Shooting concerts with prime lens
One of the biggest myths in the music photography industry is that you must have the best glass to do the job. Almost everyone tells you that it has to be a fast 2.8 zoom lens, otherwise you will never get great shots. This advice is some of the worst horse shit in your industry and it is mostly past along by inexperienced photographers and fanboys who go to shows and shoot their favorite bands. I have said this before on my website and I tell all my assistance’s that I teach, music photography is not fast action photography like sports. You don’t need the fastest focusing lens. What music photography is most of the time is low light photography which needs a fast shutter speed. So the fastest lens is always the best choice and zooms make life easier for you, that is why most pros use a 2.8F zoom lens.
Now, if you don’t mind using your feet a little and walking into the correct shooting position, then you could easily use prime lens at a show, in fact prime lens will give you an added bonus in that most primes are much sharper wide open than a zoom lens and almost all primes will have let in more light even if they have the same aperture. I will not get into T stops here, something that you have to get used to in photography is that not all F-Stops equal the same amount of light hitting your sensor or film. Most primes will let in more light than a zoom at the same F-stop.
But having just said that one of the biggest advantages to shoot with a prime lens is that most primes can be shoot at a faster F-stop than zooms. Shooting at F1.4 is two stops faster than shooting at F2.8. Or if you are thinking in ISO terms, if you shoot at ISO 6400 with your zoom lens wide open at F2.8, then you can get the same exposure with a 1.4F prime lens with an ISO setting of just 1600. That is a big difference when it comes to dealing with noise.
The one small thing that you got to watch for with prime lens is the depth of field. The faster your lens, the shallower the depth of field is, but the depth of field is also related to how close you are to your subject. Take my 50mm F1.2 Nikon lens. Shooting portraits with the lens are very difficult because of the depth of field is so shallow. When you are shooting most musicians though, they are further away from your camera so you have more depth of field to work with. I had very little problem getting focus with my Nikon 50mm 1.2F lens at my last show because most shots with the lens were of the whole musician, not a close up of his face.
You will notice that all the prime lens that I am using are manual focus. This was to prove a point to my new assistant who did not believe me when I told him that he did not need a fast expensive zoom lens. So I shot a whole show with just manual focus prime lens and I gave him all my zoom lens to use. Music photography is not fast focusing photography like sports. Music photography is actually much slower, or sometimes more difficult for auto-focus because you are shooting in some very dark locations, but it is almost never fast focusing unless you are shooting a crazy punk rock band on stage and the singer is running around like crazy.
Most shots in music photography work like this. You set your composition with the artist you are shooting, you get your focus that you want, does not matter if the lens is auto-focus or manual focus and then you wait for the right moment to shoot. You do get focus and shoot hundreds of shots, hoping that you will get a good photo. What auto-focus can do for you though is focus tracking? Once you got focus then if the artist moves, then the focus will try to follow them, but I had very little problem doing that with the manual lens as well.
At the end of the show, I had the same number of keeper shots that I normally do, and my assistant shooting with my zoom lens still had almost exactly the same rate of shots that he was happy with. Using my expensive zoom lens in the show had actually not improved his photography at all. Unfortunately, this had the opposite effect on him that I wanted it. It broke his confidence as I guess he always used the crutch that if I only had some better lens then my photos will be better.
I really enjoyed shoot with the manual focus prime lens at the show, and it did get me thinking. I could easily shoot entire shows with a prime lens if I had enough focal lengths. I think that it does not matter if a lens is autofocus or manual focus, what really matters is that you know where to focus while you are shooting. My assistants almost always try to get the focus point on the eye, which is difficult and not what most pros do at concerts. I will write an article on where and how to focus at a concert soon as I need to think about how to explain this to my assistant as well. But I will say that you should not let your gear hold you back. You can take great photos with almost any gear as long as you know how to use it.