Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tips on Shooting Concert (or most Low Light photos)

I just read a post on one of my favorite sites, Lifehacker, about shooting concert photos. In summary they told you to shoot 'wide open'. Of course shooting 'wide open' (meaning as low an aperture as you can) seems like an obvious thing. But you might not be shooting with a top grade lens where you can stop down the aperture to something that will actually let in some workable light (like f1.8). I posted a comment there with my own tips, so I figured I would repost it here with some more detail.

Odds are you are not shooting in Manual mode - or you would know what to do yourself - so don't start playing with both shutter time AND aperture. Here is where I suggest you start:

I would suggest shooting in tV mode (shutter priority mode) and play with the shutter length of the shot. If you are at a terrible distance there is often little action at all so the only blur you need to deal with is what you can hand-hold. I shot photos at a concert recently and was able to get away with 1/4 sec exposure - steadying my camera on my knees (in a seated position). The results were pretty steady shots. Longer exposure time will ALWAYS solve your lighting issues (but adds some new issues: blur, camera-shake, or sometimes overexposure). Do this:

Step 1. Switch to tV mode (on Canon SLR cameras). Your flash will be disabled, unless you popped it up. So make sure it is disabled.

Step 2. Play with shutter length (time) and see what the maximum time you can tolerate to get a clear and steady shot. Except with intentional extended time-lapse, blur comes from unsteady hands usually, not moving subjects! Start with a a long shutter time, maybe even half a second and start taking pics, click up one stop at a time until the shot is not blurry (it will likely be underexposed) but concentrate on it being blurry or not - forget about the lighting now.

Step 3. Take a look at your photo. If it looks like there is enough or too much light go to step 4a, otherwise go to 4b.

Step 4a. If its properly exposed, you are lucky! Shorten your shutter time until the picture is properly exposed.
Step 4b. If there isn't enough light in that shot, adjust your ISO up one step at a time until its exposed properly. You'll probably land at 800 or maybe even 1600. Remember, with higher ISO comes graininess (on most SLRs).

So here is how the tV setting works - once you have the shutter speed set properly you'll take care of the blur (but you'll be letting in less light), next the aperture will open up automatically to help bring in the light (but short of having an expensive lens its unlikely it will open up enough), but lastly you'll need to adjust the ISO in order to let your sensor process the light faster to help expose it.

Some Other Tips:
  • Choose the fastest lens you have.  Your 50mm f1.8 will absolutely kill your telephoto lens in low light.  Just get yourself a better spot in the audience.
  • Don't worry about the aperture, it will set itself and it will shoot wide open given that there is hardly any light.

  • Another tip, turn off autofocus and switch to manual. It will be too dark for your autofocus to see the shot and it might not let you take the photo. If you are more than 30 feet away or so (which is probably anything thats not in the front few rows) you are focused to infinity on most lens. If you are closer, try autofocus - it might work.

  • Last Tip: put down the camera and enjoy the show! Its rare that you'll take too many concert photos that look very different from each other let alone look like any . I like to enjoy the start of the show without staring thru a viewfinder, take a couple dozen photos some time in the middle and then put the camera away or on standby in case something "happens". Trust me, your favorite songs dont "look" different in each photo.