Camera Settings for Concert Photography Beginners

Dialing in the right settings for concert photography is a challenge, but this guide for beginners will tell you how to adjust your camera's settings up for the best results at shows.

Table of Contents

Concerts can be extraordinarily difficult situations for photographers. Trying to shoot constantly moving subjects in dynamic lighting can result in blurry, dark, or grainy photos. With the right camera settings, you can take great photos even in the most challenging of situations. 

Unfortunately there are no perfect set-and-forget camera settings for shooting shows. Every situation is different, and you’ll need to know how to adjust to what’s happening through your lens — that’s why it’s important to first understand the basics of what your settings are and how to adjust them.

Every situation calls for different camera settings based on a countless number of factors. How much light is present? Is the subject moving? How much depth of field do I want? Is it okay if my photos are grainy? 

Music photographers are often asked specifically “what settings do you use?” Any concert photographer knows that the answer won’t be very helpful, because your settings change constantly depending on the situation.

A lot of photography beginners are drawn to concert photography, because it’s an alluring place to start. You get up close and personal with artists that you enjoy, have the opportunity to capture tons of memorable moments, and get to work on your photography too. Despite the appeal for beginners, shooting a concert delivers photographers some of the worst conditions to take photos. Very little light, constantly changing lighting conditions, and quickly moving subjects make it very tough to get great photos.

When you first start out in concert photography, you’ll likely begin with small local shows to build your portfolio. Sometimes these have some of the worst lighting conditions, making getting good shots really tricky. But frequently at these smaller venues, no one cares if you bring your camera in, and when you’re shooting for yourself the pressure is off and you have a great opportunity to experiment and learn.

With the right camera and lenses for concert photography, along with the proper settings, you’ll be able to take some great live show photos in no time.

If you don’t have a “fast lens” yet, the Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8 is a solid budget lens to start with as your first lens for shooting concerts. 

01

Understanding Your Camera Settings

All of your camera settings combine to result in a properly exposed image. Having a basic understanding of the exposure triangle is important, and helps you understand how you’ll need to change your settings for the situation.

Basically, the exposure triangle states that getting the correct exposure depends on three things:

  • ISO – how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light
  • Shutter Speed – how long the shutter is open to let light in
  • Aperture – the size of the opening in your lens, allowing light in

In concert photography, you’re constantly battling to let in the most light possible. So you want your aperture wide open, ISO high, and shutter speed low… but if you go too far there are consequences for each of these settings. We’ll go through each setting and the repercussions of pushing their limits below.

Camera Mode: Manual

Shooting in manual mode gives you the most control over exposing your image correctly. You want to be able to change your settings quickly to combat changing lighting conditions, especially when shooting concerts.

You may see some people recommend AV (aperture priority) or TV (shutter priority) modes for shooting shows, but I recommend against them as you really want full control over aperture, ISO, and shutter speed to adjust to the situation. There are too many factors to just “lock-in” your aperture or shutter speed and not worry about them. The other upside is that shooting manual will quickly force you to learn how each setting affects your image and you’ll become a better photographer because of it!

Shutter Speed: 1/250 or faster

You ideally want your shutter speed to be as fast as it can be without having to push the limits of your other settings to get a bright enough image. If you reference the exposure triangle above, you can see that if you have a slow shutter speed, you’re allowing more light into the sensor resulting in a brighter image. But if your shutter speed it too slow, you get motion blur when subjects move in your frame. This is a big problem in concert photography, where your subjects are constantly moving and you really need to freeze motion. When the most iconic moments of a set are a big jump or a a swinging guitar, you do not want those images to come out blurry.

1/250 is a good baseline, but not a hard rule. It will capture most motion well, and let in enough light so you won’t have to push your other settings too far. If it’s a brightly lit show, and conditions allow you to increase your shutter speed to something like 1/400 or 1/640, you’re going to freeze motion really well.

In extreme low light conditions, you may have to lower your shutter speed below 1/250. You can do this, but I’d be very careful about going any slower than 1/100 even if the subjects aren’t moving much. It’s hard to tell on your camera’s preview screen if you’re getting a small amount of motion blur, but it will really suck if you get home and look at them and they all lack sharpness.

Here are a couple good examples of “freezing motion” for an iconic moment.

 

By using a fast shutter speed, I was able to freeze-frame this jumping shot; one of the coolest moments of the show.

Settings: Shutter Speed 1/400, Aperture f/2.8, ISO 2000

GearCanon EOS 5D Mark IICanon 16-35mm f/2.8L II

Aperture: f/1.4 - f/2.8+

To shoot concerts, you really do need a specialized “fast” lens that allows for a low f-number aperture. They’re often really expensive, but there are lenses for any price point. These lenses let in more light so that you won’t have to make your shutter speed really low or ISO really high (we’ll get to that in a moment) to get bright enough photos. You can see the correlation back up in the exposure triangle chart.

You’ll often shoot “wide open,” meaning the lowest f-number your lens allows for. The one downside of this is that the lower f-number you’re set at, the smaller depth of field you’ll have, and your image isn’t as sharp as a higher f-number. This can result in you missing your focus point, but good lenses and cameras make this less of an issue.

Having a low depth of field can be an awesome effect to utilize, even if it means missing a few more shots. It can make your photos stylized and more interesting, especially if you’re up close to your subject. It effectively separates your subject and the background. Here are a few examples.

In this image, you can see how the subject’s entire body is in focus, while the hands ahead and behind his depth of field plane, as well as the cloud and building in the back are blurry.  (AFI in Brisbane, Australia)

Settings: Shutter Speed 1/2000, Aperture f/1.8, ISO 100

GearCanon EOS 5D Mark IISigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

You’ll notice that the drumset and back of the stage behind the subject are blurry, as well as the front of the stage with the mic cord. There is a very narrow plane of this image that is in focus – maybe 6 inches or so. You can identify this by noticing how the subject’s face and shoulders are in focus, but the closest end of the microphone as well as his left elbow are out of focus. (Letlive. in Perth, Australia)

Settings: Shutter Speed 1/500, Aperture f/1.4, ISO 1000

GearCanon EOS 5D Mark IICanon 35mm f/1.4L

ISO: 500-3200

The effect of ISO on your photos is pretty simple; if your ISO is high, you’ll get grain or noise in your photo, if it’s low then you won’t. 

If you’re struggling to take bright enough photos, ISO may be the first setting you want to adjust. A little extra grain in your image beats having a blurry photo of the most important photo of the night that you’d get from having your shutter speed too slow. Usually you’ll be shooting with a wide open aperture so you can’t adjust your setting further to get more light; that leaves ISO. 

Some cameras handle high-ISO grain better than others. If your camera doesn’t handle ISO well, you’ll end up with a photo that has large, ugly grain that destroys detail and makes it unusable. Some impressive DSLRs performers on the Canon side include the Canon EOS 6D and Canon EOS 5dmkiii. With cameras like these, you’ll be able to adjust your ISO to high levels like 6400 without ending up with an image that is too grainy to use.

Regardless of your camera, I suggest starting your ISO at 500 or so, and then quickly adjust the setting up to 2000 if you need your image to be brighter. Your sweet-spot should be between 100-1250 before you start getting noticeable grain. You’ll want to test your camera out to see how it looks at higher ISO levels than that – if it doesn’t look great you’ll want to start adjusting your shutter speed or aperture to get additional exposure stops.

Here are some examples of high ISO photos:

You can clearly see the grain in this photo, it’s especially evident in the midtones. Even with my shutter speed very slow and my aperture wide open I had to crank up my ISO a lot. Thankfully it’s still a usable image, since the Canon 6D performs pretty well with a high ISO setting. (PVRIS in San Antonio, TX)

Settings: Shutter Speed 1/160, Aperture f/2.8, ISO 5000

GearCanon EOS 6DCanon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

You can clearly see the grain in this photo, it’s especially evident in the midtones. Even with my shutter speed very slow and my aperture wide open I had to crank up my ISO a lot. Thankfully it’s still a usable image, since the Canon 6D performs pretty well with a high ISO setting. (PVRIS in San Antonio, TX)

Settings: Shutter Speed 1/160, Aperture f/2.8, ISO 5000

GearCanon EOS 6DCanon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

White Balance: Auto WB

Leaving your white balance on auto is the best thing you can do as a beginner. As you get a grip on the rest of your camera’s settings, you can start learning a bit more about how white balance works, and how you can adjust it to get consistent colors throughout your entire set of images. However in situations like concerts, the lights are often changing colors which make this less of a benefit. As long as you are shooting RAW and not JPEG, you’ll be able to adjust your color temperature and tint in editing software like Adobe Lightroom.

Autofocus: AI-Servo

The Nikon equivalent to AI-Servo on Canon is AF-C. This is a continuous focus mode, which helps to track your subject and focus point as they move through the frame. When shooting quickly moving subjects like concert photographers almost always do, continuous focusing AF is a big benefit.

A helpful technique for concert photographers to learn is back button focus, which allows you to set another button on your camera to be in charge of focusing. Check out my post on back button focusing where I explain it in detail.

Drive mode: Continuous

Any DSLR will have a continuous shooting mode, where you’re able to take a ton of photos in succession. At first, you’ll probably accidentally take photos when you don’t mean to by pressing down the shutter just a little too long or too hard. You’ll quickly learn how to apply the right pressure to only shoot a bunch of frames in a row when you want to.

This is of course an important mode to capture the iconic moments of a set; a jump, spin, hair-flip, etc. You’ll want to make sure you get the highest point of the jump, for example, and instead of just taking one shot and hoping you got it, shooting in continuous lets you get a bunch of frames of the whole thing so you can select the best one. 

Metering: Spot metering

Your camera’s metering setting has no effect on the exposure you’re shooting in manual mode. If you’re using a different mode, like AV or TV, metering works by automatically changing settings on your behalf to get the correct exposure. However when looking through your viewfinder in manual, the meter can be used as a guide in figuring out how to expose your image well.

When looking through your camera’s viewfinder, you’ll be identify to find your meter easily. When the indicator is to the right, your image is overexposed based on the in-camera meter setting. When it’s to the left, it’s underexposed.

Because there’s so much contrast between the artist and background, some metering modes give you more useful readings than others. Spot metering is typically the most useful mode for concert photography, and it works by assessing how to properly expose only one point; your focus point. This is useful because your focus point will almost always be the artist’s face, which is the part of the image that is the most important to properly expose.

Other metering modes aren’t as helpful in a concert photography context. Evaluative (or “matrix”) metering calculates exposure with your focus point in mind, but also factors in other parts of the image as well. This can be excellent for other uses, but when shooting shows, the only exposure reading that matters is the artist’s face or specific feature you want to expose for. Center-weighted metering measures only the center of the frame. This is also not ideal, because we are not consistently framing our subjects in the exact center.

Image Quality: RAW

RAW images have some huge benefits over JPEG images. RAW files store much more information, which allows you to take your photos into an editing software like Adobe Lightroom and adjust white balance, exposure, and many other settings. This is an incredible advantage! You can get some of your settings wrong, or be slightly off, and still end up with a fantastic final photo. You’re also able to heavily adjust your shadows and highlights and retain a ton of detail, which makes editing much easier. Because of these abilities, RAW files are much larger than JPEG. Despite the size difference, it is not worth shooting in JPEG. SD and CF cards are inexpensive these days, and so are hard drives.

Here’s a non-extreme example of the flexibility shooting in RAW can give you:

Before

If this was shot in JPEG, a lot of the shadow details would be completely lost in the editing process, as you can see most of this image is very dark. (Our Last Night in London, UK)

Settings: Shutter Speed 1/640, Aperture f/1.4, ISO 1250

GearCanon EOS 5D Mark IICanon 35mm f/1.4L

After

But after editing, I’m able to bring up my shadows drastically, change the colors, and I’ve kept my highlights from becoming blown out as well. Shooting in RAW gives you tons of flexibility when editing. (Our Last Night in London, UK)

Settings: Shutter Speed 1/640, Aperture f/1.4, ISO 1250

GearCanon EOS 5D Mark IICanon 35mm f/1.4L

 

Camera Settings for Concert Photography in Practice

If you put together everything you’ve learned here, you’ll be shooting while adjusting your settings effortlessly in full manual mode in no time! 

When I first get into the photo pit, I’ll usually start with my aperture wide open, my shutter speed to 1/250, and my ISO at about 640. As soon as the set starts, I will adjust my settings to fit the situation – if it’s too dark still and I need brighter images, I’ll turn my ISO up. If it’s too bright, I’ll adjust my shutter speed to be a bit faster. It’s all about experimenting and knowing how changing your settings will affect your final image.

2 free Lightroom Presets to up your concert photography game, right to your inbox

Join over 5,000 other music photographers on my email list to get exclusive presets, digital content, and a buncha free stuff.