Ask David: What's the Best Way to take Concert Pictures at Night? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Ask David: What's the Best Way to take Concert Pictures at Night?

by David Peterson 5 comments

This week, one of our readers, Mary Banker, would like to know if there’s a good way to take pictures of an outdoor concert at night. Now I’ve gotta admit that’s a real stumper. I don’t like to say it, but in a situation like that, a lot of different factors are working against you. Not only are you dealing with low light, you’re got musicians moving around the stage, and on top of all that, most venues don’t allow flash photography. Is there a way around all of this? Let’s find out.

A cautionary note for the wise

There’s one sure-fire way to make enemies at a concert, and that is to use your flash. It’s distracting for both the performers and the audience. They’ve got enough on their minds, trying to focus on playing their instruments. When a random flash comes from out of nowhere, it really makes an impact on their performance. So keep your flashes at home. Tonight, we’re going to do everything without them.

Get as close to the performers as you can

There are several reasons for this. No matter what camera equipment you’ve brought with you, it will be a lot easier to take pictures from up close. But more importantly, you’re about to learn that we’ll need to bring some fixed focal length lenses with us. These lenses will give us the wide apertures we need for gather extra light from the scene. When you lose the ability to zoom, being up close is all the more important.

Bring fixed focal length lenses

We’re dealing with some pretty difficult territory here, and that means we’ll need to break out some specialized gear to do the job right. You’ll want to have a fixed focal length “normal” 50mm lens that can take shots as either F 1.4 or F 2.8 aperture for this job. You’ll also want another prime lens at a longer focal length, say 135mm (also with F 1.4) to get in a little closer and fill the frame with the performers. The reason we want to use such low aperture numbers (F 1.4 or F 2.8) is it allows the most light to get into the camera.

Prime lenses aren’t that expensive (usually a few hundred dollars), especially when compared to wide aperture zooms. You can start with one, see what it does, and as you get more experience with concert photography, you can figure out what else you need. An F 1.4 50-135mm zoom would be ideal for this situation, but it’ll set you back a few thousand dollars. Unless you’re rich, it’s out of the question.

Pick a high ISO value (usually around ISO 800)

When you increase your ISO, your camera takes in the light from your surroundings a little faster. This will allow you to take pictures at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze action (think 1/250 second and greater). When a high ISO is combined with a wide open aperture (small F number), your camera collects enough light fast enough to negate the need for a flash. You’ll freeze the performers (in the frame, not in real life) without angering the crowd.

Depending on the show and the song being played, the performers might be jumping or slowly waltzing around the stage. As you get more experience with concert photography, you’ll be able to anticipate these changes and adjust your camera settings accordingly. You might notice that a slow song is about to play, meaning you can lower the shutter speed and decrease the ISO slightly for more detail. Or perhaps you want more depth of field, so you could keep the ISO constant, reduce the shutter speed, and close the aperture slightly. It’s all up to you.

When all is said and done, a concert at night is still one of the more challenging subjects to photograph. I can’t think of any other shooting situation where more factors constrain what you can do. If you can get something that looks halfway decent (especially without using a flash), consider yourself lucky.

Taken any great concert shots? Upload them to our Concert Shots gallery. And please let me know how it goes in the comments below.

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  1. Tim H. says:

    Great advice David.
    Will apply.
    Thank you!

  2. Willie says:

    "When you increase your ISO, your camera takes in the light from your surroundings a little faster."

    Actually when you increase the ISO your camera increases the amount of electronic amplification of the light reaching the sensor. Nothing can be done to "take in light faster".

  3. Erik Pronske says:

    Sony/Zeiss 135 mm f/1.8. This is one of the most remarkable lenses on the market. Super crisp images wide open and buttery bokeh.

  4. Eeps says:

    A 50-135mm zoom with an f/1.4 maximum aperture? Who makes that? Or that 135mm f/1.4? I'd like to know where I can get that too.

  5. Pascal Gerritsen says:

    As an addition on your tips I would like to add some things I often do because I'm a volunteer photographer at a great pop temple in Arnhem, The Netherlands.

    Even with my Olympus E-520 with 14-41 (F3.5-5.6) and 40-150 (F4-5.6) lenses, knowing that iso is certainly not Olympus' strongest point the following works out for me:

    1. Shoot in RAW - This allows you to increase your exposure with 1 stop back at home.
    2. If possible in your menu: set dynamic range to highlights - This will emphasize the musicians because they are in the spots. The dark background will be left dark and noise will be reduced. (Noise is explicity present in dark areas.)
    3. When you are using Lightroom (or equivalent) you can use HSL color management to lighten up the color that the performer is in. Most of the times I set red or blue to +40, that way you keep noise arround low (Like in tip 2).

    One thing to be said. If the lightning is really bad you can always convert your images into black & white to lighten them up w/o lots of noise.

    Pascal Gerritsen

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