Concert Photography Lesson 3
In the last two lessons, we looked at the gear that is used to shoot a concert and the basics of composition, but in today lesson, we look at the most important thing. The art of exposure and how to control it in a show. Shooting a concert or a live music show is all about controlling your exposure, using your eye. Your camera’s meter inside will have great difficulty getting a correct exposure because of the all bright spotlights in the background and the consistent flashing of the lights. If you shoot in any of the automatic modes, you will get a lot of overexposed or underexposed images, some of them will be over or under lite by as much as three full stops of light or more.
There are some basic rules to help set up and maintain the correct exposure in a shoot. We will be looking at the different aspects of setting up the exposure, maintaining the correct exposure and how to deal with difficult lighting situations.
Generally speaking, the big famous bands will have great lighting, and the smaller lesser know bands will have some terrible lighting to deal with. This sucks but it means that the bigger and famous bands are easier to shoot but the smaller bands which are easier to get access to are more difficult to shoot.
But it does not matter if the lighting is great or terrible. Once you are comfortable in shooting a show manually, getting the correct exposure is no problem.
When it is show time, the first thing you should do is get your pass and meet the security, after that you should try to get into the pit and inspect the lights so you know what you are dealing with. I always try to get to a show a few hours early so I have a lot of time to meet people and have a look at the lights. If you can meet the lighting guy, that is even better, but sometimes they are really busy and don’t have time to talk to a photographer. Once you have seen the stage and the lighting setup, then it is time to set up your camera for the show. For each show, there are some things that you should always do.
Step 1. Setting up the camera to use the correct auto-focus system.
Step 2. Set the camera to manual mode.
Step 3. Setting up the correct white balance.
Step 4. The Rule of 4 and 8
Step 4. Shooting and adjusting.
First, let’s look at setting up the camera and the settings you should be using. The very first thing you should do when you are going to shoot a concert is made sure your camera is set up correctly, that means making sure you are using continuous auto-focus, that your camera metering is set to spot metering. We will be shooting in manual mode but we use spot metering as a safety net. If the meter in the camera is shooting at you for being very under or overexposed, then it is time to chimp quickly at one shot to double check your exposure. For each camera, the steps to do this is different. If you don’t know how to set up your different auto-focus settings or how to put your camera into manual mode, then you are not ready to be shooting a show. If you are stuck, there are tons of basic shooting guides on the internet to go and watch.
This is set once and forget. After you have set your camera to these settings, they become unimportant unless you accidentally bump then. When you are waiting for a show to begin, make sure that you are constantly checking your camera is set up right. It is so easy to bump a dial and screw up your shot.
The easiest step for you to do, make sure the camera is set to manual mode to shot in. Again each camera is different, so you need to check your camera manual if you cannot figure this out.
Now comes the important parts for shooting and this starts with the most overlooked part of shooting a show, and that is setting the correct white balance. You should not use auto-white balance when you are shooting. White balance can affect your exposure in ways you would not expect. So let’s look at some examples. Now, most stages will use a combination of LED and spotlights to light the stage. Spotlights are easy to deal with but LED is a complete nightmare.
Now if a show is lite completely with stage spotlights, or only with LEDs, then it is easier than when it is combined. The problem is that different lights use different color temperature and generally speaking, a red light will be a little brighter than a blue light to the naked eye, so when you look at a very red image on your camera LCD screen, you might think it is underexposed but as soon as your correct the white balance, you may release that the exposure is fine. The same goes for a very blue light. You might think that the image is overexposed but as soon as you correct the white balance, the exposure is fine. This is one of the reasons why so many concert shots are converted to black and white because the photographer screwed up the exposure when he did not have the correct white balance settings and in a post, he had little option but to convert the image to black and white and do some adjustments there. Always remember that black and white is the easiest way to hide exposure mistakes on the stage because a grainy photo in black and white can he artistic to some people.
So when you are going to shot a show, the first thing you should look at is the lights, if you can, get access to the stage walk around the pit and look at the lights, and the angles of the lights. If there is a lot of LEDs around, then you know that the light temperature is going to be very red, so you got to change the color temperature to very blue. If I see a lot of stage lights, then I know that I need a warmer white balance in my setting. Now the white balance just needs to be roughly correct to help you with the exposure. You will set the final exposure in post-processing.
You want the almost correct white balance to help you control the exposure. Generally speaking, my setting for a lot of LEDs is around 2500K and usually, that will be dropped down to 2000K in post. I wish my Nikon would be able to shoot at 2000K but you got to work within the bounds of your gear.
If the stage is mostly lite with spots or stage lights, then my white balance setting is usually around 4000K. But each stage is different and you will have to find the perfect setting for each stage. There is no one setting suits all situations. The main idea with correct white balance is that it helps you get the correct exposure if you are chimping.
Once you set up the metering system, and you got the white balance setup, the next step is setting up a basic exposure setting. As photographers at a show, we cannot control the lighting or use our own lighting tools, so our tools to control the lighting is aperture and shutter speed. Shows can be extremely difficult to shoot or extremely easy and a lot of this depends entirely on the lighting design or set up on the stage.
I have to rules that I give to my assistants to help them set up a basic exposure for shooting in day time and night time. For day time, I have my assistants shoot something that I call the rule of 8s.
This is really easy to remember. You set ISO to 100 or 2oo, set your aperture to F8 and your shutter speed to 800. It is the basic exposure setting that you start from and you adjust the setting from there. If it is extremely sunny and bright, then you increase the shutter speed and if it is overcast and a little dark, you adjust your shutter speed and ISO accordingly. More on shutter speeds a little later. Shooting in the day time is really easy because you should have a lot of depth of field, lots of light and fast shutter speed. So you can just concentrate on composition.
But once the sun sets and the lights come on, then getting the correct exposure becomes more difficult. I usually tell my assistants to use the Rule of 4. The rule of four is a rough guide to exposure at concerts when looking to set up at the beginning. The rule of 4 works like this. You set your ISO at 4000, your aperture at F4 and your shutter speed at 400. This is a good basic setting that you can adjust very quickly.
Now if you have had the basic Rule of 4 setups and the show begins but the lighting is worse than you imagined, there is a systematic way that you should change your exposure. The first step to increase your exposure should be to go from F4 to F2.8. That is a full stop of light. If you need more light, then you can drop your shutter speed next until the focal length of your lens and this is also dependent on the type of artists that you are shooting. More on this later in the lesson. But if you drop your shutter speed from 400 to 200, that is another full stop of light that you have increased.
Now the shutter speeds that you should use is dependent on the lens focal length that you use and the type of artist that you shoot. If your lens has some kind of image stabilization on it, then that can help with some artists but not all artists. So here is a list of shutter speeds that you should remember for the different artists that you shoot.
A punk or metal band should always have a shutter speed of 400 or more. You need 400 or higher to freeze the hair, nail the jumps and stomps shots. These artists just move around too quickly to shoot at a slower speed
A soft or classical rock band, you need a shutter speed of 200 or more. Under 200 is just too slow to freeze the guitarists.
A pop band with lots of dancing will need a shutter speed of 320 or more
A pop artist who is very stationary and just sings into the microphone and walks around, you can get away with a shutter speed of about 100.
A folk singer or a guitarist who sits down, you can shoot at a shutter speed of around 60 or faster.
The drummer. The drummer will always need a shutter speed of 640 or higher to freeze them. Their arms move very quickly at times, so you need the fastest shutter speed you can get in your lighting conditions. For drummers, faster is always better
Now all these shutter speed recommendations are just a rule of thumb or a starting guide. You need to adjust them on the fly when you are shooting. Just don’t be the fool who comes back from a show and wonders why all his images are out of focus after shooting a punk or metal band with a shutter speed of 50. Motion blur has its place in photography, but generally, in music photography, motion blur is our enemy. No one likes to see him in a photo.
Now, what do you do if you have reached your limit of shutter and aperture and it is still too dark, then you start to increase your ISO? Don’t fair the noise. The way noise works with DSLR is that the out of focus parts and the dark parts of an image tends to get noisy, while the focused parts and well-exposed parts tend to not be too noisy. I shoot many shows at ISO 8000 or 10000 and I have not gotten a single complaint from a magazine or newspaper editor, about an image being too noisy. A newspaper or magazine editor never zooms into an image at 100 % to view it, only photographers do that. So don’t be afraid of raising the ISO.
So if you have dropped your shutter speed and you have dropped your aperture to the lowest possible f-stop, then you should start to raise your ISO in half stop increments, so go to ISO 5000, then 6400 until you either hit the max ISO you are comfortable shooting at for your camera. This is where knowing your camera is so important. You need to know what your camera is capable of doing and what you are capable of doing with it. When I used to shoot a lot with my D700, I was only comfortable going to ISO 4000 for color shots and ISO 6400 for black and white shots, with my Nikon D3s and D4, I am very comfortable at ISO 8000 and if I am sure I nailed the exposure, then ISO 10000 is no problem. Any higher and the image has to go to black and white. Know your camera, and know how to change the setting of the camera with your eyes closed. The camera is our tool and we must be an expert with it.
Shooting manually means being able to shoot and change settings quickly and accurately. You got to be able to change the settings of your camera without looking at it. You must master your camera to be able to shoot quickly under pressure.
Difficult shooting situations
Now there are some difficult situations that I would like to talk about that you may experience when shooting in the pit and how to overcome these. The first is a newish kind of problem that has cropped up over the last couple of years. The problem of the giant LCD screen behind the artists. These screens can be a huge pain in the ass for even seasoned pros. The reason why they can become so difficult is that they can become very bright and while the artist is in front of the screen, all that light from the LCD screen will wrap around him, making it very hard for your cameras to focus on him, it will wash away all the contrast from the image and makes getting the correct exposure almost impossible unless you are either shooting manually and you know how to deal with this or you pop off a shot with flash. I will fire any of my assistants who shoot with a flash as it is disrespectful to the artist. I have solved the problem by using angles in the pit and being patient.
If you are shooting with a bright LCD screen in the background, do not shoot the artists from the center for the pit, make your way to the artist’s open-side, and shoot the artist from a 45-degree angle. This will help to eliminate a lot of the light wrapping you are getting from the screen and it will help with auto-focus. I normally also change my ISO to about one stop lower for these kinds of shots as the light bleeding that you will get from the LED screens tend to bounce off everything.
The next biggest problem you will have with regards to exposure is when a show has no front lighting and they are lighting the show from the sides and from above. What this means is that the stage is usually very bright but the artists face is very dark. This is a tough situation to deal with as the dynamic range is huge in the case and may be more than your digital camera could deal with.
If I am faced with this situation, I normally then expose for the brightest part of the body of the artist, because I know that with my cameras I can recover shadow detail in post much more easy that if I had to clip the highlights in the image. I always tell my assistants to remember that a little dark is much better than a way to bright. In these situations, I usually use an adjustment brush in Lightroom and increase the highlights and shadows on the artists face by 10% in a post and this is usually enough to recover there face in the image. I will show the post-processing of images in another lesson in the future.
The final advice that I will give for exposure is how to chimpy correctly in the pit. Chimping is not about checking focus. You got to trust your camera’s autofocus. Chimping is all about checking your exposure. If you are not sure if your exposure is correct, you chimp with the last shot very quickly, you just preview the image on the screen and check to see if you are over or underexposed. You don’t zoom in, you don’t check composition, you only have time to check the exposure. A quick chimp should be less than one second. Any longer than that and you are missing shots on the stage.
To round this up, you use the Rule of 4 to set up the basic exposure, then once you got the basic exposure set, you ride your shutter speed higher or lower as the light changes. Use your eyes as it shoots. If the lights look like it is getting brighter, you increase the shutter speed, if it is getting darker, you decrease the shutter speed until you are uncomfortable and then you reach for aperture or ISO to help you. But you always ride the shutter for as long as possible. But use common sense, if you are shooting in a very dark environment, and then they put on a lot of stage lights, don’t raise your shutter speed to 4000, if your shutter speed is that high, then it is time to drop your ISO down. You have got to learn to guess the exposure values just using your eyes.
Guessing exposure values used to be easy for people who came from the film world and there cameras had no meters in them. They had a well-trained eye for exposures and they could set their cameras very quickly. A lot of street photographers today live by the Sunny 16 rule to set their exposures. Train your eye to do this. It is not that hard to do and you can learn to do it quickly. If you are sitting in a room or walking somewhere, ask yourself what ISO would you use here, and what shutter speed and aperture to get the exposure. Guess it and then either take out a camera and see what its meter gives you or I often use a light meter app on my phone to check the exposure. I do this almost every day when I am sitting on a bus on the train. As photographers, we have to train like any other kind of artist. I will do another lesson in the future about training in photography.
But that is all for today. We covered the basics on how to set up and shooting in manual mode in a concert or music festival, but these rules apply to all kinds of photography. If you can shoot a concert or festival in full manual mode, you can shoot anything. Next week we will look at the basic workflow of a concert shot. From preparing for the shoot, shooting the gig and the basic workflow of processing and delivery the images to your clients.
Until next week, keep shooting and have fun.