Over the summer, I had the opportunity to follow Seal on his SOUL tour through Europe  — to photograph each of the artist’s 24 concerts in 23 cities in 10 countries in six weeks. Since my return, quite a few photographers have asked me for tips on shooting concerts.
Rock concerts are notoriously difficult venues for making photographs. The light can change spastically, the dynamic range of the scene is often enough to make HDR aficionados weep with joy, and effects like smoke (or if outdoors, often rain!) add to the fun.
So, what lenses should you use? What settings work best? And how do you navigate through 16,000 screaming fans, anyway?
Here are eight tips for getting the best images at a concert:
1. Chimping is your friend. I can only imagine the likes of Robert Knight shooting the last 40 years of rock photography on 35mm film, never knowing if he really got the shot until the next day. I fully admit to being spoiled by the added simplicity of the dSLR. Chimping — with histogram — is a good thing. (I’ll console myself by believing that, back in the day, the lights probably didn’t move as fast and weren’t as bright as they are now.)
2. Avoid changing lenses. Changing lenses at a concert isn’t fun or advisable, so if you can, carry two bodies and rely on those two lenses. In my case, I had two bodies secured to me with a CameraSlinger, and I wore a ThinkTank Speedbelt with two additional lenses and a lens-changing sac hanging off of me. I occasionally went back to the case to swap those out for other gear — but I also had the luxury of shooting repeated shows, knowing that I could experiment and try something new without too much risk. I even stood on catwalks high above thousands of people and thought “should I change lenses now?” (The answer is “no.”)
3. Use fast lenses. For 90 percent of what you’ll want to shoot, two fast zoom lenses will do you just fine. Something like a 24-70 f/2.8 and a 70-200 f/2.8 is what you want to aim for. If you’re carrying more, something wider or a really fast 24 could come in handy. I have several shots I just love that came from a 15mm fisheye; some venues are huge and having a super-wide lens can be really handy for capturing the whole mood of a place.
4. Stabilization won’t do you much good. If you’re shooting at 1/60th, a lens with IS or VR will be steady, sure — but that doesn’t mean the rock star is going to hold still. The only slower shots that I have that are usable are really wide, where you can’t see that little bit of motion. Peering down a 200mm lens at 2.8 and a 60th is just going to give you a blurry musician. But if you’re at 200mm and tight on a subject, chances are they’re lit up like daylight, and it’s easy to shoot fast at 2.8 and even low ISO. The spotlights used in these shows are bright. It’s when you go wide and want to capture the audience or the entire stage that you get into low-light issues.
5. Auto-ISO is a godsend. I shot this tour with a Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III and a 5D Mk II. Although in general I prefer the Mk III for its durability and the fact that it’s impossible to accidentally change modes on that camera, the auto-ISO function on the 5D was wonderful. I was constantly manually adjusting ISO on the Mk III, going from 800 up to 3200 at times, but always pushing it as low as possible. The 5D was set to auto and almost never came off. Fantastic.
6. Shoot in aperture priority mode. I usually shoot in aperture priority, and almost always wide open. Because the scene can change so quickly, it’s hard to rely on the internal meters, but what I found worked well was leaving the camera in evaluative or matrix mode and manually underexposing by 1 to 2 stops. I tried using spot metering, but it took too much time to meter, recompose and shoot — by then the scene had changed five times! Underexposing the meter a stop or two works because the spotlights are bright, and you probably don’t want anything in the shadows that’s lit up by spill anyway. The meter is going nuts trying to measure all those points and will generally overexpose. Accurate exposure on the subject, with very dark shadows in the background, is the way to go.
7. Learn to love the focus point selector. The “don’t recompose” rule goes for focusing, too. If you try to meter and focus, then recompose and shoot, you’ll likely find lots of improperly exposed and out-of-focus pictures littering your CF cards. Depending on how fast the band or artist is moving, and how erratic your lights are, you may find autofocus to be impossible. When it does work it’s brilliant, but since you can’t recompose, you need to master reassigning that focus point in the viewfinder. My thumb never left the multi-controller, as I was constantly chasing my subjects’ faces with the focus point. But there were plenty of times where manual focus was the only way to fly.
8. Use the AF-On button. Flipping the AF/MF switch on the lens (or body) is tedious, and it’s easy to forget you’re in one mode when you expect to be in another. A way to avoid this is to decouple the AF control from the shutter button and to use the dedicated AF-On button instead. Now you can manually focus and the camera won’t try to re-focus when you press the shutter half-way. An added bonus is that you no longer must take the camera out of servo/continuous focus mode, either; “single focus” is achieved by pressing the AF-On button, then letting go when focus is achieved. If the subject starts to move, you can press the AF-On button again without moving or changing anything else.
So there you go. Auto-ISO or surf the ISO and keep it as low as possible … aperture priority and shoot wide open … evaluative metering and –1 to –2 compensation … try to keep your shutter under 1/125th … learn to love the focus point selector and know when to just go manual … and you’re off to a great start.
If you’d like to view some of my images from Seal’s SOUL tour, you can find them here . Good luck!