Best Concert Photography Lenses for Canon in 2018

Canon 5d Mark IV — Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II

Canon 5d Mark IV — Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II

Every niche of photography has their own set of challenges, and shooting concerts certainly doesn’t come easy. Moving subjects? Yep. 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 take great photos at concerts.

If you're just starting out, it's tough to wade through all the data and opinions out there. This article will provide some solid options for lenses fitting different budgets those new to concert photography but may not have a clear idea of what lenses to invest in, or helpful recommendations for more seasoned concert photographers looking to add to their kit.

The gear that performs the best in a concert setting is often some of the most expensive, but thankfully there are more affordable options. 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.

Table of Contents

  1. First Concert Photography Lenses
    • Best Lens For $50 — Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8
    • Best Lens For $350 - Canon 50mm f/1.4
  2. Best Fast Prime Lenses
    • Best 35mm — Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art
    • Best 50mm — Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art
  3. Best Telephoto Lens
    • Best Telephoto — Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II
    • Best Budget Telephoto — Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC G2
  4. Best Ultra-wide Lenses
    • Best Ultra-wide Lens — Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III
    • Best Budget Ultra-Wide Prime — Sigma 20mm f/1.4
    • Best Budget Ultra-Wide — Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

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

Kit lenses are typically optimized for the average camera user, whereas lenses used for shooting concerts are more specialized, and allow you to shoot at a wider aperture.

If you are shooting moving musicians on a dark stage, you want your shutter speed to be quick — roughly 1/400 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. 

Do I need a lens with Image Stabilization?

Image stabilization (stylized IS, VC, OSS depending on the lens manufacturer) is a popular feature on modern lenses that is designed to prevent camera shake from negatively affecting a photo.

When shooting handheld at slow shutter speeds, especially with a longer lens, camera shake can become apparent in your photos. The way image stabilization works to prevent this is by sensors in the lens detecting camera movement, then causing elements within the lens to shift and counteract the shaking movement of the camera.

This means that image stabilization can be useful when shooting at extra slow shutter speeds, but it won't do anything to slow down a moving subject. And if your subject is moving, then you should be shooting at a fast enough shutter speed like 1/400, where handheld camera shake isn't an issue in the first place.

Because of this, image stabilization isn't used often in concert photography, except for the unique situation where you may be photographing a non-moving artist in low-light, and you have the option to drop your shutter speed very low, and image stabilization could benefit you.

First Concert Photography Lenses

Let's kick this off with the lenses I recommend to all concert photography beginners as their first lenses. These are inexpensive but functional lenses that will work as a great starting point for shooting shows, and give you a feel for what glass you might want next.

These lenses will work great in small bars and clubs, where you can get close to your subjects and don't have much available light.

Best Lens for $50

Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8

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There isn't a cheaper lens than this, and it just so happens to be a great starter lens for concert photography.

The low price tag combined with the 1.8 aperture makes it an excellent choice to wet your feet without spending much money.

Between the speed and accuracy of the autofocus system, this lens is definitely sufficient for shooting concerts.

The optics on either are not excellent compared to more expensive lenses, and this lens does suffer from soft parts in the edges of the frame, but you don't have any other options if you’re on a super restricted budget. 

Best Lens For $350

Canon 50mm f/1.4

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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 physically 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.

A bit of a price jump, but this lens is a notable upgrade from the Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8, and if your budget can reach this far, I would highly recommend this lens as an alternative to start with. Your photos will look a lot better and it will focus in low-light much more accurately and quickly.

Best Fast Prime Lenses

If your budget has a little more flexibility, jumping to one of these lenses below will put you at a serious advantage shooting shows. These prime lenses are sharp, fast, and the best low-light performers you can put on your camera. If you're looking to upgrade from a starter lens to something that will give you better images, this is the category you want to take a look at.

35mm and 50mm are two of my favorite focal lengths to shoot concerts at, and these lenses will work great for every situation where you are able to shoot in the photo pit or on-stage, close to your subjects.

Best 35mm Prime Lens

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art

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My recommendation for a 35mm prime lens is the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art. This lens stacks up as a great lens for concert photography, and has excellent sharpness and image quality for a solid price. 

The one downside of this lens is the slow autofocus speed in comparison to the (much more expensive) Canon 35mm f/1.4L II, which is a shame. But the price difference between the two lenses is so substantial that jumping to the Canon 35L should only be a consideration if your budget is limitless.

As a middle ground, the original Canon 35mm f/1.4L I can be found in used marketplaces for a similar price as the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art, and has a better performing autofocus system and comparable image quality — however you'll be hard-pressed to find it sold new anywhere as it's been replaced in the Canon lineup by the second version of the lens.

Canon 5d Mark III - Canon 35mm f/1.4L I

Canon 5d Mark III - Canon 35mm f/1.4L I

Best 50mm Prime Lens

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art

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The Sigma 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 lock focus, but as one of the newer Sigma 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 one of the best concert photography lenses available.

Canon 5d Mark III - Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art

Canon 5d Mark III - Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art

Best Telephoto Concert Photography Lenses

One of the best additions to your kit as you start shooting at larger venues is a telephoto lens. A lot of photographers don't pick up a longer lens until they've been shooting music for a while, because they're fairly expensive and aren't very useful when you're close up with your subjects.

A good longer lens like these will let you shoot from the crowd, get tighter shots from the pit, and make your work more versatile. A 70-200mm alone will open up a whole new style of shooting for you, and when you start shooting in bigger venues, one of these lenses is almost mandatory. I almost always have a 70-200mm on me at all times during a show.

Best Telephoto Lens

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II

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One of the best lenses I've ever used. There are multiple versions of Canon 70-200s, but the IS II is the newest... and most expensive. It's one of the best concert photography lenses that exists today.

The Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II is 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, or at larger venues such as amphitheaters or arenas where the photo pit is tall or the stage is large. I cannot stress the usefulness of this lens enough, it's on one of my cameras about 90% of the time.

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. 

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II Example

Budget Telephoto Lens

Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC G2

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The Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC G2 was released in 2017 and is an impressively comparable lens to the gold-standard Canon 70-200mm at a lower price tag. 

Image quality comparisons show nearly identical results between the two, with some minor differences. With performance so similar, reasons to pick the Canon over the Tamron include the impressive weather sealing, and the popularity of the Canon 70-200mm in the secondhand market, making it very easy to sell if you ever wanted to.

But other than that, the Tamron is a fantastic option to pick up, especially as your first telephoto — and you can save a few hundred bucks by doing so.

Best Ultra-Wide Concert Photography Lenses

An ultra-wide is one of the first additions you'll want to make to your concert photography lens lineup. Many photographers like to pick one of these up early because of the how useful they are for massive crowd shots. Wide crowd shots that show how massive the show is are pretty valuable to most clients.

Best Ultra-Wide Lens

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III

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The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III is a high performing lens... with an equally high price tag. 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.

If you're looking at the specs alone, the Canon 16-35mm listed here is the best performer, and the ultimate ultra-wide to have in your bag.

Version III of this lens is the current generation, and it's considerably sharper than the previous ones. If you're looking for comparable option that still performs well, skip down to the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art.

Canon 5d Mark III - Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L

Canon 5d Mark III - Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L

Best Ultra-Wide Prime Lens

Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art

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This lens has no competition in its category. It's a star. 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. The autofocus is snappy, and the images sharp and clean.

If you can afford missing out on the flexibility the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III gives you in length, this lens will give you a notable improvement at the darkest shows, and afford you some fun depth of field to work with while shooting ultra-wide... and all for under $1,000 which is kind of crazy.

One thing to note on the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art is that it's front element is bulbous, so it can't accept standard screw-on filters. For someone who throws filters on everything because my gear gets smashed constantly, that can be a bit concerning. The element is reasonably protected by the non-detachable lens hood, but if you want filters you'll need to find a square filter kit.

Canon 5d Mark III - Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art

Canon 5d Mark III - Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art

Best Budget Ultra-Wide Lens

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

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The Tokina 11-16mm is the least expensive introduction into ultra-wide lenses that can operate in low light, with a f/2.8 aperture. I used this lens for years and it's still my go-to recommendation for a concert photographer's first ultra-wide.

This lens is designed for crop sensor EF-S mounts, but does properly mount on full-frame cameras — however it suffers from drastic vignetting at the 11mm-15mm focal lengths. Despite this, shooting at 16mm on a full-frame sensor with this lens produces good images with an acceptable amount of vingetting. The image quality and sharpness of this lens aren't top notch, but since it's so wide you can get away with it. If you can afford to get the other ultra-wides listed here, there's a big jump in performance between them.

The performance of this lens compares okay when held up against the oldest version of the (more expensive) Canon 16mm-35mm f/2.8L, but for the price you can't really beat it.

Canon 5d Mark II -  Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

Canon 5d Mark II -  Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8