How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals
I have hinted before that were you focus your camera as important as your composition. So many photographers go eye hunting during a show, always trying to get the focus box on the artist’s eye but that is so difficult as very few cameras have focus points alway to edge of the viewfinder, so most people have to focus and recompose afterward and this slows them down and their framing is off. So we will go over some focus techniques to use with shooting a concert of the festival so that you have more keepers after a shoot.
So we will start with the basics of focusing today and the different options that you can choose from to shoot a show. There are two types of auto-focus shooting techniques that people use. The first technique is called front button focusing. This is the traditional method where the camera focuses on where the shutter button is half-pressed down. Almost all cameras come set to this and it is what people are used to. There is nothing wrong with this method but it is more difficult to focus and recompose because you could accidentally fire off a shot while recomposing.
The second method of focusing is called back button focusing and this is a very popular method when sporting shooters. The way this works is that you set your camera to remove the focus from the shutter button and you use a separate button on the back of your camera. This method means you can focus on an object with one button and recompose and shoot with another. This is a good way to lock focus in on a subject. Either method is fine but you should pick one and practice with it.
Each camera has a slightly different auto-focus system, so I cannot explain each cameras differences, but they are all based on a simple principle. Most cameras will have different auto-focus I would recommend that you enable as many focus points that your camera has, the more the better. I use all the focus points my camera has. Some of the high-end cameras will have some kind of 3D tracking of objects. I use this sometimes but it is not my normal option.
You really need to know the different auto-focus options of your camera. READ YOUR MANUAL. This is really important. You need to know your camera really well and be able to change any of the settings with your eye closed. If you need to change a setting in the dark in a show, you don’t have time to fumble around.
Now on most cameras, you will not have focus points that go all the way to the edge of the frame. So one of the most commonly used methods to focus is to focus the point on the eye, and then recompose and shoot. This method is really popular with back button focus-ers, but I never use this method at shows. I do use back button focusing when I shoot film on the street but never at work. I don’t feel comfortable with it.
I still use front button focusing and I don’t focus and recompose, because I tend to lose shots when I am recomposing after I have focused. What I do when I am shooting an artist, is that I am thinking about my depth of field. I know I cannot get the focus on the eye, it is not possible so I look for other parts of the body to focus on that would keep the depth of field pane roughly to the same level as the eye.
So let’s look at this. Luckily most musicians are slim, so this gives us some easy options to focus on. If you are shooting a male musician, then you ideally want to focus on the musician’s chest. The middle of the cheat is the best option if that is possible. If they are wearing dark clothes and the camera cannot focus on the chest, then you want to move down to the stomach. Those two places of the body should be in-line with the eyes of the artist. One of the benefits of doing this is that by focusing on the stomach or cheat area, you are removing the focus points away from anything that would distract the camera, such as a microphone or a bright light. Nikon D4 was infamous for back focusing at shows when there were bright lights in the background. It was the reason why I sold my D4 and went back to my D3S.
But the problem comes when the artist is on the heavy side. If the artist has some weight around his chest or has a big stomach, then focusing on those points will mean you miss your focus on their eyes, so then you will have to go find another point to focus on. I will usually then focus on the crotch of the artist. The crotch area on any male artist should not be carrying to much weight around it and most males tend to wear jeans on stage. Jeans have zippers which are nice and shiny and shiny things are good for cameras. Cameras can focus on something shiny far easier than on something dark. This is my go-to area for focusing on males when they are moshing on stage. Most musicians with long hair who are moshing on stage will be very difficult to focus on as their hair will be flying all over and the camera will be distracted by it. So at those times, you just got to focus in on the crotch area and then you will have very little problems locking on and staying in focus.
But shooting female musicians is much more difficult. Unless the female musician is extremely small and thin, focusing on the chest area is a bad idea. The breasts of most females with a bra on will extend beyond the focus plane of a lens when shot wide open, so your first target for shooting females should be the stomach. Most female musicians are slim so this should be no problem. I would avoid focusing on a females crotch area unless she is wearing jeans though. Skirts and dresses tend to have frills on them and they can extend post the depth of field plane at times and some females can have a sixth sense and will know you are focusing on an area of their body that they will not feel comfortable with, so I suggest that you pass on the crotch region and stick to the stomach or in extreme cases, I will try to focus on the knees. The knees are usually on the same depth of field plane as the eyes, when someone is standing so this does tend to work. If the female artist is one the heavy side, this becomes extremely difficult.
When dealing with large female artists, this is the one time I will rely on focus and recompose. It is a slower way to shoot but most heavy females will not be running around the stage like crazy so you should have the time to do this
When you are shooting crowd shots, focusing becomes a little easier because you are shooting with wide angle lens, so you will have a ton of depth of field to work with. I usually stop my wide angle lens down to F5.6 and I know that almost everything will be in focus with the lens
But you go to remember the effect of focal length has on depth of field. The wider the lens, the more depth of field that you have but conversely, the longer the lens, the less depth of field that you will have. So when shooting with your long lenses remember that you got to be careful with your focusing. When I am shooting with my 600mm lens, even at F8, I still don’t have a lot of depth of field and my focusing has to be spot on.
Remember that practice makes perfect. You should always be practicing your technique, especially your focusing. A lot of old-time photographers who grow up and used manual focus lens are absolutely brilliant with their cameras auto-focus settings. They understand the depth of field and where to focus, it has become an instinct with them because they practiced the art for so long. It is one of the reasons that I shoot a lot of manual focus lens with my film cameras. Taking great photos is more than just pushing a button. Always remember that.