How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 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.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

Most photographers try to get the focus point on a camera over the eyes of the subject. We want the eyes to be in focus and to be sharp so that is normally a good strategy for a photographer.

 

 

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.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

Front Focusing is the standard focus method that most cameras ship with. The shutter button also activates the auto-focus system when you press the shutter button halfway down. So focusing and shooting a photo are tied into one button.

 

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.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

With back button focusing, you use a button on the back of your camera to engage the auto-focus system and you use the front shutter button to take the shot. So the two systems are separate.

 

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.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

Most cameras have many types of auto-focusing systems built in them. I would recommend that you select the auto-focus system with the most focus points.

 

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.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

Most cameras focus points don’t extend to the edge of the frame, and the focus points tend to be grouped in the center of the frame. Very few cameras have focus points towards the edge of the frame.

 

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.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

With almost any shot, the eyes are the most important aspect. If you have a great shot but the eyes are soft and not in focus, then the shot is useless. You got to make sure that the eyes are sharp in your photos.

 

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.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

The depth of field and the focal length is very important to remember when you are trying to focus. The longer the focal length is, the less depth of field you have to work with at a given aperture.

 

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.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

Hair flicks are very easy or very difficult to shoot. If you focus in on the face, they are extremely difficult to shoot as the head moves very quickly during the hair flick and many cameras will lose focus and you will have a soft picture. So if you are wanting to shoot a hair flick, get your focus onto the artist’s stomach and then all you got to do is the time it right. Much easier.

 

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.

 

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With heaver artists, focusing on their stomach is not a good option. Sometimes their stomachs extend past the focal plane of their faces, so in cases like this, I tend to focus on the crotch area if possible or if that is not possible then I go for the guitar strap on the shoulder.

 

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When bands are really going crazy on stage and moshing, the crotch is the best option for focusing. The crotch and face are almost always on the same focal plane.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

Nailing the jump shot works the same way as a hair flick. You got to be focused on the stomach as the head tends to move fast during a jump shot but the stomach or chest area is a large object and is easy for the camera to track.

 

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.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

Unless the female musician is extremely thin, focusing on the chest will not be the best option. Usually the breasts focal plane will not be the same as the face unless you are shooting with a small aperture, like F8 with a long lens.

 

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The stomach is always my go area with female musicians.

 

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

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

With larger artists, I tend to focus and recompose. I don’t like shooting like that but I am pretty confident that most larger female artists will not be running around the stage much, moshing and thrashing, so a slower approach like focus and recompose works just fine with them.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

Shooting from the side of the drummer means focusing is easy, I tend to focus on the face or even the stool that the drummer sits on. I keep the focus points far away from anything that is shiny. Cameras love shiny things and will always focus on them if you give them a chance.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

When shooting the drummer from the front, this is the one time I go to the face for focusing. I try to keep the focus points away from the drums. Like I said before, you have to keep the focus point away from shiny things. Luckily, although most drummers move very fast, it is the arms that are moving. Generally, their head and chest stay reasonable still. So they are not very difficult to shoot, just make sure your shutter speed is nice and fast.

 

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

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

Shooting crowd shots with autofocus are usually easy as you are using a wide angle lens and F-stop of around f5.6 to f8. So usually you can focus on any part of a person in the crowd and shoot. These are the easy type of shots to get in a show and should be no problem for any photographer.

 

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.

 

D3S_3378-681x1024-1-681x1024 How to focus your camera at concerts or music festivals

This was shot at 600mm at f11 from the front or house. When shooting with such a long lens, depth of field really does become our enemy. I started shooting the shoots at F6.3 but the depth of field meant that If I had his face in focus, his hands were out of focus. I had to stop down to F11 to get the shot I wanted.

 

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.

Shaun.

 

 

 

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