How to shoot gigs – Part One : Camera Basics

3 06 2010

I’ve been asked several times in the last week how to shoot concerts properly. The people were asking with regard to their point & shoot cameras, but there were also SLR owner enquiries. I thought I’d cover both. Y’know, given that I’m a bit of a genius in the area and that. And modest to boot, too.

I’ll start with SLR cameras.

First things first – For gigs you’ll need to be in Manual mode. You’ll need to be in control of everything yourself. Shooting a gig is the best way to learn about all the features of the camera.

Gigs are *generally* very dark places to shoot at. So you’ll need to adjust your camera to allow as much light in as possible. The basic ways to do this are to adjust the three main elements of the camera – the ISO, the shutter speed and the Aperture.

1. The ISO

The ISO (International Standard Organisation – what it means not important, though!) relates to how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. It goes from around 100 on most cameras up to 32,000 on high-end professional cameras. The lower the number, the higher the quality of the image – but the less sensitive it will be to dark. Low ISOs are great for sunny days out and about. They are utterly rubbish for gigs, though – they are not sensitive enough for the indoor stage lights, and you’ll get VERY dark pictures. So you’ll want to boost this up as high as your camera can handle. This will depend on the quality of your camera. For example:

The D80 is a now obsolete Nikon mid-range camera. It’s a great camera with a CCD sensor (cropped). However it’s ISO control is pretty pants to be fair.

Here’s a picture of Gaz Coombes, lead singer of Supergrass and The Hot Rats. It was taken in the Academy, Dublin with a D80 with attached sigma 24-70mm f2.8.

The ISO here was 1600. And at this size (1/8 of the original) it looks not too bad. If you click the image there, you’ll see it at half the size – and already it looks pretty rubbish. The image is  VERY grainy/noisy. This is due to the high ISO. Using ISO is a balancing act – you need is low enough to avoid grainy pictures, but high enough so that you get bright enough pictures. In this  instance very little could be done – the Academy is very often backlit (lights from behind the performers). A nice way to avoid this is to upgrade your camera – expensive but, sadly true.

Here’s a very recent image. Taken with a D700 at ISO 2,500. Now, this *should* result in a much more grainy image than the one above, but due to the quality of the camera, I can allow myself to push the ISO higher – safe in the knowledge the picture will be as sharp as a pin. There’s no way the D80 could handle this.

In a nutshell then, ISO should be pushed as high as possible without the images becoming excessively grainy.


2. Shutter Speed

This is the easiest of the three. The shutter speed refers to the amount of time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light – i.e. how long the “camera is open”, or how long you are letting light into your camera for. The longer it is open the more light that will get in, making the image brighter – however the blurrier the image will be (as there will be movement during this time!). If open for a shorter amount of time, the image will be sharper, but darker (if all the other settings are the same), because less light got in – but you ‘stopped’ movement.

Shooting at gigs, you’ll want to stop the action dead. To do this you’ll need a relatively small shutter speed time. The lowest you can get away with I find is about 1/40th of a second. This will be bright enough in most venues for nicely lit images, but it may result in ‘shaky’ or blurry images if the band is a bit lively. You could probably get away with 1/40th of a second for a band that doesn’t move around much. However for bands like The Blackout (Emo, jumpy lads – below) I needed a much faster shutter speed.

For this 1/320nd of a second was the shutter speed. That’s VERY fast. As you can see there is no blurring.This is because of two things. 1. The ISO was at 2,500 – but also because of the Aperture.


3. Aperture.

This is what aperture is:

As you can see there are little blades inside your lens that constrict and expand under your control. You are controlling how much light gets into your camera. The more open it is – the more light will be getting into the image. Most, if not all, lenses’ aperture can be adjusted on the camera itself – you shouldn’t really have to twist the lens as he does here. However your lens will define how wide you can make your lens. Standard kit lenses’ will go now wider than f4.5 This will be useless for gigs (you will learn why below), so I suggest you check out a 50mm f/1.8 lens. Cheap, cheerful and BRILLIANT – and not just for gigs! It’s potentially the most useful and best value lens ever. Don’t pay more than €130 for one though.

Okay, back to the techie stuff : The wider the aperture – the smaller it’s number will be. Sounds confusing but it’s not really. The number refers to the fraction of the amount of light that the lens lets in. So 1.8 let’s in more available light than 5.6 does (55% of available light compared to 17%). If you’re still a bit swamped just remember: Aperture – Low number Loads of light, High Number Hardly any light. Easy Peasy.

But aperture does one more thing. A wide aperture (the small number that lets in loads of light) also gives you a shallow depth of field. This means that whatever you’ve focused upon will be sharp, but everything in the distance to this will be nicely blurred. Like this:

This was shot at f/2.8. The singer is in focus, but the crowd in the distance are blurred.

A shallower aperture of say f/32 would NEVER be used at a gig – you’d not be letting enough light into the camera – the aperture would be too narrow, restricting the amount of light that could get into the camera!


And that’s it. Basics learned.

If you’re still a bit confused, this rule of thumb can help you with a standard SLR at most Dublin venues.

ISO 800 or above. Shutter speed 1/40 – 1/60. Aperture – as wide as possible (lens depending). Then:

  • If you’re images are too bright and blurry – shorten the shutter speed (make it ‘faster’).
  • If your images are grainy – lower the ISO,  – you may also need to lower the shutter speed too.
  • If you images are too dark – lower the shutter speed, make the aperture wider, increase the ISO.
  • If your images are VERY dark – take off the lens cap!

That’s all for now. Next time we’ll be looking at small tips, tricks & techniques that will help you better expose those gig photos, how to approach different venues in Dublin – and also how to get better pictures with a point and shoot camera!

If you’ve any questions leave a comment below!




3 responses

4 06 2010
White Rabbit

You Sir are a legend 🙂

4 06 2010

Why thank you! 😀

30 06 2010
brian t

I’m guessing Part II will be about everything else you need, and I have one thing to add: earplugs! Possibly obvious, but worth mentioning, since it’s hard to take pictures when your fingers are jammed in your ears …

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