My Type of Photography - Concert & Theatre

June 29, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Band Master at Work

(Nikon D7000 / 18 to 200 mm f3.5 to 5.6 - 170 mm / 1/15th / f5.6 / ISO 800)


My Type of Photography - Concert & Theatre


By far the most difficult technical conditions I shoot in is concert & theatre photography.


(By difficult here I do not in any way compare this to nature & wildlife photographers who may spend hours, days, weeks or months in the cold & wet - waiting for 'the shot'.  So, let's keep this in perspective!)


My concert & theatre events are usually indoors and often in low light conditions with the extra dimension that I can't use flash.  Sometimes I can get close to the performers. Sometimes I can't.  And, very importantly, I must not disturb any of the performers - or the paying audience - during a live performance - or I will get thrown out on my ear!


So my kit needs to have good low light performance - both in terms of low noise at high ISOs and the auto-focus needs to work very well in low light conditions.


And I need not to get in peoples way.


As I am not trekking across moors all day the kit can be large & heavy - size & weight are not major considerations here - but low light performance is.


I typically use an FX Nikon with a 24 to 70 mm f2.8 or a 70 to 200 mm f2.8 and bring along 50 mm & 85 mm / f1.8 primes.  That way, if the lighting is too low for the zoom, I switch to using the f1.8 primes. By doing so I lose the convenience of the zoom but gain the low light ability of the primes.  As a back-up camera, I also bring along a DX Nikon body.


(In an ideal world I would use 2 FX bodies - but my set-up is one FX and one DX - and I keep the DX because its crop factor of 1.5 gives me a real advantage when I am doing my next most difficult type of photography - aviation.)


Don't get too hung up on gear specifics - I shot concerts for ages with an APS-C Nikon body and a 18 to 200 mm f3.5 to f5.6 zoom.  I just had to work harder!  Using a Nikon DX camera body with both consumer zooms and f1.8 primes works fine, but the FX / Full Frame body does bring substantial advantages in terms of low light auto-focus and good performance at high ISOs.


Tricks of the Trade


1 - Build a rapport with the performers


As is often the case when photographing people, building a rapport with the subject(s) always pays dividends.  You either do this on the day of the shoot by arriving early and getting to know them or, even better, meeting them before the day of the shoot if you can.  Some of the choirs I shoot I have been photographing for years, so it is more like meeting friends - and that really helps build & keep the rapport.


2 - Use the dress rehearshal well


If it is a theatre performance which will run for days or weeks, a good place to get shots is at the dress rehearshal.  This has the real advantage that there will be no audience to disturb.  And, if you get permission, you might be able to use flash - if you want to do so.  Even if it is just a one-off performance, choirs will often arrive early at a venue to do a mini rehearshal before the audience arrives.  And this can be used to get all those - often close up shots - that you will not be able to get during the live performance. And you can use flash - if you want to.


3 - Time spent on reconnaisance is never wasted


It obviously pays to know the performance venue.  Either by visiting it before the shoot - ideally at the same time of day as the performance to see, if there are windows, and how the light plays into the venue.  But even if such a pre-visit is not possible, you should arrive early on the day and take a good walk around the venue - looking for shots - looking at how to get from shot location to shot location - and introducing yourself to the venue staff.


Most of your shots taken during the performance will be from the left, right or centre of the audience. (Using the typically access stairs in a theatre.)  But there might be a balcony, from which you can get some wide angle shots.  Or get some telephoto shots using the balcony's higher vantage point.


Depending on the show, there might be some shots from the back of the stage.  But you will need to ensure the audience cannot see you! - and you will also need a discret 'escape route' - otherwise you will be stuck there!   


4 - Dress the part


I typically dress smart casual - decent shirt, decent trousers, comfortable - and very quiet! - shoes.  But if the event dictates, a suit or even a DJ may be more in order - and it is better to be over dressed than too casual. Certainly don't pitch up on performance day in stained tee-shirt, ripped jeans and flip flops. 


5 - Make friends with the gate keepers


As well as building a rapport with the performers, it is a real advantage to do the same with the key folk at the venue and the main organiser / the PR rep of the show.  If you have their blessing, and their confidence, it will all be a lot easier.


6 - Performers move faster than you think 


Shutter Speed


Depending on the performance, the performers can move pretty fast!  Even with choirs, a shutter speed of over 1/100th of a second is needed to stop mouths and fingertips from being blurred.  For a rock concert higher shutter speeds will be needed.  Indeed, of the 3 dance partners, shutter speed, aperture and ISO, most performance photography is driven by shutter speed - which you will usually want just fast enough to either freeze any movement, or, if you want this effect, just slow enough to allow a hint of movement - but keeping all the facial features sharp.




You will typically want to use as large an aperture as possible - to allow the shutter speed to be as fast as possible - but take care - at apertures of f4 and lower - depth of field can be quite small - so make sure everything that you want to be in focus is covered by this small depth of field - and that normally means the performers face - and, in particular, their eyes.  Eyes are not called 'the windows of the soul' for nothing!




Again, driven by the low light conditions, you need to use higher ISOs - but still keeping to those which have an acceptable - as opposed to an unacceptable - level of noise.  From previous experience I know that my Nikon D7000 can shoot at ISO 1600 to 3200 and still give me acceptable noise levels. My Nikon D750 can shoot at much higher levels and still give acceptable results - hence the advantage of the D750 (but then it is larger, heavier & much more expensive than a DX model.)




Typically you will focus on a particular performer's face - if you are close enough, focus on the eye nearest you.  And as they might be moving quite quickly, so might you in terms of tracking them in the viewfinder!  (Many cameras have an auto focus function - which automatically tracks the subject - but depending on the camera, they may not be up to the job in low light.  I tend to use single point focus - and refocus manually as required.  It works for me.  You will find your own method which suits you.)


The ability to quickly focus in low light is typically one of the main benefits of parting with more of your hard-earned cash for your camera.  My Nikon DX is no slouch but my Nikon D750 can focus quickly even in very low light conditions.


Of course, there is another way to focus if the low light level defeats your camera, just focus manually. It might be a bit scary at first but you soon get the hang of it.  You might even like it.  And it is a lot cheaper than buying a new camera! 




Typically you will use spot focus and take your exposure from the performer's face.  Or you may want to try some matrix exposure shots and manually adjust the exposure - up or down - to get the effect you want.  Your camera will try very hard to make dark conditions look like daylight!  This may not be the effect you want!  So, if that happens, adjust the exposure down a stop or even 2 - to give that dark / moody look.


7 - White Balance


White Balance is 'tuning' your camera sensor to the dominant colour of light.  If you are outside, in daylight - it's daylight!  If you are inside a room which is lit by tungsten lights - it's tungsten.  If you are using flash as your dominant light source - it's flash.  The 'auto white balance' setting on most cameras works pretty well, most of the time.  And even when you set the white balance manually, on many cameras you can see the effect in live view on the rear LCD screen - which takes all the guessing out of setting your white balance.  So it is worth taking some test shots - or varying the WB while looking at Live View on the LCD - to get WB at the setting you want.  But 'auto WB' usually works pretty well.




The issue is with smaller venues, say church halls, community centres, that may not pay attention to lighting in the same way as professional concert halls.  Professional concert halls will go to a lot of trouble to make the lighting the right colour for the desired dramatic effect.  And part of this is using even lighting of the same colour / type.


In less grand settings you might have some tungsten lights, some incandescent lights and behind the stage they have painted the wall deep blue!  Not a great venue for even lighting.  Here you need to play around with your WB settings to get the effect you want.  But, in some cases, you will have to work very hard to get rid of any lighting induced colour cast.


If you shoot in RAW, in fact one of the main advantages for me of shooting in RAW, is that I can set my WB in the edit phase - which gives me maximum flexibility.  Hence, for all my concert & theate shoots, I use RAW. 


8 - Black & White


However, if you just can't get rid of a colour cast - even in editing - because of the mix of lighting there is a fix!  Convert your shots to Black & White!  These can look really classy, &, by definition, being black & white there is no colour cast!  Simple!


9 - Practice! Practice! Practice!


Like all things in life, the more you practice, the better you get.  The more concerts I shoot, the better I get.  But the most important lesson is that - like portraiture - concert photography is much more to do with the relationship you have with the performers than the gear you have slung over your shoulder.


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