it's an appealing lens, but it has problems. The autofocus on the earlier Sigma Art series lenses, including the 35mm f/1.4 Art, leave a lot of room for improvement. In tests, Sigma's 35mm f/1.4 takes up to twice as long to focus as the original version of the Canon 35mm f/1.4L. That's a shame. If you can't make the price jump to Canon's new 35mm f/1.4L II (which outperforms the second version in all aspects), you can try to find a used first version of the lens which shouldn't cost more than $900.

Mount: Canon EF | Weight: 1.46 pounds

This lens has no competition for Canon photographers. It's a star. It's literally the fastest ultra-wide angle lens on the market right now. The ability to shoot wide at f/1.4 with a lens that has extraordinary optics quality is a game changer for low-light situations like concerts. One thing to note on the Sigma 20mm Art is that it's front element is bulbous, so it can't accept standard screw-on filters. It's somewhat protected by the lens hood, but if you want filters you'll need to find a square filter kit. But the trade-off between the bulbous front end for the incredible.

As mentioned above, the Sigma Art series lenses encountered some autofocus problems early in their release. By the time the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art was released, those kinks were worked out. The AF on this lens is impressive and certainly acceptable for concert photography. I actually think this is the best concert photography lens you can buy for under $1,000 at the moment.

There's really nothing to compare this lens to, as there's no other fixed Canon mount lenses in the 20mm category. The only comparison would be indirect; Canon's 16-35mm f/2.8. I cover this lens in the next price tier.

Mount: Canon EF | Weight: 1.8 pounds

Their 50mm f/1.4 Art is the best concert photography lens in the 50mm category. It isn't the fastest autofocus lens on the market and sometimes struggles to find a locked focus, but as one of the newer Art series lenses it's improved compared to the earlier performance. It will be good enough for concert photography.

For those wondering where the popular Canon's 50mm f/1.2 is... it sounds like a great music photography lens at face value, but in practice the autofocus is lackluster for this specific type of low-light, fast movement shooting. It produces beautiful images but in a concert photography context there are much better options, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art being perhaps the best concert photography lens available.

 


The Best $1500+ Tier Concert Photography Lenses

Mount: Canon EF | Weight: 1.74 pounds

The new Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III is an excellent lens with a massive price tag. If you're looking for a budget competitor that still performs well, check out the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art I mentioned earlier. But sometimes you really do need to stretch all the way out to 16mm, and the Canon 16-35mm is a versatile lens to keep on your camera during a show.

The previous version of the canon 16-35mm is known to be a bit soft when pixel peeping. The new version, released in fall 2016, is clearly sharper. 

Fantastic performance all around, and can’t be beat in the ultra-wide angle category. This is the ultimate lens to have in the photo pit, giving the opportunity to shoot ultra-wide full stage or crowd shots at 16mm and pull in tighter to 35mm to get a classic framing. The third version of the lens is nearly brand new, and you can find the second version at a significant discount while still getting nearly the same performance.

Mount: Canon EF | Weight: 2.9 pounds

"The best lens I've ever used." That's what nearly everyone reports after they get their hands on Canon's 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. There are multiple versions of Canon 70-200s, but the IS II is the newest... and most expensive. It's inarguably the best lens in the category, and certainly the best lens for concert photography in terms of telephotos.

To put this lens in context for concert photography, it's the gold standard when you want to shoot closeups, or are required to shoot from far away. For example, the back of a venue, or a "soundboard shoot" where any wider lens would be useless. I cannot stress the usefulness of this lens enough, it's probably on my camera 65% of the time during shows.

This lens excels in every performance category, and though image stabilization doesn't help much with concert photography, it's useful when you consider this lens' focal length and how difficult it can be to shoot handheld at those longer focal lengths. The second (current) version of this lens began production in 2010, and holds mild improvements over the first version.

Mount: Canon EF | Weight: 1.43 pounds

I originally included the Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art as a contender in the 24mm category. In almost every test, the Sigma and Canon 24mms perform nearly identically. Where they part ways is autofocus. For concert photographers, autofocus is obviously important. If a lens takes a full second to lock into our subject, they're already across the stage half of the time. Tests show that the Sigma, even in good lighting conditions, takes as much as twice as long to lock focus in comparison to the Canon. That's just unacceptable in a concert photography context.

The Canon 24mm f/1.4L II stands on its own merits. As mentioned, the autofocus is effective and works well in low-light. 24mm isn't the most common focal length, but it's useful for music photographers looking to capture a larger portion of the stage or full body shots. This is the best lens for concert photography in a 24mm focal length.

The second version of Canon's 35mm f/1.4L is an excellent improvement over the first version, and the best in the 35mm class for Canon cameras. Autofocus, optics, color, contrast, weather sealing, durability, and performance in every test is excellent.

It's larger and heavier than the previous version but an impressive upgrade in every respect. The first version of this lens was a fantastic option for shooting shows, and I believe the second, current version to be the best concert photography lens in the 35mm category.


Wrapping it all up...

It’s easy to spend a ton of money on lenses… let’s be honest, most of us have. But lenses are one of those things that are often worth the investment, and the quality of your experience with them is often correlated to how much you invest. Know that there’s a large secondhand marketplace out there for used lenses. There are lots of places to find good deals, just be careful with who you’re dealing with, especially if its over the internet. Spend responsibly!

 

Thanks for reading! If you have any ideas for future posts, videos, or content you'd like to see, please let me know.

 

Here are a couple examples of photos I've taken with some of the above lenses:

Hoodie Allen | Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens | Canon 5dmkii

Hoodie Allen | Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens | Canon 5dmkii

The Used | Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens | Canon 6D

The Used | Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens | Canon 6D

Hoodie Allen | Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens | Canon 5dmkii

Hoodie Allen | Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens | Canon 5dmkii

James Bay | Canon 35mm f/1.4L lens | Canon 6D

James Bay | Canon 35mm f/1.4L lens | Canon 6D

The Used | Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L lens | Canon 6D

The Used | Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L lens | Canon 6D